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Jonathan Ree

With the unification of Gennany and the fragmentation of the
Soviet Union and its satellites, nationhood has suddenly become
a topical issue. * And, by good fortune, scholars are well prepared
to debate it: in the past decade several historians and social
scientists have revived and perhaps transfonned the whole question of nations and nationalism. The corpus, as they say, which
defines the new approach includes four salient books: Tom Nairn,
The Break-up of Britain (1977), Ernest Gellner, Nations and
Nationalism (1983), Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
(1983), and now Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since
1780, (1990). I For all their differences, these works agree in their
emphatic rejection of the idea that, as Walter Bagehot put it
(P hysics and Politics, 1872, cited in Hobsbawm, p. 3 n. 8), nations
are “as old as history.”
If we took etymology as our guide, we would probably have
to agree with Bagehot, since nation and nature mean more or less
the same: how things are according to their birth. But the new
school holds that nations are (l,S synthetic as could be, that they are
cultural inventions peculiar to the modem world, perhaps unknown
before 1789. Of course they will not deny that there were numerous
proud peoples and tribes, long before the French Revolution; but
they would classify these, with Hobsbawm, as “proto-nationalisms,” or, in Gellner’ s tenns, as examples of patriotism rather than
nationalism. “Patriotism,” he says, “is a perennial part of human
life.” Nationalism, on the other hand, “is a distinctive species of
patriotism, and one which becomes pervasive and dominant only
under certain social conditions, which in fact prevail in the
modem world, and nowhere else” (p. 138). Modem nationhood is
connected with a politics or at least a rhetoric of popular sovereignty: “the arrival of nationalism in a distinctively modem
sense,” as Tom Nairn says, “was tied to the political baptism of the
lower classes” ( p. 41). Certainly the pageantry and pomp – the
national sports teams, national anthems, national poems, national
literatures, national costumes, national operas, libraries, and
galleries, national monarchies (conceived as ancient national
families, rather than as scions of remote and probably foreign
aristocracies) – are artifacts of the last two centuries. To this
extent, the new chronology of nationalism is indisputably right.

But what, one wonders, is it really a chronology of?

* This is the text of an infonnallecture delivered under the title
“Are National Identities Identical?” at an inter-disciplinary symposium on “Nation and Nature” held in Denmark at the Center for
Cultural Research at the University of Aarhus on 12 November

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

Soon after you start reflecting on nationhood in general tenns, you
are likely to get an uneasy feeling that your subject is refusing to
stay still. At the same time, you may well feel that it would be
inappropriate to try and tie it down to an explicit definition. In a
passage which seems to have caught the fancy of all his readers,
Hobsbawm contrasts nations with natural objects like birds:

“nation watching,” he says, “would be easy if it could be like bird
watching” (p. 5). His argument seems to be that any definition of
nationhood is liable to cover some things which you would never
have classified as nations, and to leave out others which you
would have included. It is not clear that birdwatchers are in a
completely different position, however: bats (or supennan for that
matter) might be similar borderline cases for apprentice
birdwatchers. However, as their knowledge of ornithological
classification progresses, they will presumably tighten up their
vocabulary, and agree to exclude such creatures from the universe
of birds. Nation watchers might well hope to do the same to do the
same, working their way towards locating nations amongst the
species and genera of the historical world.

Perhaps this is what Hobsbawm has in mind when he says that
he “assumes no a priori definition of what constitutes a nation.”
But it is hard to see what he can mean. His aim is to arrive at a
general characterisation of nationhood by studying several different
nationalisms, that is, various movements which lay claim to
nationhood as a value and a goal. Butifhe doesn’t have anapriori
definition of nationhood at his disposal, he is not going to be able
to identify this sample in the first place. Anyway, if his objection
to an explicit definition of nationhood is that it may conflict with
his intuitions about what is or is not a nation, then the correct
description of his position is that he is operating, rightly or
wrongly, with an intuitive a priori definition, not (as he thinks)
that he is avoiding one.

The logic-chopper who makes criticisms like these should be
warned, however, that definitions are not always a straightforward matter. In the first place, some things do not lend themselves
to the type of definition that proceeds by sorting things out into
sets and subsets. Moreover, in addition to being classificatory
devices, they can be ways of focusing and clarifying epistemological and ontological issues. And evidently nations are not
altogether comparable, ontologically and epistemologically, to
positively classifiable natural objects. They have something of
the character of myths or fantasies, and they are rather like
intentional objects; in fact one might even suggest that they only
exist to the extent that they are believed in.

Benedict Anderson’ s phrase about nations as “imagined communities” has had a deservedly brilliant career in the debate about


nations. “In an anthropological spirit,” he says, “I propose the
following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political
community – and imagined as both limited and sovereign” (p. 15).

Anderson says that the processes of imagination which concern
him, though they are not to be assimilated to “fabrication” or
“falsity,” are a matter of “creation.” But it must be said that their
creativity is rather prosaic and pedestrian. A paradigm example of
them, for Anderson (as for Hegel), is the ritual of reading a daily
newspaper, a kind of communion in which “each communicant is
well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated by
thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident
yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion” (p 39). Bu~
it is surely only the very coolest of nationalists who will pride
themselves on belonging to a nation of newspaper readers. Much
more powerful are ideas of communion with old gods, and of
relationships, including sexual ones, with military heroes, or,
most especially, with kings and queens, princes and princesses. If
one wants to explore the nationalist imagination, one needs to
look out for wild longings and weird fantasies as well as sensible
calculations. (One might start from such works of strange
scholarship as Brian Masters’s Dreams about Her Majesty the
Queen and other Members of the Royal Family, 1973. 2)
Maybe imagined political communities belong not so much to
the imagination as to what Sartre and Lacan both call the imaginary,
the domain of objects (such as the ego, perhaps) which are
believed in to the extent that they are negations of reality, and felt
not to be really present at all. 3 The imaginariness of nations may
call for a kind of historical depth psychology, not swift classification and definition.

