Taxonomic Impulse

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is the “taxonomic impulse” as discussed by Outram on page 68 and elsewhere?

Michel Foucault introduced the term “taxonomic impulse” to describe the scientific impulse to classify and categorize the objects in the natural world (Outram 68). This desire allowed scientists to distinguish between human beings around the world, but instead of allowing them to learn about the differences in a positive way, this impulse led to the conclusion that certain races are inferior to others. This consideration, as a result, led to less rather than more open mindedness about those races and cultures. Once something is classified as inferior, it demands

very little interest. Thus, it was reasonable (if you agree with the originally flawed premises of this argument) to then argue that blacks were inferior, as many Enlightenment thinkers unfortunately did.

To me, taxonomic impulse seems to be only the beginning stage of understanding or categorizing the world. At some point, we need to move past categories and superficial elements like external characteristics and go deeper in our understanding. Research in sociology, education, and psychology have elevated our understanding of the world around us and how similar we all can be given certain conditions. But this work is yet to be done in relationship to other creatures on earth.  For example, we are still only mainly talking about animals in terms of group dynamics and what their species tends to or tends to not do. Thus, we only understand them on a basic categorical (species-only) level. However, there are now beginning to be some psychological and social studies on animals as well. Pet owners already know that no two animals in their household are alike in personality, much in the same way that children vary in personality and temperament. But now science is discovering this as well. Thus, it is natural to infer that no two tigers or sea lions or elephants are exactly alike. These animals, like people, are influenced not only by their natures, but also by the kind of family group that they were raised in and the kinds of environmental factors that influence them. For example, many dogs who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering with PTSD, just like other (human) veterans.

What we need now are more of these studies and more of this kind of holistic thinking when it comes to animals. That way, we can move away from classifying and understanding other creatures on a classification or categorization level (that is driven by taxonomic impulsiveness, which can and so far does result in us thinking that animals are inferior to humans and that certain animals are inferior to other animals) and toward a more wholesome study of animals (one that considers their psychologies and sociologies). But as with slavery and the Enlightenment, this will also mean that we will have to reevaluate our farming/food consumption practices.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

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Why 18th Century individuals considered African people racially inferior

To what extent did 18th-century individuals in Europe, England and America think of enslaved African people as racially different or inferior? Cite evidence from her chapter.

Individuals in 18th-century Europe, England and America thought of enslaved Africans as the Other. Even though many argued for the abolition of slavery, African people were still considered racially inferior to whites. As a result of this perceived inferiority, many prominent whites argued that white people should not mix with black people. For example, Jefferson stated that African people “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” (Outram 70). Thus, he argued that freed slaves should be removed from society, “before any sexual relation with white people can occur” (Outram 71).

18th-century individuals in Europe, England and America tried to use science and classification to find justifications for their beliefs. For example, they examined Africans’ outside and inside appearance, i.e. skin color, skeletons and craniums, but did not find the justifications that they were searching for (Outram 69). The problem with their methodology was that they assumed that their conclusions about the inferiority of black people were correct and went around trying to find proof. What they needed to do instead was to examine the evidence first and then draw conclusions (this is the way real science rather than pseudo-science is conducted).  If they had only examined environment and culture of European versus African societies then they would reach the conclusion that the differences were mainly environmental rather than intrinsic (fortunately, they did this later).

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

Slavery and Enlightenment

On page 63 Outram talks about the “intractable paradoxes in the relationship between the existence of slavery and the Enlightenment.” Explain what she means, evaluating her statement in the context of her larger discussion.

Slavery was essential to the globalization, “the increasingly integrated world economy,” of the Enlightenment (Outram 64). It was highly profitable, especially for colonial plantation production, and these profits “primed the economic pump, and provided higher tax revenues to the ever-expanding governments”(Outram 65). Slavery affected all aspects of world’s economies and people could not imagine the costs that would accrue if they were to abolish it. The institution of slavery was a highly profitable business and like any business, which other businesses depend on for survival, slavery was very difficult to get rid of. A contemporary equivalent might be the oil business. Many people agree that it is damaging to the environment and expensive for consumers, but many businesses depend on it for survival; thus, it is very difficult to get rid of (or transition it into green technologies).

But as Enlightenment ideas grew in popularity, the movement faced an increasing and powerful paradox. Slavery was totally against any notions of the Enlightenment in that the Enlightenment was a movement that aimed to promote equality and universal rights. True equality could not exist within a country that supported or had slavery. Similarly, I predict we will at some point reach a saturation point in consuming oil and other environmentally hazardous things for energy. At some point, people will choose to pay more for more environmentally friendly solutions because other choices will just be considered irresponsible. Thus, there will be a need for companies that sell these products and the world will be better for it.

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

The Englightment and the Commodification of Ideas

The Enlightenment Room of the British Museum, ...

