Challenging the Boundaries of Humankind: Orangutans and savage men in the British debates about slavery (1770s-80s)

Dr Silvia Sebastiani (EHESS)

Monday 22 June, 4 pm

G.13, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, William Robertson Wing, Old Medical School

This paper aims to historicize the boundaries of humankind within a specific context, and around a particular object: the orangutan, or rather the chimpanzee, according to current classification. The paper will aim to show that the orangutan is at the heart of the debates on slavery in 1770s Britain, at the very moment in which England and Scotland approved antislavery laws.

The hypothesis is that the positions in favour of the animality or of the humanity of the savage or black slave drew directly from the repertoire of facts and proofs provided by comparative anatomy. This paper will therefore trace the uses to which the work of the anatomist Edward Tyson was put. His dissection of an orangutan in 1698, and his point-by-point comparison with the human body, marked a shift in medical practices that affected the philosophical and historical definition of man throughout the eighteenth century.

The paper will deal with two specific cases that emphasize the historical relationship between orangutans and humans, albeit from different positions and with distinct goals: the Scottish judge and erudite linguist James Burnet, Lord Monboddo, who, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, saw the orangutan as the example of the primordial man; and the historian of Jamaica, Edward Long, an English planter and judge of the Admiralty Court, who stressed the resemblance between the orangutan and black slaves, in order to defend slavery within the British Empire. Developing at the crossroad between different fields of knowledge and channels of information, this controversy acquires a global dimension, mobilizing a broad range of actors and spaces.

Silvia Sebastiani is Maître de conférences, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris

Atlantic Frederick: cultural transfer between the Anglophone world and eighteenth-century Prussia

Dr Thomas Biskup (University of Hull).

Friday 22 May, 2.30pm

Meadows Lecture Theatre (G.07), School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Old Medical School, Doorway 4.

Engaging critically with the widely-held view that eighteenth-century Prussia was only a continental power, this paper will explore intellectual, artistic, and mercantile links between Prussia, Britain, and the trans-oceanic world. A particular focus will be on King Frederick II “the Great’s” appropriation of British references and global trade for his vision of an enlightened model monarchy, and it will be discussed if the concept of Atlantic history can be used for Prussia’s connections with the wider world.

Thomas Biskup is Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Hull.

Edinburgh Eighteenth-Century and Enlightenment Studies Colloquium

Colloquium programme

17 April 2015, 9.30 – 5 pm.

Venue: G.16, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh.

9.30 – 10.15 am: Coffee and Tea

10.15 – 10.30 am: Introduction (Thomas Ahnert)

10.30 – 11.30 am: Margot Finn, ‘Books and their Readers in British India c.1780-1840: A Long Enlightenment?’

11.30 am – 12.30 pm: Barbara Taylor, ‘Enlightenment and the Perils of Solitude’

12.30 – 1.30 pm: Lunch

1.30 – 2.30 pm: John Henry, ‘The Newtonian Moment: How Action at a Distance became Part of Mainstream Physics (uniquely) throughout the long Eighteenth Century.’

2.30 – 3.30 pm: John Robertson: ‘The Enlightenment in History and Philosophy’

3.30 – 4.00 pm: Coffee and Tea

4.00 – 5.00 pm: Discussion on Opportunities for Collaboration in Enlightenment and Eighteenth-Century Studies

7.00 pm: Dinner


Participants must register. If you are interested in attending, please email

Conventions and Factions in Hume’s Political Philosophy: How Party Conflicts might Potentially Overturn Conventional Institutions

Naohito Mori (Kochi University)

Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities

Friday, 19 September, 3.30 – 5.00 pm

Hume’s discussion of factions has received considerable scholarly attention. A recent example is Andrew Sabl’s Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England. Sabl examines Hume’s thinking on the relationship between conventions and factions, and argues that factions (‘pseudo-‘ or ‘negative conventions’ in his categorization) can be basically regulated and tamed by conventions.

In this paper, by contrast, I will argue that conventions are not necessarily able to regulate factions in Hume’s view. I will attempt to show, by focusing on Hume’s characteristic wording which commonly appears in both his arguments on factions and on conventions, that factions have quite similar effects on human minds as conventions have (more similar and much stronger than Sabl indicates by his term ‘pseudo-conventions’), and that this quasi-conventional and influential status of factions is the reason to which he attributes the fact that they can potentially overturn the fundamental rules of society.

Naohito Mori is Associate Professor in the History of Social and Economic Thought at the Department of International Studies, Kochi University, Japan.

Hume on the Idea of a Science of Politics

James Harris (St Andrews University)

Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities

27 May, 4 – 5.30 pm.

Though he argued for the possibility of a science of politics, in the 1741 essay ‘That Politics may be Reduced to a Science’, Hume did not develop a science of politics himself. This paper gives an account, based on evidence provided by Essays, Moral and Political and the ‘Early Memoranda’, of what a Humean science of politics might have looked like. Hume’s Scottish contemporaries regarded James Harrington as having been the first to put politics on a scientific footing. The paper considers the ways in which Hume regarded Harrington as in need of correction and supplementation. ‘Opinion’ needed to be added to the analysis of politics; and so did the effect of non-landed forms of property on the balance of power. The paper also considers what Hume might have learned from the early publications of Montesquieu. In conclusion, the paper examines the place of religion in a Humean science of politics.

James Harris is Reader in the History of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and Associate Director of the St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History. He is the author of many articles and book chapters on the history of early modern philosophy, and has edited several books, including the Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2013). He has published a monograph, Of Liberty and Necessity. The Free Will Debate in Eighteenth-Century British Philosophy (Oxford, 2005), and is now completing an intellectual biography of David Hume for Cambridge University Press.

The Old Testament and its ancient versions in manuscript and print, c. 1480 – c. 1780

Scott Mandelbrote (Peterhouse, Cambridge University)

Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities

24 April, 4 – 5.30 pm

Scott Mandelbrote is Official Fellow and Director of Studies at Peterhouse, Cambridge. His research interests are in early modern intellectual history, particularly the history of scholarship and the history of science. He is a director of the Newton Project, which aims to make available all of Newton’s writings online in a single, freely accessible electronic edition.

His talk attempts to consider what the effects of new manuscript discoveries were on attitudes to the printed text of the Old Testament over the course of the early modern period and to evaluate the evolution of that text.

Suspicious Christianity: Early Modern Martyrology, Apologetics, and the Resurrection of Heterodoxy

Jonathan Sheehan (University of California, Berkeley)

Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities

24 March, 3 – 5 pm.

In 1699, the radical Pietist and devout scholar Gottfried Arnold declared that the heart of Christianity beats not in orthodoxy, but in the bosom of heresy. This truth he uncovered in Christianity’s own archives, and especially in the writings of the earliest of Church fathers and the practices of the martyrs that gave such power to the Christian faith. This paper explores the history and the consequences of the early modern discovery that, in fact, Christianity has never been as Christian as all that.

Jonathan Sheehan is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of California, Berkeley, having also held posts at Princeton, Indiana, Michigan and Wolfenbüttel. He has published widely on the history of early modern European religion and intellectual culture. His first monograph, The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton, 2005) immediately established itself as a classic in the field, winning the prestigious George L. Mosse Prize from the American Historical Association, and his subsequent work has ranged even more widely, from late antiquity to the nineteenth century. He is one of the world’s leading scholars of the interaction between historical and religious culture.

This seminar is a special one-off joint session between the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, the Eighteenth-Century and Enlightenment Studies Network, and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.