18th Century Europeans and Classifications of Man

Plaque of Jean-Jacques Rousseau issued by Gene...

Plaque of Jean-Jacques Rousseau issued by Geneva in 1912 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Explain this statement in Outram: “Enlightenment attempts to classify the varieties of mankind were ultimately inconclusive” (p. 56). What were the causes of this inconclusiveness?

I think that Europeans tried to classify and categorize the varieties of mankind in order to better understand themselves. Their technological and intellectual accomplishments made them appear superior to other races they encountered throughout the world, and they wanted to find out why. For example, Linnaeus divided men into 4 categories (white Europeans, red American Indians, black Africans and brown Asians) and 2 subcategories (pygmies and giants). At that time, Europeans were not only classifying people, but also animals, plants, fish, butterflies, etc. All of these efforts were a way to categorize knowledge that they were still in the process of gathering about the world around them. All of these efforts eventually showed to be inconclusive because they did not yet delve into the nuances of the different cultures. Once, nuances like anthropology, archaeology, and other social sciences developed then these early classifications were confirmed to be inadequate, shallow, and inconclusive.

What does Rousseau’s thinking about the nature of “uncivilized” man have in common with that of Captain Cook, according to Outram?

According to Outram, “Cook echoes Rousseau’s argument that civilisation inevitably corrupts because it fills us with inauthentic desires (which are also what propel the economies of the corrupt societies). These inauthentic desires are what cause the wish for luxury” (54). Both Cook and Rousseau saw luxury and the desires for more and more property as a huge negative factor of progressive society. Thus, Rousseau’s and Captain Cook’s thinking about the nature of “uncivilized” man are similar in that they both view the uncivilized man as the  kind that does not desire for more and more property and luxuries, and is at peace in a primitive state of nature. These views have less to do with their lack of knowledge about the realities of life in primitive societies and more with a rejection of their contemporary society’s values. Thus, their romanticized notion about the uncivilized man is really a critique of their own society.

Outram, D. The Enlightenment. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University. 2005. Print.


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