Picture: 'Types of "primitive" man from Linnaeus, Amoenitates'. Credit: Wellcome Collection.
About the project
Linda Andersson Burnett
Other project members
Bruce Buchan, Griffith University
Linnaeus University and Griffith University
1 April 2016-31 Dec 2019
More about the project
The Enlightenment concept of universal humanity continues to be celebrated in a number of recent academic texts. Its colonial origins and effects are however still frequently denied. Our project therefore examines the relationship between narratives of 'universal humanity' and eighteenth-century colonialism. We aim to explain how Enlightenment humanity accommodated universal aspirations alongside internal limitations that denied colonised peoples their full humanity.
Our hypothesis is that Enlightenment notions of humanity hinged on the emergence of a colonial ethnography originating in the amalgamation and entanglement of two north European Enlightenment traditions: Linnaean natural history with Scottish moral philosophical theories of stadial historical progress. We test this hypothesis with three questions:
1. How did the combination of Linnaean natural history with Scottish stadial theory provide a foundation for ethnographic knowledge of humanity?
2. How did the formation of ethnographic knowledge give rise to an idea of a universal but internally differentiated humanity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries?
3. How did colonial encounters between Europeans, Indigenous peoples and Creoles shape the formation and circulation of ethnographic knowledge of humanity, and how can European texts be interrogated to locate Indigenous or Creole voices?
By focusing on the 'borders of humanity' we employ techniques of intellectual history to trace the definitional limits at the core of the concept of humanity. We explore these limits in a selection of case studies of knowledge formation and circulation in colonial engagements within Europe (Sápmi and Scottish Highlands) and with Creole and Indigenous peoples in Asia, America and Australia.
Through its analysis and comparison of how the formation and circulation of ethnographic knowledge of humanity underpinned colonialism, the project challenges the ahistorical disjunction posited between the assumed universalism of the eighteenth century and the overt imperialism of the nineteenth century