Temporalities, historical writing and the meaning of the revolution: an Eurasian view*


Preprint Alessandro Stanziani



During last years, new approaches put the revolutionary moment of the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth century into a global perspective.[1] The main attempt consisted in escaping from national and Eurocentric vision of revolutions; thus, the American as well as the French revolution are presented as the consequence and the origin of global economic, political and social transformation of the world, while revolutions in Saint-Domingue, India or Latin America responded to local as well as to global factors.[2]


If this is so, then the historical notion of revolution itself requires to be put under scrutiny as well. Here, the main reference is of course Koselleck’s analysis.[3] The main lines of this study are well known: echoing Hanna Arendt, Koselleck argued that the notion of revolution moved from astronomy (the Copernican revolution) to politics and history.[4] The shift from cyclical to linear time in the notion of revolution was expressed by Hobbes (among the others) in the 1640s, then again by Locke forty years later. In both cases it was associated to the restoration of the crown.[5] However, in order to make this evolution possible, in political terms, the qualification of conflicts had to be moved from civil war (and the restoration) to revolution. As such, the cyclical time left the place to unilineal time and progress.[6] Time as expecting horizon succeeded to time as return. As such, revolution became an irreversible shift, a radical change in society and politics. This shift expressed that from an ancient regime society based on estates to a bourgeois society.[7]


This approach strongly influenced historians in their investigation of the shifting perception and organization of time, not only in intellectual, but also in social and economic history.[8] These interpretations preserved the breaking impact of the enlightenment and the industrial revolution and related the organization of time to that of the new society.


However, more recently, several authors criticized this interpretation; some, like David Armitage empirically contested Koselleck’s argument by arguing that the idea of revolution as a change was widespread since the antiquity, and therefore, the building of the British Empire expressed less the tension between Restoration and Revolution than a coexistence of multiple forces over the long run.[9] This approach found a broader support in a recent edited book in which several authors stressed the coexistence of the two meanings of the revolution in Britain over the long-run.[10] The strength of this work consists in its effort to escape from historical determinism and from the clear-cut opposition between history of ideas and the social-economic history of the revolution. Its main limitations are located in the lack of global synchronic connections and the quick dismissal of any structural explanation of the revolutions.


Along a more general perspective, François Hartog argued that since the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the obsession with the present coexisted and to a given extent overburdened Koselleck’s future-past in the social construction of (historical) time.[11]


Anthropologists also advanced different (from Koselleck’s) orientations: one the one hand, structuralist perceptions of time and Braudelien longue durée put the accent on continuities in culture, politics and society.[12] On the other hand, Geertz and several other anthropologists insisted (like Armitage) on the multiplicity of time perceptions inside the same society and the same temporal space.[13]


In the following pages, I would like to pursue this conversation along the following lines:

  1. were perceptions and practices of the revolution in the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries a purely German, French, anglo-saxon affair? Or, saying in other terms, how Eurocentric are the mentioned approaches to revolution and time?

I will show that the identification of the notion and practices of the revolution were not just a Western and trans-atlantic, but a global affair.

  1. Can we still hold that the notion of revolution moved from cosmology to society and politics?

I will argue that the answer is not so clear, and that not only in Asia but also in the “West” this transition persisted over time. However, unlike Armitage’s argument, I will put this persistence into an eurasiatic space and relate to history writing and the changing meaning of “historical truthfulness”.

  1. Was the notion and practice of the revolution related to the raise and transmutation of the modern (nation) state?

We will see that empire building rather than the “crisis” of the monarchic state was at the roots of the changing meaning of the revolution.


Where multiple worlds meet: revolution, theatre and cosmographies


In late 1658, François Bernier arrived in Sourat, a port city on the coast of Gujarat. By the spring of 1659, he had joined the circle of associates surrounding Crown Prince Dara, who was to succeed Shah Jahan to the Mughal throne. Bernier remained at the Mughal court for three years. There he became the official imperial chronicler for all of Europe, seeking to “expose” the false elements in the histories of the Moghul monarchs, and the erroneous notions about India entertained by Europeans.[14]


An increasing bibliography on Bernier is available, concerning his attitude towards the Moghul, the impact of Gassendi and Spinoza, his orientalism, his role on the French colonial ambitions, his notion of race etc.[15] Here I will focus on a more modest concern, that is, his notion of revolution in connexion with historical writing. His experiences with Dara and later Aurangzeb, prompted him to reflect on the notion of “revolution”, a term he readily employed to describe Aurangzeb’s overthrow of the Crown Prince. The using of this term by Barnier derived from both French and Moghul influences. Thus, on November 13th, 1661, Jean Chapelain wrote to Bernier: he encouraged his desire to travel and suggest him to know “l’histoire et les revolutions de ce royaume” not only since Tamerlan (Timur) but since Alexander the great.[16] In this letter, unlike Koselleck’s argument, revolution already meant political changes which were not cyclical but irreversible.[17]


There were important mutual influences between the French and the Indian context and these were clear in Bernier’s approach. Like most Indian chroniclers of the period, Bernier presented several versions of the same event, drawing at the same time on Gassendi for the probabilistic approach to history.[18] Multiple interpretations and variations were all equally possible and, instead of presenting one as the real and unique, Bernier (like Gassendi) translated the statistical principle of probability and likely (vraisemblable) into a style of history.[19] Bernier combined his critique of geocentric thinking with a critique of historicity: the Copernican revolution and the search for historical truth were one and the same process.[20]


