Herder: on the ethics of nationalism.

Author:White, Richard

It would be hard to deny the resurgence of nationalism in the modern world: not only in Serbia and Bosnia and the newly independent republics of the former Soviet Union, but also in Palestine, Scotland, and Quebec as well as in established countries like India and Pakistan. It is a great irony that Marx consigned nationalism to the dustbin of history, along with religion and every other form of "false consciousness." (1) At this time nationalism seems to be a much stronger force than Marxism itself, and, while multiculturalism and economic globalization are significant features of the contemporary scene, it is by no means obvious that they must eventually displace nationalist projects and aspirations. Interestingly, philosophers seem to share Marx's distrust of nationalism, and other than J. G. Herder (1744-1803) there are not many philosophers who have made nationalism a significant theme in their own work or offered a philosophical justification of it. Kant is typical in this regard: his emphasis is on the universal and necessary features of human experience, and he has very little to say about the issue of nationality and particular nations. (2) Kant embraces cosmopolitanism and affirms the necessity of a universal narrative of history that would include the whole of humankind. By contrast, the work of his contemporary, Herder, is remarkable for its attempt to provide a justification for the particular perspective of the nation. Herder regarded the nation as the basic unit of humanity. According to him, the identity of the individual is largely dependent upon his or her culture, and he strongly affirmed the right of each people to determine its own path in the world.

Herder may be regarded as the first philosophical spokesman for nationalism. But, just as significantly, he is also viewed as one of the avatars of contemporary multiculturalism. (3) The nations of the world today are increasingly multicultural and multiracial in character, and this in spite of the resurgence of nationalist sentiment with its most extreme aspect of "ethnic cleansing." The question now is how we are to understand the relationship between nationalism and multiculturalism as two of the most significant forces in the modern world. As a preliminary inquiry into this issue, this article examines the moral significance of nationalism in light of Herder's original arguments. First, I consider three significant objections to nationalism. Then I outline some themes in Herder that would allow us to review these problems in a different light. Finally, I consider some possible problems with Herder's account, focusing on the difficult relationships among nationalism, globalization, and diversity: My goal is to determine the extent to which Herder's work may still illuminate these issues.

i. Philosophers tend to be suspicious of or even hostile to nationalism. There are some exceptions, and in some cases, like that of Heidegger, one may want to argue that there is a conflict between the philosopher's own personal views (which include sympathy for national socialism) and the actual implications of his thought. But there is an inherent philosophical tendency towards cosmopolitanism and universalism, and it is this which calls the limited perspective of nationalism into question. The first argument against nationalism follows from this general point. Because nationalists always celebrate a particular point-of-view--which is that of their given nation--their perspective remains one-sided, and they cannot grasp the value of whatever is different or "other." One of the received ideas of traditional philosophy is the claim that human beings possess reason and that this faculty allows them to determine how they should live their lives. But from this it follows that whatever conclusions philosophers reach must be valid for all rational beings in the same circumstances, regardless of from where they come. Thus at a certain point, nationalism and national differences should be considered irrelevant. But this is precisely what the nationalist refuses to accept. On the other hand, many philosophers would argue that nationality and national differences are not really differences that should have any significance, for they are accidental determinations of who we are, like blood-type, race or even religion.

This line of thought leads to a related argument that focuses more particularly on the moral dangers of nationalism. True nationalists will tend to celebrate everything about their country, including its literature, scenery, cooking, people or sport, as the best of its kind in the world. But their moral judgement can also be distorted by their nationalist sympathies, and the latter can make them oblivious of the worst excesses of their nation. As George Orwell comments: "There is no crime that cannot be condoned when our side commits it." (4) Because of nationalism we tend to divide the world into an "us" and "them"; terms like "freedom fighter" and "terrorist" become secondary to our own national sympathies; and a form of moral relativism prevails. To avoid this conclusion, we might want to argue for a distinction between "patriotism" and "nationalism." According to Orwell, for example, patriotism involves "devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people," while the goal of the nationalist is to "secure more power and prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his individuality." (5) This distinction does help us to understand how patriotism can be a virtue when it inspires loyalty, courage, and a willingness to sacrifice private desires for something that is greater then oneself. But it cannot be denied that patriotic devotion may also involve a willingness to impose one's own way of life on others and a willingness to sacrifice their lives as well as one's own. In practice it is quite difficult to distinguish between (good) patriotism and (bad) nationalism, and historically the one has often developed into the other: British patriotic fervor at the end of the eighteenth century grew in response to the threat of Napoleon; but it also created a strong sense of national self-righteousness that justified the legitimacy of British imperial rule. Likewise, a sense of national humiliation after the Napoleonic conquest inspired German patriotism and national feeling; but it also sowed the first seeds of Aryanism and exalted national pride. (6)

Finally, as Marx and others have pointed out, there is also a sense in which nationalism relies upon religious feelings to fabricate an imaginary ideal of the nation that cannot be rationally supported. (7) The devout nationalist thinks of Mother Russia, la Patrie, or the Fatherland, as quasi-divine beings for whom every sacrifice may be called for and justified. But all of this derives from a basic metaphysical mistake: As Ernest Renan comments in his famous lecture "What is a Nation?": "Nations are not something eternal. They have begun, they will end. They will be replaced, in all probability, by a European federation. But such is not the law of the century in which we live." (8) The nation state, the obvious focus of nationalist yearning, is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of the world. Nations came into being at a certain point in time, they have not always existed, and, as Renan reminds us, they will probably have a limited life. It is therefore a mistake to substantialize the nation as if it were a singular being that is both transcendent and eternal. Indeed, nationalist claims about the "soul" of the people provide an excuse for ignoring the reality of internal diversity and conflict. Hence, in the end, nationalism is irrational and self-serving, and it promotes ignorance and self-deception on a massive...

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