Rethinking Enlightenment Improvement: British Travellers along the Great Syrian Desert Route
Date: 26 March 2014
University of Exeter
PhD in English
This dissertation sets out to rethink, contextualise and historicise a commonplace notion in the Scottish Enlightenment which poses nations and societies as either improving or primitive. The Scottish Enlightenment philosophers were the eighteenth-century pioneers in an intellectual project of improvement pointing the light emerging ...
This dissertation sets out to rethink, contextualise and historicise a commonplace notion in the Scottish Enlightenment which poses nations and societies as either improving or primitive. The Scottish Enlightenment philosophers were the eighteenth-century pioneers in an intellectual project of improvement pointing the light emerging in Europe, particularly in Britain. The Act of Union with Scotland (1707) and the process of modernisation in the Highlands of Scotland allowed for rhetoric of improvement which called upon Scotland with its Highlands to join the great British modernising project. The Scots literati were aware that joining this project jeopardises older cultural habits and values and also brings corruption into society but the other option was nothing but the dilemma of living in premodern, less commercially advanced age, one which, as they thought, prevailed in Arabian deserts and Islamic societies. Their rhetoric of improvement was one of difference between an improving Britain with technological and commercial progress and a backward Middle East with primitive modes of subsistence. For them, modernity did not cast its light on the eighteenth-century Middle East. They fixed Middle East on a lower stage of a universal grid of progress. In the cross-cultural encounters between Britons and Muslims which took place on the Syrian-Mesopotamia overland routes to India, as this dissertation argues, the polarising rhetoric of the Scottish Enlightenment proves to be one of conviction. It was not necessarily the only way of referring to the modern moment of change taking place in Britain. The four British writers which this dissertation examines were interested in the Enlightenment question of improvement. They were believers in progress but had their own doubts about the dominant notions in the habit of interpreting improvement in their own culture. By writing on material progress, commerce, manners and forms of morality which they encountered in Islamic lands they set out to offer their new understanding of the notion of progress. While doing so, they did not posit Islam and the Middle East as the fixed categories of backwardness the Scots literati had always celebrated in their defence of modern British commercial improvement. Rather they showed how Europeans can learn things and improve themselves by interacting with Muslims: caravan chiefs and merchants, political leaders and servants. All these cross-cultural scenes of interaction in which Britons gained improvement occurred in a period in which Britain was not a colonial power in the Middle East but rather a commercial and political partner with local Arabian and Muslim leaders. And writing about Islamic cultures, as this thesis demonstrates, was a way of rethinking British dominant views of the meaning of improvement in the modern age.
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