Public Lecture

“Man, Secluded from the Company of Women is… a dangerous animal to society’: Histories of Women in the Scottish Enlightenment”

Public Lecture, University of Chicago, Neubauer Collegium, 23 July 2018, 5 p.m.

We have invited Silvia Sebastiani of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) to give a public lecture, which will be followed by a reception. Professor Sebastiani will also participate in our seminar in the morning.

This talk will focus on the Enlightenment science of society through the symbolic and material role played by women in the new histories of civilization, written by Scottish literati. The relationship between the sexes was described as changing over time: whereas women emancipated themselves from the yoke of male-masters, men, in turn, acceded to polite manners and became sociable and civilized, also thanks to the relation with ‘the fair sex’. Sebastiani will examine the civilising role assigned to women as agents of culture: if this progress was potentially universal, it was narrated as taking place exclusively in  Europe, as opposed to the non-European world. This talk will also examine the eighteenth-century discourse on sexuality, and how it also became a tool for crystallizing the differences between peoples. All of this discussion of women and progress was related to  the ambiguities of civilization in European modern societies, which were expressed in the fear that progress could be reversed into its contrary, turning the ‘civilizing femininity’ into ‘decadent effeminacy’.

This talk and the ensuing discussion will shed light on some of the themes to be pursued over the course of our three week seminar, and is intended to give an interested general public access to our collective work.

Silvia Sebastiani is maitre de conférences (associate professor) at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, where she teaches seminars on Enlightenment historiographies and on ideology of race in early modern period. Specialist of the Scottish Enlightenment, she has published on the questions of race, gender and history writing in international journals and collective volumes. She is the author of The Scottish Enlightenment. Race, Gender, and the Limits of Progress (2013), co-winner of the ‘István Hont prize’. She has coedited the Forum on “Closeness and Distance in the Age of Enlightenment” in Modern Intellectual History (2014), as well as the collective volumes Negotiating Knowledge in Early Modern Empires (2014), Simianization. Apes, Gender, Class, and Race (2015), L’expérience historiographique and La forza delle incertezze (2016).