Sartre’s Critique ofDialectical Reason (1960) starts out from
a distinction between two ways in which individuals can relate to
each other on the basis of a shared practice: as members of a series,
and as members of a group. Members of the same series have no
sense of being unified by what they do in common: indeed they
see each other as obstacles to their own activities and threats to
their personal interests. Members of a group, however, are united
by their sense of belonging together, and each of them feels
responsible for sustaining the life that they share. According to
Sartre this kind of unity is achieved only when people feel that
they are being confronted by outsiders intent on threatening them
as a group. A group is not only self-conscious, therefore; it must
also be aware of at least one other group, and of itself as existing
in tension and hostility with it.

Nationhood, or at least nationalism, evidently lends itself to
analysis on the same lines as a Sartrian group. This fact has two
important implications. The first is that not all characteristics of


a nation are national characteristics. For example there is a
country where the average consumption of sugar is higher than
anywhere else in the world. But whilst sweetness of tooth is
apparently a characteristic of people living in Britain, this does
not mean that it is a British national characteristic. The feature is
too external to the imaginary processes of group-formation for
that. It is also, perhaps, too positive. If there are British national
characteristics, they would include items like not being big, loud
and boastful, not being cynical and smelly, not being cold and
humourless, and not having coins with a hole in. Such imagined
features need not correspond to any actually distinctive ways of
not being American, French, German or Danish, of course; indeed
they need have no truth to them at all. Their esse is imaginari; for
them to exist as national characteristics, it is sufficient that they be
imagined as distinctive by the collectivity in question.

This leads to the second preliminary principle, which is that a
set of national characteristics may incorporate incoherences or
self-contradictions: they may be ways of not thinking about the
questions of group membership to which they propose themselves as solutions. Just as the constitution of an ego can be a
bundle of contradictions (perhaps it cannot be anything else, in
fact), so too may that of a nation; and whilst an account of a nation
(or a person) which effaces such contradictions may be gratifyingly clear, it may also, unfortunately, be utterly false. The same
may well be true of the abstract general idea of nations as well.

The reasons why it’s hard to settle the definition of nationhood,
therefore, may not be that it is a complicated matter, but that it’s
a contradictory and imaginary one. Before developing this theme,
however, I shall sketch a specific example of nationhood, to give
my theoretical suggestions some material to work on.

England and the Englishness of English philosophy
Like other English people, I am used to the fact that-foreignersincluding ones whose native language is English, like Australians
or North Americans – sometimes describe me as a Briton or as
Anglo-Saxon. In the variety of English which I speak, however,
these descriptions sound extremely strange: Anglo-Saxon means
more or less the same as Old English, that is to say the English
language as it was before about 1200, and the Britons were a tribe
of Celts (as distinct from both Angles and Saxons) whose civilisation is often thought to have amounted to nothing except
painting themselves blue, and who were lucky enough to be
subjugated by the Romans. IfI am Anglo-Saxon or a Briton, then
you Danes are Vikings or Old Norse.

The word Britain is even more complex. It is usually used to
cover what are, in many people’s eyes, four different nations: the
Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, and the English. (Even this is too
simple, since there are other claims to nationhood within these
collectivities, such as those of Cornwall or the Isle of Man.) It is
also extremely uncertain in its application to the island ofIreland:

the geographical term British Isles includes Ireland, but the
political term Great Britain refers to the Union of Scotland with
England and Wales, and very definitely excludes it. My passport
tells me that I am a “British Citizen,” but this is misleading in that
I am not a citizen in the usual sense of the word, but a “subject,”
owing allegiance to the monarch who rules over a realm whose
name, as it happens, is not Britain at all, but The United Kingdom
of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Myself, if I have to refer
to the nationality of so-called British citizens, and I cannot use the
relatively simple terms Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales,
then I prefer to use Tom Nairn’s excellent coinage, Ukania. I too
am a Ukanian.

Britain is also a politically loaded term. In the first place, it

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

refers to an entity whose unity is guaranteed by the monarchy: to
this extent it belongs to the vocabulary of royalism. Secondly, the
concept of Britain is so constructed as to imply that England is the
senior partner, dominating Scotland, Ireland and Wales, which of
course reflects but also covers up the fact that the political
unification of Ukania has been achieved by English military

The effects of the inequality are paradoxical. Classical nationalism, one might say, is interested in the construction of national
pageantry, national heroes, and a national racial stock. But whereas
Scotland, Wales and Ireland have all, since the eighteenth century
and before, displayed a lot of this kind of nationalism in this sense,
England, as distinct from Britain, has produced almost none. As
far as language is concerned, it has perhaps always been too
obvious that Modem English (a language normally dated from
1500) has no pure archetype, and that no one dialect or variety can
make a remotely plausible claim to unique authenticity or even
respectability. And – rather like Spanish or Portuguese, and
unlike Danish, French, Irish, Scotch, Welsh, German or Italian English was spoken as a first language by many people who
would never come anywhere near the country from which it got
its name. British English did not begin to define itself at all
jealously until the nineteenth century, when a process began of
identifying and expelling “Americanisms” – though, ironically
enough, many expressions which were heard as Americanisms
are actually closer to early modem British English than its
contemporary forms. (One real Americanism worth mentioning
in this context is the use of the word “nation” to refer to a territory
– particularly that of the United States, from sea to shining searather than to a set of people with some internal principle of unity.)
The fact that the English language is not exclusively English is
presumably the reason why many Irish nationalists, such as
Daniel O’Connell, have supported the replacement of Irish by
English: how could they not, when so much of the Irish nation was
bound for freedom in America and Australia?

