Apr 28, 2008

A.Meyer, «The Experience of Human Diversity and the Search for Unity. Concepts of Mankind in the Late Enlightenment»,Cromohs, 8 (2003): 1-15,

The epoch-making upheaval in European epistemological and scientific tradition in the eighteenth century is commonly regarded as being brought about by a “change of experience” in contemporary society. The German historian Reinhart Koselleck took the analysis of the gradual separation between what he called the “space of experience” and the “horizon of expectation” as the starting point for his definition of modernity, the origins of which he set between 1750 and 1850.[1] Likewise Michel Foucault, somewhat narrowing the period down around 1800, recognised these decades as the incubation period for the transformation of modern sciences.[2] In addition, the sociologist Wolf Lepenies diagnosed an enormous material growth in knowledge in the course of the eighteenth century which resulted in profound change in scientific methods of research and analysis. In particular Lepenies has pointed out the rise of the empirical imperative (Empirisierungszwang) mainly due to the pressure of ever expanding experience and observation (Erfahrungsdruck).[3]
What led to this fundamental change of experience which no longer followed the traditional patterns of explanation and no longer cherished the time-honoured sources of knowledge, including - above all of course - the Bible? And who was affected by the general change of experience?
Whilst an answer to these questions should start with analysing the ground-breaking discoveries in the natural sciences of the seventeenth century, it is also vital to take tho most general popularization of “knowledge” in the course of the eighteenth century into account. This popularization proceeded at different paces in different countries, but the general process was marked by a democratization in the access to “knowledge”. Typical exemples of this process of of this democratization include the opening of private libraries to the public, the foundation of academies, clubs and societies, all of which were important moments in the “structural transformation of the public sphere”.[4] The possibility of gaining new experiences, whether through the test-tube or through travel accounts, was no longer reserved to small academic circles; through the “revolution of print”, in quote Robert Darnton, such indirect experiences reached an increasingly broader readership, a process that has also been described as a revolution through reading.[5] Studies of the many newly established public libraries show that travel accounts were at the top of the list of requested books. The information concerning foreign peoples – and especially the study of the so-called “savages” - became a matter of broad public discussion, whereas up until then it had only been debated in small specialist circles.[6]

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