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Whose Enlightenment Was It?

March 25, 2013

From The Wilson Quarterly:

PlanetaryMove over, Voltaire, and make room for Yu Kilchun, Rammohan Roy, and a host of other strangers in the Enlightenment pantheon. Scholars and intellectuals have been hacking away at the Enlightenment for years, arguing that the “age of reason” was just a mirage or a cleverly veiled vehicle of oppression. Now Sebastian Conrad, a historian at Berlin’s Free University, argues that the very idea that the Enlightenment was solely a European creation is wrong.

The great ideas of the Enlightenment—individual rights, secularism, the belief in science—were not merely invented in the West and disseminated elsewhere, Conrad contends, but continuously reinvented around the world. And the Enlightenment didn’t end in 1800, as standard accounts say, but continued into the 19th century and beyond. As if to blur the old boundaries, Conrad often speaks of Enlightenment rather than the Enlightenment.

“Much of the debate about Enlightenment in Europe can be understood as a response to the challenges of global integration” as European explorers’ contacts with the Indians of North America, China’s Mandarins, and others raised new questions about human existence. But it wasn’t a one-way street. During the French Revolution, the National Assembly “explicitly denied the extension of civil rights to slaves.” It was only after a 1791 slave revolution in their Haitian colony that the French were compelled to rethink their position. Three years later, they abolished slavery.

It’s condescending and “Eurocentric,” Conrad continues, to cling to the traditional notion that the Enlightenment ended around 1800, because doing so excludes others’ contributions. [More]

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