A similar elusive pattern appears in the idea of an English
national race. The only racial boast that carries any aristocratic
kudos in England is that of having come over with the Normans
in 1066 – that is, roughly speaking, of being French. This
peculiarity was noticed in a celebrated satire on English national
pride, Daniel Defoe’s True-Born Englishman, first published in

“unless this very singularity pass for such.”5
English nationhood is such a strange creature that its very
existence has sometimes been doubted. There have been patriotic
histories of England, particularly for children (for example Charles
Dickens’s Child’s History of England, Maria, Lady Callcott’s
Little Arthur’ s HIstory of England, and Arthur Mee’ s Our Island
Story). Underlying all these is the tradition which Herbert
Butterfield called, in the title of a book published in 1931, “the
Whig Interpretation of History.” The idea is that, since the
Norman conquest of 1066, England has always shown a tolerant
and adult willingness to take things as they come, negotiating a
winding but natural path from one unique but satisfactory muddle
to another, without indulging in fanatical radicalism or getting
infatuated, as foreigners always do, with images of how things
ought to be and ending up, as they have done, with regicide and
revolution. Many contemporary historians – notably Christopher
Hill – have laboured hard to show that seventeenth-century
England was actually a pioneer and an extremist in matters of
radicalism, not to mention regicide and revolution, but the celebration of what Butterfidd called “the English system of moderation and compromise” has survived in the political imaginary.

It was an element of what Butterfield called “the inescapable
inheritance of Englishmen;” it was “part of the landscape of
English life, like our country lanes or our November mists or our
historic inns.” And, as Butterfield noted with satisfaction in The
Englishman and his History (1944), the Whig Interpretation got
a new lease on life in the rhetoric of the Second World War, which
liked to contrast “the English method” with “what used to be
called the French method: the revolutionary and the doctrinaire.”
After the French had succumbed, the Russians, the Germans and
the Italians had all at last succumbed. “The traditional elasticity
of English statesmanship” was “a blessing” for which the world
would have to thank “the solid body of Englishmen, who throughout the centuries have resisted the wildest aberrations, determined
never for speculative ends to lose the good they already possessed; anxious not to destroy those virtues in their national life
which need long periods of time for their development.”6
Hume’s idea that the English national character consists in not
having one needs adjusting to take account of the fact that, during
the twentieth century, a negative attitude to Englishness has been
one of the peculiarities of English upper-class intellectual life.

And here begins the Ancient pedigree
That so exalts our poor nobility:

‘Tis that from some French Trooper they derive,
Who with the Norman Bastard did arrive ….

For Englishmen to boast of Generation
Cancels their Knowledge, and lampoons the Nation.

A True-Born Englishman’s a Contradiction,
In Speech an Irony, in Fact a Fiction.

Defoe’s Englishman belonged to “a Mongrel half-bred race.”
Originally he had been “in eager Rapes, and furious Lust begot/
Betwixt a Painted Britton and a Scot.” Then he had been adulterated with “new Mixtures … /Infus’ d betwixt a Saxonand a Dane ,”
and in the meantime, to spice the “Nauseous Brood,” his “rank
daughters, to their Parents just,! Receiv’d all Nations with Promiscuous Lust.” For, as Defoe asserts, in a rather striking anticipation of the new historians of nationality, “England, Modem to
the last degree,! Borrows or makes her own nobility.”4
David Hume (a Scot who thought of himself as “North
British” or English, despite his dislike for England and especially
London) said much the same thing in his essay “Of National
Characters”: “the English, of any people in the universe, have the
least of a national character,” he claimed, but added astutely:

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992


The idea has been that there is an English national character, but
that it is one which deserves to be treated with ridicule and
contempt. The Bloomsbury group – which is conceived by many
as representing the essence of ruling -class English culture – made
a cult of French wine, French cooking, and French poetry, and saw
“the continent” as the polar opposite of Englishness, which they
defined in terms of drab philistinism, narrow mindedness, and the
values which Lytton Strachey attributed to his “Eminent Victorians.” The great satire on children’s books of patriotic English
history, 1066 and All That (1930), was written by two upper-class
teachers of upper-class English boys, W.C. Sellar and R.J.

Yeatman, and they knew how to delight their upper-class
audience~ without giving any offence: only the Top Nation could
afford to make jokes about being the Top Nation.

The adhesive ambiguities of English nationhood are further
illustrated by parts of the history of English high culture. If you
investigate, as I once tried to do, the state of English philosophy
in the 1950s, you will be astonished by the insistence of concepts
of national philosophy and philosophical nationality within it. 7 A
study of the obvious sources of information – features, reviews
and advertisements in the literary pages of the Sunday papers or
the Times Literary Supplement, and publishers’ lists for instance
– reveals that as far as the influential Londonian reviewers were
concerned, the idea of English philosophy was no less ridiculous
and degrading than the idea of English cooking. In this lateBloomsbury milieu, philosophy meant Sartre, Marcel, Simone
Weil, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. Only one English book
got an enthusiastic reception: Colin Wilson’s The Outsider,
published in 1956. This was the English philosophical bestseller
of the postwar years, and its young self-taught working-class
author was, at least for a few months in 1956, ranked with the
French celebrities as a kind of philosophical hero. The Outsider
was not really an independent work, however. It did little more
than summarise a lot of continental books, whilst denouncing the
drabness of what it called “the English nation” in the name of the
“new existentialism.” Existentialism, according to Wilson, dealt
with issues “of which England is completely ignorant: from an


