Europe and the discovery of its ‘otherness’

Panel at the XIX International conference of Europeanists
Boston – 22-24 March 2012

The discovery of the New World had a momentous impact on the construction and the evolution of Europe’s identity. Inevitably, the travel reports and testimonies of the main protagonists (Columbus, Vespucci) and the hundreds of passengers (Girolamo Benzoni, Francisco Lopez de Gomara, Jean de Léris, Andre Thevet, Giovanni Botero, the author of the famous Relationi universali) led to a debate on the nature of the ‘conquered’ people, on their savage or barbarian ways as well as a critique of the  aggressive methods of the conquerors. Las Casas firmly denounced the boundless violence of the ‘conquistadores’, while Sepulveda, on the contrary, claimed the reasonableness of an act made in Europe’s name; civilization, he argued, had to overcome the barbaric particularism of the Amerindian people in the name of (European) universalism. Even theology was called on to confirm the thesis. The Age of Enlightenment was deeply affected by the tension between these two interpretations of the New World: strong universalism and an equally strong belief that Europe was the greatest civilization, the only one capable of spreading the progress of modernity throughout the world. During the early decades of the twentieth century, the faith in Europe’s superiority faded and it became clear to many that progress could falter and even stop altogether. Decline, crisis and dawn became the most common words in the discourses on Europe. Whether with a nostalgic and reactionary tone, with an eye turned towards a mythical past (Spengler), or with critical historical awareness (Febvre, Chabod) there was the clear perception that the international order was drastically changing and, together with it, the role of Europe. The last decade of the Twentieth Century made it clear to historians, philosophers and political theorists that a ‘separation’ was underway. On the one hand,  the process of economic globalization, accompanied by the globalization of the media was in act; on the other, the  claim to hegemony, to be asserted at all cost, by the West. New wars, the struggle against Islamic terrorism and the exportation of democracy were all consequences of a ‘clash of civilizations’ (Huntington) after the ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama) had shown itself to be an illusion. As a consequence, a radically critical reading of European universalism (Wallerstein) emerged together with a re-thinking of the crisis of European civilization (Todorov). The aim of the panel is to attempt to bring together historians and philosopher to shed light on the ways Europe represented and saw herself from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century, in terms of creating her sense of ‘otherness’.

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