In this respect, historical writing was produced at the interface with statistics and astronomy on the one hand, literature and theatre on the other hand. Bernier draw on Racine for stylistic inspiration (in particular the principles Racine exposed in the second preface to Bajazet, where he stressed the advantage of writing on distant people and times).[21] In Athalie, Racine put on the stage the British glorious revolution transposed in a mythical antiquity. King’s legitimacy descend from the law and by God and the exercise of power in itself is not a valuable legitimation of it.[22] Actually the using of the theatre in historical representation and analysis was extremely widespread in Western Europe (from Camillo, through Lull down to Giordano Bruno and Rameau)[23] and in Russia.[24]


Yet, Bernier’s approach found his inspiration also in the way, in the Mughal world, dynastic changes were incorporated into the framework of cosmography. These aspects have been brilliantly studied by a number of authors, notably Muzzafar Alam.[25] In fact, universality accompanied the writing of history in Mughal India, a synthesis of Hindu and Muslim elements. Cosmographies and the writing of history were part of this synthesis. Persian and Islamic interpretations of history were well-known in the Mughal court and state. Along with these documents in Persian, many others were produced in Hindi, Marathi, Rajasthani, Punjabi, Sindhi and Bengali. These attitudes reflect the cosmopolitanism of the Mughal Empire.[26]


Through the interaction among these various influences, Bernier’s work became a model of the Eurasian crossroads of historical and scientific knowledge. Thus, histories of the evolution and use of the term “revolution” based entirely on French sources miss an essential aspect, namely its transnational and global dimension. Revolution as a political and historical category did not come into being with the French revolution, but much earlier, in the context of knowledge circulating in Eurasia. In order to understand this point, we must put Bernier’s effort into a wider and long debate about time, periodization, and historical writing.


History writing and time


Well before Bernier, in 1560, the philosopher Francesco Patrizzi suggested giving all of the versions of a history or event in the same text. This was one of the variants of the skepticism that spread precisely around the mid-seventeenth century, a solution that we find in India, the Ottoman Empire down to Gessendi and Bernier a century later. Ottoman historians made use of several different notions of time and temporal divisions (temporalities), calendars, annals, cosmologies, etc. With Celebi, they began looking for ways to unify these temporal units and to highlight the breaks and continuities in history. This approach was distinct from the expression of temporal divisions in keeping with divine revelation.[27] In addition to astronomical time and prophetic time (revelations), which were universal, some Muslim historians claimed communities also had their own history.[28] Consequently, epics and histories of regions and cities proliferated, along with biographies.[29] At the same time, contrary to the ideas of Ibn Khaldun, Celebi and other Ottoman historians thought the cyclical process that inevitably doomed dynasties to extinction could be interrupted by an exceptional instance—namely, the Ottoman dynasty.[30]


Philosophical Scepticism and its impact on historical writing was mirrored in China by the works of Li Zhi (1527–1602), whereas Qu Jingchun (1506–1569) developed a critical philological method containing passages strikingly reminiscent of Jean Bodin’s observations. This process continued under the Qing until the eighteenth century, when China manifested a tendency towards universalism and an interest in travel and cartography equivalent to those in the West. The circulation of historiographical knowledge and mutual influences was not limited to Europe and China however; for centuries, the Chinese also had connections with the Mongol world through the Manchus, as well as with the Russians, the Ottoman world and India.[31] Scholars and their works circulated alongside pilgrims, merchants and goods.[32] The evolution of Chinese historiography was shaped by internal dynamics as well as by the influences of Western (through Jesuits), Islamic (including Iranian), Indian and Mongol thought.[33] Conversely, Europeans, as they did for the Mughal court, did not hesitate to qualify as revolution the transition from the Ming to Qing dynasty.[34]


In sum, the two meanings of the revolution and the tension between cosmological and political time were widespread in Europe and Asia and circulated within these areas. These multiple meanings were related to intellectual stakes—the notion of historical truthfulness—and to political stakes as well, namely state and empire building.


History writing and Empire building


In France as in other western countries, the birth of what is known as “modern” historiography is often associated with that of the modern state, the latter being identified with the nation state. To a given extent, Koselleck’s analysis of the word “revolution” relies on this argument. This interpretation calls for qualification, for during the period under consideration here, Empires, not just monarchic and nation state dominated the world stage. This connection is often lost in Eurocentric histories of European historiography, which tend to underestimate not only the importance of similar dynamics in non-European worlds, but also the very early interface between Empire and nation in Europe itself. For sure, erudition and philology constituted a demand of the monarchic state vis-à-vis the papacy and local authorities as well as powerful tools for imperial and colonial expansion. In this context, the opposition between the term civil war and revolution was not so clear as Koselleck argued. In particular, if this distinction was often advocated in the late eighteenth century, and to a given extent since the mid-century, before that date the word revolution could equally be supportive of the absolutist monarchy and, as such, it coexisted with the term “civil war” to describe institutional breaks in the past and in the present as well.


