Monday, October 30, 2006

Johann Gottfried Herder

Did Herder invent nationalism?

I've heard it argued on more that one occasion that he did, and there's something to the argument. But, it's hard to say.

I think he was the first historian to use "national character" as a category of analysis, and I suspect that he did develop that concept. In the late 1700s, when Herder was writing, it was more common to categorize groups of people by judicial or political groupings. Of course, we see others begin talking about nations in this time, but none of them seem to mean nation in a quasi-organic sense, as Herder does. The closest I've seen, and an obvious influence on Herder, was Montesquieu, who talked about regions in relation to climate. "Southern" people were supposed to be slower to anger and more lethargic, "Northern" were more independent of spirit, and so on. But, Herder talks of "Nations" as self-contained units, often using plant metaphors. They all supposedly grow according to their national character, which is contained in some sort of linguistic seed form, and eventually die off. This leads Herder to two conclusions that are characteristic, even central, to later Nationalism, and somewhat irreconcilable:
A) Nations must be self-contained, and so should not conquer other nations,
B) What nations have the will to do is justified by their character, and therefore raison d’état.

It's easy to see where these would lead to trouble with later thinkers, who tended to draw from Hegel at least as much as Herder. But, didn't Herder think the state itself was an artificial abomination?

What does Herder mean by 'Nation'?
I could be wrong, but I take his argument, in Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, to be the standard one- that is, the nation is defined as a group of people with a common language, culture, traditions, and beliefs, usually geographically-bound in some way. So, he talks about the Persian nation, and the Greek nation, and the German nation, and so forth. Also, he tends to emphasize the mixing of nations as their downfall. So, for example, when the Israelites allowed in smaller nations, they "destroyed that internal and external compact rotundity, which alone could secure their prescribed limits." (137) For the time, his argument was fairly unique. Remember that multinational empires, such as the Ottoman, or loose confederations of principalities were more the rule in the 1700s. The 1800s would be the era of the 'nation-state'. Therefore, his criticism of the state as unnatural might well beg the question: "Would a state made up of the members of a nation be natural?" Forget the fact that it would be impossible. That fact stopped nobody in the 19th and 20th centuries from trying to create nation-states. Besides, Herder's idea of the nation is impossible.

Is Herder's idea of the Nation correct?
No. It's horseshit. In a sense, he is describing ethnicity. But, his idea of nationality is a fiction.

But how is this different from other writers of the era?
An example would be Rousseau, who calls nations, groups united by custom and character, rather than by regulations and laws, groups having the same style of living and eating, and the common influence of climate." This is virtually identical to how Herder understands the nation. And yet, Rousseau deals with all nations as basically interchangeable. In this Discourse on Inequality, he talks about how a nation goes from a state of nature to various states of society, and assumes that it was the same for all of them. Herder distinguishes each one by its own individual character, and tautologically uses that to explain what their history. He continually tells us that "what a nation is meant to do, it does", without recognizing the dangers of this argument.

Hegel makes the same argument about the state- that each state is the self-justifying embodiment of an idea. Self-justifying because whatever the state wants to do is therefore within its nature to do, or it wouldn't want to do it. Hegel wrote in support of the Prussian state, but his arguments have been used by authoritarians and dictators from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union. The fact that so many members of the current US administration claim to have been inspired by Fukuyama, who used Hegel's argument in regards to the United States, is more alarming than anything Leo Strauss might have written.

But, in regards to Herder, he makes essentially the same argument. If the nation is the self-justifying embodiment of a value, or a character, it can do whatever it wishes, and state that it could not do otherwise. In this sense, Herder is the second historical modern thinker, after Giambattista Vico, to develop a teleological explanation of history.

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