Pollock, Sheldon, Bhabha, Breckenridge — Cosmopolitanisms

Work Cited 

Pollock, Sheldon, Homi K. Bhabha, Carol A. Breckenridge, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. “Cosmopolitanisms.” In Cosmopolitanism, edited by Carol A. Breckenridge, Sheldon Pollock, Homi K. Bhabha and Dipesh Chakrabarty, 1-14. Durham, NC & London: A Millennial Quartet Book, 2002.

Cosmopolitanism as an object of study: practice and theory related in a necessarily open concept

Cosmopolitanism comprises some of today’s most challenging problems of academic analysis and political practice, especially when analysis and practice are seen… as a conjoint activity. For one thing, cosmopolitanism is not some known entity existing in the world, with a clear genealogy from the Stoics to Immanuel Kant, that simply awaits more detailed description at the hands of scholarship. We are not exactly certain what it is, and figuring out why this is so and what cosmopolitanism may be raises difficult conceptual issues. As a practice, too, cosmopolitanism is yet to come, something awaiting realization. Again, this is not because we already understand and can practice it but have not – [sic] a mode of action whose rules we are familiar with and need merely to apply. Cosmopolitanism may instead be a project whose conceptual content and pragmatic character are not only as yet unspecified but also must always escape positive and definite specification, precisely because specifying cosmopolitanism positively and definitely is an uncosmopolitan thing to do (Pollock, et al. 2002, 1)>.

The indeterminacy of how to achieve a cosmopolitan political practice feeds back into the problem of academic analysis. As a historical category, the cosmopolitan should be considered entirely open, and not pregiven or foreclosed by the definition of any particular society or discourse. Its various embodiments, including past embodiments, await discovery and explication. In this way, the components of the linked academic-political activity of cosmopolitanism become mutually reinforcing: new descriptions of cosmopolitanism as a historical phenomenon and theoretical object may suggest new practices, even [2] as better practices may offer a better understanding of the theory and history of cosmopolitanism (Pollock, et al. 2002, 1-2).

Cosmopolitanism as questioning “our time”

“Emergent discourses of cosmopolitanism are riven with deep historical ironies about what it means to live in our times. What defines our times? What times are ours?” (Pollock, et al. 2002, 4)

Transition marks the questions of our times. And “Cosmopolitanism, in its wide and wavering nets, catches something of our need to ground our sense of mutuality in conditions of mutability, and to learn to live tenaciously in terrains of historic and cultural transition” (Pollock, et al. 2002, 4).

In this interstice we are confronting old and new, past and present.

Cosmopolitanism as a critic of neoliberalism

Today’s times are marked by a “neoliberal emphasis [that] falls more on individualist aspirations and universalist norms” (Pollock, et al. 2002, 4-5). But this revenant late liberalism reveals, in a more exaggerated form, a struggle at the heart of liberal theory, where a genuine desire for equality as a universal norm is tethered to a tenacious ethnocentric provincialism in matters of cultural judgement and recognition(Pollock, et al. 2002, 5).

All the derring-do between the local and the global in the dialectic of worldly thinking should not conceal the fact that neoliberal cosmopolitan thought is founded on a conformist sense of what it means to be a “person” as an abstract unit of cultural exchange (Pollock, et al. 2002, 5).

A rights culture is essential. But “None of this should hide the fact that the fetishization of liberal individualism has, in the past few years, created a cosmopolitan imaginary signified by the icons of singular personhood” (Pollock, et al. 2002, 5). World citizenship is personalised by Gates, Mother Theresa and Soros.

Cosmopolitanism as a critic of modernity: minoritarian modernity

“A cosmopolitanism grounded in the tenebrous moment of transition is distinct from other more triumphalist notions of cosmopolitical existence” (Pollock, et al. 2002, 5). Modernity has produced several universalist claims to world citizenship: capitalism (world connected of markets), communism (united workers of the world), late liberalism (humans as bearers of rights). Each of them is framed by the idea of national sovereignty. “… Nationhood is the social form that renders modernity self-conscious… so that the cosmopolitan spirit may inhabit a world that is ethically synchronous and politically symmetrical.” (6) However it has shown the terrible asymmetries of the idea of modernity itself. (6)

The cosmopolitanism of our times does not spring from the capitalized “virtues” of Rationality, Universality, and Progress; nor is it embodied in the myth of the nation writ large in the figure of the citizen of the world. Cosmopolitans today are often the victims of modernity, failed by capitalism’s upward mobility (Pollock, et al. 2002, 6).

These people are refugees, diaspora, migrants. Too often, in the West, these people are seen as a problem. Cultural pluralism is recognising difference only as long as the general category of people is understood in the national frame.

“What we are calling minoritarian modernity (as a source of cosmopolitan thinking) is visible in the new forms of transdisciplinary knowledges that we initiate in the “multicultural” academy” (6) It is a way to “provincialise” Europe and seek cosmopolitical genealogies from the non-Christian Sanskrit world. “Transdisciplinary knowledge, in the cosmopolitan cause, is more readily a translational process of culture’s inbetweenness than a transcendent knowledge of what lies beyond difference, in some common pursuit of the universality of the human experience.” (6-7)

Cosmopolitanism and feminism


Cosmopolitanism as diversity

… The nature of late-twentieth-century nationalism, multiculturalism, and the globalization of late liberalism has created a historical context for reconsidering concepts of cosmopolitanism (7).

Most discussions of cosmopolitanism as a historical concept and activity largely predetermine the outcome by their very choice of materials. If it is already clear that cosmopolitanism begins with the Stoics, who invented the term, or with Kant, who reinvented it, then philosophical reflection on these moments is going to enable us always to find what we are looking for. Yet what if we were to try to be archivally cosmopolitan and to say, “Let’s simply look at the world across time and space and see how people have thought and acted beyond the local.” We would then encounter an extravagant array of possibilities. (10)

Doing this in this volume shows that history of cosmopolitanism can be rewritten dramatically, and that the range of practices allow for new and alternative theoretisation.

The core project of modernity is to exclude the middle: an object is either x or not-x. In this sense modernity is an attempt to separate and purify realms that have never been separated nor pure and still are not (12). This holds true in particular for individuated and unique cultures.

What the new archives, geographies, and practices of different historical cosmopolitanisms might reveal is precisely a cultural illogic for modernity that makes perfectly good non-modern sense. They might help us see that cosmopolitanism is not a circle created by culture diffused from a center, but instead, that centers are everywhere and circumferences nowhere (12).

The essays attempt to expand the repertory of archives, geographies, histories and disciplines of cosmopolitanisms. Diversity becomes the force and the project.

Beck, Ulrich — The Cosmopolitan Vision

Work Cited

Beck, Ulrich. The Cosmopolitan Vision. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.

Summary of the Introduction

The introduction opens with the opposition cosmopolitanism/patriotism. Today this old debate is over because the human condition has become cosmopolitan (2)

Cosmopolitanism is no more a controversial rational idea.

The “cosmopolitan outlook”: “Global sense, a sense of boundarylessness. An everyday, historically alert, reflexive awareness of ambivalences in a milieu of blurring differentiations and cultural contradictions. It reveals not just the ‘anguish’ but also the possibility of shaping one’s life and social relations under conditions of cultural mixture. It is simultaneously a sceptical, disillusioned, self-critical outlook.” (3)


Cosmopolitan identities: “One constructs a model of one’s own identity by dipping freely into the Lego set of globally available identities and building a progressively inclusive self-image. The result is a patchwork, quasi-cosmopolitan, but simultaneously provincial, identity whose central characteristic is its rejection of traditional relations of responsibility.” (5) Good example of the “both/and” that replaced the “either/or” of methodological nationalism.

