I am very fond of ethnography, for it is a science of rare interest; but, in so far as I would wish it to be free, I wish it to be without political application. In ethnography, as in all forms of study, systems change; this is the condition of progress. States' frontiers would then follow the fluctuations of science. Patriotism would depend upon a more or less paradoxical dissertation. One would come up to a patriot and say: 'You were mistaken; you shed your blood for such-and-such a cause; you believed yourself to be a Celt; not at all, you are a German.' Then, ten years later, you will be told that you are a Slav. If we are not to distort science, we should exempt it from the need to give an opinion on these problems, in which so many interests are involved. You can be sure that, if one obliges science to furnish diplomacy with its first principles, one will surprise her many times in flagrant delit. She has better things to do; let us simply ask her to tell the truth.
What we have just said of race applies to language too. Language invites people to unite, but it does not force them to do so. The United States and England, Latin America and Spain, speak the same languages yet do not form single nations. Conversely, Switzerland, so well made, since site was made with the consent of her different parts, numbers three or four languages. There is something in man which is superior to language, namely, the will. The will of Switzerland to be united, in spite of the diversity of her dialects, is a fact of far greater importance than a similitude often obtained by various vexatious measures.--Ernst Renan (1882) "What is a Nation?"
I think it would be fair to call the now obscure Ernest Renan Edward Said's favorite villain in Orientalism (who is "best grasped as a dynamic force" not wholly original but of huge cultural significance) by turning the language of philological science into an instrument of racialized imperial power. It would also be fair to say, but considerably obscurer (recall), that Renan is one of Leo Strauss's targets. For Renan's conception of scientific philology turns Ibn Rushd into "loyal, even believing, Moslem" missing (on Strauss's reading) all the clues to the contrary. So, I have long been eager to read Renan.
In his excellent introductory survey on nationalism, Miller calls attention to Renan's position "that what makes a nation distinct are not any objective features common to its members—which may in any case not discriminate adequately between one nation and others who may share its language or religion, say—but simply their wish to associate together...he described a nation as “un plébiscite de tous les jours” to underline the point that national identity always depended upon members' recognition of one another as having memories, traditions, etc. in common." (Renan 1882, 27) Miller is perceptive about the significance of mutual recognition, consent, and having memories in common in Renan's analysis, although I would have emphasized that this is a history of shared trauma (and glory) according to Renan. The daily plebiscite is a way of expressing a right to exit one's nation, which is a corner-stone of any nationalist liberalism worth having.
As the quote at the top of this post reveals, Renan's explanation for the denial of objective features is more interesting than Miller (who is constrained by word-count and aims of his piece) hints at. Anticipating Russell (recall), Renan treats the intrinsic fallibility of science as undermining the possibility of science providing any permanent ground for providing an essence or some eternal property of any nationalism. Renan can, thus, be read (i) to urge would-be-nationalists not to make herself hostage to scientific fortune. And (ii) to reconcile herself to a kind of permanent fluidity in the nature of her or any nationalism. That is, he is warning the public that the truths it wishes to elicit from science may be unwelcome: one example he offers (is one that Kant thinks should have remained taboo): "historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations, even of those whose consequences have been altogether beneficial."
But Renan is also urging his view on his audience (iii) in order to protect science. He wishes for science "to be free" and without distortion. (Renan's strategy is familiar from a certain kind of Spinozistic defense of freedom of religion in which the ultimate end of toleration is to protect religion from political corruption.) In fact, he suggests that for such freedom and lack of distortion to be possible science should remain silent on "problems, in which so many interests are involved." That is to say, Renan -- who knows something of bridging the divide between political life and the sciences -- urging self-command on any would-be-public-scientist who is urged on by the public or her desires -- to pronounce on "problems, in which so many interests are involved." Renan's lecture is in this sense performative because he offers an account of nationalism in which his own scientific expertise is irrelevant (except to note that his expertise is unhelpful.) One beneficial feature of this performance is that Renan treats all nations as on an Herderian par (without the racialized hierarchy that shows up elsewhere in his writings).
As an aside, Renan clearly thinks that when science enters the public sphere, simply telling the truth is not a live option. That is, he thinks that when there is public "application" of science truth must be compromised; the public sphere is a realm of opinion. Renan may be a man of science, but is not a man of an optimistic Enlightenment.
Unfortunately, Renan's position is unstable because the nation has, when in power, means (as he well knows) to entice the scientist who may wish to exercise self-command to pronounce on "problems, in which so many interests are involved."