In this context, philology acted not only to validate and certify, but also to produce and legitimize new hierarchies of languages between national and regional languages on the one hand, and between these languages and Latin on the other. Thus, in seventeenth century France, law and history intervened to validate the royal power, but also to establish a new class of legitimate estate owners. Attempts to establish cadasters and validate certified titles of ownership reflected this aim.[35] The stake was not just academic, but it was relevant to justify the royal authority vis-à-vis de pope, the estate owners and the so called “provincial authorities”. The Bourges school, then Cujas supported a nationwide interpretation of the roman rule—at the moment when the nation, at this time being the monarchic state, was still attempting to establish and confirm its authority.[36] The historian and the antiquary converged and they directly intervened in state building. [37] Jean Bodin (Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem—Method for the easy comprehension of history, 1566) opposed the functioning of royal monarchies with seigniorial powers based on this same discussion on the origin, validity, and classification of documents.[38] The definition of sovereignty and historical knowledge progressed hand in hand.


However, it will be limitative to refer these quarrels exclusively to the tensions between monarchism and republicanism. Although important, this was not the only tension insofar it went along with the identification of the imperium and potestas. Without the empire, the evolution in the meaning of history, historical truth, and revolution would have not been the same. Jean Bodin distinguished imperium and summum imperium and identified this last with sovereignty. He therefore contested the interpretation of the roman law as provided by the pope and by the holy roman empire and its Germanic roots incompatible, according to him, with the real roman law. Unwritten rules were gathered and codified by the monarch, and the state power gave eventually legal validity to them, instead of the other way round. Orality was legally qualified. The written documents, and their validation by the monarch, the law and philology, were prime vis-à-vis all other rules: merchant rules, peasants and seigniorial rules and, then indigenous habits in the colonies.[39]


Well studied for the Spanish conquest of the Americas,[40] this approach was equally central in France, in the Mediterranean first, when captives were redeemed vis-à-vis the Turkish and also vis-à-vis the municipal (Marseille in particular) attempts to do so. Only the king authority was legitimate to redeem captives and negotiate with the Moors. It was starting from this experience, that the French state authority exerted its claims and rights vis-à-vis war captives in the American colonies, that is: indigenous population, then slaves. In this context, the certification and validation of documents and authority was essential.[41]


However, it was not only a question of certification but also of translation. This stake, already essential in the validation of documents in from Latin into French (or Italian, Spanish etc) became even more determinant when non-European worlds were concerned. Translating and learning the languages of colonized peoples were both part of imperial management, and influenced the constitution of modern historiography. Said saw this clearly for Europe, and linked it to European domination; however, he did not see that this process also took place in Russia, China, India, and the Ottoman Empire. In all of these cases, the identification of “historical method,” the content of history, and the legitimizing of Empires were linked; yet these interactions yielded different results, which were not so much expressed in the conventional opposition between European “scientific history” founded on erudition and philology and mythological history outside of Europe, since these elements were present everywhere. The differences were located in other features of the historical knowledge; in Europe, the association between history and philology was partly a product of humanism and partly of colonial expansion. Western Empires tended to be much more exclusive in relation to Eurasian Empires, and in this respect produced notions and practices of historicity that aimed to confirm this exclusivity vis-à-vis colonized peoples. This difference was connected not only to philology and erudition, as Said and Greenblatt have shown,[42] but also to the use that European authorities made of history in the practices of law and history. These fields of knowledge acted to justify property, profit and race, and to thereby legitimize the European conquest of the world.


Thus, in 1664, Pierre Boucher wrote his Histoire véritable et naturelle des mœurs et productions du pays de la Nouvelle France precisely to combat the reluctance of the French to settle in Nouvelle France and the first-hand accounts of the Jesuit missionaries. In his book, Boucher presents some historical background on the local population groups and a description of the environment, concluding that, apart from Iroquois, mosquitos and harsh winters, life across the ocean was idyllic. He also demonstrates that the worlds undergoing colonisation were inhabited by savages who needed to be civilised. This is where history comes in: it was not simply a question of invoking the natives’ lack of property deeds to justify occupying their lands, but henceforth of recounting the story of colonisation itself. Revolution intervened here to justify the escape from paganism and the restoration of the “real” authority, that of the King of France.


In Louisiana, French national sentiment became much more significant precisely in those colonies opposed to slaves; the nation became racialized as it grew more diverse. This was a two-way process, as in the metropole these elements raised problems in the relations between the French, Creoles, and those slaves arriving in France. This latter problem was in principle settled very quickly during the time of Louis XIV, when it was decided that any slave setting foot on French soil would be free. However, in practice, the question remained highly controversial, and different tribunals issued varying decisions.[43] Yet again, certifications and genealogies acted to validate or disprove these elements. Revolution in this context was both a radical transformation of local societies and the restoration of the legitimate power of the Monarchy over them.


In similar fashion, across the Channel, beginning in the 1540s a number of actors in England evoked the “mission” and duty of their kingdom to subjugate Scotland, while on the Scottish side there was instead an insistence on equality between the two powers.[44] This is where history intervened: the English and Scottish each invoked their own national myths, which they presented as well-founded history. They also attacked their opponent’s version, calling it invention. They used philological techniques and erudition to prove their respective arguments and to produce a critical analysis of the sources and documents used. For example, on the English side documents were mobilized proving that the Scottish had already been vassals of the King of England during the Middle Ages, while Scottish books hastened to demonstrate the opposite. This debate led to the emergence of the concept of empire within English political thought: the imperium of the English king included dominii in Scotland.[45]


Once the question of Scotland was settled, the ambitions of this new entity—Great Britain (Scotland, Wales, and England)—with respect to Ireland changed the situation. James VI of Scotland, who founded the Stuart dynasty and took the title of James I of England, proposed for the first time a notion of Britishness that was also inclusive of Ireland. For this he relied on not only the imperial construction that began in the 1540s, but also on the Imperium Anglorum of the tenth century, and then on the edicts and charters from the reign of Edward I (1272–1307) in order to make evident the long-term nature and precedents of his claims.[46] Great Britain became a res publica in the Roman sense of the term: a common good basing its sovereignty on an empire. James I launched an undertaking to develop plantations in Ulster supported by “British families,” which is to say Scottish and English owners and colonizers. He received such support from British elites that between 1606–1610, a number of observers, including Francis Bacon, contrasted the profitability and value of plantations in Ulster with the folly of plantations in Virginia.[47] This Irish experience was fundamental, as the appropriation of land, use of forms of servitude, and the authority of the King of England—who was henceforth the sovereign of Great Britain—was exported to Ireland and the new world. However, justification for possessions in America quickly appeared more complicated than for domains in Ireland. The Spanish were seeking in turn to legitimize their colonization through a papal bull giving property of American territory to the King of Spain. They believed that similar authorization was also required for other European powers. English observers quickly replied that only the authority of the king counted; to do so they set out to analyze documents from the twelfth century in addition to the meaning of the Latin word dominium. They ultimately ended up converging dominium and imperium, with empire thus being a domain of the crown. This rhetoric could not hide, in addition to the obvious analogies, the differences between the Irish experience and that of the new world. Unlike Ireland, no American colony had a king or a parliament. Also, the English and Scottish were a minority in Ireland, while in America they quickly surpassed the Indians due to immigration and extermination. The definition of real property also transformed in the New World: while in Ireland it retained the primary characteristic of English aristocratic property, it was different on the other side of the Atlantic.[48] In the mid-seventeenth century, sovereignty still remained a difficult notion to define and to subsequently put into practice: chartered companies (such as the East India Company) and those close to the crown enjoyed major privileges in the Americas.


In this same context, John Locke published Two Treatises of Government.[49] It is important to stop for a moment and focus on this point, because this work and its author are systematically cited as examples of la nouvelle pensée and “liberalism” of the Enlightenment. In reality, the Two Treatises confirms that there was a close connection in Britain between historiography, colonial expansion and the emergence of Enlightenment philosophy. While Locke defended liberty and saw slavery as subjection to the arbitrary power, he nevertheless justified the enslavement of prisoners of war.[50] It is precisely starting from the colonial experience that Locke and his followers progressively moved from the idea of revolution as restoration to the notion of revolution as a major political break. The Enlightenment contributed to consolidate this trend.


History writing vs the philosophy of history


Eighteenth-century discussions of history, its meaning and methods were part of the transnational and imperial philosophical and anthropological thinking of time.[51] This wave of thinking moved well beyond the boundaries of France and Western Europe into Eastern Europe, Russia, Asia and the Americas.[52] History writing and the philosophy of history were at the roots of the new meaning of the revolution. This meant a new approach to non‑European worlds. Thus several philosophes were caught up in the widespread fascination with China and its civilisation.[53] In Continuation des pensées diverses published in 1705, Bayle sought to show parallels between Chinese classical philosophy and Spinoza’s thought, claiming to find in Confucianism not only religious toleration but also the idea that social and political stability depend on morality. Quoting Bernier and his travels, he also argued that similar tendencies had been detected in India and Persia and more broadly in Sufism.


Montesquieu came to a similar conclusion, but from a different angle: he attacked the Jesuits for propagating erroneous ideas about China. In his opinion, the Chinese lived according to some of the world’s highest moral precepts, which had nothing to do with religious principles.[54]


The reflections of Enlightenment thinkers regarding Islam confirm their divergent attitudes towards other cultures. During the second half of the seventeenth century, numerous Islamic works had been translated from Arabic into Latin, and later into Spanish and the principal European languages. The publication of these texts continued in the eighteenth century, helping to revive discussions about Averroism and Islam. Pietro Giannone (1678–1648), a Neapolitan, encouraged greater familiarity with Islam, which he considered the “sister of Christianity”. Giannone spoke of the revolution in Islam and extended this term to describe the changing dynasties in the Islamic world as well as the passage of Naples from Spain to Austria.[55]


In a similar vein, Mably judged in 1751 the Arab conquest of the Near East, Iran, and North Africa of the seventh century as one of the most important revolutions in history.[56] In short, revolution as a fundamental change eventually related to dynastic breaks and not only to social movement from below was quite common during the first half of the eighteenth century. Influences from Chinese and Islamic thought and historiography, eventually mediated by Jesuits and other intermediaries, were highly important.


For most actors in this period, the paramount question was this: how can we understand the meaning of history, its methods, and its social role in a rapidly changing context not only in France and in Europe, but on a global scale?


