Radical Enlightenment – by Blanca Missé

David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything makes a compelling invitation to Enlightenment scholars to revisit the “Indigenous critique” of European society, by “taking seriously contributions to social thought that come from outside the European canon and in particular from those Indigenous peoples whom Western philosophers tend to cast either in the role of history’s angels or its devils” (5). Their thesis on the Enlightenment is that the “arguments that took place between European and Indigenous Americans about the nature of freedom, equality, or for that matter rationality and revealed religion” “would later become central to Enlightenment political thought” (30). The authors study in particular Baron de la Hontan’s New Voyages to North America (1703), focusing on the fictional dialogue between Lahontan and Kandiaronk (Adario), and Françoise de Graffigny’s Letters from a Peruvian Woman (1747).

The Dawn of Everything is thus to be added to a series of materialist, feminist, and anticolonial readings of the Enlightenment that refute the hegemonic trends of Western thought, including a linear narrative of historical “progress.” Against them, they affirm the political agency of all human societies across history, and debunk the idea of a progression in rationality, or the implication that the desire for freedom is a “modern” thing: “Those who framed what we call the ‘indigenous critique’ of European civilization were not only keenly aware of alternative political possibilities, but for the most part saw their own social orders as self-conscious creations” (482). The second part of their argument is that this enlightening critique of European society, on display in texts like Lahontan’s, was later “mistranslated,” or rather re-encapsulated, in determinist theories of social evolution mechanically determined by a succession of “modes of subsistence and division of labor” (61).

It is, however, troubling to encounter such an interesting argument in a very schematic portrait of eighteenth-century European political philosophy as polarized between caricature versions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. Left out are major thinkers who would complicate this binary, such as Baruch Spinoza and the materialist tradition. While the authors are correct to denounce the mobilization of Hobbes and Rousseau in social Darwinist and teleologic forms of evolutionism, Rousseau scholars might have some qualms with the blunt assertion that he defended in any way a “doctrine of progress”—especially when the authors don’t discuss his use, and later abandonment of, the notion of “perfectibility” (69). However, their critique that Rousseau “didn’t write a dialogue or other imaginative work attempting to look at European society from a foreign point of view,” that in his theory he “strips his ‘savages’ from imaginative powers of their own” and portrays them as “utterly lacking in philosophy,” is sound—although not sufficiently established (72). This could be done easily, as the Swiss philosopher affirmed of the “Savage” man: “His imagination portrays nothing to him; his heart asks nothing of him” for in this speculative state of nature “everyone waits for the impulsion of Nature, yields to it without choice with more pleasure than frenzy, and the need satisfied, all desire is extinguished.[1] 

It is also strange to read flawed generalizations on European philosophy that overlook the Spinozist current of the Enlightenment. For example, Graeber and Wengrow write: “It’s almost impossible to find a single European author before the nineteenth century who suggested [that democracy] would be anything other than a terrible form of government,” and that “the European conception of individual freedom was, by contrast, tied ineluctably to notions of private property” (17, 66). This plain disregard for the abundant critical literature on Spinoza as the first theorist of modern democracy is very surprising, especially given the great affinity between the neo-Spinozist materialist current of the Enlightenment and the philosophical conceptions attributed to the Wendat and other Native American peoples, for whom “equality . . . is a direct extension of freedom; indeed is its expression(44).[2] Kandiaronk is not speaking of abstract equality, the equality before the law that is a product of subjugation by the State, but rather of a materialist equality. For Americans, “there was no contradiction between individual liberty and communism”; rather, freedom “was assumed to be premised on a certain level of ‘base line communism’” (44). In fact, there was an entire wing of the European Enlightenment that contested the liberal version of liberty based on property and the ideology of progress. This is why Denis Diderot’s Addendum to the Journey of Bougainville (1772) should be included in this necessary reappraisal of the crucial role of Indigenous critique in the emergence of subversive trends in the Enlightenment. In this book, Diderot imagines a radical critique of European and Christian universalist pretensions, and presents the Indigenous subject as the source of critical philosophical and political knowledge. Of course, how radical Diderot really was is a matter of debate; but it is a debate our authors chose not to engage with, unfortunately, in favor of repeated whippings of their straw men targets, Rousseau and Hobbes.

