Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason

Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason

Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason

Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason


The Enlightenment was the age in which the world became modern, challenging tradition in favor of reason, freedom, and critical inquiry. While many aspects of the Enlightenment have been rigorously scrutinized- its origins and motivations, its principal characters and defining features, its legacy and modern relevance- the geographical dimensions of the era have until now largely been ignored. Placing the Enlightenment contends that the Age of Reason was not only a period of pioneering geographical investigation but also an age with spatial dimensions to its content and concerns.

Investigating the role space and location played in the creation and reception of Enlightenment ideas, Charles W. J. Withers draws from the fields of art, science, history, geography, politics, and religion to explore the legacies of Enlightenment national identity, navigation, discovery, and knowledge. Ultimately, geography is revealed to be the source of much of the raw material from which philosophers fashioned theories of the human condition.

Lavishly illustrated and engagingly written, Placing the Enlightenment will interest Enlightenment specialists from across the disciplines as well as any scholar curious about the role geography has played in the making of the modern world.


This is a book about the Enlightenment understood geographically. Historians, literary scholars, and others have debated its “what,” “when,” and “why.” Until now, relatively little attention has been paid to the “where” of the Enlightenment. This book aims to correct that by offering an account of the Enlightenment as a geographical phenomenon.

Admitting that the Enlightenment is a topic of enormous significance commanding the attention of many disciplines, scholars do not agree on its definition or its significance. Neither, as it happens, did eighteenth-century contemporaries. Even so, the Enlightenment is commonly thought of as a historical phenomenon, a matter of ideas, and is as commonly examined at the national scale—the French Enlightenment, the Enlightenment in America, and so on. Recent work from a variety of quarters has challenged such thinking and begun to consider the Enlightenment as geographical in several respects. Geographers have traced connections among the Enlightenment, the practices of geographical knowledge, and the nature of Enlightenment geography. Historians have sought to understand the Enlightenment “above national context” and have explored questions of Enlightenment sociability. Historians of science have recognized the geographical nature of the sciences in the Enlightenment. Literary researchers have pointed to the key role of travel and of translation in making the Enlightenment “move,” in “mediating” the Enlightenment in different social communities.

This book is an attempt to bring these and other ideas together. It is, in one sense, a synthesis of existing work, one in which I have relied on the work of modern others in a variety of disciplines as well as on texts and other works produced in the Enlightenment. In another sense, it is an argument, a proposal that to think about the Enlightenment not simply as . . .

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