This question became inescapable because reflections on history provided the only ground for accepting or rejecting both the transformations under way and “others” (in the broad sense not only of “exotic” peoples, but also peasants in relation to city dwellers, merchants in relation to noble elites, and so on). The new meaning of the revolution emerged in this context. As most Enlightenment authors were intent on writing universal histories, the issue of source reliability was especially crucial in the case of non-European worlds. The travel literature and first-hand accounts of missionaries were well known; these works were found in the personal libraries of Voltaire, Raynal, Diderot and Turgot. Abbé Prevost was one of the first to question the trustworthiness of these narratives. In Volume XII of his Histoire des voyages, written in 1754, he distinguished the reports made by observers from the stories produced by writers who had never set foot outside Europe, and limited his reading to the writings of real travellers.[57] In his view, the boundary line between history and fiction was blurred because they depended on the same sources. A novelist himself, Prevost therefore decided to bring some order to the process and develop a genuine history and geography, signalling the shift from wonderment to the analysis of sources.


Rousseau adopted a similar approach in the notes to his Second discours, insisting that although

for three or four hundred years, the inhabitants of Europe have been flooding across the rest of the globe and constantly publishing new accounts of travels and encounters, I am convinced that the only men we know are Europeans.[58]

This sort of scepticism towards travel literature was common among les philosophes; some distinguished the writings of genuine travellers from the second-hand accounts of anthologists; others relentlessly exposed Western prejudices, e.g. those of the Spanish compared with those of British, etc.[59] The new literature, synthesised in l’Encyclopédie or in l’Histoire des deux Indes, no longer sought to create a sense of wonderment and reveal curiosities, but rather to offer reasoned, philosophical analysis of the world. Writers no longer needed to know languages; on the contrary, they could rely on philosophical reason alone to validate (or invalidate) a source. Historical change, and thus the new meaning of the revolution was a by-product of this general reflection.


It is not by chance if first attempt to write “Russian” history departed from this approach. In 1739, Vasily Tatishchev, a proponent like Peter of the Russian “Westernisation”, published a history of Russia dating back to ancient times (Istoriia Rossiiskaia s samykh drevneishikh vremen). His five-volume opus, the fruit of twenty years of research, was based on Russian chronicles, his own travels and observations and extensive reading of Western literature. Along with other European and Asian authors during this period, Tatishchev criticised conventional histories—the Letopises (chronicles) and synopses—which he called mythologies. He took on the task of separating historical truth from falsehood. He conceived of Russian history as an imperial and universal, and therefore devoted special attention to the empire’s non-Russian populations and the specific origin of its slaves.[60] In this perspective, continuities instead of historical breaks were certainly put in the foreground, but they were related to dynastic timeline. However, Tatishchev’s universal history had to contend with the interpretation of Mikhail Lomonosov, who aimed to show that Russians and the populations of the North (Germanic and northern European) were not merely interconnected but in fact one and the same people. At the Academy of Sciences, Lomonosov set out to identify the purely Slavic origins of Russia, which, in view of its age and civilisation, he considered comparable to Rome and Byzantium. Based on these principles, Lomonosov produced a four-volume history of ancient Russia (Drevniaia rossiskaia istoriia). His critique of the sources resulted in a Russocentric history in which “longue durée” and nationalism went hand in hand.


In 1783–1784, Catherine II published her own Remarques concernant l’histoire de la Russie in an attempt to demonstrate the ancient origin of the Slavs and their language. Again, imperial building was the major stake: this rewriting was used to justify Russian imperial expansion into Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania based on the specificity of Slavs and their presence outside Russia strictu sensu since antiquity. In Russia, as in Western Europe when confronted to “backward” peasants in the mainland and indigenous people in the colonies, the new historiography made a clear-cut distinction between oral tradition (peasants, nomads) and written documents as well as between myth and genuine history. In this perspective, peasants unrest, in particular after Pugachev signed the end of the alliance between enlightened despots and philosophers. Catherine II introduced reforms protecting the nobility and encouraging it to improve agriculture while strongly repressing peasants. At the opposite, after the 1770s, many French philosophers, previously close to Catherine, lost their faith in her and moved to radical enlightenment. This is where the revolution as a category intervened.


Starting mainly in the late 1770s, Diderot and Rousseau argued that the other civilisations were in fact superior to the one in a corrupt Europe. Their negative reactions stemmed from disappointment in the enlightened French and Russian monarchs who had failed to introduce the reforms expected by the philosophes. The 1780s therefore brought a radicalization of the philosophes’ positions on the French and Russian monarchies. Rather than reforms implemented by monarchs, who were henceforth regarded as despots, it was considered better to trust in popular movements and revolution. From the 1780s on, Diderot and Condillac associated their skepticism about enlightened despotism with a more general criticism of European civilization.[61] As Condillac suggested, “Too much communication with Europe was less likely to civilize (policer) the Russians than to make them adopt the vices of civilized nations.”[62]


In l’Histoire des deux Indes and its many subsequent editions, Raynal and Voltaire’s attitude evolved into a viewpoint more closely aligned with that of Rousseau. L’histoire des deux Indes deliberately abandoned description in favour of philosophical and political analysis, thereby altering the relationship between national culture, European civilisation and universal dynamics. Henceforth, the role of history was no longer to describe and marvel at exotic worlds, but to fit them into a universal framework of historical transformation. Philosophy of history was the answer to solve the dilemma of historical truth. It is not by chance that counter-revolutionary tendencies of the 19th century associated philology to political stability (Ranke) and opposed history (as philology) to the revolutionary philosophy of history, further confirmed by Marx. Revolution was now a purely Eurocentric and normative, deterministic category.

*English language to be edited in the final version.

