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Conclusion

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History book series (CIH)

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Human Nature Eighteenth Century Human Diversity Political Thought Scientific Racism 
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Notes

  1. 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
  2. 2.
    John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close or the Modern Age (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 4.
    Judith N. Shklar, “Politics and the intellect,” in Political ‘Thought and Political Thinkers’, ed. Stanley Hoffmann (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 95.Google Scholar
  4. On this point, see also Peter Gay, The Party of Humanity (New York: Norton, 1971).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The foundational text for this interpretation of human nature is John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: William Tegg & Co, 1879 [1690]).Google Scholar
  6. 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
  7. 6.
    Voltaire , Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1963), 2:810.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    For a discussion of the use of Enlightenment universalism to critique slavery, see Richard Popkin, “Condorcet, Abolitionist,” in Condorcet Studies7, ed. Leonora Cohen Rosenfield (Atlantic Heights, NJ: Humanities Press, 1997), 35–47;Google Scholar
  9. and Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. For a documentary history of the Société des Amis des Noirs, in which Condorcet and Grégoire both played leading roles, see Marcel Dorigny and Bernard Gainot, La Société des Amis des Noirs, 1788–1799. Contribution à l’histoire de l’esclavage (Paris: UNESCO, 1998).Google Scholar
  11. See also Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: Norton, 2008).Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979);Google Scholar
  13. Michael Keevak, The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008), 17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 11.
    For the classical roots of Rousseau’s “cultural primitivism,” see Arthur Lovejoy, and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (New York: Octagon Books, 1965 [1935]).Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    For the shift in French scientific and scholarly discourses on race from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, see George W. Stocking, Jr., “French Anthopology in 1800,” in Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), 13–41.Google Scholar
  16. 14.
    On this point, see Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), especially Chapters 2 and 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 15.
    For Clemenceau’s defense of France’s Revolutionary legacy in the early days of the Third Republic, see Jeremy Jennings, Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France since the Eighteenth Century (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© David Allen Harvey 2012

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