Nation and nationalism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S039-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

1. What is a nation?

Defining ‘nation’ has proved a difficult task for political philosophers. In common speech ‘nation’ is often used loosely to mean ‘state’, as it does in phrases such as ‘United Nations’. But this loose usage is not helpful in political philosophy, one of the central questions of which is whether there are indeed such things as nations, and if there are, whether nations have a valid claim to be self-governing - or to put it more crudely, whether each nation is entitled to have its own independent state. When questions such as these are asked, ‘nation’ must refer to something that exists apart from and prior to the political institutions of the state.

A nation, we may say, is a community of people who recognize that they are distinct from other communities and wish to control their own affairs. But a community of this sort is clearly very different from the small face-to-face communities that may first spring to mind when the idea of community is invoked (see Community and communitarianism §1). Since I shall never know more than a tiny fraction of my fellow countrymen personally, how can I say that we form a community? What is the source of unity that holds nations together?

Broadly speaking, two answers have been given to this question. On one side stand those who take a subjective view, claiming that nations are essentially voluntary associations of people held together simply by the continuing will of their members. We form a nation because we want to be politically associated. The reasons behind this desire are irrelevant: all that finally matters is that each of us wants to associate with this group of people rather than that. On the other side we find those who maintain that nations are marked out by certain objective characteristics that their members share - by racial descent, by language, by religion, by common traits of character, and so forth. On this view it makes sense to speak of dormant nations whose members have in common whatever is taken to be the essential defining characteristic of nationality, but who as yet display no consciousness of nationhood or desire to form a political community.

Neither of these answers seems adequate as it stands. Objective accounts of nationhood fall down when we take the proposed characteristics one by one and see that none is adequate to distinguish all those communities that we recognize to be separate nations (Renan 1939). If we take the objective view and focus on a feature such as language, we find on the one hand that there can be distinct nations with a shared language - the English-speaking countries for instance - while on the other hand there can be bi- or tri-lingual nations such as Belgium or Switzerland. The subjective account avoids this pitfall, but this does not clear up the mystery of why people should care so much who they associate with politically. A more adequate answer must combine elements of both viewpoints. A nation exists when its members recognize one another as belonging to the same community and as bearing special obligations to one another, but this is by virtue of characteristics that they believe they share: typically, a common history, attachment to a geographical place and a public culture that differentiates them from their neighbours.

Because nations are communities on a large scale, they are inevitably ‘imagined communities’, in Benedict Anderson’s evocative phrase, meaning that they depend for their existence on collective acts of imagining which take place through media of communication such as books, newspapers and television (Anderson 1990). It is from these media that we acquire our understanding of what it means to belong to this particular nation. Does this imply that national communities are after all spurious? This by no means follows, although it may justify a degree of scepticism about the received content of national identities. First, such identities usually incorporate a certain proportion of historical myth, in the sense that past events are interpreted in such a way as to highlight their continuity with events in the present. Although we actually know very little about our thirteenth-century ancestors, for example, we are invited to see their heroic struggles against their neighbours as the precursors of our own. Second, nations tend to exaggerate their own homogeneity, supposing that every member conforms more or less precisely to the cultural stereotype that forms part of the national identity. Third, national identities are to some degree able to be manipulated by powerful groups, especially political leaders, whose command of the media enables them to refashion the content of the imagining to suit their purposes. No political leader can invent a nation where one does not exist; but it may be possible to persuade a nation that its legitimate territorial boundaries stretch more widely than it had hitherto imagined, or that a particular subcommunity - an ethnic group for instance - that has long lived happily as part of the nation does not after all belong there. The practical consequences of such refashioning may be very serious, as experiences of the twentieth century readily illustrate.

For reasons such as these, most philosophers have been ambivalent both about the validity and about the practical relevance of national identities.

Citing this article:
Miller, David. What is a nation?. Nation and nationalism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S039-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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