Muthu identifies three philosophical strands in Enlightenment anti-imperialism: the individual's right to moral and political respect, the notion of humans as "cultural beings," and awareness of "moral incommensurability." This is nothing less than a reconciliation of moral universalism and a respect for pluralism, what Tzvetan Todorov argued for in On Human Diversity. Muthu is in the same league.
Enlightenment against Empireby Sankar Muthu
In the late eighteenth century, an array of European political thinkers attacked the very foundations of imperialism, arguing passionately that empire-building was not only unworkable, costly, and dangerous, but manifestly unjust. Enlightenment against Empire is the first book devoted to the anti-imperialist political philosophies of an age often regarded as/i>
- Editorial Reviews
- Product Details
- Related Subjects
- Read an Excerpt
- What People Are Saying
- Meet the author
In the late eighteenth century, an array of European political thinkers attacked the very foundations of imperialism, arguing passionately that empire-building was not only unworkable, costly, and dangerous, but manifestly unjust. Enlightenment against Empire is the first book devoted to the anti-imperialist political philosophies of an age often regarded as affirming imperial ambitions. Sankar Muthu argues that thinkers such as Denis Diderot, Immanuel Kant, and Johann Gottfried Herder developed an understanding of humans as inherently cultural agents and therefore necessarily diverse. These thinkers rejected the conception of a culture-free "natural man." They held that moral judgments of superiority or inferiority could be made neither about entire peoples nor about many distinctive cultural institutions and practices.
Muthu shows how such arguments enabled the era's anti-imperialists to defend the freedom of non-European peoples to order their own societies. In contrast to those who praise "the Enlightenment" as the triumph of a universal morality and critics who view it as an imperializing ideology that denigrated cultural pluralism, Muthu argues instead that eighteenth-century political thought included multiple Enlightenments. He reveals a distinctive and underappreciated strand of Enlightenment thinking that interweaves commitments to universal moral principles and incommensurable ways of life, and that links the concept of a shared human nature with the idea that humans are fundamentally diverse. Such an intellectual temperament, Muthu contends, can broaden our own perspectives about international justice and the relationship between human unity and diversity.
Jacob T. Levy
John Hope Mason
"Every now and then a book comes along to remind us once again that history and culture are not absolute terms. They are dynamic and relative to their past and present. Sankar Muthu has written such a book. His analysis clearly demonstrates that the historical process we have come to know as the 'Enlightenment' was really many enlightenments. . . . This book is highly recommended for students of history, philosophy, and culture."Colonial Latin American Historical Review
"[A] rich and elegantly written book. . . . Muthu's provocative thesis is that moral universalism did not suffice to ground opposition to empire. . . . Enlightenment Against Empire moves beyond accounts of political positions into thoughtful reconstructions and syntheses of arguments, and among its many virtues is to remind us that work in the history of political thought need not be done in an antiphilosophical fashion."Jacob T. Levy, Perspectives on Politics
"Inspired by a more multifaceted view of the Enlightenment, Muthu looks at a forgotten legacy from this period, its anti-imperialism."Gregory Jusdanis, Research in African Literatures
"Enlightenment against Empire, dealing with European attitudes to the non-European world, is a valuable contributio. n. . . [T]his is an admirable study, handling an important subject with insight and care."John Hope Mason, History of Political Thought
- Princeton University Press
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- Barnes & Noble
- NOOK Book
- File size:
- 2 MB
Read an Excerpt
Enlightenment against Empire
By Sankar Muthu
Princeton University PressSankar Muthu
All right reserved.
ENLIGHTENMENT POLITICAL THOUGHT AND THE AGE OF EMPIRE
In the late eighteenth century, a number of prominent European political thinkers attacked imperialism, not only defending non-European peoples against the injustices of European imperial rule, as some earlier modern thinkers had done, but also challenging the idea that Europeans had any right to subjugate, colonize, and 'civilize' the rest of the world. This book is a study of this historically anomalous and understudied episode of political thinking. It is an era unique in the history of modern political thought: strikingly, virtually every prominent and influential European thinker in the three hundred years before the eighteenth century and nearly the full century after it were either agnostic toward or enthusiastically in favour of imperialism. In the context of the many philosophical and political questions raised by the emerging relationships between the European and non-European worlds, Enlightenment anti-imperialist thinkers crafted nuanced and intriguingly counter-intuitive arguments about human nature, cultural diversity, cross-cultural moral judgements, and political obligations. This study aims both to pluralize our understanding of the philosophical era known as 'the Enlightenment' and to explore a set of arguments and intellectual dispositions that reorient contemporary assumptions about the relationship between human unity and human diversity.
