James J. Sheehan is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, at Stanford University. He was president of the American Historical Association in 2005 and is the author and editor of numerous books, including Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish his newest book, Making a Modern Political Order: The Problem of the Nation State (May 2023). He recently answered some of our questions about his research and writing processes.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
I have been interested in the problem of sovereignty for some time. The book explores the relationship between sovereignty and nationhood, two essential but not always compatible elements in the modern political order.
Certainly these are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era?
This is a great question: one of the central themes in my book is that every political order contains unresolved tensions and this is certainly true of the order in which we now live. I argue that these tensions come from the same source as the order’s strength and stability, in our case the distinctive problems and possibilities of the nation state.
We have no choice: we must learn to live with these tensions and manage them as best we can. Neither excessive optimism (that we can get rid of our problems once and for all) nor excessive despair (that we are powerless to act) is a useful response.
How did you research this book?
The book is the product of a long process of thinking, teaching, and writing. As it began to take shape I looked for particular thinkers and events that I hoped would illuminate the themes. I read as much as I could until I decided it was time to stop and start writing. The subject is, of course, inexhaustible.
What did you learn while writing it?
Writing always forces the author to clarify the argument. That is why the journey from ideas (and in my case, lectures) to the printed page is often so long and difficult. Only when the book is finished is it entirely clear what the argument is—in a sense, once you have finished writing, you are really ready to begin.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I had the main outline of the book in mind before I began, but as I wrote I saw the relationship between the parts (nations, states, and the international system) more clearly. I became increasingly aware of the international context of the problem of the nation state, in part because of the contemporary political situation.
Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concern for the problem of language; Charles Taylor’s idea of the social imaginary; and, most important of all, Tocqueville’s analysis of democracy.
What is your writing schedule like?
I usually write in the morning, the first two (or if I am lucky) three hours of the working day. The rest of the day I read, prepare for the next day, and sometimes revise.
What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?
Two pieces of advice: first, be sure you know what your subject is, and never let that out of your sight; second, when you start writing, always start at the beginning—do not start writing a chapter because it seems easier.
Who would you like to read Making a Modern Political Order and why?
This is not a book for specialists in any one subject. I would hope that anyone interested in politics would find something useful in the book, although I recognize it might be of more interest to historians and political theorists.
What books are you currently reading?
I have just started working my way through Milton’s Paradise Lost and some of the many books about it. I just finished Zunz’s excellent new biography of Tocqueville and a really wonderful book by Pierre Manent, The Metamorphoses of the City.
What project are you working on next?
I am thinking a great deal about the war in Ukraine and what that will mean for the European international system. I doubt that this will turn out to be a book, but it has already resulted in an essay and some lectures. I have also become interested in how Bram Stoker’s Dracula illuminates some aspects of globalization. Again, this won’t be a book but might be an article and/or lecture.