A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France

Princeton University Press
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A dramatic shift in British and French ideas about empire unfolded in the sixty years straddling the turn of the nineteenth century. As Jennifer Pitts shows in A Turn to Empire, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Jeremy Bentham were among many at the start of this period to criticize European empires as unjust as well as politically and economically disastrous for the conquering nations. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the most prominent British and French liberal thinkers, including John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, vigorously supported the conquest of non-European peoples. Pitts explains that this reflected a rise in civilizational self-confidence, as theories of human progress became more triumphalist, less nuanced, and less tolerant of cultural difference. At the same time, imperial expansion abroad came to be seen as a political project that might assist the emergence of stable liberal democracies within Europe.

Pitts shows that liberal thinkers usually celebrated for respecting not only human equality and liberty but also pluralism supported an inegalitarian and decidedly nonhumanitarian international politics. Yet such moments represent not a necessary feature of liberal thought but a striking departure from views shared by precisely those late-eighteenth-century thinkers whom Mill and Tocqueville saw as their forebears.

Fluently written, A Turn to Empire offers a novel assessment of modern political thought and international justice, and an illuminating perspective on continuing debates over empire, intervention, and liberal political commitments.

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About the author

Jennifer Pitts is Assistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University. She is the editor and translator of Alexis de Tocqueville: Writings on Empire and Slavery.
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Additional Information

Princeton University Press
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Published on
Apr 11, 2009
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History / Europe / General
Philosophy / Political
Political Science / Colonialism & Post-Colonialism
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Karuna Mantena
"In this unprecedented book, Karuna Mantena engages in a dialogue with the history of political thought, the history of nineteenth-century imperialism, and the genealogies of modern social theory. It will be widely influential."--Seyla Benhabib, Yale University

"Karuna Mantena provides the first comprehensive account of the centrality of Henry Maine in the transformation of British imperial ideology in the late nineteenth century. With great insight and erudition, Mantena elucidates the connections between Maine's sociotheoretic model of traditional society and the ideology and practice of British indirect rule."--Mahmood Mamdani, Columbia University

"Alibis of Empire offers indispensable correctives to the standard intellectual histories of empire. It shifts the focus from political to social theory and concentrates attention on Henry Maine, a figure whose contribution to British imperial ideology was probably greater than that of any other thinker of his time. The book is written with economy and subtlety, and its argument is persuasive and important. It will be of great interest to a variety of readers, especially intellectual historians, historians of empire, and political theorists."--David Armitage, Harvard University

"This is an important contribution to scholarship on the British empire, one that provides new insights into debates about the changing nature of colonial discourse in nineteenth-century England, the relative strengths of social and political theory at the time and well into the twentieth century, the meaning of 'culture,' and the legacy of Henry Maine's writings for English colonial practice in India and beyond."--Barbara Arneil, University of British Columbia

Sankar Muthu
In the late eighteenth century, an array of European political thinkers attacked the very foundations of imperialism, arguing passionately that empire-building was not only unworkable, costly, and dangerous, but manifestly unjust. Enlightenment against Empire is the first book devoted to the anti-imperialist political philosophies of an age often regarded as affirming imperial ambitions. Sankar Muthu argues that thinkers such as Denis Diderot, Immanuel Kant, and Johann Gottfried Herder developed an understanding of humans as inherently cultural agents and therefore necessarily diverse. These thinkers rejected the conception of a culture-free "natural man." They held that moral judgments of superiority or inferiority could be made neither about entire peoples nor about many distinctive cultural institutions and practices.

Muthu shows how such arguments enabled the era's anti-imperialists to defend the freedom of non-European peoples to order their own societies. In contrast to those who praise "the Enlightenment" as the triumph of a universal morality and critics who view it as an imperializing ideology that denigrated cultural pluralism, Muthu argues instead that eighteenth-century political thought included multiple Enlightenments. He reveals a distinctive and underappreciated strand of Enlightenment thinking that interweaves commitments to universal moral principles and incommensurable ways of life, and that links the concept of a shared human nature with the idea that humans are fundamentally diverse. Such an intellectual temperament, Muthu contends, can broaden our own perspectives about international justice and the relationship between human unity and diversity.

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