Cosmopolitan empathy: “globalization of emotions” (5-6). Five interconnected constitutive principles of the cosmopolitan outlook:

  1. The principle of the experience of crisis in world society: “civilisational community of fate”
  2. The principle of recognition of cosmopolitan differences and the resulting cosmopolitan conflict character
  3. The principle of cosmopolitan empathy and of perspective-taking
  4. The principle of the impossibility of living in a world society and the impulsion to rebuild old walls
  5. The mélange principle: local and cosmopolitan cultures and traditions interpenetrate, intermingle.

Difference between globalization and cosmopolitanisation: globalization is one-dimensional as economic globalization. Cosmopolitanisationis multidimensional, it has irreversibly changed the historical nature of social worlds.

Three examples of cosmopolitans based on Munich, three writers from Munich write in distinct traditions of “rooted cosmopolitanism” that have both “roots” and “wings”:

  1. Thomas Mann (national cosmopolitanism): rejects in Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man the alternative nationalism versus internationalism and formulates the position of a national cosmopolitanism although he is aware of the “in-built ambivalences”. (11)
  2. Lion Feuchtwanger (German-Jewish cosmopolitanism): against the arbitrary administrative boundary one is born that determines who are friends and enemies
  3. Oskar Maria Graf (Catholic cosmopolitanism): From Tolstoy’s Christianity and Patriotism he quotes: “If men would only finally grasp that they are not children of some fatherland but of God the father!” (13) He puts “The world must become provincial. Only then will it become human.”

“What, then, does the cosmopolitan outlook signify? It does not herald the first rays of universal brotherly love among peoples, or the dawn of the world republic, or a free-floating global outlook, or compulsory xenophilia. Nor is cosmopolitanism a kind of supplement that is supposed to replace nationalism and provincialism, for the very good reason that the ideas of human rights and democracy need a national base. Rather, the cosmopolitan outlook means that, in a world of global crisis and dangers produced by civilisational and international, us and them, lose their validity and a new cosmopolitan realism becomes essential to survival.” (13-14)


Beck is building on his conception of “second modernity” and the “reflexive condition” it entails, as expounded in his famous Risk Society, and developed in the sequel World Risk Society and What is Globalization? In a nutshell, the present condition is reflexive, and as such everything is constructed including “reality.” As such there are no fixed identities, since they are socially constructed. The first modernity characterised by realism and a primary scientization with rationalism and the Enlightenment is replaced by a “reflexive scientization” based on constructivism. As such, science is equally altering the reality is attempts to describe and understand. Methodological cosmopolitanism is perceived as a better tool for describing this second modernity where globalisation — the movement produced by a world economy and increasing individualisation — have replaced the industrial society with a world risk society.

In consecutive articles and in this book, Beck elaborates on what he understands as cosmopolitanism, and develops the concept of “cosmopolitan realism.” He takes distance from “philosophical cosmopolitanism,” but in the end the project of a cosmopolitan sociology may just be the wishful thinking for normatively imposing a cosmopolitan project through “science.” For that, cosmopolitanism is opposed to nationalism, which is the basis for analysing the first modernity through the prism of the nation-state. Cosmopolitanism is also differentiated from globalization, which is a process of uniformization of the world around Western capitalistic values. Cosmopolitanism also have “enemies” in all forms of sectarian particularism, or uniformism, or violent universalism. All in all cosmopolitanism appears as “the good thing” that everyone should embrace.

I am not particularly unsympathetic to cosmopolitanism, but I think that a number of contradictions should be resolved. First and most importantly, this methodological cosmopolitanism claims to be opposed to nationalism, because different from methodological nationalism. However, it is based on the same hidden mechanisms of thought. Basically it is just replacing the nation-society on the “local” level we now know, with a global level. Everything we know in the nation-state is transferred to a global and transnational level.

Is cosmopolitanism synonymous with global then? Why not call it globalism? Well, because globalism is too close to globalization, which is a bad thing. Cosmopolitanism refers to something more positive, at least in our contemporary Western culture. This is the reason why the study of globalization could not lead to the introduction of a globalism philosophy, whereas cosmopolitanism as a philosophy seems to lead to the introduction of the study of “cosmopolitanization.”

My personal research project is actually to understand where our perception of cosmopolitanism as opposed to nationalism comes from, and why is cosmopolitanism associated with travel. My contention is that these two conceptions are not necessarily obvious to cosmopolitanism. First, the opposition between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, appeared when nationalism became a socially embedded discourse in the second half of the nineteenth century, and cosmopolitanism was thus constructed as the significant “other” to nationalism as negative and opposed to the good values of nationalism. This cosmopolitanism can hence be called a “national-cosmopolitanism,” since it is constructed inside the national paradigm. Second, the idea that cosmopolitanism is related to travel and the “citizen of the world” as a globe-trotter, is situated in eighteenth century Europe, when the “grand tour” was a must for all educated citizen or aristocrat. It was popularised by e.g. Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World in Britain, or Fougeret de Monbron’s Le cosmopolite ou le citoyen du monde in France, which famous opening sentence served as an inspiration to Byron in Childe Harold as the epigraph runs:

The universe is a kind of book of which one has only read the first page when one has only seen one’s native land. I’ve leafed through a number of them, and have found them all equally bad. This examination has not proved fruitless. I hated my country. All the impertinences of the diverse peoples among which I have lived has reconciled me to it.

Further readings:

”Toward a new critical theory with a cosmopolitan intent”, Constellations, Vol. 10, No 4, 2003.

“Cosmopolitical realism: on the distinction between cosmopolitanism in philosophy and the social sciences”, Global Networks 4, 2, 2004, pp. 131-156.

”The cosmopolitan perspective: sociology of the second age of modernity, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 51, No 1, 2000, pp. 79-105.

”The cosmopolitan society and its enemies”, Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 19(1-2), 2002, pp. 17-44.

Tagore — The Home and the World

The book is like a diamond sparkling many facettes. I retain the opposition between patriotism and cosmopolitanism – an opposition also noticed by Martha Nussbaum in her article “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism” published in the Boston Review, 1994.

“I am willing,” he said, “to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.”

A woman, Bimala, has been married to Nikhil, a notable, for nine years, when comes at home another man and friend of Nikhil, political radicalist Sandip. Bimala is soon metaphorically nicknamed “Queen Bee”, that is the queen of the national hive. She is tempted by the passion of patriotism represented by Sandip, whereas her husband represents a certain cosmopolitan wisdom, cold and dispassionate. The action mainly takes place at home, and the world outside the home is affected by “Queen”‘s wavering behaviour. She falls rapidly in intellectual and sentimental infatuation for Sandip. However, this leads her to actions she regrets. Attempting to correct the course of actions set, she sends her brother Amulya to death.

Not directly related to this novel, my personal concern is to investigate historically how this opposition came into being. In this book, patriotism is associated with sentiments, infatuation, sensuality, desire, conquering, lying, radical change, concrete and direct principles, partisanship, for the greater good of the community. Cosmopolitanism is associated with truth, reason, dispassionate reflection, abstract ideas, long-term goals, moral standards, stability, for the good of everyone. Where does this cosmopolitan understanding of patriotism come from? And inversely, where does a patriotic understanding of cosmopolitanism as betrayal of one’s homeland, etc. come from?

My contention is that these positions are discursively situated inside modernity, that they are related to nationalism, and that they appeared in the long aftermath of the French revolution.

Benhabib, Seyla — The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era

Benhabib, Seyla (2002), The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Global integration is progressing parallel to social disintegration (separatisms, international terrorism, national revival). “Yet wether [sic] we call the current movements “struggles for recognition” (Charles Taylor, Nancy Fraser, and Axel Honneth), “identity/difference movements,” [sic] (Iris Young, William Connolly), or “movements for cultural rights and multicultural citizenship” (Will Kymlicka), they signal a new political imaginary that propels cultural identity issues in the broadest sense to the forefront of political discourse” (Benhabib, 2002: viii).

Object of the book: “In this book I address the challenges posed to the theory and practice of liberal democracies by the coexistence of these various movements in the same temporal and political space – the “strange multiplicity” or our times, as James Tully has called it (1995)” (Benhabib, 2002: viii).

