A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a Nationality if they are united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between them and any others—which make them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves or a portion of themselves exclusively. This feeling of nationality may have been generated by various causes. Sometimes it is the effect of identity of race and descent. Community of language, and community of religion, greatly contribute to it. Geographical limits are one of its causes. But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents; the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past. None of these circumstances, however, are either indispensable, or necessarily sufficient by themselves. Switzerland has a strong sentiment of nationality, though the cantons are of different races, different languages, and different religions. J.S. Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, Of Nationality, as connected with Representative Government, Chaper 16.
It is sometimes said by authoritative scholars that "in the case of nationalism any attempt at...a definition would inevitably exclude some part of this large and complex idea." (David Miller 2006: 530) Rather than offering his own definition, Miller opts to "characterize nationalism as having three core elements:" (i) "the idea that nations are real; (ii) "that "membership in a nation has practical implications: it confers rights and imposes obligations;" (iii) "nationhood is politically significant. Nationalists argue for political institutions that will allow the nation to be self‐determining." Miller is to be commended for resisting introducing fake precision into a topic that cannot sustain it. In addition, Miller singles out another "key characteristic" (under the third element): (iv) "each nation has its own character" ("it cannot flourish unless given the political freedom to develop in its own way.")
Yet, what's striking about his approach is that it takes the ontological (i), normative (ii), and political (iii) perspective as well as the the unique individuality (iv) of the nationalist simply for granted; as he cheerfully admits, they "are common ground among nationalists." (530--I am not denying that elsewhere he is more searching.) While there is no politically salient theorizing from nowhere, it seems awkward to stack the deck in this way toward nationalism when analyzing it.
In his essay, Miller mentions and discusses Chapter 16 of Mill's Representative Government , but not Mill's criteria when "a portion of mankind may be said to constitute a Nationality." While Mill also does not offer a definition, it is an improvement over Miller's approach because it does not take the nationalist perspective for granted (even though Mill is supportive of nationalism). Rather, it purports to offers a characterization of when we are speaking about nationality (and by implication nationalism). Of course, Mill's approach also takes some things for granted: the existence of people and mankind. These are not neutral terms (who is taken to be a member of either are heavily contested), but that's not to be expected (or, perhaps, wished for).
But a closer look at Mill's approach shows that he also relies on traditional metaphysics in unexpected fashion.
Mill's analysis of a nationalism turns on three features: first, there is an empirically contingent claim that there is a disposition to sympathize with some people (and not other people). Second, this disposition has certain (again contingent) effects: it makes "them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people,"* makes them "desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves or a portion of themselves exclusively." Third, there is a "union" among these people.
By the disposition to sympathize Mill explicitly means the tendency toward "fellow-feeling" with others. Here Mill follows Adam Smith and his own editorial remarks on his father's, James Mill's, work on patriotism. (Of course, sympathy shows up in other places in Mill's philosophy (recall).) The second feature is basically a fairly minimal empirical claim: Mill is not suggesting that the disposition to sympathize always leads to the desire to be under the same (exclusive to them) government; rather, all he is suggesting is that it can. Obviously, when the fellow-feeling is not aimed at having a government (say, in anarchic or other clubby-circles) or when such fellow-feeling is absent, then on Mill's approach there is no nationalism. It is compatible with Mill's approach that one can wish to be under the same government with some others without such fellow-feeling, but purely on (non-nationalistic) pragmatic, strategic grounds, or, say, religious grounds.
Unfortunately, Mill says almost nothing about the nature of union in the quoted passage, although it and being "united" in various ways recur throughout the argument of the chapter (and, in fact, the book). In particular, the connection between union and the consequences of the disposition to sympathy (the second feature) is left unexplained. The remainder of this post is devoted to explaining the connection, for Mill, among the three features.
That there is such a union evokes a more famous passage from Chapter 3 of Utilitarianism which caught Rawls's attention and inspired some of his his students: "until, by the improvement of education, the feeling of unity with our fellow-creatures shall be (what it cannot be denied that Christ intended it to be) as deeply rooted in our character." Here the feeling of unity is a cultivated feeling. (Recall also this post.)
An earlier passage in an earlier chapter of Representative Government suggests that Mill sees a tight link between a 'real and voluntary union' and sympathy: "Not only may jealousies and antipathies repel them from one another, and bar all possibility of voluntary union, but they may not yet have acquired any of the feelings or habits which would make the union real, supposing it to be nominally accomplished." So, for Mill a real union is the effect of a desire that is consequent of the disposition to sympathize. (Mill is here developing ideas we can find in a tradition of thought that can be traced to Spinoza and Hume [and further back to Machiavelli and Sallust] and that is extended today by Mouffe.)
One other (fourth) thing that he takes for granted -- as is clear from the passage I just quoted -- is that true nationalism is a voluntary matter and so connected to a species of freedom:
Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart. This is merely saying that the question of government ought to be decided by the governed. One hardly knows what any division of the human race should be free to do if not to determine with which of the various collective bodies of human beings they choose to associate themselves.
I am no the first to notice (see here and here), that Mill basically articulates what came to be known as the right of self-determination as something fundamental. He takes is at as so self-evident ("prima facie case") that he offers little argument. It is notable that rather than grounding it individual choice, he grounds it is in the freedom of the mutually sympathetic group ("any division of the human race...they choose").
One may still wonder what such mutual sympathy has to do with unity. And how come this pretty much comes for free when the disposition to mutual sympathy leads folk wish to have a joint government. I suggest that Mill is simply presupposing the tradition of reflection on sympathy going back to the Ancients, which assumes as a condition on the possibility of sympathy, The Likeness Principle (see here for scholarship):
- The very possibility of sympathy presupposes that it takes place among things that are in one sense or another alike within a single being/unity/organism to be contrasted with the antipathy (ἀντιπάθεια) of un-alikes (recall).
That is, Mill's otherwise empirical, dispositional analysis of nation-hood and sympathy reveals, when he turns to normative implications of it, its grounding in traditional metaphysics of sympathy.