2. Concepts of progress and widening horizons

Throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, historiography still mostly kept its universal and teleological characteristics of the previous eras. Yet, next to these continuations, two features of European history writing began to transform. Firstly, historical accounts were secularized; and secondly, intellectual horizons were widened as a result of growing knowledge about other continents.

The secularization of historiography meant that the divine lost its monopoly of determining the course of past. The Scientific Revolution of the early seventeenth century had provided new ideas about the alleged forces that steered change through time, which in the eighteenth century increasingly were applied in historical writing. One of the thinkers that had been instrumental in this respect was Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who had stated that true and objective knowledge could be produced by empirical observation after the mind was freed from the distortion of its idols.[1] This meant that men could strive to accumulate knowledge by collecting data, thereby gradually increasing, and thus improving, the body of knowledge that was disposable to humankind. In this philosophy lay a recipe for progression. The history of mankind could be imagined along a track towards truth and a higher stage of development, as the bulk of true knowledge grew over time. This became the central principle in a new kind of history-writing, which still was universal and teleological, but also secular, as humanity was conceived to find direction in its past without divine providence. In 1688, the French philosopher Bernard Le Bouvier de Fontenelle (1657-1757) argued that human progress was the driver of change through time.[2] He believed that over time, false theories would be rejected as knowledge increased. His stance was typical for the Enlightenment historiography that would prosper in the following century.

One of the main trends in eighteenth century historiography was the conjectural history of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. Conjectural historians taught that, where no historical data were available, one should turn to reasoned speculation or ‘conjecture’ in order to fill the blanks and complete the story of the past.[3] The Scottish intellectuals presented an evolutionary scheme of stadial progress. Peoples and nations were considered to pass through several stages of development before reaching maturity. This conception allowed the world to be categorized. Contemporary Western Europe was considered to be at the summit of development, whereas peoples of other continents were placed in a more backward state of being. This way of thinking did not stay confined to Scotland. The French Jesuit traveller Jean-François Lafitau (1681-1746) compared the natives of North America with the tribal societies of ancient Europe, as had been documented by the Romans. Europe had been through the same stage, so it was believed, but had managed to leave it behind a long time ago. The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) declared: “in the beginning all the world was America.”[4]

This is another respect in which European historiography of the eighteenth century differed from historical accounts of earlier times: growing knowledge about different parts of the world made it possible to integrate other continents into historical writing. Surely, over two centuries after the European discoveries of the Americas, some scholars had already developed such an integrative perspectives before the eighteenth century. For example, Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), a politician from Florence, had argued that the scope of Christian Europe needed to be widened because the encounter with the Americans, who weren’t mentioned in the Bible or the classics, proved that the Gospel and the European philosophical tradition did not contain all knowledge.[5] Yet for a long time, the majority of historical writing in Europe did take little note of what was going on beyond Christian Europe. Bossuet’s universal history, written in 1681, had not made any mention of the existence of China. Some European thinkers had even stated that the natives of the Americas and Africa could not be treated as part of human history because they had not developed a civilization, and had to be studied as a part of natural history instead.[6]

In the eighteenth century, more European writers of history started to move beyond the narrow scope of the own continent. The multivolume Universal History from the Earliest Account of Time (1747-1768), composed under the direction of the English Arabist George Sale (1697-1734), covered a wide range of different areas. Most words were still devoted to Europe. There were volumes on the histories of the ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire, several “modern” European kingdoms and republics, as well as on the European activities in their overseas colonies.[7] Yet there were also volumes on the Arabs, Turks, Ottoman Empire, Indian peninsula, China, Japan, different parts of Africa, and America.

Sale’s universal history was an important source for the Histoire des deux Indes by Thomas Raynal (1713-1796). This work covered an even bigger part of the globe’s surface (the two “Indes” from the title referred to America and Asia) and included economic and social topics. Over thirty editions of the successful book appeared between 1770 and 1787.[8] With growing attention for other parts of the world, European writers increasingly moved away from an attitude of contempt towards non-Christian cultures. In the writings of Voltaire (1694-1778), foreign cultures and civilizations, such as the Arabic and Chinese, were explicitly appreciated for their contributions to humanity. The French orientalist Joseph de Guignes (1721-1800), who mastered numerous Asian languages, in 1756 ventured to write a comparative history of the European civilizations and the nomadic societies of central Euarasia.[9] He regarded the Chinese, in whose language he was fluent, as the (near) equals of the Europeans.

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[1] According to Bacon, the human mind was not a tabula rasa but a crooked mirror that distorted the perception of reality. The facets of our mind that cause this distortion, Bacon calls idols. He argued that these needed to be cleared before true perception of reality became possible.

[2] Manning, Navigating World History, 20-21.

[3] Woolf, A Global History of History, 296.

[4] Cited in: Woolf, A Global History of History, 301.

[5] Manning, Navigating World History, 18.

[6] For example José de Acosta (1539-1600). See: Woolf, A Global History of History, 301.

[7] The work itself distinguishes between a pre-modern and modern era.

[8] Woolf, A Global History of History, 286.

[9] Woolf, A Global History of History, 315-316.