Argument: the responses to these challenges by contemporary political theory have been prematurely normative, taking identity as a given and not as a practice. Identity should be understood with methodological constructivism.

Benhabib proposes “a deliberative democratic model that permits maximum cultural contestation within the public sphere, in and through the institutions and associations of civil society” (Benhabib, 2002: ix). She defends a constitutional and legal universalism at the level of the polity, and defends legal pluralism and institutional power-sharing through regional and local parliaments.

She distinguishes between democratic theorist and multiculturalist theorist, preferring the former to the latter because multiculturalist theorists tend to maintain the purity and distinctiveness of cultures, which is irreconcilable with democratic and epistemological considerations. Cultures are complex human practices of signification and representation. “Most democratic theorists welcome and support struggles for recognition and identity/difference movements to the degree which they are movements for democratic inclusion, greater social and political justice, and cultural fluidity” (Benhabib, 2002: ix).

“Against attempts by other theorists to sacrifice either cultural politics or normative universalism, I argue that a modernist view of cultures as contested creations of meaning and a universalist view of deliberative democracy complement one another” (Benhabib, 2002: x-xi).

Chapter 1: On the Use and Abuse of Culture

Culture and its permutations:

“The emergence of culture as an arena of intense political controversy is one of the most puzzling aspects of our current condition” (Benhabib, 2002: 1).

Culture has become synonymous with identity. Identity politics draw the state into culture wars.

But culture derives from the Latin root colare, associated with activities of preservation, of tending to and caring for. Romans viewed agriculture as the “cultural” activity par excellence. Western modernity, capitalist commodity economy, rationalized scientific worldview, and bureaucratic administrative control have altered the root meaning. (2).

Romantic period distinguished culture/civilisation (Herder):

Civilisation = material values and practices that are shared with other peoples and do not reflect individuality.

Culture = forms of expression through which the “spirit” of one people, as distinct from others, is voiced.

Totalitarian period created debates on mass culture = superficiality, homogeneity, reproducibility, lack of durability, lack of originality. Does not educate or shape to soul, does not express the spirit of people.

The anthropological egalitarian view of culture denouncing Eurocentric cultural presumptions.

Much contemporary cultural politics today is a mixture of anthropological view of the democratic equality of culture and the Romantic Herderian emphasis on each form’s irreducible uniqueness.

Faulty epistemology of culture, whether conservative or progressive = “reductionist sociology of culture” (Benhabib, 2002: 4):

1) Cultures are clearly delineable wholes

2) Cultures are congruent with population groups and that a noncontroversial description of the culture of a group is possible

3) Even if cultures and groups do not stand in one-to-one correspondence, this is no problem for politics and policy.

Social constructivism and its normative implications

“… I defend social constructivism as a comprehensive explanation of cultural differences and against attempts in normative political theory that reify cultural groups and their struggles for recognition” (Benhabib, 2002: 5). Some multiculturalisms reject cultural essentialism, but not always for the same reasons and not clear epistemology. Benhabib: Narrative view of actions and culture à Observer/participants distinction: observer imposes unity and coherence on cultures as observed entities; participants experience through shared, albeit contested and contestable, narratives + Bhabha distinguishes pedagogical/performative aspects of national narrative, and the two have to fit (Benhabib, 2002: 9). The student of human affairs tries to explain that.

Discourse ethics and multiculturalism

Norms of universal respect and egalitarian reciprocity = guiding lines of human interaction. They must be presupposed in some form for practical discourses (11). “Discourses are procedures of recursive validation [italic in text] through which abstract norms and principles are concretized and legitimized” (Benhabib, 2002: 12). “Practical discourses, in the broadest sense, include moral discourses about universal norms of justice, ethical discourses about forms of the good life, and political-pragmatic discourses about the feasible” (Benhabib, 2002: 12). These are dialogic processes.

Bhabha distinguishes universalist/substitutionalist universalisms (13-14):

Substitutionalist universalism = Kant & Rawls à subject matter of practical discourse is restricted to those principles of a just society, to which rational agents, placed behind the epistemic strictures of a “veil of ignorance”, would agree. Provides a more determinate and concrete content of choice and deliberation. It views individuals as generalized, not as concrete others.

Interactive universalism = all moral beings are potential moral conversation partners, not just rational beings. I can become aware of the otherness of others.

Narrativity and the self

We are born in a web of narratives, or thrown into these. To be and to become a self is to insert oneself into webs of interlocution.

“My approach to the politics of multiculturalism is defined by these theoretical commitments: the discourse theory of ethics; the dialogic and narrative constitution of the self; and the view of discourses as deliberative practices that center not only on norms of action and interaction, but also on negotiating situationally shared understandings across multicultural divides” (Benhabib, 2002: 16).

A dynamic model of identity groups

Contemporary discussion of these issues is often mired in two shortcomings: processes of group formation are not treated dynamically and effort is spent on identifying what a group is; this literature ignores processes through which existing social and cultural cleavages are transformed into political mobilization (17).

The democratic theorist is concerned with the public manifestation of cultural identities in civic spaces; the multiculturalist is interested in classifying and naming groups and then developing normative theories.

Universalist deliberative democracy model (19-20):

1. “egalitarian reciprocity. Members of cultural, religious, linguistic and other minorities must not, in virtue of their membership status, be entitled to lesser degrees of civil, political, economic, and cultural rights than the majority.

2. voluntary self-ascription. In consociationalist or federative multicultural societies, an individual must not be automatically assigned to a cultural, religious, or linguistic group by virtue of his or her birth. An individual’s group membership must permit the most extensive forms of self-ascription and self-identification possible. There will be many cases when such self-identifications may be contested, but the state should not simply grant the right to define and control membership to the group at the expense of the individual; it is desirable that at some point in their adult lives individuals be asked whether they accept their continuing membership in their communities of origin.

3. freedom of exit and association. The freedom of the individual to exit the ascriptive group must be unrestricted, although exit may be accompanied by the loss of certain kinds of formal and informal privileges. However, the wish of individuals to remain group members, even while outmarrying, must not be rejected; accommodations must be found for intergroup marriages and the children of such marriages.”

O’Brien, Karen — Narratives of Enlightenment

9780521465335Introduction: cosmopolitanism, narrative, history

Cosmopolitan history:

“‘Cosmopolitanism’ is no longer a term much favoured by intellectual historians: as an idea, it seems to lack intellectual content; as a category of political thought, it has no referent. [footnote: “the last investigation of this idea was Thomas J. Schlereth]. The term is occasionally invoked by literary and cultural historians of the eighteenth century in connection with neoclassical notions of taste, the language of bourgeois political aspirations or aristocratic consumer preferences. [footnote: for example Gerald Newman The Rise of English Nationalism 1987; J. Pappas “The Revolt of the Philosophes against Aristocratic Tastes”, Culture and Revolution by Dukes and Dunkley, 1990]. I have revived the term for the purposes of this study because it simultaneously encapsulates an attitude of detachment towards national prejudice (often described as an ‘impartial’ or ‘philosophical’ attitude in other studies of these historians), and an intellectual investment in the idea of a common European civilisation” (O’Brien 1997, 2).

Voltaire understood this civilisation in cultural rather than political terms. Voltaire mounted a cosmopolitan critique of his own national history (siècle de Louis XIV, siècle de Louis XV) which he re-evaluated in his general history of the world Essai sur les moeurs.

“Cosmopolitanism is thus a point of orientation for these historians, and, frequently, an impetus to irony at the expense of the partialities and accidents which lie behind those reassuring stories which nations tell to themselves. It is also, in the work of some eighteenth-century historians, an identity-prescription for their readers: Europe, it is implied, must remain part of the structure of their self-awareness as French, British or American subjects or citizens. (3)

“A national self, it is often held, needs a negative counter-image of the ‘other’ to give it definition and psychological purchase… Yet, as I shall argue, such straightforward antinomies of patriotism and cosmopolitanism appear to dissolve when tested against the work of some of the eighteenth century’s most prestigious and popular national historians” (O’Brien 1997, 4)

18th-century historians wrote in a fundamentally literary way. “The rhetorical model, in particular, helps to explain the nature of the presence of eighteenth-century historians in their own texts both as political persuaders and orchestrators of their readers’ aesthetic responses. History was also understood in this period, in related but non-rhetorical ways, as a form of spectacle designed to awaken the imagination and stimulated the sensibility.” (7)

National contexts:

“The cosmopolitan approach to questions of national history in the writings of Voltaire, Hume, Robertson, Gibbon and Ramsay updated and put a new polemical spin on older, humanist notions of the European inheritance of a common cultural identity from the ancient Roman world (the translatio studii)” (12-13).

“My chapter on Voltaire explores the literary and ideological backgrounds to these innovations, and explains how Voltaire’s rejection of traditional dynastic and public law-based discourses of French nationality opened the way for a new critical and cosmopolitan reading of French and, later, global history according to aesthetic rather than political norms.” (13)

voltaire1Voltaire’s neoclassical poetics of history

“As meta-historical investigations of the cognitive problems of retelling the past, they contribute something to contemporary French philosophical debate… It was the thematic concerns of Voltaire’s histories, which centred upon the evolution and existence of a unique, common European civilisation, that particularly attracted an international readership.” (22)

At the time, history was depreciated by sceptics or Pyrrhonians rejecting Descartes’ rationalist solutions.

“Voltaire’s solution to the poverty of national history and to the philosophical depreciation of history was… to effect a closer rapprochement between history and literature” (26) “By arranging his histories within identifiable literary structures…, Voltaire hoped to annex similar prestige to history. Voltaire also imported from neoclassical theory the notion of ‘vraisemblance’ which encapsulated the moral and aesthetic requirement that literature should treat only of the natural and probable, and never of the fantastic, trivial or debased.” (26) “Voltaire also embraced the ethical function performed by neoclassical literature; like poetry, history must assert civilised standards, and harmonise moral, social and aesthetic values.”

The narrative of Europe

The Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations“explores the contradictory relationship between the arts, the philosophical spirit, and the evolution of civilisation in Europe. Moreover, it attempts to do so in ways which will erode national partialities… Despite its declared ambition to supply an overview of the development of civilisation, the Essai is essentially an agglomeration of a number of national histories held together by a (sometimes fragile) narrative thread… The unity of these national histories, Voltaire explains in the summary ‘Résumé de toute cette histoire’ (1756), is to be found, not at the level of master narrative, but in the pre-cognitive drive to civilisation inherent in all men and women:

Au milieu de ces saccagements et de ces destructions que nous observons dans l’espace de neuf cent années, nous voyons un amour de l’ordre qui anime en secret le genre humain, et qui a prévenu sa ruine totale. C’est un des ressorts de la nature, qui reprend toujours sa force : c’est lui qui a formé le code des nations. (II, 808: 1756, XVI, 149)

Man’s creative love of order, which has affinities with the historian’s own artistic quest for form in variety, fashions and sustains the delicate and slow process of civilisation: ‘Il est aisé de … conclure … avec quelle lenteur la raison humaine se forme’ (II, 87: 1756, XII, 315).” (46)

“Avec quelle lenteur, avec quelle difficulté le genre humain se civilise, et la société se perfectionne !” (II, 724 : 1756, XIV, 231) 46)

« L’empire de la coutume est bien plus vaste que celui de la nature ; il s’étend sur les mœurs, sur tous les usages ; il répand la variété sur la scène de l’univers : la nature y répand l’unité ; elle établit partout un petit nombre de principes invariables : ainsi le fonds est partout le même, et la culture produit des fruits divers. (1756, II, 810) (47)

In Voltaire’s account, an Enlightenment narrrative on the rise of Europe, the Church is playing a role in the civilising process “on sentait qu’elle … était faite pour donner des leçons aux autres”) and an intermediate power in the states where it operates : « un frein qui retienne les souverains » (I, 492, 529 : 1756, XI, 263) (48-49)

A large part is left to non-Western accounts, particularly China, and Japan.

“Nos peuples occidentaux ont fait éclater dans toutes ces découvertes une grande supériorité d’esprit et de courage sur les notions orientales… Mais la nature leur avait donné sur nous un avantage qui balance tous les nôtres : c’est qu’elles n’avaient nul besoin de nous, et que nous avions besoin d’elles. (II, 325 : 1756, XIII, 207)”

The East is essential to the self-understanding of the West.


“As he retouched the Essai, Voltaire became more preoccupied with the ironies of causality in history, and less interested in its (ultimately relatively civilised) outcome. Narrative connectives are traded for a satirical sense of necessity. The rudimentary causal coherence, which Voltaire originally found in the history of the world, starts to look like a Panglossian fantasy. Voltaire now sees only an unpredictable game of consequences (the word he uses to convey this is ‘enchaînement’). François I’s death of the new world disease, syphilis, is presented, in 1761, as an example of this ironically treacherous ‘enchaînement’:

C’est ainsi que les évènements son enchaînés: un pilote génois donne un univers à l’Espagne ; la nature a mis dans les îles de ces climats lointains un poison qui infecte les sources de la vie ; et il faut qu’un roi de France en périsse. (II, 201)

The term ‘enchaînement’ conveys an idea of human helplessness in the face of meaningless fatality : ‘il paraît un enchaînement fatal des causes qui entrainent les hommes comme les vents poussent les sables et les flots’ (II, 784: 1756, XIV, 319). The use of the term ‘enchaînement’ also carries with it an indirect attack on Catholic providential history of the kind most famously exemplified by Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681). Bossuet uses the term ‘enchaînement’ to denote the divine order in which God simulates logical cause-effect relationships in order to give man a sense of the moral intelligibility of the world. Or as Bossuet phrases it:

Ce mesme Dieu qui a fait l’enchaisnement de l’Univers … a voulu aussi que le cours des choses humaines eust sa suite et ses proportions.

Voltaire’s use of the word ‘enchainement’ suggests a parodic reworking of theocentric universal history. Bossuet’s God, by acting directly upon human passions, produces a historical order identical to the providential order, whereas Voltaire’s ‘enchaînement’ reveals a moral sequence discontinuous with or in ironic relation to the historical one.” (52-53).

Avenel’s biography of Anacharsis Cloots

Avenel, Georges (1865), Anacharsis Cloots: L’orateur du genre humain, Paris : Librairie internationale.

cloots01This is one of the very first biography existing on this not so well-known history character of the French Revolution, Anacharsis Cloots. The merit of this book is its weakness: the tone in which it is written. The author is writing in a romantic apologetic tone, which hampers a reflective and critical appraisal of Cloot’s writings and actions. On the other hand, it blows life into a colourful character with an original and synthesising thought. And what a life! Until it was cut short by the revolutionary guillotine, his Prussian origins causing him suspicions of espionage and conspiracy against the Revolution.

Summary abstracts:

Cloots, away from France for some time, came back in 1789 and arrived in Paris 4 August. He saw the national assembly and was taken by enthusiasm. He saw in it the real ecumenical assembly, presided by common sense that will eliminate all the canons of the so-called universal conciliabules (Avenel, 1865: 131).

He claimed that the Assembly should be in Paris, and not in Versailles, “the glory of the eighteenth century is to have created the city” (Avenel, 1865: 137). Other were opposed because the country would not accept Parisian law. He answered “you will all accept it, you, France, and the Universe. Paris is the capital-city of the globe.” (Avenel, 1865: 138)

22 May 1790 a decree by the Assembly gave the nation the right to declare war and peace. Cloots acclaimed this decree because it was signifying the end of the secrecy of alliances in cabinets, of Westphalian treaties and this kind of diplomacy (Avenel, 1865: 175). Paradoxically (for our contemporary eyes) it is the idea of the nation that gave him the idea of the ideal of solidarity of people: if people of the French provinces could unite to form a French nation, calling themselves “brothers,” why not the peoples of the world?

The Parisian commune decreed 5 June 1790 to ask the Assembly for a Parisian federation of France on the Bastille Day 14 July 1790. This event made Cloots dream of a Parisian federation not only of all France but of the whole universe. He wanted to make the same demand but of humankind, including refugees of all countries who had been proscribed from the city (Avenel, 1865: 175-176).

This is what he did, quite famously, on 19 June, Day of the anniversary of the “serment du Jeu de Paume,” “Embassy of humankind,” when he entered the Assembly, or the “ecumenical council of reason”, with a delegation representing humankind, and him being its orator (Avenel, 1865: 177). They were 36 representing “humanity”: Englishmen, Prussians, Sicilians, Dutchmen, Russians, Poles, Germans, Swedes, Italians, Spaniards, peoples from some of the French provinces, Indians, Arabs and Chadians.

He declared that the party on Bastille Day will not only be the one of Frenchmen but also the one of Humankind. The wakening of the French people has been heard away and has awakened other peoples from a long slavery. The wisdom of the decrees voted by the children of France give troubles to despots and hope for nations. Sovereignty resides in the people, but the people is everywhere under the control of despots who consider themselves sovereigns. (Avenel, 1865: 183-184).

Baron Menou answered to him that he proved that all other nations equally own the progress one nation makes in philosophy and the knowledge of human rights. Therefore, the civic national party shall include any free man who wants to join.

From then on is the nickname “Orator of humankind”. Cloots explains that an orator of humankind is “a man penetrated by love for human dignity;  an orator with a scorching love for freedom and who inflame with horror against tyrants; it is a man who, after having received the sanction of his universal apostolate inside the constituting body of the universe, only devotes himself to the free defence of all the million slaves…” He will exile himself from his native land to stay in the capital of independence. His mission will only come to an end when oppressors of the humankind will be overthrown. (Avenel, 1865: 188-189)

He changed his first name Jean-Baptiste because of its Christian origin into Anacharsis, the name of a young Greek philosopher, originally a Scythe who travelled from North to educate himself in Attic and Ionia. He also Frenchifyed his surname as a tribute to France, the country in which freedom was born and from where it should be spread to the world.

Bélissa, Marc: Les patriotes européens et l’ordre républicain cosmopolitique 1795-1802

9782915596106fsBélissa analyses the conquests made by the new French Republic in Italy (an IV-V), Switzerland (an VI-VII), Holland (an III), and Belgium (an III-IV). These countries are called “sister-Republics.” Patriots in these “sister-Republics” are European militants and support the French Republic, at first, in its fight against monarchical Europe (91).
These patriots have conscious to be part of a “republican order” of free peoples, thought of as the first “truly European political, social and cultural project” (92). This project must realise the cosmopolitan imperative of the revolution: a peaceful order based on the rights of nations against tyranny (92).
In the first days of conquests, numerous voices advise to behave as occupant armies and seize everything possible (93). To justify France’s domination over Belgium and Holland, a brutal vision of law is expressed: the peoples are incapable of revolutionising themselves; they have no autonomy or Enlightenment (93). The Republic offers them rational administration and the end of archaic and feudal institutions; order and progress justifying domination (93). Moreover, France cannot let nations escape her orbit and risk an ingratitude characteristic to all peoples (93). “… the independence of the peoples must always be under control to stay compatible with the prosperity and power of the French Republic” (94).

“Republicanism is thus conceived not as an ethical and cosmopolitan model but as an institutional administrative structure and universalisable under the direction of the French power” (94).

The Directoire is then putting itself in a paradoxical situation of putting these republics in the impossibility to defend the European order by refusing local free and revolutionary republicanism (94).
Still the rhetoric of the liberation of peoples does not disappear under the Directoire and all republicans consider that France must aid to the propagation of the principles of property and liberty (95). But to free the peoples does not necessarily mean to respect the free expression of their sovereignty (95).
France wants to propagate the principles of the revolution, but does not want to have revolutions. It is a republican order that she wants to encourage, a “Republic without revolution” (96). In order to achieve this objective, France treat the republics as “executives” and not “partners”, and does not hesitate to make alliances with princes and kings against the republics to achieve this order (97).
The project for a republican order under the Directoire is thus not a federation as the enlightened philosophers conceived, but an hegemony, dominating without any institutional compensation (97).
Bonaparte’s coup-d’Etat was at first well received by the republics, as putting an end to the instrumentalisation achieved by the Directoire. However, soon it will be obvious that the revolution and France are no longer a universalist reference for humanity (105).


Bélissa, Marc (2005) “Les patriotes européens et l’ordre républicain cosmopolitique 1795-1802.” In Cosmopolitismes, patriotismes: Europe et Amériques 1773-1802, edited by Marc Bélissa and Bernard Cottret, 91-107. Rennes: Les Perséides.

Dédéyan: le cosmopolitisme européen sous la révolution et l’empire

Dédéyan, Charles (1976) Le cosmopolitisme européen sous la Révolution et l’Empire. 2 vols. Paris: Société d’édition d’enseignement supérieur.

sabine_womenOne of the rare books of intellectual history about cosmopolitanism in Europe. Written in French, it is focusing on the periods immediately after the Enlightenment: the French Revolution and the first Empire under Napoléon Bonaparte. It is interesting and worth reading for students of cosmopolitanism in two respects. First, it acknowledges the apparition of the word ‘cosmopolitanism’ in French in 1863. The date is very interesting because it is probably not coincidental. My contention is that cosmopolitanism appeared as a conscious idea described by a word only because nationalism became socially embedded. Nationalism constructed an opposite — cosmopolitanism — even though nationalism and cosmopolitanism were originally one and the same before and during the revolution. Second, it is a good introduction to several major European authors and their thought in cosmopolitan terms.

However, the books starts with no definition of ‘cosmopolitanism’ and accepts the historically given concept of opposition to nationalism.

Here follows a summary of some of the main elements concerning cosmopolitanism in France.

Guillaume Postel dans sa République des Turcs a employé pour la première fois en 1560 le mot cosmopolite, que Robert Estienne a introduit sous la forme cosmopolitain. Le mot cosmopolitisme n’existe que depuis 1863. Cependant, on n’a pas attendu cette date pour faire acte de cosmopolitisme : ne pas s’enfermer dans son pays, ne pas limiter ses amitiés et inimitiés à ses compatriotes (Erasme, Montaigne, Sir Philip Sidney, au XVIe, Descartes, Grotius, Saint-Evremond ou Pierre Bayle au XVIIe). (3)

C’est au 18eme siècle que ce cosmopolitanisme va devenir plus général et plus littéraire par la vie des salons et les voyages des gens du monde. Mais le mouvement date du XVIIe. (4)

La France aide à l’épanouissement du cosmopolitisme en tournant ses regards vers l’étranger, avec son prestige européen, et grâce à sa langue universellement répandue. Beaucoup d’œuvres étrangères se propagent en Europe grâce à leurs traductions françaises. (4-5) La France et Paris en particulier deviennent le centre de la vie culturelle. (5-13)

Les cosmopolites marquants


Cosmopolite littéraire de l’ancien régime.


rivarol_antoine1Discours sur l’Universalité de la Langue française : « Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français ». Un auteur étranger traduit en français a sa pensée clarifiée et expliquée avec précision. Le français est fait pour le commerce des idées et la conversation. Il a « la probité de son génie ». Par son caractère rationnel, social, sa précision, le français n’est pas seulement national, il a une vocation cosmopolite et humaine. (280)

Il approfondira ses idées dans le Discours préliminaire et le Prospectus.

Il laisse après sa mort un opuscule inédit : Souveraineté du peuple.


Les idées philosophiques et politiques

Les idées philosophiques :

1. Le kantisme

Face à l’ancienne philosophie se dresse le criticisme.

2. L’éclectisme

Les milieux cosmopolites ont une sorte d’éclectisme

3. La pensée maistrienne

Joseph de Maistre veut l’union de la science et de la foi.

« … sous l’influence des occultistes, des illuminés, des théosophes de la fin du XVIIIe siècle, comme sous l’influence de philosophies plus constructives, le cosmopolitisme fait une place importante aux formes irrationnelles de la pensée, sans que les divergences cessent d’être profondes, d’un centre à l’autre, d’un homme à l’autre. » (609).

Les idées politiques

1. Diversité des idées politiques

En littérature deux groupes de cosmopolites se sont distincts : les pro et les anti. On se brouille quand à l’attitude à avoir face à la révolution : restauration ou non.

Portalis dans une lettre du 23 septembre 1799 : « Il ne s’agit pas uniquement de rétablir, il faut régénérer, il faut s’occuper des hommes encore plus que des choses et créer pour ainsi dire un nouveau peuple. » (610)

Montlosier : Vues sommaires sur les moyens de paix pour la France, pour l’Europe, pour les émigrés.

Dédéyan discusses primarily the opposition between monarchists and constituants.

Bertrand de Molleville dans ses Mémoires secrets témoigne de sa méfiance à l’égard des institutions anglaises : « les climats d’Angleterre et de France, les mœurs et le caractère des deux nations sont absolument opposés, et le bon sens indique que les lois doivent, pour être bonnes, s’adapter à ces nuances. » (611)

2. Les idées de Bonald

louis_de_bonaldRéfute Montesquieu et Rousseau en s’inspirant de Leibnitz. 1796 : Théorie du pouvoir.

Contre Montesquieu : C’est du mot constitution qu’il part et pour lui le mot constitution est « ce qui fait la substance d’un corps ». « L’homme ne peut donc pas plus donner une constitution à la société religieuse ou politique qu’il ne peut donner la pesanteur aux corps, ou l’étendue à la matière. » (612-13) Libre à Montesquieu de faire des inventaires et de voir les différences : c’est une conception « végétale ».

3. L’originalité de Mounier

jean-joseph_mounier1795 Adolphe ou principes élémentaires de politique et résultats de la plus cruelle des expériences : combat les fausses maximes du contrat social.

Distinction entre sauvages et civilisés, mais l’état de barbarie peut toujours revenir. (614-615).

Propriété individuelle est préconisé, mais les riches auront un devoir envers les pauvres.

Il limite la souveraineté du peuple dans son origine : « Lorsqu’on affirme que la souveraineté dans son origine émane du consentement du peuple, on exprime une vérité de la plus grande évidence, mais d’une manière qui la rend susceptible d’une fausse interprétation. Au lieu de parler du consentement du peuple, il serait plus exact de parler de celui des premiers facteurs du corps social. Ils ne pouvaient être qu’un petit nombre puisque sans avoir encore des chefs, ils étaient parvenus à s’entendre et à partager la même résolution. » (615)

La souveraineté ainsi limitée ne peut être maintenue que dans ces limites. Il y a des hommes qui sont en dehors du suffrage et il ne faut pas y faire accéder une « multitude aveugle ». De là vient l’idée du suffrage censitaire au XIXe siècle. (615)

L’égalité entre hommes n’existe pas, elle ne peut être entière et parfaite que pour les droits de sécurité et de sûreté.

Schlereth: The Cosmopolitan Ideal in Enlightenment Thought

Schlereth, Thomas (1977) The Cosmopolitan Ideal in Enlightenment Thought: Its Form and Function in the Ideas of Franklin, Hume, and Voltaire, 1694-1790. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Thomas J. Schlereth studied how the cosmopolitan ideal had a “noticeable impact on Enlightenment intellectual life throughout the trans-Atlantic community”.[1] But Schlereth does not advance that cosmopolitanism was responsible for most of the movements of the eighteenth century. However, one can only but assume that, given the limit of his essay (based only on the works of Franklin, Hume, and Voltaire), he could not go further in affirming the impact of cosmopolitanism on a larger scale. (Schlereth 1977)

According to him, the concept of eighteenth century cosmopolitanism could be delimitated as possessing the following characteristics: “an attitude of mind that attempted to transcend chauvinistic national loyalties or parochial prejudices in its intellectual interests and pursuits”[2]; “… an aspiration of the elite intellectual class that Voltaire called the world’s petite [sic: petit] troupeau des philosophes[3]; “… more symbolic and theoretical than actual and practical”[4]; “… a psychological construct that prompted many philosophes to replace or to modify their attachment to their geographical region or sphere of activity with a more expansive, albeit abstract, attitude toward the whole world.”[5]

I think that starting a study with a definition of the subject to investigate is an analytic error to avoid. The term cosmopolitanism should not be delimitated in advance when looking at the Enlightenment period, because, otherwise, one runs the risk to look with present glasses on the past and interpret it anachronistically. But it has to be given to his credit that Schlereth writes that he tried to be critical of the cosmopolitanism he found in Voltaire, Hume and Franklin. And he evaluates where he found their account inconsistent, compromised or uncosmopolitan. Schlereth’s history, therefore, must be taken as a personal essay about intellectual history, a bit in the line of Todorov’s Nous et les autres.

“In the essay that follows, I argue that certain intellectual premises (for example, the Newtonian cosmology or the natural-rights philosophy), certain psychological dispositions (perhaps a self-conscious individualism or a strong cultural awareness), and certain historical realities (for instance, the development of world commerce or the exploration of the Western Hemisphere) combined in conditioning the Enlightenment philosophe in the direction of the cosmopolitan ideal. At the same time, the ideal also had since antiquity a historical life of its own which enabled the philosophe, who was aware of the classics and the intellectual climate of the eighteenth century, to confront social, economic, and political realities of that period in cosmopolitan terms.”[6]

Schlereth’s thesis of the blooming of cosmopolitanism is combining material and ideational elements, a certain discourse related to Newton and natural-right, social and economic structures with the development of world commerce and new explorations, and individual methodology with the idea of thinkers being responsible of changes.

Schlereth identifies the cosmopolites of the Enlightenment as the third generation of cosmopolites, the first being the Ancients (Greeks and Romans), and the second being the moderns of the Renaissance (Bacon, Locke, Newton, Bayle, and Leibnitz).[7] This third generation was influenced by the two first generations. “But the Enlightenment cosmopolites developed an even wider definition of the ideal and extended its appeal to a broader, although still elite, membership. Antiquity’s cosmopolites made their greatest contributions to the ideal in formulating its political and philosophical tenets; the Renaissance and early modern cosmopolites pursued its additional religious and social ramifications—especially when they confronted religious pluralism or became conscious of themselves as an emerging intellectual class. Enlightenment cosmopolites assimilated these earlier characteristics of the ideal while grappling with its further implications in science and economics. Employing this legacy of past expressions of cosmopolitanism as points of reference, inspiration, and departure, the Enlightenment philosophes formulated a distinctive mental attitude that can be viewed as one of the common denominators underlying the variety of eighteenth-century thought.”[8]

The sociology of an International class:

“The typical eighteenth-century philosophe aspired to be a cosmopolite, and in turn, the cosmopolite was, by the Enlightenment’s own presumptuous definition, pictured as a typical eighteenth-century philosophe.”[9]


The philosophes were all, to a certain degree, educated with classical Greek and Roman lettres. Schlereth suggests that the reason why they turned to the classics is that they were looking for non religious thinking about contemporary issues.

Paris as the capital of the Enlightenment and cosmopolitanism.

Many philosophes of the Enlighenment regarded Paris as the capital of cosmopolitanism and of Enlightenment.[10]

The diffusion of ideas:

Salons were the place where trans-class intellectual exchanges were possible.

Diners organised by aristocrats were the more virile equivalent of the salons organised mostly by erudite women.

