Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

The Ottoman East and the `Moral Geography? of Europe's Enlightenment

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Karen Bird

Griffith University

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The Ottoman East and the ‘Moral Geography’ of Europe's Enlightenment

European perceptions of the Islamic Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century have often been read through the prism of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748). His ‘moral geography’ depicted a despotic and decayed Islamic Ottoman polity in contrast to the dynamism displayed in European states. Montesquieu’s comparisons and contrasts between the Ottoman East and Europe appear to support Edward Said’s claim that European thinkers in the eighteenth century adopted a similar binary approach. Indeed, while Said’s analysis of European ‘orientalism’ was predominately based on nineteenth century sources, eighteenth century ‘orientalists’ have to some extent been represented merely as precursors to this later binary construction. I argue however, that alternative “Orientalist” voices could be heard in Enlightenment Europe. These voices avoided the stereotypical depictions of ‘the Orient’ which were generally based on distorted and invariably demeaning European assumptions.By utilising critical discourse analysis I contest the rigidity of Said’s East-West binary, highlighting the contrarian views in the scholarship of Scottish doctors Alexander (1715-1768) and Patrick Russell (1726-1805) and British diplomat Sir James Porter (1710-1776) who lived, worked and documented their life experiences in the eighteenth century Islamic Ottoman Empire. Although the Russell brothers and Porter adopted what Said referred to as an “Orientalist” literary style which contained the Eurocentric commentary evinced in Montesquieu’s writing, I will argue that they avoided viewing the Islamic Ottoman Orient exclusively as a despotic space.

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Updated 4 Mar 2016


Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

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