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  • Editor's Note
  • Linda Zionkowski

While the intellectually diverse essays that constitute SECC 37 testify to the impressive range of scholarship in our period, the question of how eighteenth-century writers make sense of the past—how they interpret it, give it meaning and form, and deploy it for their own practical, aesthetic, and ideological purposes—emerges as a resonant, if unintentional, theme of this volume. And as our contributors remind us, constructing narratives of the past was a high-stakes enterprise with influential cultural, social, and political effects, including the emergence of new disciplines and codifications of knowledge; the (often punitive) assessment and treatment of foreign cultures and peoples; and the articulation of resistance to dominant hierarchies of values and the social structures they support. Although varying widely in their focus, topics, and scope, the essays in this volume share a common concern with investigating Enlightenment categories of historical understanding and determining how these categories helped shape Enlightenment culture. Another shared concern is their awareness of the prejudices and predilections that we as scholars bring to our interpretation and use of history.

The three essays that begin this volume turn their attention to a discussion of origins. In his study of conjectural history's influence on the emerging discipline of sociology, Frank Palmeri argues that both discursive forms exhibit common narrative features. Eighteenth-century conjectural history, as practiced by Ferguson, Condorcet, Hume, Kant, and others, is defined by a naturalistic rather than providential explanation of social organization; an emphasis on the organic, interdependent relations among law, religion, kinship, and other social structures; an insistence on the unplanned development of social institutions; and a conception of societies as progressing through distinctive stages from primitivism to sophistication. As Palmeri demonstrates, the founding sociologists of the nineteenth century, Comte and Spencer, adopted the principal features and narrative patterns of the genre of conjectural history, for it provided a template for mapping the social life of cultures from whom few material traces survive—a method that proved attractive to other social sciences as well. The problem of origins also informs Stuart Peterfreund's essay on natural theology. Resting on the argument from design, which attributed the order [End Page vii] of nature to God the creator made manifest in his creations, natural theology experienced a radical shift as early eighteenth-century science attempted to explain the workings of inanimate phenomena: the God of Boyle and Newton revealed himself not through his creatures but through the mechanisms by which they functioned. At the end of the eighteenth century, as scientific inquiry moved from physiology toward investigating the origins of life, the location of design moved as well, this time situating itself in the system–such as Darwin's theory of evolution—which is regulated by laws of energy and matter. As Peterfreund notes, whether this particular argument from design requires belief in a designer remains one of our most heated cultural debates. The difficulty of locating a creator is a theme in Tony C. Brown's essay on the mounds of the Ohio Valley and the particular interpretive challenges they posed to their late Enlightenment observers. In their apparent ability to resist identification and comprehension, the mounds mystified Europeans, whose attempts to imagine a history for them, and a civilization capable of producing them, ended in defeat. As Brown argues, only excavation—and the concomitant destruction of the mounds themselves–makes a narrative of the earthworks possible, and thus comprehensible to European thought.

A focus on the production of knowledge likewise informs Shane Agin's work on Diderot's campaign for a program of sex education in France. Agin examines how Diderot's concern for his daughter's transition to marriage and motherhood intensified his interest in creating a discursive space–or an educational forum—in which sexual beliefs and practices could be discussed and assessed apart from the influence of the established church on the one hand and the libertine subculture on the other. Proclaiming the importance of anatomy lessons for young men and women alike, Diderot insisted that knowledge unconnected to the confessional or to libertinage would ensure the happiness of couples in marriage, and through their successful reproduction, the overall health...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. vii-xi
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-15
Open Access
No
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