From savages and barbarians to primitives: Africa, social typologies, and history in eighteenth–century French philosophy

History and Theory 36 (2):190–215 (1997)
This article describes the conceptual framework within which knowledge about Africa was legitimized in eighteenth-century French philosophy. The article traces a shift or rupture in this conceptual framework which, at the end of the eighteenth century, led to the emergence of new conditions for knowledge legitimation that altered Europe's perception of Africa. The article examines these two conceptual frameworks within the context of a discussion of the social theory of the time, which categorized Africans first as savages, and then, with the advent of our modern "style of reasoning," as primitives. The argument used to demonstrate this change in categorizations is historical. The greater part of the article analyzes in detail the principal social theory of Enlightenment philosophy, the stadial theory of society, with the aim of demonstrating how it determined what could be affirmed about Africa. The shift in the perception of Africans from savages to primitives involved an epistemological change in how societies were grasped. The article provides a greater understanding of the constitution of Africa as a cognitive construct, which is not only of theoretical concern; this construct shaped Europe's intervention in Africa, and continues to influence what we believe Africa is and should become
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DOI 10.1111/0018-2656.00010
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