Thinking the Human in the Era of Enlightenment

Jean Charvet and Joseph Dalfour and Co., Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique, c. 1805

Keynote speakers:
Associate Professor Sankar Muthu, University of Chicago
Associate Professor Vanessa Agnew, University of Michigan

Confirmed speakers include:
Professor Peter Cryle (University of Queensland),
Professor Iain McCalman (University of Sydney), Professor Gillian Russell (ANU)

The eighteenth century was a formative era for European conceptions of human beings and human nature. This period saw a burgeoning quest for a science of man, and a philosophy of the human, which would incorporate developments in history, ethnography, linguistics and the natural and life sciences. It has been suggested that the eighteenth century witnessed a distinctive epistemic shift towards the articulation of the subject ‘Man’. Yet is the Enlightenment concept of Man best understood as a shared intellectual supposition or as a terrain of conflict in which competing visions of human life and contemporary political order were mobilised?

The three day conference ‘Thinking the human in the era of Enlightenment’ is an attempt to think through the enabling possibilities and discursive functions of the concept ‘humanity’ and its associated terms (L’Homme, Menschlichkeit, Humanität) during the long eighteenth century.  It seeks to illuminate both the role that conceptions of the human played in the politics and culture of the period and the legacy those conceptions bequeathed to subsequent generations. 

Papers will historicise Enlightenment conceptions of humanity from diverse perspectives, including but by no means restricted to the philosophy of history, anthropology, cosmopolitanism and its critics, natural and international law, theories of human difference and the ‘contact zones’ of travel and colonialism.  Papers will also adrress the manner in which those conceptions were manifested, and contested, within a range of social and cultural spaces – from philosophy, to state policy, to the creative arts, and from Europe to the wider world.


  • nature and culture
  • theories of historical progress or decline in the long eighteenth century 
  • language theory in the long eighteenth century
  • theories of sexual difference and gender roles in the long eighteenth century
  • nationalism and cosmopolitanism
  • conceptions of human rights
  • the representation of human identity and difference
  • the impact of cross-cultural contact on theories of humanity and vice versa
  • the natural and the supernatural
  • legacies of the Enlightenment

Convened by:
Dr Ned Curthoys, RSH, ANU. E:
Dr Alex Cook, History, ANU. E: and
Dr Shino Konishi, History, RSSS, ANU. E:

We will be looking to publish selected papers from this conference.

Date & time

Wed 07 Jul 2010, 10am – Fri 09 Jul 2010, 10am


The Sir Roland Wilson Building, ANU


Updated:  22 June 2017/Responsible Officer:  Head, Centre/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications