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From Amy Allen to Abbé Raynal: critical theory, the enlightenment and colonialism
journal contributionposted on 2019-01-01, 00:00 authored by Matthew Sharpe
This paper is a critical response to Amy Allen’s The End of Progress: Decolonising the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory. We take up her book’s call for a “problematizing” history which challenges “taken-for-granted” preconceptions in order to contest Allen’s own representation of the thought of the enlightenment. Allen accepts that all the enlighteners agreed upon a stadial, progressive account of history, which she critiques epistemically and normatively (Part 1). But we show in Part 2, drawing on the work of Henri Vyverberg and other historians of eighteenth century ideas, that a cyclical, rise and fall account of historical succession was more prominent than the progressive narrative in leading enlighteners such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert, Condillac, Jancourt, Grimm, and Raynal, all of whom Allen does not mention. In Part 3, we show that not all thinkers of the enlightenment were pro-colonial or pro-imperialist, as Allen also presupposes in The End of Progress. By examining Abbé Raynal’s History of The Two Indies in Part 3, and notably its Diderotian interpolations, we show that many enlighteners propounded fierce criticisms of European colonialism and the slave trade, even calling directly for armed resistance against European infractions. In critical theorists’ search for chastened normative foundations, our concluding remarks contend, there is a need to develop more accurate, balanced, post-postmodern reckonings of the enlightenment.