The “Age of Enlightenment” in the West has been alternatively praised as the cradle of human rights, religious toleration, and reason, and excoriated as the crucible of scientific racism, immorality, and totalitarianism. Scholars on both sides of the debate commonly point to eighteenth-century Europeans’ reflections on locales and cultures beyond Europe. Such works abounded, from Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” and Diderot’s writings on Tahiti to Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters”and the depictions of African societies penned by both pologists for and critics of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Though often overlooked in textbook accounts of the Enlightenment, such works remind us that the eighteenth century also was a time of intense globalization that brought Europeans into contact (and often conflict) with other societies and prompted consideration of non-Western cultures. The resulting reflections served multiple purposes, from veiled commentary on European societies to “evidence” for theories of human nature, history, and social development. In this seminar, we will explore some of the ways that eighteenth- century Europeans encountered, depicted and discussed cultures beyond Europe. The aim will be to deepen our collective understanding of the complex development known as “the Enlightenment,” its broader eighteenth-century historical context, and the link between globalization and cultural production.
Seminar led by Valentina Tikoff, DePaul University