Throughout this book, I use the term 'Enlightenment' as a temporal adjective; in this sense of the term, Enlightenment political theory simply refers to the political thought of the long eighteenth century (that is, the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries). As I argue in the concluding chapter, more substantive and conventional understandings of 'the Enlightenment' usually occlude more than they illuminate the writings about non-European peoples and empire by eighteenth-century political thinkers. This study, then, is neither a defence of 'the' Enlightenment nor an attack upon it, for an investigation of the anti-imperialist strand of eighteenth-century writings is meant to broaden our understanding of Enlightenment-era perspectives, rather than to redescribe 'the' Enlightenment or an overriding 'Enlightenment project' that ostensibly typified this age of philosophical thought. As with other historiographic terms of convenience, 'the Enlightenment' groups together an extraordinarily diverse set of authors, texts, arguments, opinions, dispositions, assumptions, institutions, and practices. Thus, I begin this book with the presumption that we should diversify our understanding of Enlightenment thought.1 On this understanding, rather than categorizing 'the' Enlightenment as such or constructing ideas of a single 'Enlightenment project' that one must defend or reject, I take Enlightenment anti-imperialist arguments, which are themselves multifaceted, to represent only some of many, often conflicting, discourses in eighteenth-century moral and political thought.
In the following chapters, I interpret the relationship among theories about the constitutive features of humanity, explanations of human diversity and historical change, and political arguments about European imperialism.2 In exploring the rise of anti-imperialist arguments in Enlightenment political thought, I concentrate upon the philosophically robust and distinctive strand of such arguments made by Denis Diderot (1713-84), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). These thinkers are not usually grouped together; indeed, they could be viewed as fundamentally antithetical, as representing some of the contrasting ideal-types of eighteenth-century political thought: atheistic materialism, enlightened rationalism, and romantic nationalism. To begin with, such labels grossly distort their actual philosophies. Moreover, as I will argue, viewing these thinkers through the lens of debates about international relations that concerned them deeply, in particular those about the relationship between the European and non-European worlds, brings out the remarkable extent to which their political theories, though obviously unique to be sure, are nonetheless cut from the same cloth.3 Diderot's immense philosophical influence in this period with regard to questions of imperialism explains in part the shared intellectual disposition about the immorality of empire and the related philosophical ideas upon which this disposition often rested: theories of human nature; conceptualizations of human diversity; and the relationship between universal moral and political norms, on the one hand, and a commitment to moral incommensurability, on the other. As we will see, Diderot's anti-imperialist contributions to Abbé Raynal's Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes [Philosophical and political history of European settlements and commerce in the two Indies], one of the most widely read, 'underground' nonfiction works of the eighteenth century, appear to have left their mark on both Kant and Herder. Behind them all, I will argue, lie Jean-Jacques Rousseau's writings, in particular the two Discourses, which exerted both a negative and a positive influence upon the development of this aspect of Enlightenment thought, for Diderot's, Kant's, and Herder's anti-imperialism rested crucially upon both an appropriation as well as a rejection of particular elements of Rousseau's philosophical anthropology and political thought.
In this chapter, I elaborate the historical and philosophical distinctiveness of Enlightenment anti-imperialist political thought. I also note briefly some of the philosophical sources and legacies of Enlightenment anti-imperialism, which I examine in more detail in the concluding chapter. As I will contend, a number of the conventional distinctions that are deployed by many contemporary political theorists-for instance, between universalism and relativism, or essential and constructed identities-fail to do justice to the arguments made by Enlightenment anti-imperialists, who often treat such supposed opposites as interrelated features of the human condition. A study of Enlightenment anti-imperialism offers a richer and more accurate portrait of eighteenth-century political thought and illuminates the underappreciated philosophical interconnections between human unity and human diversity, and between moral universalism and moral incommensurability.
Enlightenment Anti-imperialism as a Historical Anomaly
Enlightenment anti-imperialist political theory has been the object of far less study than the anti-slavery writings of the same period.4 Some of the best contemporary scholarship on slavery details the rising tide of philosophical opinion against it, and the emergence of a humanitarian ethic that provided the concepts and languages that newly formed anti-slavery societies and activists deployed in their controversial, lengthy, and ultimately successful campaigns. In their studies about slavery, David Brion Davis and Robin Blackburn attempt to discern why an institution that is universally decried today underwent no sustained opposition from a critical mass of thinkers and political actors until the eighteenth century.5 The same question can plausibly be asked with regard to imperialism, for it is only in the latter half of the eighteenth century that a group of significant European political thinkers began to attack the imperial and colonial enterprise as such. To be sure, in surveying the philosophical and political debates that followed the European discovery of the New World, one encounters discussions about the hypocrisy of European imperialists,6 humanitarian attacks upon the practice of Amerindian slavery and other cruelties perpetrated by the conquistadors in the New World,7 and romanticized (though, as I argue in chapter 2, ultimately dehumanizing) accounts of noble savages in travel, literary, and philosophical texts. Before the late eighteenth century, however, those who sympathized with the plight of colonized peoples and those who launched explicit criticisms of Europeans' relations with the non-European world (including the most morally impassioned accounts, such as Bartolomé de Las Casas' arguments against the Castilian crown in the mid-sixteenth century) generally decried the abuses of imperial power, but not the imperial mission itself. Imperial rule, however it may have been perceived and justified (inter alia, in light of religious conversion, the civilizing mission of imperialism, economic and other commercial benefits, or the more rational use of otherwise supposedly wasted natural resources), was widely endorsed even by the most zealous critics of the violence perpetrated by Europeans in the New World.
