THE rich development of historical studies in the nineteenth century transformed men's views about their origins and the importance of growth, development and time. The causes of the emergence of the new historical consciousness were many and diverse. Those most often given are the rapid and profound transformation of human lives and thought in the West by the unparalleled progress of the natural sciences since the Renaissance, by the impact on society of new technology and, in particular, the growth of large-scale industry; the disintegration of the unity of Christendom and the rise of new states, classes, social and political formations, and the search for origins, pedi grees, connections with, or return to, a real or imaginary past. All of this culminated in the most transforming event of all? the French Revolution, which exploded, or at the very least pro foundly altered, some of the most deeply rooted presuppositions and concepts by which men lived. It made men acutely conscious of change and excited interest in the laws that governed it.--Isaiah Berlin (1972) "THE BENT TWIG: A Note on Nationalism," Foreign Affairs.
THE rich development of historical studies in the nineteenth century transformed men's views about their origins and the importance of growth, development and time. The causes of the emergence of the new historical consciousness were many and diverse. Those most often given are the rapid and profound transformation of human lives and thought in the West by the unparalleled progress of the natural sciences since the Renaissance, by the impact on society of new technology and, in particular, the growth of large-scale industry; the disintegration of the unity of Christendom and the rise of new states, classes, social and political formations, and the search for origins, pedigrees, connections with, or return to, a real or imaginary past. All of this culminated in the most transforming event of all--the French Revolution, which exploded, or at the very least profoundly altered, some of the most deeply rooted presuppositions and concepts by which men lived. It made men acutely conscious of change and excited interest in the laws that governed it.--Isaiah Berlin (1972) "THE BENT TWIG: A Note on Nationalism," Foreign Affairs.
The quoted passage is the opening paragraph of Berlin's essay which argues that nationalism “is an inflamed condition of national consciousness which can be, and has on occasion been, tolerant and peaceful. It usually seems to be caused by wounds, some form of collective humiliation.” (17) The response to the collective humiliation can be “pathological” (a word repeated in the piece) and then nationalism becomes dangerous in various ways or, as the narrative implies, it can be worked through in healthier, less virulent ways. This may sound all very dismissive of nationalism (and it is in a certain sense), but Berlin argues, and this is distinctive, that in fact nationalist historical agents themselves understand the goal of nationalism as a means toward national health (vitality) or renewal (or recovery). (29)
In context, Berlin’s interest (or the influential readers of Foreign Affairs) in nationalism is driven (ahhh) anxiety over the wave of decolonization of the 1950s and 60s (see especially the last paragraph, where Berlin grants (with a clever nod to Fanon) that the “brutal and destructive side of modern nationalism” must be “recognized for what it is -- a worldwide response to a profound and natural need on the part of newly liberated slaves – “the decolonized"--a phenomenon unpredicted in the Europe-centered society of the nineteenth century.” (30)
The very last remark points to one of the major themes that frames the essay, and that is how the nineteenth century was a great age of social explanation as well as remarkable philosophical “prophecy.”* In fact the first paragraph of the piece quoted above, argues in historicizing fashion that this great flowering of social explanation was itself a consequence of what I – inspired by L.A. Paul’s work on Transformative Experience call Transformative political Experience (hereafter TPE), that is, an experience that is both epistemically and politically transformative.
TPE arises (recall here and here) in situations where collective agents (e.g., social activists, financial regulators, voters, etc.) think of themselves as authoritatively controlling their choices by collectively projecting themselves forward and considering possible futures and their plans are undermined by cognitive and epistemic limitations (that is, epistemic uncertainty). In particular, it is a political theory of unforeseen consequences in which those consequences change political actors in ways they could not have willed. (That’s compatible with that very same event also creating very foreseeable consequences; it’s not wholly a skeptical concept.)
We can now appreciate one layer of deliberate, rich irony in Berlin’s essay: an transformative political experience with enormous unforeseen consequences (the French revolution) gives rise to epistemic practices – sometimes building on –pre-exiting work [say Scottish Enlightenment thought] -- that try to grasp large scale social change. But these very impressive (sometimes totalizing) epistemic practices (and Berlin is not deflationary about nineteenth century ways of knowing) turn out (with benefit of hindsight) to have non-trivial omissions; these omissions are not due to the obscurity of the topic. (It’s a bit peculiar that Berlin lumps race and nation together here, because the nineteenth century is full of grand, social theorizing about race.) So much for irony, although it’s not entirely clear if Berlin thinks that these omissions themselves are part of a further cycle of social change and the character of social explanation.
