- Probing the Boundaries
Exploring, defining, and discussing space and time are common issues across cultures, not least because they offer means by which the latter are defined and delimited and their purposes advanced. The two important works under discussion here can be scrutinized in a number of respects, but it is particularly helpful to do so in this context. Benjamin Schmidt, Professor of History at the University of Washington and a specialist in the early modern Dutch world, sees the development of the idea of the exotic as a particular response to the wealth of material on non-Western realms that came into early modern Western Europe. The Dutch emerge as particularly significant in the commercial and entrepreneurial aspects of the perception of and trade in the exotic.
Schmidt regards early modern geography as playing a significant role in the ordering of this outside world. He suggests that two linked visions of the world were offered. According to Schmidt, the conception of the non-Western world as a disorderly space, filled with exotic contents, invited the response of a more clearly demarcated globe. Possibly so, but this analysis may be a little overly schematic and instrumental.
Moreover, the focus on the Dutch, while valuable, leads to a downplaying of the other Western European societies, and more particularly of the Catholic world and of religious sensibilities. The Jesuits, for example, had far more access to China than did the Dutch. One must also consider the excellent recent work on Portuguese and Spanish assessments of the transoceanic world. Schmidt, of course, cannot be expected to integrate all of this material and the various perspectives it represents, but he needs to rein in his tendency to place too great a weight on the undoubted significance of Dutch thought and publications during this period. Possibly a true sign of scholarship is to argue that one’s subject is not crucial.
Enlightenment historiography, at least at the high intellectual end, is ably covered in the Bourgault and Sparling volume. The chapters in part one, “Eighteenth-Century Historians,” focus on individual major figures—Gibbon, Hume, Robertson, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Herder, and Vico—and do not look at their more commonplace contemporaries. Part two, “Themes and Regional Contexts,” covers Germany, Scotland, Britain, France, “The Divinity of Human Making and Doing,” Philhellenism in France, and non-Gibbonian Roman historiography in Britain.
This is a stimulating collection, and the second part is especially rewarding as there is no shortage of recent work on the major historians. Ulrich Muhlack offers a well-grounded account of the main types of German history, including regional history and developing types of universal history. Both, of course, were also found elsewhere. The changing nature of the usable past is a key theme in David Allan’s discussion of the Scottish Enlightenment, while, displacing attention from the major writers, Noelle Gallagher sees James Ralph and William Guthrie [End Page 255] as helping to introduce forms and ideas that were important to the development of British historiography. François-Emmanuël Boucher assesses the concept of progress in French Enlightenment historiography; Sandra Luft presents Vico as secularizing the radical theological conception of the unity of divine knowing and making; Sophie Bourgault sees the merits of Sparta as a key issue of debate; and C. Akça Ataç suggests that the Roman historiography of eighteenth-century Britain was preoccupied first and foremost with demonstrating the ways of being a good monarch. As it does in other collections, the continued relevance of the Classics to history, as well as to other forms of knowledge, emerges repeatedly in this book. [End Page 256]