Enlightenment Against Empire

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Enlightenment Against Empire

By Sankar Muthu
Princeton University Press, 2003
376 pp. $69.50
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This young political philosopher has written a well-argued first book that is as original as it is convincing. His goal is to excavate a strand of Enlightenment thought in Diderot, Kant, and Herder that has gone both unstudied and unheeded: anti-imperialism. Diderot was incensed by the behavior of Europeans beyond Europe's borders and denounced the practices of trading companies and imperial conquerors and the corrupt pretensions of European civilization. Kant, the subject of this book's most impressive chapters, argued for a cosmopolitan definition of justice that applied equally to all societies. "Freedom," he wrote, "is the only original right belonging to every man by virtue of his humanity" -- a stern repudiation of paternalism and imperialism. Herder, far more suspicious of "wholesale judgments," emphasized the importance of human diversity.

Muthu identifies three philosophical strands in Enlightenment anti-imperialism: the individual's right to moral and political respect, the notion of humans as "cultural beings," and awareness of "moral incommensurability." This is nothing less than a reconciliation of moral universalism and a respect for pluralism, what Tzvetan Todorov argued for in On Human Diversity. Muthu is in the same league.

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