_ Can Büyükbay


“Das Bild ist ein Modell der Wirklichkeit.”
(“The picture is a model of reality” ).

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Whenever one speaks about a topic in social sciences, one is bound with language. That means in approaching a problem or in evaluating a concept, different usages and correspondent meanings should be taken carefully into consideration, in order not go away from reality. The meaning (Sinn) and the projection (Bedeutung) of a concept in Wittgenstein’s philosophy are distinguished and a true sentence of concepts is constructed when a one to one correspondence between the two are existent.

(Wittgenstein,1922). It is widely accepted by social science scholars, that if a concept in social science shows many different things in outside world than the meaning of it is somewhat blurred and it looses its significance.

Eric Hobsbawm uses a similar approach in evaluating the concept of nationality.

“… but the word ‘nation’ is today used so widely and imprecisely that the use of the vocabulary of nationalism today may mean very little indeed. Nevertheless, in
approaching ‘the national question’ it is more profitable to begin with the concept of the ‘nation’( i.e. with ‘nationalism’) than with the reality it represents”. For ‘the nation’ as conceived by nationalism, can be recognised prospectively; the real ‘nation’ can only be recognised a posteriori.’ (Hobsbawm, 1990:23)

Also, Hobsbawm as one of the best known historians of the twentieth century pays particular attention to the changes and transformations of the concept ‘nation’, because: “Concepts, of course, are not part of free-floating philosophical discourse, but socially, historically and locally rooted, and one must be explained in terms of these realities.” (Hobsbawm, 1990: 22-24)

After a short linguistic discussion, which is crucial in analysing the intellectual backgrounds of nationalism, I will come to the main concentration point of this term paper, namely to the two contrasting approaches in analysing nations and nationalism:

1. Primordialists
2. Modernists

Modernists approaches share the viewpoint –despite of the different schools inside the modernist perspective - , that nations and nationalism are constructed realities and come into being in a particular historical momentum. As Gellner, one of the most important scholars of nationalism notes:

“In fact, nations, like states, are a contingency, and not a universal necessity. Neither nations nor states exist at all times and in all circumstances.”
(Gellner, 1983: 6)

It can be claimed that the modernist viewpoint is best clarified by Ernest Gellner, the owner of the above cited quotation and Benedict Anderson, who is the writer of the famous book “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism” first appeared in 1983. Anderson states that:

“Nation is an imagined political community- and imagined as both inherently and sovereign…..It is imagined because the members of even smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” (Anderson, 1991: 6)

Primordialism is the oldest paradigm that has been employed to explain nations and nationalism. By primordialists, we see a strong refusal of the modernist claim that “nations are invented”. They insist on the fact that nations cannot be invented ex nihilo. Nations are natural and continuous and that is why they are so much influential on human experience.

After giving a general framework of nationalism and compared and contrasted those two approaches, I will try evaluate them from my point of view. I believe that nationalism has a strong instrumental side and makes the penetration of the state into the society easier. From a micro-perspective, it is clear that, a sense of belongingness has a very strong place in human minds, which increases the influence of the ideology of nationalism. Nationalism presupposes always a homogeneity in society-(despite of the fact that there isn’t.). I come to a logical correspondence of this phenomenon in Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Namely a contradiction and tautology are the boundaries of the demonstrating statement and leads to its disengagement. Of course by tautology and contradictions , things are bounded and in relation with each other; but those relationships are meaningless, not genuine to the symbol.

As Wittgenstein states in “ Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” :
“Tautologie und Kontradiktion sind die Grenzfälle der Zeichenverbindung, nämlich ihre Auflösung. „(4.466) and
„ Freilich sind auch in der Tautologie und Kontradiktion die Zeichen noch miteinander verbunden, d.h. sie stehen in Beziehungen zu einander, aber diese Beziehungen sind bedeutungslos , dem Symbol unwesentlich. „
(Wittgenstein, 1933: 86)

The ideology of nationalism is guilty in doing that above stated mistake. In Gellner’s words:
“Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.”(Gellner, 1983:7 )



Primordialism is the oldest paradigm that has been employed to explain nations and nationalism. It was first adopted by nationalists themselves (though they did not call it primordialism) and then by some social scientists.

A nation, according to primordialists, is a naturally occurring social grouping, often marked by cultural features such as shared language, a single religion, shared customs and traditions, and shared history. In the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder, perhaps one of the earliest theorists of nations, for example, a nation is held to be natural and organic as opposed to the state which is seen to be an artificial creation. Because it is intrinsic for human beings to form this group, primordialists would maintain that we can find nations in any epoch of human history. Also, because nations are part of human nature, they can be found any time, everywhere. ( Ichijo,Uzelac;2004:51)

Primordialists hold that nationalism has roots in pre-modern ethnic identities, for example Anthony Smith maintains that while nations may be modern, their origins are not, but can be traced back to earlier ethnie. For Smith the point is that the forces described by modernists transform these ethnie without destroying them. They stand at the counter-side of the modernist claim that “nations are invented”. (Smith, 2002: 35)

Beginning from the work of Edward Shils and placing special importance upon language, religion, race and ethnicity the supporters of this perspective claim that ethnic communities and nations are natural units of history; and binding components of human experience. The socio-biological version of this proposition presupposes that ethnicity is a component of blood ties and respectively blood ties are a normal means in realising collective goals. The same viewpoints sociological versions emphasized that language, religion, race, ethnicity are basic linkages throughout the history, which organised human collectivities having shared goals. Accordingly primordialist ties have separated humans into different groups such as gender and geography. Also there is nothing modern about nationalism. Additionally, that situation will not perish in compliance with the transformation of modern conditions.(Smith, 2002: 34)

Because I believe there is a strong affinity between Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and part of the solution of this problem of nationalism, I want again return to Wittgenstein, who says that at every contemporary thought about the world there is an illusion of thinking of the appearance of the nature as a reflection and explanation of natural laws. And so we stay before the natural laws so that they are unchangeable und not be able to be criticised. And one more important thing, the world is independent from the will of human.

