project enlightenment, briefing from the cambridge/prague bureau, 1981

From Mikulas Teich’s “Afterword” to his co-edited volume with Roy Porter, The Enlightenment in National Context (1981):

By the eighteenth century the influence of capitalism on trade and industry was global and pervasively affecting the contemporary social, economic, political and intellectual scene from North America to Russia.  This is reflected in the convergencies and divergencies of the different Enlightenments.

In no area is this more apparent than the problem of ‘unfree’ and ‘free’ labour, one of the key issues of this period.  North America and Russia were as different in this period as chalk and cheese.  Yet, although without a feudal past colonial America had its unfree labour.  It has been estimated that at the eve of the American Revolution 80 percent of all immigrants to the colonies were indentured servants or black slaves.  Their position–not unlike that of Russian serfs–was that of chattels, and of relevance to the American theorists and practitioners of the ‘Rights of Man.’  Most agreed that such ‘Rights’ could not be granted to the unfree (216).

This was the passage that leaped out at me, as I was rereading the Porter/Teich volume.  Initially, the essays by Porter (on the English enlightenment) and Phillipson (ditto, for the Scottish) were the ones that really got me started thinking about the historiography of the enlightenment years ago in graduate school.  Now I’m surprised to find Teich’s materialist essay on Bohemia in this collection, and his afterthoughts about the effects of globalization and world capital on the diffusion of Enlightenment in places as different as Russia and North America.  Now his thoughts seem quite prescient to me, but maybe this stuff is old hat to others.

Now, though, I suspect that there’s a new history of the enlightenment to be written (if it hasn’t been written already) out of E.P. Thompson’s memorable attack on Hont’s and Ignatieff”s interpretation of Adam Smith in Customs in Common. How would we begin to write a history of the enlightenment’s discussions of/basis in free and unfree labor?  I suspect we’d have to start thinking again about the historical movement from the “luxury debates” to the birth of sociology and economics (Mandeville, Rousseau, Ferguson, and Smith), but also adopt Teich’s distinction between enlightened discussions of agricultural and other (non-chattel, or “skilled?) labor, wherein chattel labor fails to register as a problem with those who are otherwise associated with the causes of freedom or liberty (most notoriously, Thomas Jefferson).  And somehow the 18th-century technological innovations that led one way or another to the Industrial Revolution need to be factored into this discussion, as well.  It seems significant to me, however, that the economic historians I’ve been looking at repeatedly point to the geographic and regional interactions that helped to foster this historical process.  As one historian points out: “[T]here was only one route to the twentieth century–and it traversed northern Britain.” (historian Bob Allen, qtd. in the DeLong post linked above)

Still, the question that had me rereading Porter/Teich in the first place never got answered: is there such a thing as a Caribbean enlightenment in this period?  If we can talk about the enlightenment in national contexts, why not regional ones, as well?


3 responses to “project enlightenment, briefing from the cambridge/prague bureau, 1981

  1. Eleanor Shevlin

    Fascinating post, Dave. My immediate response to your final question would be “yes”–we can have regional histories, yet I would like/need to hear a bit more about what you mean by “regional” and its relationship to national.

    For instance, one could look at the German independent states at the time and consider the ways the Enlightenment unfolded and the shapes it assumed in given states– and the narratives that emerge could arguably be termed “regional”.

    Also, it might be difficult to speak of “a” single Caribbean Enlightenment for a number of reasons including the differences among the European colonial powers that governed particular islands. (There is a chapter entitled “The Caribbean in the Age of Enlightenment, 1788–1848” in Blackwell’s A Companion to Latin American Literature and Culture–available in print and in Blackwell Reference Online through library subscriptions.) Moreover, the growing recognition that colonial territories and indigenous cultures exercised significant influences/effects on the colonial power’s home front (in other words, the effects operated in a two-way flow) also carries implications for how we consider the Enlightenment. We might ask, for instance, “How did the British Caribbean color the Enlightenment in England?”

    When considering changes to the physical book in the West during the eighteenth century, I saw these changes as driven largely by Enlightenment principles and commercial transformations–more specifically, an interest in scientific experimentation, the systematization of knowledge, progress, perfection, and ‘taste”. Transnational interactions and exchange (including labor and raw materials) fostered many developments and their spread, but there were also clear national and or regional differences as various developments took root in particular locales.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Eleanor. The Regional/National distinction deserves more explanation than I can give here (I’ve been considering this for a separate post, so maybe I’ll work one up), but just to address the Porter/Teich volume, there are some interesting problems even with the nationally-framed essays of this collection.

    For example, you have in this collection the “Italian Enlightenment,” which is actually ordered around city-states and universities, two essays on “Germany” and “Catholic Germany,” not to mention Teich’s own essay on “Bohemia.”

    So there is clearly an incoherence in their decisions regarding geographic “coverage” that stems from a desire to insert an 18th century history into a twentieth-century geo-political framework. They are open about this problem in their Preface, but it seems a significant issue that probably needs to be taken onboard in more discussions of Enlightenment, I think.

    One person who makes a stab at the kind of comparative analysis I’m calling for is Richard Sher in Enlightenment and the Book, which I think documents both the centrifugal and centripetal forces in the diffusion of Enlightenment in Edinburgh, London, Philadelphia and Dublin. But I think this is the kind of large-scale topic that no single study can hope to comprehend, so I’m hoping more people follow his lead.

    As for the Caribbean angle, thanks for the Blackwell reference; this is exactly what I was hoping to find.

    And, yes, we are talking about an array of empires, languages, and their respective apparatuses of information-gathering that are moving in and through those islands during that time (English-, French-, Spanish-, and Dutch-speaking). But the history of those islands shows the limitations of the national framework for narrating Caribbean history in the colonial period.


  3. Eleanor Shevlin

    I almost mentioned Rick Sher’s book–I think it’s superb for many reasons–its methodology, prose, archival work, and more.