Journals and publications were the means to diffuse the philosophes’ ideas. Nouvelles de la république des lettres was founded by Pierre Bayle in 1684, Nouvelles de la république des lettres et des arts was founded by Pahin de Champlain de la Blancherie, and Journal étranger, edited by Prévost, Fréron and Suard, had as its editorial policy to combine “the genius of each nation with those of all the others”.[11]


Philosophes were some kind of a “band of brothers”. They were extensively exchanging ideas between each others through correspondence. The ideal of the world citizen was realised by the unique class formed by the philosophes, or what the contemporary word “intellectual” could translate in our present discourse. They were neither from the nobility nor the bourgeoisie. They considered themselves as forming a class of their own.[12]

Economic and political theory of World order:

However, Hume and Voltaire considered the merchants to be cosmopolites.[13] The idea of a commercial society and economic interdependence is linked with the idea of a more civilized world and widening tolerance.

“The idealization of the cosmopolitan merchants can be traced to the middle-class origins of many philosophes. For while they appealed to economic principles and programs that they considered universal in scope, they did so quite naturally in terms of the specific interests of the social group that they considered to be the most progressive class of their time, that is, the emerging bourgeoisie or haute bourgeoisie from which so many of them originated.”[14]

Hume and Voltaire equated economic individualism with the development of political liberty. Probably, they are at the origin of the dogma in many international organisations and political thinking, that, in order to encourage democracy and political liberty in developing countries, neo-liberalist economics should be implemented. But they professed an absolute laissez-faire and laissez-passer, i.e. no only goods and capitals are free to travel, but also labour. Migration was seen as a right of Man.

“The notion of international commerce as a promoter of world civilization and peace became a consistent, if at times naïve, premise of Enlightenment cosmopolitan thought.”[15]

“The philosophes’ international outlook in economics influenced their attitude toward political theory, since they viewed both disciplines as interrelated branches of moral philosophy.”[16] The philosophes were not anti-national, but they had a clear idea of what constituted an appropriate and legitimate allegiance to one’s nation-state.

According to Schlereth, the majority of Enlightenment philosophes “made the usual Lockean distinction between society and government in that they considered society as a natural social unit and government as only a man-made social arrangement.” All political philosophies start with the individual.


Schlereth’s eighteenth-century cosmopolitanism is delineated as possessing the following characteristics: ‘an attitude of mind that attempted to transcend chauvinistic national loyalties or parochial prejudices in its intellectual interests and pursuits’ (1977, xi); ‘… an aspiration of the elite intellectual class that Voltaire called the world’s petite [sic: petit] troupeau des philosophes. This definition assumes and defines cosmopolitanism as elitist, beyond the national, and abstract. The problem is that the historian must then look for the national at a period when it did not yet exist, and oppose normatively a supposedly ‘abstract’ and ‘elitist’ cosmopolitanism to what seems to be a ‘concrete’ and ‘popular’ nationalism. What is wrong in this picture is that, not only did the ‘national’ not yet exist, but that, in eighteenth-century political thought, what is today identified as ‘national’ was just as abstract and elitist as cosmopolitanism is imagined to be. Not only that, it also referred to a unifying political community — beyond the local under the natural law conception of freedom and equality among men. This sounds almost identical to the very same working definition provided of cosmopolitanism. However, based on this contemporary conception of cosmopolitanism as opposed to nationalism, one must assume that the latter was different from the former. Why is that so? Moreover, important actors of the French revolution actually argued and acted in very cosmopolitan terms; and chiefly the 1789 Declaration of the rights of man and the citizen represents an important piece of practical cosmopolitics in recognising the freedom and equality of the whole humankind. This is far from a ‘more symbolic and theoretical than actual and practical’ conception.

Behind all this lies a need for a re-conceptualisation of the relationship between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, especially in regard to the French revolution. This method of ontological definition is problematic for both the historian and the philosopher. For the historian, there is a risk of applying an anachronistic vision of cosmopolitanism, based on a contemporary approach of what it is a vision biased by nationalism as argued supra and ignoring what it has been. For the philosopher, it is ruining future ontological constructions by reproducing again and again the same ‘knowledge’ of what cosmopolitanism is and has been.

A possible way out of this ontology/epistemology conundrum is to make a Foucaultian ‘history of the present’ by means of a genealogy of this battle between discourses.

[1] Schlereth, 1977: xi.

[2] Ibid.: xi.

[3] Ibid.: xii.

[4] Ibid.: xii.

[5] Ibid.: xiii.

[6] Ibid.: xiv.

[7] Ibid.: xxiv-xxv.

[8] Ibid.: xxv.

[9] Ibid.: 1.

[10] Ibid.: 6

[11] Ibid.: 15-16

[12] Ibid.: 13.

[13] Ibid.: 101.

[14] Ibid.: 102.

[15] Ibid.: 103.

[16] Ibidem.

Todorov: La conquête de l’Amérique, La question de l’autre

La conquête de l'Amérique
Todorov: La conquête de l'Amérique

Todorov, Tzvetan. La conquête de l’Amérique : la question de l’autre. Paris: Seuil, 1982.

In this book, Tzvetan Todorov, renowned Franco-Bulgarian writer and director of research at the Centre National de Recherches (CNRS) in Paris, investigates the Spanish conquest of Central America (the Caribbean and Mexico) during the sixteenth century. His research topic is the perception of the ‘Indians’ by the Spaniards. What Todorov wants to investigate is ‘how to behave towards the other?’ The Spanish conquest, which is responsible of the death of 40-70 million people, is a good example of behaviour in front of otherness, since 1492 marks the date ‘our’ medieval minds enter modernity through the discovery of a new world. How did Europeans behave towards people who may have seemed to be from a different planet? Todorov sketches different types of behaviour, based on historical actors of the conquest.

Todorov sums up his study of various historical writings with his own ‘Typologies of relationships with others’, which constitutes an axis of research of the different levels on which behaviours towards otherness is based:
1. Axiologic plan: value judgement (good/bad, love/hate).
2. Praxeologic plan: closeness or foreignness (identification/ignorance, assimilation/rejection)
3. Epistemic plan: acknowledgement or indifference.

On these levels, Todorov studied the following historical figures:

Cristobal Colon
Cristobal Colón

Colombus: no identification, no knowledge, negative attitude. Christopher Colombus was primarily moved by his fanatic religious faith. He did not want to discover a new route to the Indies for his own glory, for gold, nor for the Queen of Spain. What motivated him was the celebration of God’s glory. Indians were just as the lands newly discovered, a blank sheet ready to be written upon by the Spaniards for their own benefit. He painted an idyllic portrait of the Indians upon his arrival, based on his own fantasies more than reality: beautiful people in the inside on the outside, good-hearted and kind, generous and indifferent to money, but cowards and fragile — easy to conquer. He wants Indians to be like him, and in that he is a naive assimilationist. His project is to Christianise the Indians, and in that he sees things the way he pleases by observing that the Indians already bare Christian characteristics. In doing so, Colombus becomes a pro-slaver and from the principle of Christian equality he unconsciously considers Indians to be inferior in order to be exploited materially and colonised spiritually. The propagation of faith and the submission to slavery are two sides of the same coin for Colombus. Even outside this project, Indians are considered as innate objects for his own ‘ethnological’ studies: he denies them to possess individual will. For Todorov thus, ‘Colombus discovered America, not the Americans’ (p. 54).

Bartolome de las Casas
Bartolome de las Casas

Las Casas: no knowledge, love for ‘Indians.’ Las Casas was touched by the massacres committed towards the ‘Indians’ and decided to attempt at protecting them. He did not however developed a great knowledge of them nor did he learn their language. He even attempted to justify the human sacrifices they were committing through arguing about ‘natural reason’ and that it is their way to adore God, by giving the greatest sacrifice of all: human life. According to Las Casas, thus there is a universal love of God, but all religious expressions of this love are culturally specific, and as such relative. As a consequence, Christianity is not the only nor the best way to God. Barbarism is a relative notion as well. One is always a barbarian to others, and vice versa as long as one does not recognise the language being spoken. Whereas for some the Christian principle of the equality of men ensues the assimilation of ‘Indians’ because they are similar to us, Las Casas deduces the perspectivism of it. Las Casas’ political solution to the ‘Indians’ is to maintain previous states with their Kings and governors, with catholic preaches but without the military, and if the Kings express this wish, to establish a sort of federation presided by the King of Spain. They must be given their original freedom back and be reinstated in their sovereignty.

