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National Histories: Prospects for Critique and Narrative

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The classic national history narrates the formation and progress of a nation-state as a reflection of principles such as a national character, liberty, progress, and statehood. Today there appears to be a growing nostalgia for them, and with it for the role that history once played in the life of the nation. This paper argues that such nostalgia is justified insofar as it expresses skepticism about the philosophical assumptions of much social science history. In doing so, it defends the use of concepts such as narrative and tradition. Yet this paper argues that such nostalgia is not justified insofar as it sides with an analysis of these concepts in terms of given principles of nationhood and statehood. Rather, the paper argues for a shift from developmental historicism to radical historicism. Radical historicism would treat traditions as pragmatically constructed and narratives as contingent. It would thus lead to denaturalizing accounts of the nations as dispersed, discontinuous, and disrupted, and arguably to histories of networks of peoples rather than nations.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, USA

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