S·P·I·N - Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms

Philology and national culture

– An elaboration of the programme –

This elaboration consists of two parts:

  • one addressing the relationship between cultural and political developments in the history of nationalism and in the present state of nationalism studies,
  • the other addressing the specific position of a field identified as philology in relation to literary-cultural and political-institutional developments.

For a more worked-out presentation on what specific activities and endeavours are covered by the term cultural nationalism, and what languages and cultural traditions are implied in the term Europe, click through to the section "Mapping" either by using the navigation bar to the right or by clicking here.


Nationalism and Culture, Chicken and Egg?

National consciousness (as a political ideology, rather than an anthropological affect) is generally considered to have emerged around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Its main presuppositions are threefold:

  1. 1. the "nation" is the most natural, organic collective aggregate of humans, and therefore the most natural and organic subdivision of humanity;
  2. 2. the state derives its mandate and sovereignty from its incorporation of a constituent nation, so that civic loyalty to the state is a natural extension of "national" (cultural, linguistic, ethnic) solidarity;
  3. 3. territorially and sociopolitically, the most natural and organic division of Europe into states runs along "national" (cultural, linguistic, ethnic) lines, so that ideally there is a seamless overlap between the outlines of the state and of its constituent nation.

Social historians of nationalism usually interpret the emergence of nationalism by viewing developments in a sociopolitical context: as a result of modernization, involving not only the rise of a middle class but also the large-scale integration of society by technological developments, improved infrastructure and new means of communication and mobility. They see the cultural parti-pris of romantic nationalism usually as a by-product of, or ambient context of, sociopolitical shifts.

But is culture, and the cultural component of national thought, a mere passive byproduct of sociopolitical circumstance? Another school of interpretation would allow a more autonomous function for cultural awareness in the growth of national thought. The tendency here, however, is often that such cultural awareness is taken to be the reflection or continuation of an autonomously pre-existing, primordial sense of ethnic identity, dated back into an unspecified past.

There is, then, a long-standing dilemma in nationalism studies. On the surface, it concerns the chicken-and-egg question whether national differences and national identities gave rise to the ideology of nationalism, or whether the ideology of nationalism articulated the diversity of national identities with which we are familiar today. As with most dilemmas, both sides of the argument are consistent and arguable. Nationalities like Bulgarian, Macedonian and Estonian arguably emanated from nineteenth-century consciousness-raising, while a Dutch, Danish or Spanish sense of nationality can plausibly be traced back in history well beyond 1800.

At the level of historical explanation, the dilemma is mirrored by the question whether one should deal with factors like culture and ethnicity as explanatory forces or as epiphenomena: culture can either be explained as a mere passive registration and bypoduct of socioeconomic and political modernization processes, or else be reified into a transhistorical category. Here, both explanatory modes have shortcomings, and the dilemma becomes one between social determinism and ethnic essentialism.

The programme outlined here attempts to bypass the dilemma by situating the rise of nationalism in a sociocultural field where societal and intellectual innovations interacted in the period around 1800: the world of learning, especially linguistic, antiquarian, philological thought and cultural criticism as it found a new position in the changing institutional and intellectual context of academic scholarship and the post-French-Revolution university.

The programme's working assumptions are as follows:

  1. 1. Although cultural practices and ethnically rooted traditions have a long-standing history and antedate the rise of nationalism, the national differentiation of European culture (including our tendency to see culture as something that is primarily organized by nationality) is the result of historical shifts which can be situated and traced as having taken place largely in the period 1750-1850;
  2. 2. In this process, intellectual developments in the cultural field played an autonomous and anticipatory role in the development of nationalism in Europe; this is evidenced by the fact that the rise and spread of these ideas is not society-specific, but affected all of Europe despite strong socio-economic and sociopolitical differences from region to region.
  3. 3. The political conditions of rising state-formations (modernity, the rising middle class, state centralization, infrastructural scale-enlargement, democratic thought) did not cause the rise of cultural nationalism, but constituted a facilitating and enabling environment for it, in which notions of the national rootedness of culture could
    • — find an institutional infrastructure in which to embed, establish and maintain themselves, and
    • — find an effective ambience for their dissemination and acceptance in the post-French-Revolution states of Europe.

The field where the political modernization of cultural insitutions merged with new nationally-minded intellectual trends is itself situated between the field of institutional learning and belles lettres/literature: that of PHILOLOGY.


PHILOLOGY: Learning and belles lettres between culture and social institutions, 1780-1850

The term philology had been coined in the 1720s by Giambattista Vico in his Scienza nuova as an alternative to philosophy, in order to designate, not the study of abstracts truths and concepts, but rather that of human sense-making as a historical, anthropological praxis situated in language, poetry and culture. Philology thus came to be applied to the antiquarian and (later) historicist study or language and literature, folklore and demotic institutions, which transformed European scholarship, and the Western way of organizing the human sciences, a century later.

