Benedict Anderson  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Benedict Richard O'Gorman Anderson (August 26, 1936 – December 13, 2015) was an Irish political scientist and historian, best known for his 1983 book Imagined Communities, which explored the origins of nationalism.

Anderson is best known for his 1983 book Imagined Communities, in which he described the major factors contributing to the emergence of nationalism in the world during the past three centuries. Anderson defined a nation as "an imagined political community [that is] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign". (See below for a more extensive discussion.)

Imagined Communities

Anderson is best known for his 1983 book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, in which he examined how nationalism led to the creation of nations, or as the title puts it, imagined communities. In this case, an "imagined community" does not mean that a national community is fake, but rather refers to Anderson's position that any community so large that its members do not know each another on a face-to-face basis must be imagined to some degree.

According to Anderson, previous Marxist and liberal thinkers did not fully appreciate nationalism's power, writing in his book that "Unlike most other isms, nationalism has never produced its own grand thinkers: no Hobbeses, Tocquevilles, Marxes or Webers." Anderson begins his work by bringing up three paradoxes of nationalism that he would address in the work:

  1. Nationalism is a recent and modern creation despite nations being thought of by most people as old and timeless;
  2. Nationalism is universal in that every individual belongs to a nation, yet each nation is supposedly completely distinct from every other nation;
  3. Nationalism is an idea so influential that people will die for their nations, yet at the same time an idea difficult to define.

In Anderson's theory of nationalism, the phenomenon only came about as people began rejecting three key beliefs about their society:

  1. That certain languages such as Latin were superior to others in respect to access to universal truths;
  2. That divine right to rule was granted to the rulers of society, usually monarchs, and was a natural basis for organizing society;
  3. That the origins of the world and the origins of humankind were the same.

Anderson argued that the prerequisites for the rejection of these beliefs began in Western Europe through the numerous factors that led to the Age of Enlightenment, such as the power of economics, the scientific revolution, and the advent of improvements in communication brought about by the invention of the printing press under a system of capitalism (or as Anderson calls it, print capitalism). Anderson's view of nationalism places the roots of the notion of "nation" at the end of the 18th century when a replacement system began, not in Europe, but in the Western Hemisphere, when countries such as Brazil, the United States, and the newly freed Spanish colonies became the first to develop a national consciousness.

Therefore, in contrast to other thinkers such as Ernest Gellner, who considered the spread of nationalism in connection with industrialism in Western Europe, and Elie Kedourie, who construed nationalism as a European phenomenon carried around the world by colonization, Anderson sees the European nation state as a response to the rise of nationalism in the European diaspora beyond the oceans, especially in the Western Hemisphere, which was then retransmitted to Africa and Asia through colonization. Anderson considers nation state building as an imitative and transportable action, in which new political entities were copying the model of the nation state. As Anderson sees it, the large cluster of political entities that sprang up in North America and South America between 1778 and 1838, almost all of which self-consciously defined themselves as nations, were historically the first such states to emerge and therefore inevitably provided the first real model of what such states should look like. According to Anderson, this phenomenon led to the rise of nations: communities that were limited by their borders and were sovereign. Anderson conceived nationalism as having come about in different "waves."

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