ASA14 Decennial: Anthropology and Enlightenment


The conference theme, Anthropology and Enlightenment, took its inspiration from the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. This was a time of intellectual optimism and experimentation, of polymaths and autodidacts who were not afraid to address the widest and most fundamental questions of what it is to be human. Above all, the Scottish Enlightenment was a milieu rather than a school, a world of public argument, rather than a canonical set of texts. Through our choice of theme we aimed to rekindle the spirit that gave birth to the discipline of anthropology, yet in a manner and an idiom appropriate to the contemporary era, by combining historical reflection with an exploration of anthropology's relations with other disciplines, including philosophy, political economy, theology, history, architecture, medicine, law, agriculture and even sociology. Papers and panels formed the basis of the programme and addressed current interdisciplinary strands, each of which potentially aligned with, and identified by, a key work from the Scottish Enlightenment:

  1. Time, Earth and Cosmos
  2. Health and Wealth
  3. Natural Religion
  4. Human / Nature
  5. Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design
  6. Moral Sentiments

In addition there were a series of other events, including special named lectures, fringe sessions, tours and much more.

The six strands were developed as follows:

1. Time, Earth and the Cosmos

In 1788, the geologist James Hutton published A Theory of the Earth, a work that became one of the enduring classics of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hutton’s radical thesis was that the Earth’s form had not remained unchanged since the seven days of Creation, but was in a constant process of change. His conclusion that "The result of our present enquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end" foreshadowed some of the shockwaves caused by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species decades later. Through this strand we explored across a variety of disciplinary perspectives such moments of enlightenment, moments of wonder, moments when the fabric of our understandings of our place within the world  become unravelled, undone and remade.

2. Do wealthy nations make for healthy publics?

Conscious of enlightenment legacies, this strand of the conference theme explored the relationship between wealth and health. A key idea of concern of enlightenment thought was that wealth leads to health: As Adam Smith opined “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable”. How do the traces of these ideas play out in the arena of how we relate to and understand health today?

3.Natural Religion

This strand referred to the 18th century debates in Scottish and English theological and philosophical circles as to whether an empirical study of the natural world provides evidence for the objective existence of the Christian God, and the arguments over the extension of demonstrative reasoning beyond pure mathematics to the areas of morals and metaphysics. It interrogated the rationality of our own discipline with regards to what we call religion, the extent to which anthropologists, based in secular, intellectual and institutional locations, engage with fundamentally different conceptual spaces. Moreover, it put anthropologists in dialogue with theologians.

4.  Human Nature

One of the intellectual mainstays of the European Enlightenment was the programmatic separation of humanity from the ‘state of nature’, whether understood physically, politically or morally. Anthropologists have followed the example of many of the peoples among whom they have worked in rejecting any a priori division between nature and humanity in favour of an understanding of forms of life as emergent within fields of mutually conditioning relations, by no means confined to the human. On the other hand, they have continued to assert the ontological autonomy of the social and cultural domain from its biological ‘base’, and with it, the distinctiveness of sociocultural anthropology vis-à-vis the science of human nature. How should anthropologists think about community and polity, or indeed about the very explanatory domain of the ‘social’ sciences themselves? Is the ‘anthropos’ that gives the discipline its name destined to become an anachronism in a fully relational approach to the more-than-human world?

5. Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design

In this strand, we sought to address the apparent discontinuity between beauty as something recognisable and encompassing, which all humans may know and strive for, and its treatment as something relative, relegated to the realm of personal taste or aesthetics, neither generalizable nor to be taken seriously. This strand provoked us to consider that beauty is still something that people sense, seek and strive for, whether through a walk in the country to a ‘place of outstanding natural beauty’, through acts of human creativity and production, listening to music, experiencing architecture, visiting heritage sites or ancient buildings (age, it seems, brings beauty) or to an art gallery or exhibition. Thus we considered beauty as forms of action and process rather than as necessarily the results of actions.

6. Moral Sentiments

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith deployed Hume's ‘experimental method’ (the appeal to human experience) but sought to refine his thesis of impartial feeling. ‘Sympathy’ was the core of moral sentiments: the feeling-with-the-passions-of-others, arising from an innate desire to identify with others’ emotions. Sympathy operated through a logic of mirroring, in which a spectator imaginatively reconstructed the experience of the person being watched. There is much here with which anthropology can interest itself. Smith’s emphasis on mirroring calls to mind the more recent theorisations of Rene Girard, the emphasis on an innate identification with the human other recalls Emmanuel Levinas’s theorisations of ‘face’, and the emphasis on imagining concurs with Jean-Paul Sartre’s description of the imaginative as that which effects a transcending of current life-worlds. A second aim of this panel was to ask what contemporary ethnography, and what contemporary anthropological theory, can deliver concerning the roots of a moral sensibility. How does recognition of fellow human beings and extending ‘sympathy’ towards them and the institutionalising of humane norms of social interaction actually take place? What are the origins of moral human behaviour and how can these be given a universal authority?