Over the course of the Enlightenment, Europe claimed a monopoly on progress for itself alone. In the eighteenth century, other places had appeared as familiar and comparable. By the early nineteenth century, they were cast as inscrutable and incommensurable. What caused this fundamental transformation in Europe’s understanding of itself? In this talk, I aim to explain the transition from early-modern cosmopolitanism to late-modern orientalism by revealing the hitherto unknown deployment of Chinese science in Enlightenment debates. To do so, I reconstruct a cross cultural conversation that took place around the turn of the nineteenth century between Paris and Beijing. Searching for alternatives to the emerging idea of progress, orphans of the Enlightenment entered into communication with the last great scholar of the Jesuit mission to China, Joseph-Marie Amiot. Together, they drew from Chinese learning to invent modern esotericism, associating distant places with the ancient past in an attempt to salvage both. The unintended result was to place a cognitive chasm around the modern West. In the early nineteenth century, professional scholars created modern academic disciplines to bring that work back into progress theory. They made the past into a foreign country – both became a window into a fundamentally different worldview.
Alexander Statman is the Dibner Fellow in the History of Science at The Huntington Library. Dr. Statman researches the global Enlightenment and east-west exchange in the history of science and has been published in journals such as Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society and East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine. He is currently revising his first book, A Global Enlightenment: France, China, and the Idea of Progress.