[1] Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson, eds., The French Revolution in Global Perspective (Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 2013); David Armitage and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eds., The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760–1840 (New York: Palgrave Mac Millan, 2010).

[2] Jeremy Adelman, Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). D. A. Brading, The First America: the Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots and the Liberal State, 1492–1867 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[3] Reinhart Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft. Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten, (Frankfurt a. M: Suhrkamp, 1979), engl. transl. Futures Past. On the Semantics of historical time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); Chapter on revolution originally published, not by chance, after 1968: Zeitschrift für die Einheit der Wissenschaften im Zusammenhang ihrer Begriffsbildungen und Forschungsmethoden 22, no. 8 (1969): 825–38.

[4] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1963).

[5] Reinhart Koselleck, ‘Revolution’, in Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck, eds., Geschichtliche Grudbegriffe: Historisches Lexicon zur Politisch-Sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, 9 vols. (Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, 1972–1990).

[6] On this: Alexandre Escudier, “Temporalisation et modernité politique: penser avec Koselleck,” Annales HSS 64, no. 6 (2009): 1269–1301.

[7] For further interpretations of Koselleck see the excellent synthesis by Willibald Steinmetz, “Nachruf auf Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006),” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 32, no. 3 (2006): 412–432. Willibald Steinmetz, Michael Freeden, and Javier Fernandez-Sebastian, eds., Conceptual History in the European Space (New York, Oxford: Berghahn, 2017).

[8] Witold Kula, Les mesures et les hommes (Paris: EHESS, 1985). E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past and Present 38 (1967): 56–97.

[9] David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[10] Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein, eds., Scripting Revolutions (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[11] François Hartog, Régimes d’historicité (Paris: Seuil, 2003).

[12] Johannes Fabian, Time and the Others. How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), trad. française (Toulouse: Anacharsis edition, 2006).

[13] Clifford Geertz, Local knowledge (London: Basic Books, 1985).

[14] François Bernier, Un libertin dans l’Inde Moghole (Paris: Chandeigne, 2008); Michael Harrigan, “Seventeenth-Century French Travellers and the Encounter with Indian Histories,” French History 28, no. 1 (2014): 1–22.

[15] P. Bulle, “François Bernier and the Origins of the concept of Race,” in The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France, eds. S. Peabody and T. Stovall (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2003), 11–27. Peter Burke, “The Philosopher as Traveller: Bernier’s Orient,” in Voyages and Visions: Towards a Cultural History of Travel, eds. J. Elsner and J.-P. Rubiés (London: 1999), 124–137. N. Dew, Orientalism in Louis XIV’s France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); J.-P. Rubiès, “Oriental Despotism and European Orientalism: Botero to Montesquieu,” Journal of Early Modern History 9 (2005): 106–180.

[16] Quoted in Bernier, Un Libertin (see note 14), 18; Jean Chapelain, Lettres, 2nd vol. (2 janvier 1659–20 décembre 1672), ed. Ph. Tamizey de Larroque (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1883).

[17] Armitage, The age of revolution (see note 1), introduction XV–XVI.

[18] José Freches, “François Bernier, philosophe de Confucius au XVIIe siècle,” Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient 60 (1973): 385–400.

[19] Sylvia Murr, ed., “Bernier et les gassendistes,” Corpus 20–21 (1992): 115–135.

[20] Paolo Francesco Mugnai, “Ricerche su François Bernier filosofo e viaggiatore (1620–1688),” Studi filosofici VII (1984): 53–115; Joan-Pau Rubies, “Race, Climate and Civilization in the Works of François Bernier,” in L’Inde des Lumières: Discourse, histoire, savoirs (XVIIe–XIXe siècle) eds. Marie Fourcade and Ines Zupanov (Paris: EHESS, 2013).

[21] “Lettre envoyé à Monsieur Chapelain,” 4 Octobre 1667, in Bernier, Un Libertin (see note 14), 301–344.

[22] Jean Marie Goulemot, Le règne de l’histoire (Paris: Albin Michel, 1996), 102 and ff.

[23] Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966).

[24] Richard Stites, Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[25] Muzzafar Alam, The Languages of Political Islam, 1200–1800 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004); Louise Marlow, Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Tarif Khalidi, Historical Thought in the Classical Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[26] Satish Chandra, State, Pluralism, and the Indian Historical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Corinne Lefèvre, Ines Zupanov, and Jorge Flores, eds., Cosmopolitismes en Asie du Sud. Sources, itinéraires, langues (XVIe–XVIIIe siècles) (Paris: EHESS, 2015).

[27] Aziz Al-Azmeh, The Times of History. Universal Topics in Islamic Historiography (New York: Central European University Press, 2007).

[28] Cemal Kadafar, Hakan Karateke, and Cornell H. Fleischer, “Historians of the Ottoman Empire,” last modified February 25, 2018, https://cmes.fas.harvard.edu/projects/ottoman-historians.

[29] Maurus Reinkowski and Hakan Karateke, eds., Legitimizing the Order: Ottoman Rhetoric of State Power (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

[30] Gottfried Hagen, Ethan Menchinger, “Ottoman Historical Thought,” in A Wiley Companion to Global Historical Thought , eds. Prasenjit Duara, Viren Murthy, and Andrew Sartori (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 92–106.

[31] Morris Rossabi, ed, Eurasian Influences on Yuan China (Singapore: ISEAS, 2013).

