From Iceland — Ask A Philosopher: What Is Island Mentality And Do You Think It Exists In Iceland?

Ask A Philosopher: What Is Island Mentality And Do You Think It Exists In Iceland?

Ask A Philosopher: What Is Island Mentality And Do You Think It Exists In Iceland?

Published June 15, 2018

Juliana Iluminata Wilczynski
Photo by
Kristinn Ingvarsson

We asked philosopher Gústav Adolf Bergmann Sigurbjörnsson, PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Iceland and chairman of the Icelandic Philosophy Society about the island mentality in Iceland.

Island mentality is a colloquial term and as such is rather vague. It is loosely supposed to capture two characteristics that are said to be typical of island communities (though not exclusive to them). On the one hand there is a positive kind of exceptionalism, the belief that your community is generally better than other communities, and on the other there is a sort of provincialism that is characterized by a disregard or enmity to outsiders, outside values, ideas, etc., i.e. a certain kind of narrow-mindedness.

That both phenomena exist in Iceland I have no doubt. That they are best described as “island mentality” I find less convincing.

All communities establish norms, ways of being and ways of conceptualising the world that are particular to that community and relate to its history, its present and suggest to it a future. If the imagery that these ideas evoke are generally positive they are likely to relate to other communities with an air of superiority.

This is not something particular to islands or closed off communities. It’s typical in-group behaviour and you can find it in large communities (“Make America great again!”) as well as in small ones (“Hú!”).

The exceptionalism that characterises Icelanders is strongly linked to our self-image as one of the Nordic states, evoking both the perceived successes of the states of the North-Atlantic as well as some, well, rather confused notions of a Viking heritage. The exceptionalism here seems not that different from the one you would find in the other Nordic states.

A similar claim can be made about the Eurocentric xenophobic tendencies you might find here, which are very much in line with much of what we see elsewhere in Europe. In this way the “island” of island mentality seems quite misplaced.

Ironically, then, claims that Iceland is characterised by island mentality might be considered an unwarranted kind of exceptionalism.

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