The Philosophy Café at Harvard Book Store

discussion topic:

"Should my nation come first?"


May 16, 2012
7:30 PM


Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

The Philosophy Café at Harvard Book Store is a monthly gathering meant for the informal, relaxed, philosophical discussion of topics of mutual interest to participants. No particular expertise is required to participate, only a desire to explore philosophy and its real-world applications. More information can be found at

The Philosophy Café is held on the third Wednesday of each month, from 7:30-9:30 pm, in the Used Book department on the lower level of Harvard Book Store.

This month:

Should my nation come first? (Or high on my list of priorities at least?)  As Americans do we have duties to our nation beyond those of being a law-abiding citizen?
We’ll try and address these questions by considering:
1) Whether we Americans make up a  genuine nation (what defines a genuine nation?) and
2) What legitimate moral claims nations can make on their individual members.
  • We will need to examine what philosophy says about nationalism in general.
  • Arguably, the most sophisticated justifications of nationalism can be found in the German Romantic and Idealist traditions: the work of Herder and Fichte come especially to mind.  These philosophers argue that self-actualization and freedom must have a social expression and that the relevant social unit can only be one’s nation.  We will examine Fichte and Herder’s claims and other arguments for and against this point of view.  How does this justification stand up to the cosmopolitan claim that nationalism is inherently parochial and therefore undermines true Human values?  What if, as in the American case, the values of the nation are claimed to be universal in nature?
  • What defines a “nation” anyway? Communalities of historical and geographical experience, language, culture, and civic affiliation have all been invoked in definitions of nationhood.  (During the Republican Primary Race in Puerto Rico, Rick Santorum assured himself defeat in that Primary by saying that, in order to become part of the American Nation, Puerto Ricans needed to learn English.) 
  • Claims to and attributions of, nationhood are often contested or resisted.  (Consider for example the Quebecois, the Protestant minority in Ireland, and Basques in Spain for example.) The Nineteen Century thinker Ernst Renan argued that there was not objective basis for national identity; for Renan, the affirmation of any national identity involves a seemingly arbitrary stressing of some aspects of history and the convenient forgetting of others.  National identity seems to be something subjective or constructed.  Herder and Fichte might respond; “Of course it’s subjective! What’s wrong with that?”  They would argue that subjectivity makes us more than mere objects.  Free beings define their own being according to their own subjective desire.  National identity, they would say, is an integral part of the self we construct.
Some Questions to Consider:
1) Need nationalism logically require that the nation is embodied in a national state?  (Herder seems highly congenial to contemporary liberal and multi-cultural sensibilities.  His lack of interest in forming national states seems central to this congeniality.   Fichte’s nationalistic intolerance seems associated with his focus on a national state.)
2) Can one legitimately disagree with someone else’s self-attribution of national identity?
3) Is the cosmopolitan, who tries to transcend his/her particular national identity, more moral than a nationalist?
4) If political philosophy has no time for nationalism, and nationalism permeates real world politics (including the politics of our own nation), should that make us dismiss political philosophy or real world politics?
Note:  It is of course legitimate to invoke concrete examples in making philosophical arguments.  However, we want to keep the discussion on a philosophical level and not get embroiled in political arguments about the rights and wrongs in particular national conflicts.
Wikipedia, “Romantic Nationalism”
Ernst Renan, from “What is a Nation?”
Vicki Spencer, From “Herder and Nationalism”
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Johann Gottfried von Herder)”
Johann Gottlieb Fichte, “14th Address to the German Nation”
The-Philosophy, “Fichte Philosophy: Idealism and Nationalism”
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Cosmopolitanism”:
Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

Walking from the Harvard Square T station: 2 minutes

As you exit the station, reverse your direction and walk east along Mass. Ave. in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank. Cross Dunster St. and proceed along Mass. Ave for three more blocks. You will pass Au Bon Pain, JP Licks, and the Adidas Store. Harvard Book Store is located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Plympton St.

General Info
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