[32] Edward Wang, Franz Fillafer, eds., The Many Faces of Clio: Cross-Cultural Approaches to Historiography (New York: Berghahn, 2007).

[33] Liam Brockey, Journey to the East: the Jesuit Mission to China, 1579–1724 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007); N Balbir and M Szuppe, eds., Lecteurs et copistes dans les traditions manuscrites iraniennes, indiennes et centrasiatiques (Eurasian Studies XII) (Rome, Halle: Istituto per l’Oriente C. A. Nallino, 2014).

[34] Sven Trakulhun, “Das Ende der Ming-Dynastie in China (1644). Europäische Perspektiven auf eine ‘große Revolution’,” in Revolutionsmedien—Medienrevolutionen, eds. Sven Grampp, et al. (Konstanz: UVK, 2008), 475–508.

[35] Jean Bodin, La méthode pour la connaissance de l’histoire, ed. Pierre Mesnard (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1951); Henri See, “La philosophie de l’histoire de Jean Bodin,” Revue historique 175 (1935): 497–505.

[36] Blandine Kriegel, L’histoire à l’âge classique (Paris: PUF, 1988).

[37] Arnaldo Momigliano, “L’histoire ancienne et l’antiquaire,” in Problèmes d’historiographie ancienne et moderne (Paris: Gallimard, 1983).

[38] Jean Bodin, Les six livres de la République (Paris: 1579).

[39] Gillian Weiss, Captives and Corsairs. France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011); Vincent Denis, Une histoire de l’identité: France, 1715–1815 (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2008); Nabil Matar, Islam and Britain, 1558–1685 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[40] Lewis Hanke, La Lucha española por la justicia, en la conquista de América (Madrid: Aguilar, 1967); Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: the American Indians and the origins of comparative anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Tzvetan Todorov, La Conquête de l’Amérique. La question de l’Autre (Paris: Seuil, 1982).

[41] Cecile Vidal, “Francité et situation coloniale. Nation, Empire et race en Louisiane française, 1699–1769,” Annales HSS 64, no. 5 (2009): 1019–1050. Cécile Vidal, “The Reluctance of French Historians to Address Atlantic History,” The Southern Quarterly 43, no. 4 (Special Issue: Imagining the Atlantic World, 2006): 153–189.

[42] Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[43] Sue Peabody, There Are no Slaves in France (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[44] Armitage, The Ideological Origins (see note 9), 37.

[45] Andrew Fitzmaurice, “Classical Rhetoric and the Promotion of the New World,” Journal of the History of Ideas 58 (1997): 221–244.

[46] Jane Dawson, “Two Kingdoms or Three? Ireland in the Anglo-Scottish Relations in the Middle of the 16th Century,” in Scotland and England, 1286–1815, ed. Roger Mason (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1987), 113–138.

[47] Francis Bacon, “Certain Considerations Touching the Plantation in Ireland, Presented to his Majesty, 1606,” in The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon, vol. IV, ed. James Spedding (London: Longman, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1868), 123.

[48] Jack Greene, “Introduction” in Exclusionary Empire. English Liberty Overseas, 1600–1900, ed. Jack Greene (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1–24.

[49] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (London: Butler, 1821, original: 1698).

[50] David Armitage, “John Locke, Carolina, and the Two Treatise of Government,” Political Theory 32, no. 5 (2004): 602–27. Brad Hinshelwood, “The Carolinian Context of John Locke’s Theory of Slavery,” Political Theory 41, no. 4 (2013): 562–590.

[51] Michèle Duchet, Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des lumières (Paris: Albin Michel, 1971).

[52] Sebastian Conrad, “Enlightenment in Global Perspective. A Historiographical Critique,” American Historical Review 117, no. 4 (2012): 999–1027.

[53] René Étiemble, L’Europe chinoise, Tome 2: De la sinophilie à la sinophobie (Paris: Gallimard, 1989).

[54] Montesquieu, De l’esprit des lois, vol. 1 (Genève: Chez Barillot et fils, 1748).

[55] Pietro Giannone, Opere, eds. Sergio Bertelli and Giuseppe Ricuperati (Milan: Hoepli, 1971), 60.

[56] Gabriel Bonnot de Mably, Observations sur les Romains (Geneva: Gems et Muller, 1751), II, 271.

[57] Antoine-François Prevost, Histoire générale des voyages ou nouvelle collection de toutes les relations de voyage par mer et par terre qui ont été publiées jusqu’à présent dans les différentes langues, XV vols. (Paris: Didot, 1746–1759). See in particular vol. XIV.

[58] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oeuvres politiques (Paris: Éditions de la Pleaide, 1967), III, 212.

[59] Cornelius de Pauw, Recherches philosophiques sur les Américains, 2 vols. (Berlin: Decker, 1768–9).

[60] Anatole Mazour, Modern Russian Historiography (Westport, Connecticut: Westview, 1975).

[61] Duchet, Anthropologie et histoire (see note 52), 134 f.

[62] Bennot-Etienne, abbé de Condillac, Oeuvres de Condillac, 23 vols. (Paris: C. Houel an VI [1798]), 20, 63–64.