One of the most interesting assertions of the book regarding the Enlightenment is its proposal for a new practice of reading. Against the readings that dismiss Indigenous characters as mere stereotypes or alibis of Western radical critiques of the West, the authors argue that in Lahontan’s Dialogues one can learn something genuine about the Wendat Indigenous culture and its philosophical sophistication: we can “get a sense of what its indigenous inhabitants think of French society,” and how in turn French intellectuals “came to think differently of their own societies as a result” (37). To the now classic postcolonial question, “Can the subaltern speak?”—in this case, in a text written by Europeans—our authors answer affirmatively. They treat Adario’s character as ventriloquizing the Indigenous leader Kandiaronk.[3] His rhetorical capacities and skill, they argue, are due to the fact that the Wendat had a rich oral culture of regular public debate, enabling him to capture the mind and imaginations of his European interlocutors.

Doris Garraway, however, has warned us against such readings, and against any eagerness to minimize the fact that Native voices are at least partially silenced in these texts.[4] In her view, both Lahontan and Diderot’s dialogues produce nothing more than “the ‘hybridization’ of colonial discourse,” as they “enact an imaginary process of dissent and contestation through which colonial hegemony, in the Gramscian sense, could be consolidated and secured through negotiation, compromise, and reform.[5] For Garraway, “Enlightenment writers’ appropriation of the native voice and subject position may in fact contribute to the silencing of the Other, thus potentially nullifying the anticolonial implications of their discourse.”[6]

Other scholars such as Sankar Muthu and Bridget Orr have offered different readings on the productive effects of this Indigenous critique.[7] Orr, for example, while acknowledging that “rhetorical superiority might seem a poor substitute for historical agency,” argues that even though such texts do not expose the reader to authentic voices, anthropological sources and current Native American thinkers establish that there are definitely important traces of “Indian practice, belief and languages” in them, and that Indigenous characters cannot be simply read as the mouthpiece of Western utopias or critiques.[8]

We might have to accept that when assessing the agency of subaltern voices in these European texts we are confined to the very same kinds of hypothetical and conditional reasonings” Rousseau cast over the past lives of human formations in the state of nature.[9] Yet this should not foreclose our necessary work of interpretation. In the same vein that Graeber and Wengrow acknowledge the contributions of Natural law theorists (despite the many flaws in their philosophical a priori on Indigenous peoples) because they “opened a conceptual door” (33) for Europeans to explore a wider concept of humanity and possible political arrangements, we could argue that their book opens a door to a new way of reading an entire corpus of Enlightenment literature by putting it in conversation not only with archeological research but also with contemporary Native American thought. As Enlightenment scholars, we should embrace one of the core arguments of this book: our reading can be enriched by interdisciplinary collaboration, and in particular by Indigenous studies. Or, rather than re-establishing today the critical encounter between Enlightenment and Native American/Indigenous scholars, a “sense of social possibility”can emerge withthe knowledge that familiar ways were not the only ways” (514, 34).

Blanca Missé is Associate Professor of French at San Francisco State University, CA

[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (Second Discourse), Polemics and Political Economy,”in The Collected Writing of Rousseau, vol. 3, eds. Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1992), 28, 39.

[2] On Spinoza and democracy see for example Etienne Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, trans. Peter Snowdon (London & New York: Verso Books, 2008), and Warren Montag, Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and His Contemporaries (London & New York: Verso Books, 1999).

[3] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Rosalind C. Morris (ed.), Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

[4] Doris Garraway, “Of Speaking Natives and Hybrid Philosophers: Lahontan, Diderot, and the French Enlightenment Critique of Colonialism,” in The Postcolonial Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Colonialism and Postcolonial Theory, eds. Daniel Carey and Lynn Festa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 207-239.

[5] Garraway, “Of Speaking Natives,” 209, 234.

[6] Garraway, “Of Speaking Natives,” 210.

[7] Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment Against Empire, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Bridget Orr, “The Black Legend, Noble Savagery and Indigenous Voice,” in Enlightenment Theatre: Dramatizing Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 113–153.

[8] Orr, “Black Legend,” 119, 124.

[9] Rousseau, “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality,” 19.

Cite this note as: Blanca Missé, “Radical EnlightenmentJournal18 (July 2023), https://www.journal18.org/6910.

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