Mary Anne Perkins's Nation and Word, 1770-1850 shows many of the strengths of her important study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's mature metaphysical theology, Coleridge's Philosophy: the Logos as Unifying Principle (Oxford, 1993). As in the previous work, she brings together a diverse group of Romantic-era ideas in which language, philosophy, and theology are interwoven in complex ways. Perkins presents a very different kind of history from that to which we have become accustomed in Romantic studies: instead of anecdotal detail and the elevation of material culture, this study self-consciously embraces a traditional notion of the history of ideas, arguing for the real political effect, both positive and negative, of unified philosophical concepts. The idea of the "nation," which emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but which is highly relevant to the late twentieth century's proliferation of nationalisms, is examined along the three interrelated axes of language, theology, and national identity. She focuses mainly on the development of nationalism in Germany, England, and France, with some interesting additional attention given to Slavic forms of nationalism in this period.
Perkins begins by establishing the importance of the link between the evolution of national identity and vernacular language, a link informed by Romantic interest in the origins of language and rooted in the earlier vernacular translation of the Bible in England and Germany. The rise of the vernacular enabled the identification of Protestantism with patriotism in those two "nations" (even before German political unification), specifically through a Romantic connection between the "Word" as the divine logos of John's gospel ("In the beginning was the Word . . .") and language as the expression of national character. In France, by contrast, language was connected to national identity on social and political rather than on philosophical or spiritual grounds: French was the language of enlightenment and freedom. In any case, the laws and processes governing language are found by many writers of this period to be parallel with the development of political entities, and for the Romantics language, rooted in the divine logos, becomes a performative world- and nation-creating dynamic force. This confluence permits German culture, in the writings of Fichte and Schelling, to view itself as a linguistic unity fulfilling the a prophetic Christian mission, and it enables even the secularized French unity of linguistic and political destiny (which was accompanied by its conservative, Catholic other side).
The Romantic interest in the complexities of the symbol helped fuel a transference between biblical and political prophecy. Prophetic language appeared in national senses of mission and in revolutionary rhetoric. This is not exactly a "secularization" of religious prophecy, but a symbolic rather than literal appropriation of it, enabled by the constitutive, performative role of language that could further national identity and engage in a dialectical relationship with history itself. National missions were interpreted variously: England's was based on historical and political example, Frances's on a revolutionary political revelation, and Germany's on the civilizing influence of its intellectual, artistic, and cultural achievement. Judaism played a positive and a negative role in this process, both as the archetype of the chosen nation (for Coleridge and Rousseau) and, particularly in Germany, as the outcast nation to be replaced by modern, often explicitly anti-Semitic nationalism. Messianic nationalism adopted either the Slavic model of the nation as parallel to the suffering Christ, or the German model of the divine-human archetype of the heroic individual.
Following Coleridge, Perkins argues that the "idea" of the nation is incarnated in particular discourses including law, sovereignty (the monarch both as divinely anointed and as representative of the general will), society, and the relation between church and state. Law incarnates and reveals the idea of the nation, on the analogy of the divine incarnation, although this revelation could be seen in terms of either divine will or the revelation of the laws of reason and nature. For Burke and Coleridge in England, the laws of nature and mind had a divine source, which justified the close links between Church and state; in France, reason was often united with natural law against the authority of the church. The distinction between the French inheritance of Roman law, which sees the political unit of the "state" as inherent in the concept of "nation," and the German differentiation between the "people" and the "state" clarifies, as Perkins elaborates in an appendix, the still often confused categories of "nation" and "state." In France, sovereignty was transferred from king to people, and German thought combined monarchy and republicanism by seeing the king as symbolic of a disinterested state. Ultimately, the age presents two models of nationhood: a Romantic model of a divinely sanctioned entity extending into the past and the future, and a rationally-defined aggregate of presently living individuals whose will is expressed in the state. The result is a complex tension between the church as identified with and in tension with the state, since Christianity was both a source for "secular" ideals such as brotherhood and freedom and an authoritative institution in tension with such ideals. Accordingly, epochal theories of history foresaw either the dialectical spiritual fulfillment of the idea of nation (Germany), a linear progression toward freedom and brotherhood that would replace religion (France), or a combination (Poland). The Coleridgean polarities of universal and particular, identity and diversity, were also central to the development of nationhood: just as personal identity is formed by a relation with the other, the linguistic, spiritual, and political notion of the nation is formed in relation both to other nations and the notion of national diversity. This can lead either to a cosmopolitan ideal—the providential diversity of nations sustains both individual nations and their interdependence—or to chauvinism: a nation must define itself in opposition to, or via the subjection of, its others.
