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Reasoning with Savages: The Anthropological Imagination of the Scottish Enlightenment


This project examines the origins and history of early anthropological thought in the philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment during the last half of the eighteenth century. The aim of this investigation is to set into historical context the intense interest in tribal societies exhibited in the writings of the leading members of the Scottish intelligentsia. Increasing contact with and awareness of non-European societies in the eighteenth century raised the problem of accounting for both the diversities and uniformities existing among the world’s peoples and their societies. After midcentury many enlightened moral theorists drew upon the methods and epistemologies of the new natural sciences to reestablish the moral sciences on natural historical foundations. Human and social development were understood as analogous to generative theories posited in the vitalist life sciences of epigenesis, which was instrumental, most notably, in the stadial or “four-stages” theory of progress articulated by Adam Smith. Reinterpreting the Scottish Enlightenment in the context of vitalist thought offers greater insight into what is perhaps its preeminent idea, that of “spontaneous order.” The theorization of moral and social systems as products of human nature allowed for a far-reaching revision of the human sciences and the systems of thought upon which they were based, including natural law theory.

The mainstream of anthropological theorists understood the continuities among human societies as evidence of a uniformity in human nature. A minority, however, located divergences in civilizational progress in racial difference. This study attempts to draw out the implications of these understandings of humanity and connections between empire and anthropology, which were constitutive strands of the late eighteenth-century Scottish human and moral sciences. Recognizing in British imperial and commercial expansion nascent processes of globalization, enlightened Scots made its theorization a part of the moral and human sciences. Smith posited that it was familiarity with others mediated through the imagination that produced sympathy. With increasing contact between unequal societies, the more liberal Scottish theorists reasoned with “savages” sought in part to cultivate humanitarian and egalitarian sentiments towards them among their readers through the creation of an anthropological imagination.

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