Vasco de Quiroga
Vasco de Quiroga

Vasco de Quirioga: no knowledge of ‘Indians’ and no identification, but a positive attitude. For him, Spaniards are a declining culture, whereas Indians constitute a rising civilisation in history. However, they are not perfect and must be worked upon. Instead of asking kings, Vasco de Quirioga acts directly upon Indians, and is inspired in this by Thomas Moore’s Utopia. He organised two utopian villages around Mexico.  He is an assimilationist.

Gonzalo Guerrero
Gonzalo Guerrero

Gonzalo Guerrero: After a shipwreck, he was the one of the survivors who reached the Mexican shores in 1511. He was taken by the Indians and sold as a slave. He learned the language and managed to acquire a high social status by teaching war, and winning quite a few of them. He married a woman from the nobility and painted himself in the manner of the Indians, let his hair grow and pierced his ears. Having established his life with the Indians, he transformed himself into a complete identification. He even fought against the Spaniards during which battle he lost his life.

Hernán Cortés

Cortés: great knowledge, negative attitude. Cortés wants primarily to understand, and in that he differs from other conquistadores in that he has a historical and political consciousness of his actions. In that, his first difficulty is to find an interpreter. During one conquest, a woman is given to the Spaniards, named Malintzin — the frequent name given being La Malinche. Her talent for languages places her as interpreter to Cortés, and also her lover from whom he will have a kid, one of the first mixed child. He will use all the information gathered to his advantage in conquering the Indians. He will have a deep understanding of the Indians’ use of signs and exploit them to his advantage in order to inspire fear and appear as a hero. The Indians would even ask Cortés to act on their favour to fight their own enemies. Cortés’ principal preoccupation is what the Indians will interpret from his actions and speeches. The message he wants to give is strategically planned — it is an information warfare, one could say. He wants to control all details of communication, and even regarding the image of his army. Indian tells confirms the success of Cortés’ communication warfare: the Aztec King, Moctezuma, believed that Cortés was the return of Quetzalcoatl to take his empire. This communication warfare will extend beyond Cortés in the imposition by the Spaniards of Nahuatl as the official Mexican language at first, and then the Hispanic of the country through the study of local languages, and the teaching of Spanish. The first Grammar book of a European language would be produce at that time: Spanish grammar by Antonio de Nebrija who wrote in his introduction: ‘… siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio…’

La Malinche
La Malinche

La Malinche: complete identification with the Spaniards and assimilation to their culture. Worked as a translator to Cortés and a bridge between the two cultures. As such she acquired a high status in the Indian collective mind. She exemplifies mixture, melting rather than purity. She studies Spanish culture in order to also better understand her own — even if it is to destroy it. She became essential to Cortés’ business, and also acquired a particular place in Indians’ myths, which is testified by all the cartoons drawn of her in a central place in between Indians and Spaniards.

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca

Cabeza de Vaca: This conquistador was forced to live with the Indians after a shipwreck. In order to survive he practised two professions: trade, and shaman or doctor. In doing so he imitates the local healers, and adds some catholic prayers. He adopts their trades, customs, clothing, but never forgets his identity. As soon as he found his way, he took the first ship back to Spain, and ‘civilisation.’ He helds the Indians with great esteem and does not want to do them harm. The evangelisation must be conducted without violence. He acquires a precise knowledge of their way of life, in order to act upon them for their conversion, and also to pass this knowledge to other conquistadors who will use it to sumbit them. His identification is thus deep but without implication. He wrote Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan a great historical monument on Mayas’ past, but he also decided the autodafe of all Mayan books. There is however no contradiction as he was an assimilationist in Yucatan and burned books, and wrote this historical book in Spain as a scholar in order to defend himself of his acts in a court of law.

Durán Codex
Durán Codex

Durán: Also known as the ‘Durán Codex,’ The History of the Indies of New Spain was published c. 1581. Durán also wrote Book of the Gods and Rites (1574-1576), and Ancient Calendar, (c. 1579). He gathered a great and deep knowledge of the Indians for the purpose of imposing Catholic religion and erase all traces of pagan rites. ‘Know thy enemy’ seems to be his motto. In this quest he is radical in the elimination of all idolatry: confession of the dreams, prevention of religious syncretism, destruction of all related monuments. All ancient customs must disappear. However, Durán tries to explain the Mexican realities to the Europeans through analogies and comparisons. Some Mexican religious customs are compared to the Christian ones. In Durán’s mind this comparison serves to argue that the Indians are indeed Christians. The Aztec are thus a lost tribe of Israel. So this religious syncretism that he tries so hard to eradicate, he practices it with his gaze upon the Indians. He shares the Indian way of life in order to understand them, he understands both cultures, and as such, his work is enlightening. Throughout his books he clearly separates the Aztec point of view from his own, but at some point he is losing this separation and claims the point of view of the historian telling the tale of heroes and the glory of Mexico. In other words, he loses these two identities (Spanish and Aztec) and creates the very first new Mexican identity. With La Malinche he is one of the first Mexicans.


Sahagun: Franciscan ‘linguist’, not part of the aristocracy or high ranked religious — who dispised having to lower themselves to learning Indian culture and language, so he learned the language — Nahuatl — and learned to live together with the ‘indians.’ He was professor of Latin grammar in the Franciscan college of Tlatelolco dedicated to forming the Mexican elite from the former nobility. In order to propagate better Christianism he projected to write the history of the ancient Mexican religion. His Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España would occupy him for forty years. However, his project was also dedicated to develop knowledge of and preserve the Nahuatl culture. In order to do so, he chose to report faithfully the testimonies he collected with a translation, instead of replacing them by it.This translation constitutes more an interpretation
from the original text. His interventions in the text are not only rare, but clearly separated from the rest. They are characterised by an intention to avoid moral judgements and attempt to explain from other known civilisations such as Ancient Rome. Obviously, however, the knowledge is organised in a European way through answers to a European-made questionnaire. Sahagun saw the terrible consequences of the replacement of the Aztec civilisation by the Spaniards. He dreamt of the creation of an ideal state that would be Mexican and Christian — a city of God.

From Historia General de las cosas de Nueva España

Todorov categorises Sahagun in his ‘typology of relationships to otherness’ as a believer of the Christian doctrine of equality between men. However, even if he learns the language and the culture of the ‘Indians,’ he maintains his identity, and even idealise the ‘Indians.’ What is interesting in his work for Todorov, is the massive knowledge that he accumulated without perpetrating any qualitative judgement. His work can be qualified as ‘ethnography’ as he is just collecting information without interpretation, and making only a timid comparison with Ancient Rome, but without being comparative. For him, cultures cannot be hybrid nor should they be; cultures stay in their own rights untouched. Nonetheless, Todorov sees there the embryo to any future dialogue between civilisations that we today experience.

Todorov’s book is highly recommandable for an introduction to reflexion on our behaviour towards other people in early modernity. In our world of reflexiv modernity, these have changed very much. The question of identity is not fixed but flexible, the question of hybridisation is not an impossible thought but a daily reality. This is the heart of all problems for cosmopolitan theory: how to form universal standards if all standards are by definition locally situated? Even if one is fluent in two or three or more cultures, it cannot possibly encompass all of them to grasp some commonality or acceptable form of universality for all. The debate is currently set on human rights as the smallest common denominator, but even they are Western-based. Of course, human rights are a good thing, but they mean a Western imposition nonetheless, even if for the greater good.’ Are ‘we’ ready to accept other forms of imposition on ‘our’ mentality if they are potentially ‘good’ for humankind? After all, one should reflect upon the fact that in all our exchanges with ‘foreigners’ we are acting in a historical manner, even if playing a tiny part as a tourist.

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