While there is general agreement on the fact that Enlightenment, understood as a cultural revolution against the European Ancien Régime, bequeathed values, representations, ideas, practices and a vocabulary to the democratic politics and culture of our times, the ways and channels through which this transmission took place have not been satisfactorily investigated.
Tackling this historical problem obliges us to accept the challenge of Global Enlightenment, a new historical concept which captures the circulation of ideas and the creative and asymmetrical transcultural and interdisciplinary connections between different contexts, namely Europe and its modern empires. This line of enquiry will make it possible to fill a clear gap in current views of the “long nineteenth century” advanced by global historians.
The project intends to fill this gap by investigating, from a global perspective, key aspects of the relation between Europe and its empires, taking as its starting point especially the language of the rights of man, seen as the most telling and relevant legacy of the Enlightenment. For this purpose, three lines of investigation have been identified:
- The legacy of the sciences de l’homme formulated in the epistemological project of the Encyclopédie, with their claim to redefine the humanity of man and his physical and cultural features within debates on colonialism, imperialism, slavery and early forms of racism.
- The political debate: the rights of man (and woman, starting from the French revolution), citizen rights, constitutionalism, representative democracy. The study of natural rights and emancipation in the long nineteenth century is a relatively recent topic within historical research worldwide. It is often dealt with from the point of view of the present, with little attention paid to its origins. In order to investigate the historical process of the creation of rights, the problem of the rights of women and their exclusion over time will be crucial. Gender studies have profoundly changed and renewed the study of Enlightenment, as well as the study of Revolutions, but the rights of woman/women have been almost completely ignored by the scholarly debates.
- The nexus of public opinion and rights, with a focus on the circulation and diffusion of the language of rights through literary evidence, visual arts, theatre, music and periodicals. This line of enquiry will involve the use of digital databases, in the framework of an innovative approach to the use of digital resources for research in the humanities.
The project intends to elucidate the legacy of the Enlightenment in its many aspects, in order to better understand its enduring and controversial presence over time in the fields of politics, society, visual arts, law and anthropology. Furthermore, it aims to contribute to a definition of Global Enlightenment, a new historical concept with implications for world history but also for aspects of Enlightenment culture itself. Setting aside traditional notions of diffusion, which see the circulation of culture from Europe to the rest of the world in a one-way process, the project intends to investigate when and where, in China, India, Japan, in the Islamic world, elements that can be connected to the culture of Enlightenment first appeared: not merely technical and scientific modernity, secularization, progress and improvement of material conditions, spread of modern forms of the free market, liberalism, but most of all, the controversial affirmation everywhere in the world of the political and constitutional language of the rights of man and woman.