Type: Definition Essays
Sample donated: Stacey Miller
Last updated: May 28, 2019
In many ways European exploration and imperial expansion can be seen as being produced by the theoretical and intellectual pursuits of the Enlightenment, more specifically Enlightenment literature and its approaches to society. In order to understand how the Enlightenment might have affected exploration in the eighteenth century, one should consider how the Enlightenment defined and even redefined the world. Porter proposes the following definition of the Enlightenment exotic: “The fantastic realized beyond the horizons of the everyday world the Europeans knew.
” One such key aspect to understanding depictions and perceptions of exploration in the eighteenth century is the debate of ‘natural empiricism’ and the ways in which this ties in with rapidly changing lingual understandings of ‘exoticism’. Raymond Williams considers this, arguing that strivings for the belief of an idyllic past are most naturally associated with “the capitalist, urban, and colonial ventures of the early modern period; represented in works such as Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’. On the other hand, Knellwolf suggests that to some extent “such moments are inherent in any culture and in any time, but the upsurge of pastoral or utopian fictions were attempts to come to terms with the disorientation experienced by social and political changes”. Therefore lingual terminology can be seen as having been integral to eighteenth century expressions of perception, and the way in which the world could or should be considered. As such Knellwolf argues that later colonialist endeavors were responsible for “turning the culture into one of rivalry and conflict; demonstrated by John Dryden’s ‘Essay of Dramatic Poesy'”. Concocting the view that eighteenth century exploration and imperial expansion were simply ‘natural’ for human progression, not having been spurred from the ideals of enlightenment thinking.
Raj argues that European exploration of the Pacific Ocean in the latter half of the eighteenth century is usually presented as part of the Enlightenment’s quest for pure knowledge, knowledge which was shared freely in the “Republic of Letters”. Raj further argues that “Eighteenth-century reading public had an immediate relationship with their authors.” Being largely fascinated with the description of “savage” life, and the ways in which societies could develop in ways so different from theirs. An feature one could easily see as having stemmed from Enlightenment introspective understandings. Therefore Raj argues that describing other societies far removed spatially, but also in its historical self-representation, was also, in Geertz words, “at the same time an Aesopian commentary on one’s own”, this literary genre played no small role in the shaping of the emerging bourgeois public sphere in the eighteenth century and indeed of the modern idea of Europe.
As such those at the forefront of exploration can be seen as having strong ties to Enlightenment ideals.