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This book has explored the importance of cross-cultural comparisons to the social and political thought of the French Enlightenment. Cross-cultural comparisons, and the sciences humaines for which they stood as foundations, served as a powerful double-edged sword for Enlightenment-era French writers and cultural critics, defining a discourse that was simultaneously universalist and relativist, Eurocentric and cosmopolitan. Eighteenth-century French philosophers, scientists, and men of letters, as we have seen, sought to build a universal science of humanity through empirical observation of particular peoples and societies, which would encompass both the underlying unity of humankind and its remarkable diversity. The comparative method that they elaborated could be used to decry the barbarism of non-European peoples and to advocate their assimilation to enlightened Western norms, but could also be invoked to condemn the abuses of contemporary European society and to advocate alternative “possible worlds,” even radically different ones, modeled upon the examples of non-European societies and cultures. Above all, the comparative method, by presenting a broad panorama of human diversity, emphasized the accidental, contingent nature of all cultural practices and social institutions.
KeywordsHuman Nature Eighteenth Century Human Diversity Political Thought Scientific Racism
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- 1.For a good discussion of this issue, which convincingly refutes the claim of a binary opposition in Enlightenment thought between universalism and diversity, see Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment against Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 260–266.Google Scholar
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- 5.The foundational text for this interpretation of human nature is John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: William Tegg & Co, 1879 ).Google Scholar
- For the centrality of Locke’s Essay to the development of the human sciences in the eighteenth century, see Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 11; Claude-Adrien Helvétius’s treatise, De l’esprit (Paris: Durand, 1758), which we have cited frequently in the preceding chapters, was an effort to explain human diversity and the development of the human mind according to Locke’s principles.Google Scholar
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- See also Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: Norton, 2008).Google Scholar
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