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Untitled Document
On National Consciousness
Dr. Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: The Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, October 29, 2003

The debate on the Grundnorm has now happily shifted beyond the issue of whether or not the Grundnorm can be equated with the constitution. I had argued that the Grundnorm represented the core values, in terms of which a nation defined itself, while the constitution, which manifested these values was a set of rules that conditioned the use of state power. The usefulness of this distinction lay in the fact that the absence of a Grundnorm could explain why Pakistan’s constitution had been repeatedly violated in the past, and ceteris paribus, could well be violated in the future. Therefore the distinction between the Grundnorm and the constitution helped identify the need to tap into our core values as a nation and consciously achieve the necessary political consensus, which could give future stability to the constitution. With the two articles by my friend, Anjum Altaf (DT October 19 and 26, 2003), the debate has now shifted to the question of whether the concept of national consciousness is a useful political category at all in explaining and predicting political outcomes. Taking an empiricist position, he proposes that my concept of national consciousness is “deeply flawed”, as is Hegel’s related concept of the “spirit of a nation”. In this article I will briefly argue why Anjum may wish to reflect more deeply on his position.

Anjum has rejected my proposal that Hegel’s concept of the ‘spirit of a nation’ with its ‘own defining principles’, could be used as one of the three philosophical sources to interpret the Grundnorm. (The other two being Kelsen’s theory of legal meaning and Hayek’s organizational theory). His rejection, drawn from the empiricist tradition, is quite understandable and is based on the view that it cannot be grounded in “any specific reality”. However, this cannot be an adequate basis for rejecting Hegel since all theory is an abstraction designed to understand phenomena whose essential nature is not spontaneously apparent from their concrete detail. Economists who make models or physicists who theorize are doing this all the time, not to divorce themselves from “reality”, but to be able to deal with it. After all Keynes’s ‘General Theory’ or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity had quite concrete consequences: The former resulted in greater government spending and increased employment, the latter enabled the development of nuclear energy.

Of course Hegel’s conception of the spirit of a nation could be rejected like any other theory, on grounds that it is not useful either for explanation or prediction. Having done so, Anjum then logically, is obliged to also reject the concept of national consciousness, and further to brush aside all poets, since they are not grounded in “reality” either. It can be argued on the contrary that the concept of a nation cannot be posited without the concept of national consciousness. It is a fact of contemporary history that nations exist with certain specific national identities. Each national identity is constituted by language (and the world it implies), culture, forms of apprehending their humanity, a shared experience of the past or solidarity for a common purpose in the future. These elements of national identity feed into national consciousness. Indeed they enrich broader identities spanning regional groupings of countries and the global community in general. National consciousness is therefore the experiential dimension of historical bonding amongst a group of people, in terms of which they apprehend their identity and pursue shared goals for the future. Let me illustrate the concept of national consciousness, first with reference to the recent Dimbleby lecture by Monsieur Dominique de Villepin. Subsequently a few lines from Pakistan’s poets will be used to elaborate the concept further.

Monsieur Villepin, the scholarly French Foreign Minister, in his lecture on October 19, 2003 on BBC, talked of the specific national identities of France and Britain respectively, explicated on the spirit, which moved each of these nations and the broader European identity. He explained how for several centuries France and Britain had undergone similar ordeals: The struggle for democracy against absolute monarchy, de-colonization, and the resistance against the Nazis. All this “forged a common heritage”, and reinforced a national consciousness manifested by a “…..fierce sense of independence, a certain national pride, the refusal to surrender, and an absolute faith in justice and freedom”. He stylized the British national identity in terms of their “art of brevity and pregnant pauses” and the French national identity in terms of “a liking for theoretical debate”. He declared a profound respect for the “acute awareness” of the British of their identity. Yet, precisely because of these specific national identities, a dialectic of mutually fertilizing growth was at play: “that otherness which helps to discover something new in themselves”. As national identities fertilize each other a broader European consciousness takes shape, composed of the common values of freedom, and justice. He argues that in this way Europe can become one of the pillars of the new world because “it embodies the universal values which must underpin a legitimate world order”. So while the concept of national consciousness may not be concrete, it is nevertheless real enough to be apprehended and deployed in international relations today by the French Foreign Minister. (In Anjum’s terms he could be called a practical man, yet significantly he loves poetry).

National consciousness can be understood as a nation’s collective experience of itself, or the cadences of its specific creativity. It has features, which though real cannot be encapsulated in empiricist language forms (which eliminate ambiguity). However, they can be evoked through the resonance of poetic metaphor. Wittgenstein, the greatest linguistic philosopher of the 20th century perhaps referred to this when he said: “Of that which we cannot speak about, we must be silent” (Tractatus). That is why in some cases national consciousness is articulated through poets who strike a chord in the hearts of a nation. Take Sir Muhammad Iqbal who enabled the Muslims of India in the early 20th century to experience their creativity, freedom and authenticity as human beings:


“Actualize your creative identity to such a level that before articulating every destiny, God Himself may ask Man what is your will?” (Very rough translation)

Faiz Ahmed Faiz wove from the specific images of nature and social life in the sub-continent, the tapestry of love and social transformation. He too evoked national consciousness in terms of a shared dream for a more humane society:


“Last night your thought traversed the terrain of my heart, like some lost whisper of an evening breeze….” (Very rough translation)

Najam Hussain Syed, articulated national consciousness in terms of the love and rebellion of the oppressed peasantry. He articulates the longing for change, and the sense of relatedness with the community by evoking the “unsaid” in our collective consciousness:


“Amidst the dust enveloped Hamlets, why do I feel the beckoning warmth of the unsaid?” (Very rough translation)

Poets and artists are vital to articulating and developing national consciousness. They combine the specific images of a land and its people to evoke the aesthetic experience of a collective identity that may be national, or regional but is yet inseparable from the universal. No my dear friend Anjum, we cannot banish our poets and artists from the discourse of politics. They are essential to national consciousness as much as they are vital to our experience of being human.

Roger Penrose, the Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University in his recent book on computers mind and physics (The Emperor’s New Clothes), has proposed that it is human consciousness which makes the human mind unique. This consciousness is a combination of emotion, thought and intuition. He argues that therefore it is impossible in principle to replicate human intelligence through a computer. Research work on Neural Physiology by Dr. Ayoub Ommaiya, using brain imaging techniques has traced in pictorial form the heat signature of the electro chemical impulse that flows through the brain during the human thought process. Interestingly he has shown that the most abstract thought of the Cerebral Cortex originates in the emotional centres of the brain. Dr. Ommaiya has shown through his clinical work that human thought is integrally linked with emotion and thereby provides support to the work of Professor Penrose on human consciousness. In this physiological sense, my dear friend, Anjum, please remember that human consciousness is not only real but is a concrete fact. If this is so, then national consciousness, which is the shared experiential dimension of a group of people living as a nation, must also be real.

For a long while national consciousness may lie dormant in the dreams of poets. However, it can emerge more fully and become concrete through education, and an open and tolerant society: A society where people can interact with love and reason, where they can actualize their creative potential and thereby develop a common stake in citizenship. Their hearts will then pulsate together and this experience need not be banished to the realm of poets as Anjum has proposed. As Marcuse put it, “the sensuous, the playful, the calm and the beautiful can become forms of social existence”.

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