We see the continued importance of such issues in current debates on national identity, and in "A Late Twentieth-Century Postscript" Perkins indicates several ways in which the intersection of language, religion, and national identity remain relevant today. She cites many instances in which twentieth-century nationalist revivals ground themselves in linguistic and religious identity, including Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and the former Soviet Union. She argues persuasively that political analysts and policy-makers should pay more attention to the theories of language and nationhood at stake in the modern world: it makes a big difference whether one sees nationhood and language as naturally evolving, "nation" as a sign attached to an imagined community, or language and the idea of the nation as mutually constitutive in a dynamic of polarity. She sharply critiques the American notion of the "melting pot" as a view that ignores the complexity of the relationship between cosmopolitan and nationalist ideals while it takes a moral high ground that resembles the chauvinistic nationalism of early-nineteenth century German thought. Against arguments by Terry Eagleton and others that nationalism rests on socially constructed metaphysical and religious ideologies vulnerable to a Marxist critique, Perkins argues that while nationalism has brought out the worst side of humanity, it is nonetheless a deeply rooted cultural notion that responds to a human need for the establishment of an identity in relation to an "other." It is an idea whose complex manifestations cannot be reduced to the material because political reality is formed as much by how people understand themselves as by empirically observable facts.
One may wonder why Ashgate placed this book on its "literary studies" list, since it has little to do with literature and everything to do with intellectual and political history. However, Perkins's work, particularly as a Coleridge scholar, gives her a sensitivity to the interactions of language, theology, and history that one might not find in a traditional intellectual or political historian. This book is very much in the tradition of Coleridge himself in its ambitious interdisciplinary synthesis of theology, politics, language, and metaphysics. Perkins's insistence, clearly influenced by the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer, on taking both theology and the major ideas of Romantic-era nationalism as concepts that can speak to the present, rather than as ideological constructs to be analyzed from a post-modern perspective or simply contextualized historically, places her in the tradition of those who take their Coleridge and their Romanticism straight, without the admixture of ironic distance provided by ideological critique
The book's Coleridgean virtues, however, are balanced by some equally Coleridgean flaws. There is a nagging sense of incompleteness about the text; although the book is divided into many clearly labeled sections, there is a good deal of repetition, and it is not always clear why certain parts of the argument are in one section rather than another. Part of this can be attributed to the interrelatedness of the ideas, but still the seams in the research and writing show: too often a point is buttressed by a string of block quotations that could have been fruitfully synthesized, and some of the major ideas presented in the conclusion and two appendices could have been better integrated into the main argument. There is also an overdependence on secondary sources; for example, her important argument about the relationship between identity and otherness derives partly from Paul Ricoeur, but Ricoeur is cited at second-hand.
The high list price likely suggests a small press run and perhaps an editorial admission that this study is out of the mainstream of current critical thought. However, this is a book that should be read precisely because it provides a powerful counter to what has been, at least until very recently, the critical orthodoxy of a materialist Romantic history that reduces "idea" to "ideology." In fact, Perkins demonstrates the relevance of Romantic ideas to current political dilemmas more successfully than do many studies that simply approach the Romantic era from the vantage point of currently fashionable political concepts. Perkins shows the continued importance of Romantic speculation on nationhood as a constitutive part of the modern world's historical being with which, as Gadamer would have it, we can have a productive dialogue that will illuminate the larger context of both our perspective and the perspective of the past, without automatically privileging one over the other.