The looseness with which the term "national character" is used and the inconsistent meanings which attach to it are striking evidence of the lack of adequate analysis. Because of these deficiencies, and especially because of the way in which the idea of national character got mixed up with doctrines of race, the entire concept has been called into very serious question, and it will be necessary, at a later point in this discussion, to examine this philosophical rejection of the concept.
First, however, the inadequacies, the abuses, and the confusion in the use of the concept by historians need to be scrutinized. The most basic ambiguity of all is that historians vary widely in their notion as to what constitutes national character. To some writers it implies an absolute quality, persisting without change from one generation to another and manifesting itself universally in all the individuals who compose the national group. To others it is little more than a statistical tendency for the individuals in one country at a particular time to evince a given trait in higher proportion than the individuals of some other country.
This approach is essentially relativistic, and it contrasts with the absolute approach both in regarding national traits as changing responses to changing conditions and in regarding national character as something which may be found in a large enough proportion of the people and which exists as national character, pragmatically, only because it is found in them rather than as something which inheres in all the people and is found in them, mystically, because it is the national character. Despite the insight which Hippocrates and Herodotus had originally shown in recognizing that, if conditions determine character, character will change with conditions, it was unfortunately true that many later historical writers seemed to accept the absolute view, which ultimately found its most extreme expression in the early nineteenth century.
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Today it can no longer be taken seriously in its literal form, and we can only smile at such manifestations as Herder's assertion that the Teutonic vocal apparatus was naturally formed for the enunciation of German speech and that it would be a perversion for the Teutonic larynx to dally with any other language.
But, in a more subtle form, the concept of a character which is shared in common by all the people still commands impressive support.
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For instance, Otto Bauer has argued that national character is far more than a mere similarity of traits in diverse individuals and that it is, rather, a "community of character. Many other writers whose view is far less carefully refined than Bauer's have held to the absolute point of view by setting up what Weber would have called "ideal typical" images to personify the character of given nations and then evaluating individual citizens according to the extent to which they correspond to these types. Thus John Bull remains the "typical Englishman," and the old-fashioned Yankee remains the "typical American" for many writers, despite the fact that the vast majority in the English and the American population do not now conform to these types, if, indeed, they ever did.
In this case, there is no longer a mystical assertion that all Englishmen or all Americans are alike, but there is still an arbitrary assumption that specific qualities are peculiarly British or American and that the extent to which an individual is truly British or American depends upon the extent to which he possesses these qualities. Against these fixed notions of national character, the few critics who concern themselves with the subject have made such headway as they can.
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Writers like Hans Kohn and Carlton J. Hayes have shown clearly that traits which are deemed most intrinsic to the "character" of a nation will change markedly and rapidly as historical circumstances change. Thus at the beginning of the eighteenth century the English were considered volatile and unstable in political affairs, while the French seemed steady and even phlegmatic by comparison.
But a century later these conceptions had been reversed, and it was the French who were regarded as political weathercocks. Other writers have accepted the idea that traits of national character are essentially tendencies which ebb and flow with the waxing and waning of historical forces. For instance, Frederick Jackson Turner conceived of American traits as developing under the impact of frontier forces, and he spoke with foreboding of what would happen to these traits when the frontier no longer existed to perpetuate them.
But, though many historians have adopted these more tenable concepts of what constitutes national character, most of them have done so implicitly, without much discussion of their premises, and the fact remains that there is no agreement, no uniform understanding, within the profession, as to what is meant by "national character" or as to what elements go to make it up.
Not only have historians failed to agree on what they mean by "national character"; they have also failed to agree on what kind of qualities should be taken into account as composing it. There is a vast difference between mere traits of behavior, such as writing from left to right or eating with a fork, which a given people may have in common, and traits of character, in which a deeply intrenched system of values is involved.
It is to this difference that David Riesman alludes when he says that "cultural differences, no matter how forcefully they may strike the ear, the eye, or the nose, are not necessarily correlated with character differences of equal significance.
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