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The Enlightenment era saw European thinkers increasingly concerned with what it meant to be human. This was due at least in part to the increasing awareness of human diversity brought by exploration and travel to new domains.This collection of essays traces the concept of ‘humanity’ through revolutionary politics, feminist biography, portraiture, explorer narratives, libertine and Orientalist fiction, the philosophy of conversation and musicology. Its contributors argue that across these fields, the central philosophical conundrums of the era were reflected, and sometimes transformed, in surprising ways.
The eighteenth century in Europe was a great age for talk about ‘humanity’. Savants longed to establish a ‘science of man’ that would rival the achievements of the natural sciences in the wake of Copernicus. Moralists spoke with a new solemnity of ‘humanity’ as a character trait, setting out to tell the story of its origins and development. Voyages of exploration, commerce and conquest combed the globe, returning with accounts of far-flung nations whose character and customs titillated the public, fascinated philosophers and nurtured debate about the essence and limits of the human. This was a time of both expansive possibilities and great uncertainties, when many sought to understand the world around them by an increasingly intensive focus upon the nature, history and ontological condition of their species.
This book studies representations of humanity in Europe during the eighteenth century. We have chosen the term ‘representations’ with care. The period produced a range of attempts to represent humanity in a dual sense: to depict its essential character and diverse manifestations; and to speak for its interests and aspirations. Representing humanity in the eighteenth century was thus both a philosophico-scientific project and a political one. Yet questions remain about how these two elements were intertwined. A philosophical, juridical and proto-anthropological interest in the nature of ‘Man’ has long been a recognized feature of the era we label ‘the Enlightenment’.
One could try to create a new canon – one in which the mark of a ‘great philosopher’ was awareness of new social and religious and institutional possibilities, as opposed to developing a new dialectical twist in metaphysics or epistemology.
Richard Rorty, ‘Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodernity’(1984).
As a seminal Aufklärer who exemplified the promise of German-Jewish participation in German culture, the philosophically self-educated and belletristically inclined Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86) continues to be interpreted as a case study in German-Jewish Bildung. Resistant to easy translation, I will provisionally define Bildung as a socially and aesthetically mediated process of self-education. Mendelssohn himself, largely philosophically self-taught, exemplifies the classic trajectory of Bildung as a quest for self-creation. As a teenager he undertook a traditional religious education within a closed Jewish community in Dessau and then enjoyed a successful philosophical career, participating in the elite circles of the Aufklärung after his move to Berlin in 1743. Mendelssohn was the first illustrious German Jewish public intellectual, of great repute throughout Europe for his writings on metaphysics, aesthetics, political theory and Judaism. Given his close association with the German and Jewish Enlightenments, the Aufklärung and Haskalah, and his status as an important advocate of Jewish emancipation, Mendelssohn has come to represent an ambivalent symbol of the fraught relationship between Judaism and Western modernity.