Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia by Jürgen Osterhammel (Translated by Robert Savage) - review by Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin

There Be Despots

Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia


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According to an edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the term ‘Enlightenment’ signifies ‘shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for authority and tradition, etc., applied esp. to the spirit and aims of the French philosophers of the 18th c.’ – a fine example of lexicography in the service of tendentious ideology. This is hardly Jürgen Osterhammel’s view of the matter. As he presents it, one did not need to be a seedy and pretentious French philosopher in order to be part of the great intellectual movement. Indeed, he is particularly keen on outdoor types, men with philosophic dispositions who travelled and who drew lessons from the lands they visited and in which they sometimes came to reside: Jean Chardin in Persia, Anquetil-Duperron in India, William Marsden in Sumatra, Alexander and Patrick Russell in Aleppo, Volney in Egypt and Syria, Alexander von Humboldt in Russian-ruled Central Asia and the Jesuits (an anti-Enlightenment order, yet sharing with its principal figures similar standards of scientific reportage) in China. Direct observation and ethnography were at least as important as textual study. These were heroic figures. Osterhammel provides a list of other scholarly travellers who were murdered or executed before they could become equally well known. Travel to the East was fraught with danger and discomfort. In those days there was a saying: ‘The man who strikes dead his mother and father is still too good to sail for the East Indies.’ In addition to being observant, of a philosophic temperament, hardy and courageous, it was necessary for the scholar to be a gentleman (I am relieved that the last is no longer a necessary qualification).

As far as the Enlightenment’s relationship with Orientalism is concerned, the scholarly tendency has been to see its primary exponents as paving the way for the 19th-century age of imperialism, though in Orientalism (1978), the book that more than any other made this kind of approach popular, Edward Said

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