The Enlightenment Room of the British Museum, restored to show the Age of Enlightenment conception of a museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Outram ends chapter 2 by posing a question of the identity of the “real elite” (page 27). She here implies that the whole notion of status is undergoing transformation in the Enlightenment. In view of the entire chapter, what do you take to be the terms of this transformation: transformation from what to what?

The transformation that Outram is talking about is the diversification of ideas and the later commodification of intellect. Access to reading and writing made ideas more accessible, and they were no longer controlled only be a small group of elites. Writers were able to reach larger audiences, and have larger influences on the world. As social institutions broke down class barriers, it started the beginning of what we now know as globalization. However, the beginning of globalization is also the beginning of commodification of ideas. As culture became commoditized, and new social hierarchies were invented. “The rendering accessible of information and debates to a wide audience became big businesses and was carried out not only by the elite of Enlightenment thinkers, but by an army of professional writers whose names are now largely forgotten” (Outram 27). Big business replaced aristocracy, and today, in America, ideas are mainly influenced and controlled by the top (richest and smallest) class.

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780521546812

Republic of Letters

L'Institut de France building

L’Institut de France building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Explain the connotations of the phrase “Republic of Letters” (page 18). Why did the reading and writing public imagine themselves as a “Republic”?

Republic of Letters is the idea that writers are “knowledge and opinion shapers” that form a formidable power on par with organized governments (Outram 18). Individuals involved in the Republic of Letters are equals that value cosmopolitanism, and knowledge and its producers across political boundaries (Outram 18-19). The editor ofHistoroire de la Republique des Lettres en France stated that the Republic of Letters is “a certain realm which holds sway only over the mind” and “preserves a measure of independence” (Outram 18). This is “a realm of talent and of thought” and it exists “in the midst of all the governments that decide the fate of men” (Outram 18).

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780521546812

Englightement’s “New Kind of Equality”

Erasmus Darwin in 1792 by Joseph Wright of Derby

Erasmus Darwin in 1792 by Joseph Wright of Derby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In chapter 2, Outram explains that trade and exchange in ideas promoted “a new kind of equality” between consumers from different classes. What kind of “equality” does she mean?

“The increasing volume of goods made and sold included many consumer items such as books, pamphlets, newspapers, pictures, all of which were media for the transmission of ideas and attitudes” and “the global exchange of ideas, like all market exchanges, broke down barriers between cultural systems, religious divides, gender differences and geographical areas” (Outram 13). In Britain, extensive literacy and a large middle-class made up wealthy professionals created many institutions which facilitated the discussion of ideas which eventually led to “a new kind of equality between consumers of culture” (Outram 13; Outram 22). These institutions, such as the Manchester Library and the Philosophical Society, helped elites meet on common and neutral ground and forge stronger contracts with each other (Outram 22). In particular, since many different people shared a common interest in Enlightenment ideas, these societies provided spaces for people to meet, and facilitated a new interplay “between manufacturers, men of science and local intellectuals” (Outram 22).  One example is the Birmingham-based group called the Lunar Society.  The Lunar Society included members like the industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, the poet and doctor Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the Charles Darwin, and inventor Richard Arkwright (Outram 22). These places allowed for an exchange of ideas which facilitated intellectual equality. This kind of equality was based on knowledge and intellect which required work and effort to gain, not just finances. Therefore, it was not the kind of equality that could be bought. People had to read and work hard on themselves to be “enlightened” and as a result, societies were places where enlightened ideas could be exchanged with others who were intellectually inclined, despite their positions in society.

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780521546812

Horkheimer and Adorno’s vs Habermas’s theorization of the Englightenment

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How is Jurgen Habermas’s theorization of the Enlightenment a very different one from that of Horkheimer and Adorno? In what sense is Max Habermas (according to Outram’s description) a far more positive theorist of the Enlightenment than Horkheimer and Adorno?

According to Outram, Jurgen Habermas adopted many of Max Horkheimer’s and Theodor Adorno’s insights about the way that “the Enlightenment consumed culture, turned culture into a commodity, and turned knowledge into information” (7). Given these views, Horkeimer and Adorno argued that it was the Enlightenment’s use of reason and rationality that enabled the stripping away of society’s humanity which facilitated the Holocaust, the systematic killing of millions people. Unlike Horkeimer and Adorno, Habermas argued that many of the ideas of the Enlightenment were still worth pursuing because the Enlightenment “contained potential for emancipating individuals from restrictive particularism in order to be able to act, not as ‘Germans’ embattled by adherence to particular national or cultural ethos, but rather as human beings engaged in a common search with other human beings for universal values such as freedom, justice and objectivity” (7). Habermas was a far more positive theorist of the Enlightenment than Horkheimer and Adorno because he viewed the Enlightenment as the creator of the public realm. A public realm is the concept that a public opinion could come about and “start to question privileged traditional forces” (7). This space is similar to Kant’s notion of private realm, a place where men could escape from the role of subjects and gain autonomy by exchanging their own opinions and ideas (7).

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780521546812