Africa is always bringing forth something new: African worlds and worldviews in British Enlightenment literature, 1660-1780

Rebekah K Mitsein, Purdue University


This dissertation argues that African worlds and worldviews left an indelible mark on British Enlightenment texts, whether their authors encountered the continent first or secondhand. As eighteenth-century thinkers began experimenting with empirical and categorical strategies for making sense of the globe, Africa was an important testing ground for these burgeoning epistemological methodologies. Travelers and writers tried to reconcile observer-based methods of knowledge production with the continent’s reputedly impenetrable landscapes, unfamiliar cultures, and strange animals. Such inquiries engendered broader philosophical debates about the natures of nature, the body, and the self. Yet, I contend Africa was not a passive participant in this process. Not only did African environments undermine European attempts to reduce the continent to empirical data; as such epistemological methods failed, writers filled in their texts with African knowledge and narratives. As a result, African representational practices, economics, technologies, medical advances, and even thoughts on the body and soul became an inextricable part of British Enlightenment discourse.




Powell, Purdue University.

Subject Area

African Studies|Literature|British and Irish literature

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