“Der ganzen modernen Weltanschauung liegt die Täuschung zugrunde, dass die sogenannten Naturgesetze die Erklärungen der Naturerscheinungen seien. So bleiben sie bei den Naturgesetzen als bei etwas Unantastbarem stehen, wie die älteren bei Gott und dem Schicksal…Die Welt ist unabhängig von meinem Willen. „
(Wittgenstein, 1933:101)

The relationship I created between the two areas is that primordialists see nations as natural laws, unchangeable and continuous inherent in the nature such as a natural law. In my limited viewpoint that is a logical fallacy.


At the midst of twentieth century, whatever our attitude towards nationalism is, there was a strong belief among public opinion and academic intelligentsia, that the nation was natural like family, speaking or human body. Even if many individuals are affected negatively from the harmful affects of nationalism, it is accepted as natural. Indeed, the academicians -even if there were reactionary voices found in the academic world-, have taken the nation as constant and tried to analyse wars in terms of nations , nations interests and their aggressive instincts. Nevertheless, at the end of the twentieth century many factors have contributed to the examining of these propositions. For example the formation of the third world countries like Nigeria, India, and Indonesia, which cannot be defined clearly as nations , has weakened the strong belief that nations are natural and continuous. Or the awakening of national sentiments in Basks, Scots , Bretons , Québecs, which are seen as integrated parts of Western nations , can be named as an additional factor. Many reasons contributing to the weakening of the traditional belief can be listed.(Smith, 2002 : 29)

Also, a new perspective has emerged that is the modernist perspective, which claims that nations are not a natural and necessary element in the unfolding of human history, but a product of the modern developments such as capitalism, bureaucracy, secular utilitarianism, namely a modern phenomenon.(Smith, 2002:30)

Hobsbawm argues that nationalism is situated at the point of intersection of politics, technology and social transformation. Also, nations and their associated phenomena must therefore be analyzed in terms of political, technical, administrative, economic and other conditions and requirements.(Hobsbawm: 1990)

According to modernists, the roots of nationalism can be found neither in human nature nor in history, and depended to the existing conditions. This perspective claims, that nations and nationalism emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century.

As Hobsbawm indicates: “I do not regard the “nation” as a primary nor as an unchanging social entity. It belongs exclusively to a particular and historically recent period.” (Hobsbawm,1990:36)

Gellner in a similar viewpoint: “Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent … political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is a reality.”(Gellner and Smith,1996: 367)Also nationalism comes before nations. Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way round. (Hobsbawm:, 1990:37)

An another figure of modernists, Benedict Anderson emphasizes that nations are imagined political communities. He gives a phrase of Renan as an example of the fact that in a nation nobody is capable enough to know every member of his community.
« Or l’essence d’une nation est que tons les individus aient beaucoup de choses en commun, et aussi que tous aient oublie bien des choses. »

Anderson emphasizes that nations are imagined as sovereign, because the concept was born in age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destoriying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierchical dynastic realm.(Anderson, 1991)

According to Anderson print language is what invents nation.

“Finally it is imagined as a community, because,, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”(Anderson, 1991: 6)

In summary modernists view the nation and nationalism as phenomena whose roots do not extend back beyond the period associated with the major socio-economic processes of modernity, such as industrialization, capitalism, the rise of the modern state and major related political changes, notably French Revolution. In contrast to primordialists, who hold that nationalism has its roots in pre-modern ethnic identitites, Gellner argues that nationalism derives from the requirement of industrial economies and adds that men do not become nationalists from sentiment, they become nationalists through practical necessity.(Day and Thompson 2004:36)

To conclude, I tried shortly explain and interpret the two approaches about the nations and nationalism, I want again conclude with Wittgenstein, in order to emphasize that we should give the concept of nation its true meaning.

“Wir können dem Zeichen nicht den unrechten Sinn geben.” (Wittgenstein, 1933: 122)



Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised Edition ed. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

Atsuko Ichijo and Gordana Uzelac.(ed.).When is the Nation? Towards an Understanding of Theories of Nationalism, London and New York. Routledge, 2005.

Day, Graham and Thompson, Andrew. Theorizing Nationalism. Glamorgan:Palgrave.2004

Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Gellner, Ernest and Anthony D. Smith. “The nation: real or imagined?: The Warwick Debates on Nationalism. Nations and Nationalism 2, no:3 ,1996.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. Nations and Nationalism Since 1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Smith, Anthony. Uluslarin Etnik Kökeni. translated by Hülya Kendir, Ankara: Dost, 2002.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractacus Logico- Philosophicus, translated by Oruc Aruoba, Istanbul: Metis, 2006.





Can Büyükbay