- Otherness and Soft Power: Analyses of Power and International Relations
These two excellent studies provide rich and important guides to parts of the Western intellectual palette during the Age of Enlightenment. Moreover, “Enlightenment”—that most porous and pliable of designations—works for each study not only as a description of the period concerned but also as a way to approach the intellectual strategies at issue. In each case, there was the self-conscious use of reason to engage with a different world and to try to shape it to a purpose.
Daniella Bleichmar, Associate Professor in the Departments of Art History and History at the University of Southern California, and coeditor of Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, 1500–1800 (2008) and Collecting Across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Modern Atlantic World (2011), emphasizes the intellectual issues presented by Spain’s interaction with the New World. In doing so, she takes forward recent studies of the early modern period. Indeed, the extent to which the New World challenged established ideas has led Antonio Barrera-Osorio to claim, in his Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire [End Page 446] and the Early Scientific Revolution (2006), that the Scientific Revolution began with Spain’s response to its new lands. In particular, as an aspect of the process by which far-reaching imperial systems extended human interaction with the environment, the Spanish Crown’s interest in profiting from its new territories encouraged the exploration of nature there.
This drive was given new impetus under Charles III, who both founded a Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid and dispatched scientific expeditions to Spanish America in order to discover plants with medicinal properties and economic value. This activity was part of a sustained Spanish effort to understand and use the natural products of the empire. Similar attempts were made by other rulers: for example, in the mid-century Danish empire, leading to a gathering of information about Iceland.
Bleichmar’s book is particularly important because it focuses on the role of visual epistemology in the approach to the natural history of the New World. As she points out, eighteenth-century natural history publications repeatedly proclaimed that vision constituted the best method for investigating nature, while images provided the preferred means of transmitting this knowledge. Given the global interests of Western natural history in this period, visual epistemology proved a collective process that involved bridging distances. Recording observations served to stabilize incarnations and provide a fixing that lent itself to taxonomy. The Spanish natural history expeditions functioned as visualization machines that captured imperial nature in effigy, producing a rich corpus of illustrations. Given the importance of pictorial depictions to the task of exploring imperial nature, naturalists went to tremendous efforts to hire, train, and supervise their artists, establishing carefully regimented work procedures. Botanists, meanwhile, promised administrators that they could identify desirable plants throughout the world and, if necessary, successfully transplant them. As Bleichmar points out, the Spanish botanists did not deliver on their economic promises, but the expeditions proved much more successful at fulfilling their two other objectives, taxonomic botany and collecting. Thus, this book links a number of master narratives about early modernity and the making of the West: namely, the artistic Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and Western global expansion. Bleichmar’s study is well illustrated and ably integrates the visual material. This is one of the best available works on the visual dimensions of the Enlightenment.
Richard Whatmore, Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Political thought at the University of Sussex, focuses on the intellectual response to great-power politics in the eighteenth century, showing how Genevan thinkers sought to advance both the vulnerable republic’s independence and the liberties they advocated—political, economic, and intellectual. This is an intellectually acute work that focuses on a small number of thinkers and the nuances of their thought. The need faced...