One generation later, Johann Gottfried Herder would advocate a concept of culture which was no longer absolute or universal (as it tended to be for Herder's Enlightenment forerunners and contemporaries), but relative and nationally specific.

One generation later again, around 1800, the link, notably, between linguistic and national identity was made with increasing emphasis in a filiation of thinkers involving Fichte, the Schlegel brothers and the Humboldt brothers. In the end result of that line of thought, language came to be seen as the very breath of a nation’s soul or character, and its study as a form of comparative anthropology.

Philology, specifically as linked to the rise of the historical-comparative method, thus became a counterpart in the moral field of what ethnography stood for in the physical field. It embraced antiquarianism, linguistics, literary history and text edition, folklore, historical anthropology and legal history. Jacob Grimm's field of Germanistik comprised the specialisms of linguistics, folklore, literature and law, and applied these towards a science of the old German mythology: the nation's primitive, poetic worldview. Philology was, as the German scholar Boeckh phrased it in a formula close enough to Vico's original concept, Die Erkenntnis der Erkannten, the knowledge of what was known, the study of how people made sense of the world.

The spread of philological thought was boosted by the rise of the coimparative-historical method in the field of linguistics and anthropology, following the discovery of Sanskrit, and proclaimed in the paradigm of the Indo-European family tree of languages – a scientific and epistemic revolution which occurred in the period 1780-1815, and which was as profoundly influential on intellectuals' outlook in cultural matters as the Copernican and Newtonian revolutions had been in the field of physics, or the Darwinian was to be in the field of biology.

The simultaneity between this scientific revolution and the transformation of the European state system as a result of the French revolution and its aftermath is deeply meaningful. The new state pioneered by the French Republic saw for itself a cultural task which was adopted even by its adversaries: the idea that cultural institutions were a state responsibility led to the nationalization of education, of the university system, of archives and libraries. Philology was to be conducted, no longer by private men of letters in a "Republic of Learning", but by professionals and officials, civil servants, in an increasingly professionalized, public institutional infrastructure. Almost all of the important men of letters who enter into our purview as philologists found employment in the newly organized libraries, archives and universities of Europe. Here they found the source material for their rediscovery of national cultures; here they also found a platform from where to organize their networks, contacts and acquaintances and transpose these from the private to the public sphere; here, last but not least, they found official status and prestige from which to promulgate their ideas as to the national rootedness of culture.

[The dissemination of these ideas and their penetration into society-at-large was helped, also, by the increasing homogenization and democratization of the public sphere as a result of the increased availability of print, following the invention of woodpulp paper and of the rotary printing press.]

Concurrently, the study of literature was lifted out of the context of aesthetics, poetics and rhetoric, and re-contextualized into the language-and-literature twinning: the "lang-and-lit" dualities which in academic practice came to be known as "the philologies". These philologies, incorporating as they did the ground-breaking insights and erudition of linguists and text editors such as Jacob Grimm and Franz Bopp, formed the organizational blueprint of the new type of Humanities Faculty in the university model pioneered by Wilhelm von Humboldt in his design of the University of Berlin in 1810.

The new institutionalization of the philologies coincided with developments in the historical sciences, which underwent a romantic turn towards popular culture while they were professionalizing in the new context of state archives and university institutes. Between them, the historical and philological sciences attracted most of the cultural and literary talent of the first half of the century, closely intertwined with literary life and romantic culture at large. Literature was transformed by the discovery and editing of many foundational literary texts in the vernacular languages of Europe in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century source editions electrified cultural life in all parts of Europe and involved the publication of oral material (folksong, folktales, oral epics, in Serbia, Finland and elsewhere), and historical documents (e.g. the Monumenta Germaniae Historica), also including older legal documents, annals, chronicles and literary texts. The effect in the field of culture-at-large, and in cultural production, was immense, as one can guess from the rise of the historical novel, historicist (neo-Gothic) architecture, the restoration and dedication of monuments, etc. etc. etc.

The political implications of all these activities are no less obvious. The names of grammarians, folksong collectors, text editors and historians loom large in the histories of Europe’s various nationalist movements. In the subaltern language-areas, their activities were usually the first step in national consciousness-raising and led to demands for autonomy, or even separatism; in the long-established European states, the discovery of medieval literary and historical roots and sources increased the sense of national culture and helped foster the nineteenth-century cult of the nation-state, the legitimation of the modern state by appealing to the long traditions of its constituent "nation".

Seen in this light, the philological and historical discovery of national cultures is neither an ongoing manifestation of perennial identities nor a mere by-product of modernization, but a motivating agent in teaching intellectuals to think of themselves first and foremost as members of separate national cultures, and thus an operative force the development of nationalism which deserves to be studied as such.