Non-European Enlightenments and Romanticisms

Toyohiro. Returning Sails at Tsukuda, from Eight Views of Edo (detail) between 1802 and 1829
Toyohiro. ‘Returning Sails at Tsukuda, from Eight Views of Edo’ (detail) between 1802 and 1829 CC PD-US


Modernity is normally defined as a set of values, beliefs, and institutions that emerged in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries – viz. individual liberty, representative democracy, belief in progress, secularism, rationalisation, and so on. This casts as pre-modern everything in Europe before 1780 or 1800, along with everything outside Europe until the Europeans arrived. And it implies that modernity develops as a relation between the centre (Europe) and its peripheries (the rest), in which the latter accept, oppose, or adapt what the former has to offer.

There is, of course, a long history of acceptance, rejection, and adaptation of European modernity, which shouldn’t be ignored; but, nevertheless, those histories now seem inadequate to the phenomena they are describing.

First, they ignore the extent to which Enlightenment is, as Conrad argues, ‘the work of historical actors around the world - in places such as Cairo, Calcutta, and Shanghai – who invoked the term, and what they saw as its most important claims, for their own specific purposes’. As he goes on to say, ‘Enlightenment, in other words, has a history – and this history matters; it is not an entity, a “thing” that was invented and then disseminated’. In this turn-around, Europe’s peripheries emerge as ‘centres’ in their own right, which play key roles in the realisation and reinvention of Enlightenment themes.

Next, conventional accounts of Enlightenment-Romanticism often ignore the extent to which the ‘early’ Enlightenment (1685-1740) was itself transformed by a second, described by Raymond Schwab as the ‘Oriental Renaissance’, prompted by European encounters with the great civilisations of India, China, Japan, and the South Pacific. As Michael Franklin writes in Romantic Representations of British India (2006), ‘Romanticism charted and enabled cultural encounters with India (and we can add China, the Middle-East, Japan, and the South Pacific as well) via a two-way passage of ‘transculturation’ which was to modify both the centre and the periphery, in some ways reversing their roles and polarities’.

Third, such histories often ignore the extent to which non-European cultures have their own traditions of ‘rational enlightenment’ and ‘creative romanticism’, which form variously counter-, alternative- or parallel-traditions within which European Enlightenment-Romanticism is rearticulated, reinvented, or side-lined.

The Great Divergence and Great Convergence, the title of a recent book by Grinin and Korotayev, neatly summarises why this broader understanding of Enlightenment-Romanticism is important. The first term, popularised by Pomeranz, refers to developments that had by 1750, perhaps earlier, raised levels of innovation, standards of living, and economic growth in the West far above those in the East. The second refers to the late 20th and early 21st century narrowing of these differences. The Great Divergence, now seen in light of the Great Convergence, pushes us to think again about what Enlightenment-Romanticism was and what it could be in the present.