Traces of Enlightenment: Eighteenth-century travel writing and the reproduction of knowledge(s)

Richard Kenneth Van Dyke, University of Rhode Island


Through analysis of eighteenth-century travel writing and eighteenth-century attempts to discover a reliable metaphysical knowledge, this study reveals foundational instability in the European Enlightenment knowledge project and thus makes a call for a more nuanced approach to eighteenth-century textuality than late twentieth-century discourse theorists usually allow. Discourse theorists often construct an enlightenment defined exclusively by progressive endpoints of social order, narrative control, and epistemological fixity, which lead to practices of domination over self-determined Others. Yet, through a focus on the metaphysical inquiries of George Berkeley and David Hume, a different picture of the eighteenth-century knowledge project emerges. For Berkeley and Hume, knowledge extends most reliably from empiricism or local observation. Unfortunately, an attempt to build a (master) narrative of knowledge through subsequent inferences and its transmission in language inevitably leads to distortions. Thus, while the physical knowledge project presumes that empiricism leads to a stable knowledge, the metaphysical knowledge project evinces an anxiety whether such “true” knowledge can be communicated. ^ Because of its orchestration of prior textual knowledge and sometimes contradictory empirical moments that must be re-written, travel writing performs the central contradiction of the eighteenth-century physical and metaphysical enlightenment projects. The travel writers in this study must negotiate between ideologically constructed master narratives of knowledge that exist prior to their travels and contradictory empirical evidence that they find while travelling. In her Persian Embassy Letters, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu uses locally gathered empirical evidence to challenge the popular master narrative of Orientalism with its construction of duplicitous, unrefined, and misogynist Turks. In contrast, despite contradictory empirical evidence, Samuel Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland opts for the maintenance of a master narrative of Scottish primitivity as measured against greater English refinement and modernity. Finally, in his Interesting Narrative, Olaudah Equiano claims identity with and against the English and demonstrates that enlightenment master narratives and universalisms that have led historically to ideologies of dominance, the alienations of modernism, and the tragedies of colonialism are best resisted through negotiations among “domains of difference” in order not to dismantle enlightenment universalisms but to create spaces for greater inclusiveness. ^

Subject Area

Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Richard Kenneth Van Dyke, "Traces of Enlightenment: Eighteenth-century travel writing and the reproduction of knowledge(s)" (2001). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3025545.