On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism, and Exoticism in French Thought

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Harvard University Press, 1993 - Ethnology - 424 pages

How can we think about peoples and cultures unlike our own? In the early modern period, the fact of human diversity presented Europeans with little cause for anxiety: they simply assumed the superiority of the West. During the eighteenth century this view was gradually abandoned, as thinkers argued that other peoples possessed reason and sensibility, and thus deserved the same respect that Westerners accorded themselves. Since that time, however, Enlightenment belief in the universals of human nature has fallen into disrepute; critics allege that such notions have had disastrous consequences in the twentieth century, ranging from prejudice to persecution and outright genocide.

Tzvetan Todorov, an internationally admired scholar, aims in this book to salvage the good name of the Enlightenment so that its ideas can once more inspire humane thought and action. The question he poses is of urgent relevance to the conflicts of our age: How can we avoid the dangers of a perverted universalism and scientism, as well as the pitfalls of relativism? Since the French were the ideologues of universalism and played a preeminent role in the diffusion of Enlightenment ideas in Europe, Todorov focuses on the French intellectual tradition, analyzing writers ranging from Montaigne through Tocqueville, Michelet, and Renan, to Lévi-Strauss. He shows how theories of human diversity were developed in the eighteenth century, and later systematically distorted. The virtues of Enlightenment thought became vices in the hands of nineteenth-century thinkers, as a result of racism, nationalism, and the search for exoticism. Todorov calls for us to reject this legacy and to strive once again for an acceptance of human diversity, through a "critical humanism" prefigured in the writings of Rousseau and Montesquieu.

This is a work of impressive erudition and insight--a masterly synthesis that can help us think incisively about the racial and ethnic tensions confronting the world today.

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The Universal and the Relative

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About the author (1993)

Tzvetan Todorov was born in Sofia, Bulgaria on March 1, 1939. He did his undergraduate studies at the University of Sofia and then moved to France to pursue postgraduate work. He completed his doctorate at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in 1966 and he began teaching at the National Center for Scientific Research in 1968. In 1983, he helped found the Center for Arts and Language Research, involving scholars from both institutions. He was a literary theorist and historian. He wrote numerous books including The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, On Human Diversity, Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, A French Tragedy: Scenes of Civil War Summer 1944, The New World Disorder: Reflections of a European, and Fear of the Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations. He died of multiple system atrophy, a progressive brain disorder, on February 7, 2017 at the age of 77.

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