December 14, 2010

The Divergence of Cultures

Enlightenments and Conservatism in Europe and the Old World
Key materials

The question of what separated Europe from the rest of the world in the 19th century remains a puzzle, and will remain so if we focus on material factors, or on broad ideological trends. We need to focus on particular elements of modernity unique to Europe, and search for their intellectual origins.

Much of the progress in the history of science, and in world and non‐Western history, has arisen through abandoning a privileged place for Western science or for the West in world history, emphasizing instead the degree to which science was a haphazardly synthetic blend of traditional, religious, mystical, and empirical approaches to knowledge, and the degree to which non‐Western countries were similar to the West in their own commercial, bureaucratic, nationalist early modernities. My argument may seem to be, in essence, a return to older notions of Western history as a privileged domain in which scientific and rational advances created a dominant civilization while others stagnated.

I would object to this, and say that the argument I sketch repudiates most of the older notions of Western superiority, and gathers in key elements of recent findings, although holding them up for a different perspective.

This working paper will be published in David Porter's, Comparative Early Modernities: 1100-1800 (Palgrave, 2011).