Truly anti-imperialist political philosophy emerges in the late eighteenth century among a broad array of thinkers from different intellectual and national contexts. A significant group of European political thinkers rejected imperialism outright as unworkable, dangerous, or immoral-for economic reasons of free trade, as a result of principles of self-determination or cultural integrity, due to concerns about the effects of imperial politics upon domestic political institutions and practices, or out of contempt over the ironic spectacle of ostensibly civilized nations engaging in despotism, corruption, and lawlessness abroad. In confronting the steadily expanding commercial and political power of European states and imperial trading companies over the non-European world, the diverse group of thinkers who assailed the injustices and countered the dominant justifications of European imperialism include Jeremy Bentham, Condorcet, Diderot, Herder, Kant, and Adam Smith.8 Moreover, such denunciations of what Herder liked to call "the grand European sponging enterprise" were complemented by more specific attacks upon European imperial or quasi-imperial activities in particular regions. Along these lines, the most notable efforts are Edmund Burke's legislative attempts to curtail and to regulate the activities of the East India Company and his lengthy, zealous prosecution of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, a senior East India Company official and the Governor-General of Bengal.9 Burke argued that the British had failed to respect the sovereignty of local Indian powers, and had accordingly enriched themselves through illegal and unjust means, contributing not one iota, in his view, to the well-being of Indians themselves. In making such arguments, Burke was not a lone voice in the wilderness; rather, he raised concerns that were shared by a number of his contemporaries, a fact that has been neglected even by incisive scholars who have studied the connections between modern political theory and empire.10 Of course, such anti-imperialist political thinkers fought an uphill battle, for defences of European imperial rule were still prevalent; the Enlightenment era is unique not because of the absence of imperialist arguments, but rather due to the presence of spirited attacks upon the foundations of empire.
Enlightenment anti-imperialism is understudied most likely because of its failure to take root both in the broader political cultures in which it was presented and in the intellectual writings of later thinkers, including those who in some sense saw themselves as heirs to the tradition of progressive thinking of the eighteenth century. Here the contrast with antislavery writings is especially stark. Anti-slavery writings of the eighteenth century, from Montesquieu onward, provided much of the political language and principles that were used by anti-slavery activists and by newly formed anti-slavery societies; accordingly, the immorality of slavery became a common (though, of course, by no means a universal) presumption of nineteenth-century European social and political thought. Eighteenth-century anti-imperialist arguments, on the other hand, almost always went unheeded, not only by political, religious, and commercial authorities (as one would expect), but also by later political thinkers, including some of the most progressive social and political reformers of the nineteenth century. Those who crusaded against the fraud and oppression of imperial rule and the activities of commercial trading companies were generally ridiculed and ultimately defeated in their efforts. Burke's efforts in the Hastings trial are particularly suggestive of the failed political results of anti-imperialist crusades; Hastings was found innocent, and Burke's refusal to compromise on the India issue damaged his standing not only with his parliamentary colleagues, but also with the press and the general populace.11 And although the French Revolution gave an impetus to eradicating slavery, revolutionary and post-revolutionary France, as Benjamin Constant noted, was firmly committed to a form of imperialism, one of conquest within Europe, in order to spread the ideals and institutions of the revolution.12 Strikingly, with regard to intellectual opinion, anti-imperialist sentiments largely fell by the wayside as the eighteenth century came to a close. The anti-imperialist writings of the latter half of the eighteenth century failed to rally later thinkers to the cause of exposing imperialist injustices, defending non-European peoples against imperial rule, and attacking the standard rationales for empire. None of the most significant anti-imperialist thinkers of the eighteenth century can be matched with any nineteenth-century anti-imperialist thinker of a comparable stature. By the mid-nineteenth century, anti-imperialist political thinking was virtually absent from Western European intellectual debates, surfacing only rarely by way of philosophically obscure and politically marginal figures.13 Indeed, the major European political theorists of the immediate post-Enlightenment period either were ambivalent about European imperialism or were quite often explicitly in favour of it.
Thus, while imperialist arguments surface frequently in eighteenth-century European political debates, this period is anomalous in the history of modern political philosophy in that it includes a significant anti-imperialist strand, one moreover that includes not simply marginal figures, but some of the most prominent and innovative thinkers of the age. In this respect, the nineteenth-century European political and philosophical discourse on empire marked a return to the frequently held imperialist sentiments of pre-Enlightenment political thought. While the dominance of languages of race and nation in the nineteenth century was new, the virtual consensus about the necessity and justice of imperialism among European political thinkers recalls the pre-Enlightenment discourse on empire.
Excerpted from Enlightenment against Empire by Sankar Muthu Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Tzvetan Todorov, author of "Hope and Memory"
Melvin Richter, Hunter College
Thomas A. McCarthy, Northwestern University
Richard Tuck, Harvard University
Meet the Author
Sankar Muthu is Assistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews