Ethnic and National(ist) Visions in the 18th Century

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM
Columbia 11 (Washington Hilton)
Matthew D'Auria, University of East Anglia
When in the late seventeenth century Pierre Bayle hailed Europe as a great République des lettres, he was stating a fact destined to soon become a truism. In this transnational community, new forms of knowledge and new disciplines were often formed with little reference to national or local cultures. Common discourses and visions were usually shaped by intellectual beliefs or personal sympathies, rather than national traditions. And yet, in spite of this, the universalism of the principles and rules of enquiry that defined the République was not always conducive to cosmopolitan views and practices. Analysing the contrast between the transnational nature of new forms of knowledge emerging in the eighteenth century and their consequences on feelings of national belonging is one crucial aim of this chapter. The second aim is to shed light on the ways in which the eighteenth-century ‘croisement des savoirs’ affected the ethnic past of national discourses. Such aim will be pursued by taking as case study the relationship between the emerging ‘sciences of man’ and new forms of historical scholarship. As J.G.A. Pocock has argued, this was the age of ‘civil history’. The end of the identification of the sovereign with his nation turned previous accounts of a nation’s past into little more than the biographies of its kings and lords. Focusing their gaze on the origins of nations – another eighteenth-century intellectual fixation – they brought attention to ethnic groups defined by common customs and languages. Here was an important meeting point of history and anthropology, an intellectual field in which the nation could be seen as stemming from ancient ‘tribes’ or ‘races’, tied to them by customs, manners, and character that had been passed on for centuries. Highlighting the mechanism through which such a tie was established is the second main concern of this paper.
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