intellectual point of view, we have always been the most backward country in the world.”
The Bloomsburys loved The Outsider. They thought it proved
that, contrary to Evelyn Waugh’ s forebodings about “1′ ecole de
Butler” (that is to say, the free state secondary schooling introduced by the Butler Education Act of 1944, which Waugh
evidently could not bear to refer to in English) thinking could still
take place in England, at least provided it was explicitly antiEnglish. Philip Toynbee, himself a relic of old Bloomsbury,
praised Colin Wilson for having “beaten the French at their own
Meanwhile, fifty miles away, and almost unknown to the
Bloomsburies and the other cultural leaders of London and
Cambridge, a certain kind of philosophy had been systematically
taking over the institutions of English philosophy teaching. Since
1949, Gilbert Ryle had been editing Mind, England’s leading
journal of professional philosophy, and organising a team of
Oxford-based philosophers who were to define themselves as
anti- or post-logical positivist, to revere Wittgenstein and Austin,
and to make vague attempts at unifying themselves around a
technique which they called “ordinary language philosophy.” In
historical retrospect, it is hard to see much real agreement amongst
them, except for one thing: they all placed a sovereign value on
something called “clarity” which, to them, meant translatability
into the simplest of plain English.

Foreign philosophers might be very clever and well-read, but
despite this (or perhaps because of it), they were unlikely to grasp
the importance of clarity: that was the view from Oxford. The
Oxford philosophers believed that their own commitment to
clarity was part of a national tradition, known as “British Empiricism.” Iris Murdoch explained that Oxford philosophy was just
“today’s version of our traditional empiricism,” and AJ.Ayer
edited an anthology of The British Empirical Philosophers (1952)
to celebrate the national heritage, and by implication to disparage
foreign philosophers for the arrogance with which they -persisted
in proliferating unempirical high theory with reckless disregard
for clarity. “One of Descartes’ least happy legacies to France has
been the belief that empirical questions can be decided a priori,”
he wrote in his autobiography; “and one of these a priori
judgements is that among foreign philosophers only the Germans
need be taken seriously.” Mind occasionally carried reviews of
books by foreign authors, all saying more or less the same thing.

They complained about the use of “long abstract words” and
“pompous abstractions,” or about the unseemly habit of using
philosophy, as one reviewer put it, to deal with “personal and
emotional problems.” Another reviewer announced that “a rough
estimate suffices to demonstrate that only very few philosophers
have been made sick by the contemplation of the contingency of
existence,” and concluded that the only existential question raised
by the work of Sartre was “the existence of M. Jean-Paul Sartre”
with the illusion that he was a philosopher. Almost the only
foreign book to receive a favourable review in Mind in the fifties
was a study of Virginia W oolf – the queen of Bloomsbury, in most
people’s eyes – by Maxime Chastaing, which P.F. Strawson
praised because it “places Virginia Woolf where she no doubt
belongs: in the British Empiricist tradition.” This remark brings
the two sides of English high culture together: if Virginia Woolf
is part of a British national tradition, then so is the inverted cultural
chauvinism of the Bloomsbury group. Some English intellectuals
would pride themselves on their Englishness, whilst others would
be ashamed of it, but even in the fields of pure philosophy or
literary modernism, the matter of being English, or of not being
continental, was an issue which none of them could leave alone.

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

Before I close this parenthesis about the peculiarities
of Englishness, it is worth noticing that it has supplied,
incidentally, some of the background to the new
historiography of nationhood. Nairn and Anderson
are both associated with the group (led by Anderson’ s
brother) which took over the journal New Left Review
in 1961 and expelled one its original leaders – the
historian E.P. Thompson, who believed that his own
ethical socialist internationalism was a continuation
of the proud democratic traditions of English working-class politics. From the point of view of Perry
Anderson, Tom Nairn and their colleagues, Thompson
looked like a dreary Little Englander, of the kind that
Bloomsbury had taught them to despise; and their
marxist analyses were designed to show that, compared with that of the Continent, their own “national
culture,” as they called it, was backward and provincial and provided no basis for authentically progressive politics. Gellner, meanwhile, began his career
with a brilliant quasi-anthropological attack on the
parochialism of English philosophy (Words and
Things, 1959), which created a celebrated scandal when Ryle
refused to have it reviewed in Mind. Hobsbawm, however, has
always been conspicuous for his unswerving communist internationalism, and for not allowing himself to be drawn into English
ruminations about the contemptibility of the English.

The phenomenon of Englishness clearly supports the basic
contention of the new historiography of nationhood, that nations
are modem artifacts. It shows, too, how much truth there is in
Hobsbawm’s contrast between bird-watching and nation-watching. The division of feathered bipeds into different species does
not work in the same way as the division of their featherless
counterparts into different nations. Every bird is born into a given
and (for birdwatching purposes) fixed species, and will stay in the
same species for ever, regardless of how it or anyone else may
classify it: a swan, for example, will always be a swan, even if it
is universally mistaken for an ugly duckling. But human beings,
born in the British Isles let us say, may find themselves belonging
to several overlapping or conflicting or warring national groups
in succession, or even at the same time, and their categorisation
will depend not only on the objective and unalterable circumstances
in which they were born, but also on their feelings, and those of
others, about their national affiliation.

