New Book by New College Professor David Harvey Examines Debates on Human Diversity During French Enlightenment

October 1, 2012 — New College of Florida Professor of History David Harvey has penned his third book titled The French Enlightenment and Its Others: The Mandarin, the Savage, and the Invention of the Human Sciences. Recently published by Palgrave Macmillan, the book focuses on the French Enlightenment’s engagement with the cultural and racial diversity of humankind, considering the writings of major thinkers of the period and reports from travelers, officials, missionaries and explorers on “exotic” cultures.

“I was particularly interested in the legacy of the Enlightenment related to globalization and cross-cultural encounters and the parallels to modern-day debates on these issues,” Harvey said about writing the book.

Thanks to a travel grant supported by donors to New College and a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society, Harvey was able to pore over original 18th-century letters, books and periodicals at the National Library of France in Paris and at the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence. Through these primary sources, the book illustrates that there was no single Enlightenment view of the non-Western world, but instead a society steeped in contentious debates on the causes and significance of racial difference, the relative merits of civilization and primitivism, the universality of religious belief, the legitimacy of slavery and colonialism, and the meaning of (and possibility for) human progress.

“If we suspend our impulse to rush to judgment and look at eighteenth-century France with fresh eyes,” Harvey wrote in the book’s introduction, “we will find a society, though different from our own in many ways, which struggled to come to terms with many of the same issues and processes with which we continue to grapple even today. While it has become fashionable to refer to our own times as the ‘information age,’ and to reflect upon the meaning and consequences of contemporary ‘globalization,’ we sometimes forget that such concerns are by no means new.”

“Adeptly written and economical, The French Enlightenment and Its Others takes on the vexed question of how Europeans viewed non-Europeans during the eighteenth century,” said April Shelford, associate professor of history at American University. “[Harvey] shows us how the European encounter with others was not only foundational to the sciences humaines, but transformed expectations (then and now) of what being ‘human’ means.”

Professor Harvey is chair of the Division of Social Sciences at New College of Florida. He is the author of Beyond Enlightenment: Occultism and Politics in Modern France (2005) and Constructing Class and Nationality in Alsace, 1830-1945 (2001). In addition to the Enlightenment, Harvey teaches courses at New College on modern European history, the French Revolution and the Age of Imperialism. Harvey earned his masters and doctoral degrees from Princeton University and his bachelor’s degree from Rice University.

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