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What is a Nation? Show more Show less

Are nations ancient or modern? Are they natural or artificial? Are they a tool of liberation or coercion? Despite many predicting globalisation would make them obsolete, nations are now back in fashion in a world where leaders tout America First, the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People, and Hindutva. Understanding the nation now seems more important than ever.

Nations are modern creations Show more Show less

Nations only came in to existence from the late 18th century onward due to massive political, social, and economic changes.
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Enlightenment ideas created nations

The intellectual revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries created a new political ideology of nationalism centred on the creation of nation-states.

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Post-WWII, the victorious powers disavowed nationalism. They saw it as an ideology tainted by the fascist powers they had just defeated. This disavowal came with the assumption that nationalism would slowly wither away. However, as in new post-colonial powers, nationalism was still clearly a powerful vital force. In Western universities, various thinkers sought to explain this the most influential of which was Elie Kedourie, writing in the 1960s and 1970s. Seeing nationalism as an ideology, he sought to explain the phenomenon through the framework of a history of ideas.

The Argument

Nations are formed by nationalism. Nationalism is an ideology that aims for the creation of nation-states. The ideology emerged in the early 19th century created by the interaction of various influential but disparate strands of thought. Kedourie considered three thinkers central to the emergence of nationalism; Johann Herder, Immanuel Kant, and Johann Fichte . Herder's argument centred on humanity's division into distinct cultural groups. Kant's arguments of individual moral autonomy were combined by Herder into a conception of collective self-determination. This conception gained traction and spread amongst the intelligentsia who found that the notion of states being based on cohesive cultural communities provided a new basis for political legitimacy at a time when justifications based on religious and dynastic reasoning were losing influence. The idea of legitimacy based on cultural cohesiveness also promoted the interests and power of the intelligentsia by making them guardians of national culture. Thus arose nationalism with the political project of creating nation-states, which based political legitimacy on cultural cohesion supported and propagated by an influential class.

Counter arguments

This account makes little provision for areas which arguably had a pre-existing sense of nationhood such as Ireland, England, Vietnam, etc... Equally, it provides scant account of why the intelligentsia was able to promote its preferred political project so effectively focusing on intellectual forces at the expense of examining material realities that underlay the social success or failure of this particular ideology.


[P1] Nations come from nationalism. [P2] Nationalism is created by the confluence of various 18th and early 19th century thinkers ideas, plus the their synthesis and adoption by an intelligentsia seeking to justify a new political system in which they played a prominent role.

Rejecting the premises

[P1] Some polities displays the characteristics of nations before the period nationalism supposedly arose. [P2] Focusing on ideas does little to explain why they were so politically successful and took root.


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This page was last edited on Tuesday, 3 Dec 2019 at 14:53 UTC