So it is perhaps not surprising that the new approaches to
nationhood should come from Ukania. However, if I believed in
the concept of British empiricism (which I do not), then I would
have to say that the new Ukanian corpus runs the risk of being all
too British: too clear, that is to say, or at least too confident in the
ready possibility of clarity, when it comes to describing the
modem phenomena of nationhood. With that in mind, let us now
go back to the theoretical problem of nationhood in general.

Individuals and groups
Even if nationalism, as distinct from proto-nationalism and patriotism, is as modem an invention as the new corpus proposes, the
logic of nationality can be traced much further back. Medieval
and renaissance chronologies, for instance, had a kind of national
schema imprinted on them, derived from interpretations of Daniel’s prophecy (Daniel 11 4) about the four earthly monarchies
which would precede the Kingdom of God. The last of these was
usually taken to be that of Rome – an idea which naturally found
favour with the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. A quite
modem-looking form of nationalism appears to have been in-

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

vented in opposition to this scheme, by sixteenth-century French
humanists such as Pasquier, Bodin and Popeliniere. They rejected
the habit of idealizing Rome, and substituted an understanding of
history which would allow them to celebrate the thousand-yearold traditions of their own “nation” instead. They ridiculed the
idea that Germans were the continuers of Roman culture, and
sought to vindicate the millennial Gallic tradition of liberty
instead: a liberty which had been driven underground by Roman
and Germanic invaders, but which had never, thank God, been
extinguished. Pasquierwrote his Recherches, as he said “pourma
The idea of rival national cultures was then to be developed in
the general histories of philosophy which (I believe) provided the
unacknowledged matrix of most subsequent cultural theory.9
These histories had various starting points, (Egyptian, Chaldean,
Greek, Jewish or Oriental for instance), but they did not embark
on a serious story of national rivalry until they reached modernity
(a period which was inaugurated, according to them, by Descartes).

After that, philosophy was separated into three main nations,
French, German and British-or-English – “the three nations
which count in the civilised world” as Hegel saw it, though Italian
historians of philosophy were often moved to add a fourth.

Hegel explained very compellingl y how in “England” (a place
whose boundaries, in Hegelian philosophical geography, sometimes include Scotland and Ireland), “the concept took a finite and
empirical form;” in France, it was “universal, infinite and pure;”
whilst in Germany it came home to itself as “the concrete which
itself thinks itself.” This conception of an international division of
conceptual labour was perpetuated in many later authors, such as
John Stuart Mill, Victor Cousin, and Marx and Engels, not to
forget A.J. Ayer and the protagonists of the philosophical conflicts of England in the 1950s.

This doctrine of philosophical nationality was not patriotic or
chauvinist, however. Quite the contrary: its logic was one of
internationalism, and it was articulated in Schleiermacher’s conception of philosophy as a dialectical treatment of myth. Philosophy, he claimed, had begun with Socrates’ Greek reaction to
Greek myths, but subsequently it had been necessary for each
national dialectic to nourish itself with the myths of other nations,
because it would be unable to draw sustenance from its own: a
kind of philosophical exogamy was necessary for the survival of
national cultures.

For Hegel, politics was the process by which society becomes
conscious of itself, and individual matters of life, love and death


were supposed to be entirely absorbed and transcended in its
stately historical progress. The doctrine of national cultures
played an essential role in this conception, since it provided a kind
of cross-over between personal and collective experience: it gave
Hegel a ready solution, one might say, to the moral, political,
epistemological and ontological difficulties of relating particular
sUbjective experiences to the objective processes of world history
as a whole, or at least a way of avoiding them or covering them up.

This is how he put it in the Introduction to the Lectures on the
Philosophy of World History:

The spirit is essentially individual, but in the field of world
history, we are not concerned with particulars …. The spirit
in history is an individual which is both universal in nature
and at the same time determinate: in short, it is nation in
general, and the spirit we are concerned with is the spirit
of the nation. But the spirits of nations differ in their own
conceptions of themselves, in the relative superficiality
and profundity with which they have comprehended and
penetrated the nature of spirit. The right which governs the
ethical existence of nations is the spirit’s consciousness of
itself, the nations are the concepts which the spirit has
formed of itself.. ..

collective feelings of the people. This explains one of the leading
peculiarities of the word “national,” which is that – unlike its
stablemates such as “state” and “country” – it has entered into
regular partnership with words normally reserved for the discussion
of individual personality. Thus there is, as we have seen in Hegel,
the idea of national spirit; there is also national culture and nationallife, and national character and national identity. Nationhoood, one might say, is an attempt to treat questions of social
power as if they were matters of personal feeling; it is a psychologisation of politics, and based on a very superifical psychology

The question which Hume sought to resolve in his essay “Of
National Characters” is why people living in the same country
should “acquire a resemblance in their manners, and have a
common or national character, as well as a personal one, peculiar
to each individual.” But he failed to comment on the trick one can
play on oneself by using the word character in this context. It can
refer (like “charactersitic”) to the qualities of any category of
thing, personal or impersonal; or it can refer to an individual’s
interior sense of personal selfhood; or it can refer to a public
reputation or a written testimonial about someone’s professional
or moral qualities. The word “national” is attracted to it, presum-

On the one hand, the spirit of the nation is in essence
particular, yet on the other, it is identical with the absolute
universal spirit – for the latter is One …. The particular
spirit of a particular nation may perish, but it is a link in the
chain of the world spirit’s development, and this universal
spirit cannot perish. The spirit of the nation is therefore the
universal spirit in a particular form.lO
The Hegelian category of nationhood, then, is a device for
dismantling ordinary conceptual barriers between consciousness
and experience, and between individual lives and universal humanity. If it succeeds, it makes the whole of human experience
permeable to a universal theory of world history, leaving no
shadows, no corners, no mysteries that it cannot comprehend with
its all-powerful concept. It is impressively holistic and totalizing
therefore; but it ought perhaps to be treated with caution as well.

And the question I now want to raise, is whether the new theory
of nationhood is sufficiently wary of Hegelianism; and my
suggestion will be that in some cases – even, perhaps especially,
when it takes itself to be most adventurously up-to-date – it has
been so incautious that it has swallowed Hegelianism whole.

Identity, character and imagination
In his paper “Peasants and Danes” Vffe 0stergard makes a
distinction between “voluntaristic-subjective” accounts of nationhood (which he finds in Taine and which he is in favour of) and
“objective-culturalist” ones, (which stretch from Herder to Hitler
and beyond, and which he is against). In doing this he aligns
himself with the new historiography and its conception of nations
as imaginary rather than natural objects. But in choosing the
phrase “voluntaristic-subjective” he makes it sound as though the
imaginary world is reducible to the conscious will of individuals.

But the relation between the subjective and the objective is as Hegel saw – not just a problem for theoreticians trying to devise
an adequate concept of nationhood; the actual institutions of
nationality are themselves responses to this issue. They are ways
of making a statement, so to speak, about the relationship between
the consciousness ofindividuals and the exercise of political power.

The message of nationhood is that political power arises from the


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ably, because the composite idea of “national character” deadens
any anxiety that might be caused by the conflation of individual
and society which the institutions of nationhood seek to perform.

The same thing happens even more strikingly with the word
identity, which has become, if I am not wrong, one of the great
political, ideological, and conceptual follies of our time. The
trouble seems to have begun in some innocent and brilliant
paragraphs of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

They occur in a chapter about identity in general: what is it, Locke
asked, that entitles you to think you can encounter one and the
same object at different places and times: that, for example, the
sapling you saw many years ago is the same as the mighty tree that
spreads above you now? In particular, Locke wondered what
could constitute the sameness of a person. His answer was – to
make a long story short – that persons are simply what they
remember having been, or, roughly speaking, that you are what
you think you are. The title which Locke gave to this problem was
personal identity; and, for better and for worse, the phrase has
prospered. 12

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

It is a brave and exciting moment in the history of philosophy;
but not a particularly plausible one. Locke’s suggestion means,
after all, that if you cannot remember doing something then you
– the real, present, actual you – cannot be responsible for it: if
crimes have been committed which you do not remember, then
they are not your fault, even if the only reason you’ve forgotten
that you did them yourself is that you were hopelessly drunk at the
time. Locke’s suggestion has, however, been so influential that,
even to people who are not aware of Locke’s philosophy, the
phrase “personal identity” has become a commonplace or even a
cliche, and his eccentric theory has come to be what people mean
by personal identity or even by the word identity on its own: your
identity is the sort of person you are and take yourself to be.

The trouble with this use of the word identity is that, like spirit
or character but with far more devastating effect, it tends to
remove all pain, awkwardness and opacity from people’s relations to their own subjectivity: it reduces problems of personality
to matters of self-image. The depths are brought to the surface, the
insides to the outside, and the first and second persons are merged
with each other and with the third. The possibility that people
might be deceived or mistaken about themselves is excluded a
priori. Since self and self-image are supposed to be the same,
anything like the psychoanalytic distinction between the ego
(largely conscious) and the personality or psyche as a whole
(largely unconscious) becomes unstatable. In addition, like the
terms spirit and character, identity covers over the differences in



ink. I am not sure which is worse, pre-Freudianism or postFreudianism, but in any case it seems to me to be an error to
assume, with 0stergard, that intentional objects, that is to say
things that are believed into existence, have no ontological depth:

no levels, no shadows, no corners, no shocks or secrets or
unfathomed contradictions. However up-to-date it may be, his
definition ignores the palpable fact that people can misunderstand
themselves profoundly, even – or perhaps especially – when it
comes to questions of ego, self-image, and, if you like, “identity.”
His account of national identities colludes with the concept of
nationality in making it seem simple – even easier than it seemed
to Hegel – to identify personal identities with collective ones. It
may be an advantage to move, with 0stergard, to explanations of
nationhood in terms of “discourse,” but not, surely, if it is assumed
that the nature of one’s own discourse is simply “what we say it
is, no more no less.”
The practice of applying the idea of subjective self-transparency to nations has the effect of naturalising the Hegelian trick of
projecting recklessly from subjectivity to objectivity and back,
and of obliterating the differences between the particular and the
universal. Gladstone was astute enough to see through this logic.

“Bismarck,” he once said, “made Germany great, but Germans
small.” It is the possibility of this sort of contrariness that is
concealed by the implicit logic of the institutions of nationhood.

Nationality attempts in social practice what Hegel attempted
in social theory. The fantasies which constitute the nationalist
imaginary are themselves Hegelian in character; or, to put it
differently, Hegelianism mimics the elisions and contradictions
of the idea of nationhood. It is like getting infected with the
illnesses they are trying to diagnose. And the historians who adopt
too frankly the language of identity, however modem or postmodem they may be, are simply repeating the same sad old story.

They too are Hegelians.

Internationality, violence and the state

nature and structure between individuals and the collectivities in
which they participate: an identity can be attributed to a collective, which may then be conceived of as having exactly the same
structure as an individual, and it can become natural to suppose
that a personal identity can be identical not only with itself (which
is doubtful enough, surely), but with a collective identity too.

It is this concept of identity which Uffe 0stergard has put to
work (or which has put him to work) in his essay “What is
National and Ethnic Identity?”
Most of us (he says) have come to believe that identity is
only what we say it is, no more no less, however difficult
that may be to accept. In other and more complicated
words, sociologists and historians have learned to understand identity primarily as a discourse and not as the result
of an “essence.” National myths are real to the degree
people believe in them and act accordingly.13
0stergard not only endorses this view, but also claims that it
commands the assent of the majority of “modem scholars.” When
I first read this, I scribbled on my copy: “it doesn’t seem very
modem to me; it’s certainly pre-Freudian.” I gave the typescript
back to him, and he returned it with his responses to my comments: “no, post-Freudian” he had written, in schoolmasterly red

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

The word “international” was one of the more successful verbal
confections made up by Jeremy Bentham. It was devised to
indicate that just as the members of a given nation are legal
persons relating to each other through a national legal system, so
the various nations can be regarded as legal persons relating to
each other through a framework of international law , or what had
formerly been called the Law of Nations. Some time later,
according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a further neologism
was proposed, with much the same meaning. This was the word
internationality: but the coinage was not a success and seems to
have lain unused since the middle of the last century. By way of
a conclusion, I propose to rehabilitate the word, in order to
indicate the basis upon which I think the theory of nationhood
ought now to develop. I shall use it to express a concept which,
although it is implicit in much recent work on nationhood,
perhaps deserves to be spelt out and discussed more clearly.

The big problem for historians of nationhood is that its
institutions themselves embody a delusive and even contradictory conceptualisation of the relations between individual and
collective structures, and between consciousness and experience;
that, at any rate, has been my argument so far. Historians therefore
need to find a way of describing this faulty conceptualisation
without simply reproducing it, as Hegel did. My proposal is that,
in the same way that (as Kristeva has proposed, and most literary
theorists have accepted) individual texts can function only within
a field of general intertextuality, so individual nations arise only
within a field of general internationality; or, in other words, that
the logic of internationality precedes the formation of nations. By


internationality I do not mean what is usually meant by internationalism: a willingness to overlook national interest in favour of
the welfare of humanity as a whole. Internationality is a style of
thought and global social organisation which tries to generate a
plurality of nations, in order that, for any piece ofland, and for any
human being, there should be a definite answer to the question
“which nation is responsible?” Internationality, you might say, is
the tendency for the global imposition of the nation-form.

If I am right, then a theory of the delusions of nationhood
needs to be grounded in a history of internationality. Such a
history would have to include explanations of the following

of popular subjective will. It is a system which works in the
interest of military and political elites, or of the ruling classes: by
requiring that political power be monopolised by central national
authorities, it lets them divide and rule. And the magic of it is, that
it constantly covers its tracks. Processes which are actually the
effect of internationality are experienced as an expression of the
natures of different nations and their individual members. Militarism is experienced as an expression of natural and prepolitical
popular feeling.

Geography: the exploration and naming of territorial features and the making of maps is not, or not only, a dispassionately scientific affair. It is also a means of giving places
significance as part of an international partition of the
world, and depriving them of their direct relation to those
who live with them. Hence it is a political precondition of
nationhood. (Brian Friel’s play Translations gives a marvellous portrayal of the mapping and renaming of Ireland
by British soldiers in the eighteen thirties.)
(b) Legal and fiscal jurisdictions: there was a time when legal
jurisdictions were tied to persons and categories of persons
(such as clergy, for example, or Normans), rather than to
territories. The early University of Paris, for instance, was
organised into four nations corresponding to the different
systems of law to which its cosmopolitan students were
subject. A history of internationality would trace the development of the modem idea of legal jurisdictions and the
associated concern with patrolling (literally and metaphorically) the territorial boundaries of the nation-state or statenation, and explain them as measures for bringing ideas of
legality into line with the imperatives of internationality.

The rise and spread of systems of national taxation obeys a
similar logic.

(c) National currencies: in “pre-modern” times, different media of currency could circulate wherever they could gain
recognition: a history of internationality would trace the
rise of the assumption that economies are essentially national economies, each of them governed and permeated by
a single national currency-issuing authority.

(d) Pageantry: it is tempting to take systems of national symbols at their own valuation, as expressions of a latent
national life, spirit, character or identity; but a more scrupulous and sceptical history would invert this order of explanation, presenting the invention of national traditions as an
effect of the larger logic of internationality.

(e) Militarism: it seems most probable that the chief motive
force behind the rise of internationality is militaristic.

Internationality, with its concepts of geography, jurisdiction, money and pageantry, is functional, above all, for the
organisms of warfare and the systems of policing and
control which it involves. Internationality, by making out
that people derive their spirit, life, character and identity
from their nation, creates a world in which the maintenance
of armies and arsenals seems natural, and where the arts of
violence are regarded as the summit of human solidarity.

Internationality makes every nation a potential warrior to
every other, and forces each national population to subordinate itself to military imperatives for fear of invasion by

A history of internationality, therefore, would show that the
nation-form is a kind of false consciousness, an ideology in which
the extension of the nation-form gets interpreted as an expression

I know it may be objected that the approach based on internationality, with the space it gives to militarism, ignores precisely
the issue which has given rise to the recent debates about nationhood, and the political developments which have made it topical
today: that is, the difference between nations and states. Nations,
it will be said, are groups of people considered in relation to the
local traditions and values which give them their “cultural identity,” but states are organisations which place themselves above
society in order to monopolise the means of warfare and violence,
and perhaps of welfare and culture too. My purpose is not to deny
this distinction, however. My argument is that the logic of
internationality is deceptive because it attempts to confound and
conceal the difference: it conspires to make us give our consent to
state power by disguising it as an expression of our own feelings.

It is a deceit and a living falsehood: the pretence that the states
which define national boundaries are expressions of a prior
popular will.



Nation -state-nation

Those who treat the idea of nationhood with affection misguided affection, I would say – will talk movingly about the
place of memory, tradition, and love between generations in
human affairs. They will point to the vital effects of national selfconsciousness in the high arts – especially poetry and opera during the last century and a half. A politics of nationality will,
they believe, treat local ways and feelings with affection and
respect. Nations will be about the songs you learnt before you
could read or write, the first flowers you picked, the skies and
landscapes, rooms and buildings, streetcorners and alleyways,
folk tales and soap operas, the cookery and the smells, the special
styles of speech and gesture which form the framework of your
experience for the rest of your life, and which bind you with hoops
of steel to the people you grew up with. In reality as well as
imagination, your nation will constitute places where you can feel
confident that you know what things mean, as you will never will
do anywhere else. Those of us who are suspicious of the whole
idea of nationhood must then look like heartless cynics, refusing
to recognize the existential power and the human beauty of such
local loyalties.

Local affections are one thing, however, and national loyalties
another. Local affections are complex and many-dimensional:

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

they can comprise ambiguity and ambivalence, illusion and
disillusion. In addition, they can involve many different
geographies: the language, the songs and the stories which you
treasure may all belong to localities with different boundaries: a
street, a town, a region, or a linguistic group spread through
several different countries. It is not the haters of nationhood, like
myself, but their lovers, who treat local affections with impatience and contempt. It is the nation-lovers who insist on squaring
off people’s geographical attachments and forcing them to conform with the boundaries ordained by legal, commercial and
military power.

Hume’s account of the moral origin of national characters sees
them as based on the fact that “where a number of men are united
into one political body, the occasions of their intercourse must be
so frequent for defence, commerce and government, that, together
with the same speech or language, they must acquire a resemblance in their manners.” This implies, he says, that “the same
national character commonly follows the authority of government to a precise boundary” (pp. 208-9). But Hume’ s explanation
describes conditions which could never be fulfilled except in a
nationalist’s fantasy. The speech, language and manners of most
of us evolve pretty independently of the comings and goings of the
“number of men” who become familiar with each other through
being “united into one political body;” and they have no tendency
to spread to the geographical boundaries between national territories, and obediently to cease exactly there – unless, that is, the
apparatuses of the state have forced them to do so. The idea of
nationhood is therefore a false friend to the ordinary affectionate
sense of place. It imposes a conception of “identities” on individuals and collectivities which are not even identical with themselves, let alone with each other. Nationhood is a device for
making ordinary people feel responsible for the activities of “a
number of men united into one political body.” It cajoles us into
participating in global systems of antagonism, and tells us that we
are only expressing ourselves when we do so. The task of a history
of internationality should be the exposure of this delusion. It
needs to be, or rather to remain, a militant history.

knowledge than a Dane,” p. 203) has understandably put some
people off.


The Englishman and his History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 126,2, 136, 138-9.


There is nQ adequate study of English philosophy in the 1950s,
but Harry Ritchie’s Success Stories: Literature and the Media in
England 1950-1959 London, Faber and Faber, 1988 gives a
good account of the reception of The Outsider. My own investigations have been published as “La Philosophie Anglaise des
annees cinquante” in Christian Descamps, ed., Les enjeux
philosophiques des annees 50, Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou,
1989, but in a truncated form which the author disowns; there is
also a brief summary, “English Philosophy in the 1950s,” Times
Higher Education Supplement, 10 March 1989.


See George Huppert, “The Renaissance Background to Historicism,” History and Theory V, 1966, pp. 48-60.


See “The Vanity of Historicism,” Aarhus, Center for Kulturforskning, Arbejdspapir 78, December 1990; reprinted in New
Literary History, Vol22 No 4, Autumn 1991, pp. 961-983.


G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History,
Introduction, second draft (1830), translated by H B Nisbet,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p.51, pp. 52-3.

Uffe 0stergard, “Peasants and Danes: Danish National Identity
and Political Culture,” Aarhus, Center for Kulturforskning,
Arbejdspapir 75, December 1990, p. 33.



John Locke,An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689),
Book 11, Chapter XXVII, Section 9.


Uffe 0stergard, “What is National and Ethnic Identity?” Aarhus,
Center for Kulturforskning, Arbejdspapir 72, October 1990, p.



Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and neo-nationalism, London, New Left Books, 1977; Ernest Gellner, Nations
andNationalism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983;
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the
Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1983, and
Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.


Quoted in Tom Nairn, The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its
Monarchy, London, Century Hutchinson, 1988.

There is an excellent Lacanian analysis of nationhood in”Eastern
Europe’s Republics of Gilead,” by Slavoj Zizek, in New Left
Review 183, September/ October 1990, pp 50-62.

Daniel Defoe, “The True-Born Englishman,” (1701), in The
Shortest Way with Dissenters, and other pamphlets, Oxford,
Blackwell, 1927, pp. 21-71, esp pp. 38,42,43,44. It is interesting that Defoe should use the word “modern” to describe this
aspect of national pride, and it might seem to confirm the views
of the new historians, except that, being written in 1700, it comes
nearly a century before modernity, as they conceive it, began.




David Hume, Essays Moral, Political and Literary (1741-2),
Oxford University Press, World’s Classics, 1963, p. 212. This
essay anticipates the new theory of nationality in its emphasis
on “moral” as distinct from “physical” factors in the formation
of national characters; but its parade of prejudices (for example,
that “an Englishman will naturally be supposed to have more

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992