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2 Responses

  1. Barbara Mittler says:

    Dear Alessandro:

    I have also sent these comments in an email because the system here did not allow me to add bold or cross-out which I needed to make some suggestions in English phrasing etc.
    So, here we go:

    This is a fantastic essay which serves very well to exemplify the typology given in Rüsen. The bibliography is wonderful!
    GENERAL point: It may be useful for you to rethink some of the statements you make in terms of the typology offered in the piece by Jörn Rüsen: is the kind of treatment of “revolution” one that could be called “traditional” in his typology (with the British example, around (25)) “exemplary” in his typology (when you talk about revolution as a chronotype), or “genetic” in his typology (when you show how ideas of revolution and empire evolve and exist, etc.) and/or “critical” in his typology (in the beginning, with your own approach and later with Vasily Tatishchev writing Russian history and others). How do these different approaches make views of “revolution” change. It would be great if you could use his terminology (critically) and engage with his argument a bit, so as to “test” his typology.

    @PUBLISHER: NEEDS ENGLISH EDITING (as is remarked at the end!)
    Here are just a few remarks on English, but the essay will be edited after revisions!

    (1) During the last years, new approaches have put the revolutionary moment of the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth century into a global perspective. The main attempt One of the major efforts consisted in escaping from a nation-state-basedal and Eurocentric vision of revolutions; thus, the American as well as the French revolution are presented as a the consequence of and the originating in of global economic, political and social transformation of the world, while revolutions in Saint-Domingue, India or Latin America are considered to have responded to local as well as to global factors.
    (2) As such, the cyclical time left the place gave way to unilineal time and progress.[6] Time as a expecting horizon of expectation was succeeded to by time as return. As such, revolution became an irreversible shift, a radical change in society and politics. This shift expressed that from an ancient regime society based on estates to a bourgeois society.

    NOT sure, that this sentence below is clear to me, I think you might give us one more logical step that leads from “time as return” (not sure what you mean here) to revolution.
    (4) David Armitage empirically contested Koselleck’s argument by arguing that the idea of revolution as a change was widespread since the antiquity, and therefore, the building of the British Empire expressed less the tensions between Restoration and Revolution than a coexistence of multiple forces over time the long run.[9] This approach found a broader support in a recently edited book volume in which several authors stressed the coexistence of the two meanings of the revolution in Britain over time the long-run.[10]
    (REPETITION over time/the long-run…) Can you be more explicit about the arguments made? And in what context?
    … any structural explanation of the revolutions considered.
    (5) Along a more general perspective, François Hartog has argued that since the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the obsession with the present coexisted and to a given extent overburdened Koselleck’s future-past in the social construction of (historical) time.
    (6) one the one hand, structuralist perceptions of time and Braudelien longue durée put the accent on continuities in culture, politics and society.
    (7) wWere perceptions and practices of the revolution in the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries a purely German, French, aAnglo-sSaxon affair? Or, saying in other termsIn other words, how Eurocentric are these mentioned approaches to revolution and time really?
    into an eurasiatic space and relate it to history writing and the changing meaning of “historical truthfulness” more generally.
    related to the raise

    GREAT END for the introduction to your piece!
    We will see that empire building rather than the “crisis” of the monarchic state was at the roots of the changing meaning of the “revolution.”

    Etc. from here onwards, I am no longer commenting on the English but it needs, of course, to be tidied up because it blurs the clarity of the argument which in itself is great… This will be taken care of by the publisher, though.

    (9) (10)(11) THERE ARE a lot of names just mentioned here (and throughout the essay). Sometimes they are not even given in full, and often, without dates of birth and death: would it not make sense, since we are writing this for an interested audience from all regional specialties who may or may not be familiar with all these names, to mention in a half-sentence each, who someone mentioned is and where he belongs?

    probability and likely (vraisemblable)? DO YOU MEAN “likelihood” perhaps? ?
    (14) Ottoman historians made use of several different notions of time and temporal divisions (temporalities), calendars, annals, cosmologies, etc.
    THIS IS A really interesting observation, but can you give some evidence so that the reader can imagine what kinds of different types of time are being used?
    (14) In addition to astronomical time and prophetic time (revelations), which were universal,
    (15) China manifested a tendency towards universalism
    WHAT IS UNIVERSALISM IN THEIR INTERPRETATION? Can you explain your vocabulary in their or your own terms?

    WOULD IT BE OK to substitute throughout the essay “influence” through “inspiration” (because it give agency to those who were actually interested, rather than those who often did not even know that their works were being read/used etc.… )?
    (30) Influences Inspiration from Chinese and Islamic thought and historiography, eventually mediated by Jesuits and other intermediaries, were highly important.
    (32) and (33) there is a bit of repetition in terms of the argument of wanting to read the “real” travel literature, maybe the arguments and examples can be brought closer together
    (35) This is where the revolution as a category intervened.
    I REALLY like your final sentences of arguments or paragraphs, but sometimes they are so pointed, allusive and provocative that it is not quite clear for the reader what you are hinting at, it might be nice to explain a bit more what the argument is… (the empire state building allusion, for one, is of course, fantastic… but it needs to get illuminated!)
    This is also the case for the conclusion (37) or the final “FINALE”: it is very short and comes in quite abruptly (revolution?!), you might want to elaborate a bit more and condense a little less?

  2. emstolberg says:

    In section 5: “…Along a more general perspective, François Hartog argued that since the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the obsession with the present coexisted.” This is very intriguing. Could you explain the reason for this “obsession”?

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