As an aside (although it also sets up the final observation below), if we put Berlin’s origin story of transformative political experience – to be sure, he does not argue that the French revolution was the first – alongside L.A. Paul’s account of transformative experience – which I have suggested finds its animating ur-source in Paul’s (perhaps Platonizing) religious conversion experience --, we can see that there may well be many different kinds of historical roads to the concept of transformative experience even if one grants that the very possibility of understanding the French revolution in terms of a transformative experience itself (and I am surely not the first to suggest this) presupposes great familiarity with Pauline conversion.** (The previous sentence is a homage to Berlin’s footnote-less, neo-Ciceronian style!)
I could have ended here. But I wondered how Berlin treats his own perspective. For, after all, not unlike, say, Thomas Kuhn, he presents (the form of) historicist history as if he himself stands outside of history. That is, the historicism is framed by a positivist stance in which the historicist historical phenomena are treated like data and to be evaluated by a trans-historical framework or taxonomy. This is clear in Berlin because while the manifestations of nationalism are idiosyncratic both by the lights of the nationalist agents and according to Berlin, they do fall under a general kind. And maybe there are also further specific historical and social conditions that generate the first possibility of some phenomena falling under the kind – Berlin has a tendency to treat the origins of nationalism as a German, Herderian and Romantic revolt against French cultural and political supremacy (etc.; see 15ff.) --, but, nevertheless, there is genuine social kind (nationalism) and it shares at some level of abstraction in a characteristic (even if not exception-less) set of manifestations and, this is crucial to my final point, development.
For, Berlin assumes (without explanation or defense) that nations and their nationalism develop (and develop in characteristic fashion). Like many twentieth century social scientists, he speaks of “developing nations” (18) and he himself writes, albeit with great empathy and characteristic Verstehen of the idiosyncratic experience of the (ahh) non-developed, from the vantage point of developed nations. (Here he does not hint at the irony of modern social science’s inability to discard the central nationalist and organicist conceptual frame of a nation’s or society’s development.) And Berlin’s very idea of development (with its healthy and pathological trajectories and its insistence that there are “genuinely successful diagnoses of the direction in which Western society was moving” (the reference is to nineteenth century social theory), which again has uncanny resemblance to the commitments that structure, say, development economics (and development studies), includes, thus, first the idea that some collections of nations and their nationalism can develop into (oh the miracles of alchemy) such a thing as ‘Western society’ and, more subtly, a further commitment to the thought that the ills accompanying passionate nationalism have somehow been tamed by this West (from which Berlin is writing). This last point becomes clear by Berlin’s realist aside (he is no ‘naïve’ adherent to “Liberal rationalism” despite the fact that “there is a sense” in which the [quoting Burke] "sophisters, economists and calculators," the rationalists, the Victorian progressives, have won”):
This, faith in countervailing forces -- in multinational corporations which, whatever their relationship with class war and social conflict, at any rate do cross national borders, or in the United Nations as a barrier to unbridled chauvinism-- seems about as realistic (at least so far as lands outside Western Europe are concerned) as Cobden's belief that the development of free trade throughout the world would of itself ensure peace and harmonious cooperation between nations. (24)
This is not to deny that Berlin allows there can be nationalism within “Western” states (he makes a nod to Québécois nationalism in Canada, Scotland and Wales in Great Britain, Basques (but not Catalonians) in Spain, etc.). But these cases are treated as minority, “social resistance to exploitation” to electoral majorities. They are not instances of majoritarian, Western nationalism. In fact, Berlin articulates a now familiar interpretation of nationalist segments of electorates:
“This kind of nationalism is, perhaps, as much a form of social or class resistance as of purely national self-assertion, creating a mood in which men prefer to be ordered about, even if this en tails ill-treatment, by members of their own faith or nation or class to tutelage, however benevolent, on the part of ultimately patronizing superiors from a foreign land or alien class or milieu.” (22)
That is to say, Berlin’s is a non-rationalist liberal that understands that his sides victory will always generate responses that outside the West can generate existential excesses, but within the developed West (and let’s grant him that any nation can develop to become ‘Western’ in his sense [he does not flirt with ethnic or cultural essentialism] only will generate governance problems.
‘So much the worst for liberalism’ some of my favorite readers will mutter. Yes, indeed, but that’s not the end of the story; we may be able to transform liberalism into a doctrine (say, inspired by Shklar’s liberalism of fear) that neither presupposes faith in progress nor assumes a friendly reception among the powerful.