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February 7, 2022
4:00pm to 5:30pm
5288 Bunche Hall

“A Global Enlightenment: Western Progress and Chinese Science.”

The idea of progress frames our modern understanding of understanding itself. It offers a historical account of the development of knowledge in space and time, with the natural sciences serving as both its mark and guarantor. This account has a distinctive history all of its own. Historians have long considered it to be a signature contribution of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment. But to really understand how it came to be, we also have to pay attention to much that the European Enlightenment seemed to tell us to ignore.

In this talk, I show that ideas of progress at the end of the Enlightenment were shaped by a continuous and transformative engagement with Chinese science. In Beijing, the last survivor of the Jesuit mission, Joseph-Marie Amiot, studied qi, taiji, and yin-yang cosmology, sending authentic primary and secondary sources from China back to France. In Paris, his correspondents deployed them to tell new stories about the history of science, inventing modern esotericism in the process. When this work was reincorporated into post-Enlightenment progress theories, the past became a foreign country: both were made a window into a different way of knowing.

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