Theories of Universalism


This course (cross-listed as CPLS 86472) has two main goals. The first is to examine how early modern scholars sought to define and represent universal knowledge in a variety of interrelated media and archives at multiple scales, including lexicons, histories, bibliographies, encyclopedias, libraries, and maps. The course thus functions as an introduction to the scholarly cultures of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The second goal is to employ the early modern fantasy of universal knowledge and debate about its limits to historicize modern theories of universalism from the realms of economics, religion, law, and literature.

The goal not only of knowing all that there is to know, but also of organizing and representing such universal knowledge in books, maps, archives and other forms may seem foolhardy, even in our digital age. Yet even for those of us who are only too aware of our lack of knowledge, this dream of comprehensiveness nevertheless tends to inform our scholarly methods and structure our presuppositions about how people, capital, and information move and interact in a globalized world. Fields like world history, world literature, digital humanities, and global studies are attempts to make sense of this interconnectivity at a sufficiently broad scale. Religious, legal, and political claims to universality may blunt or buttress the force of the market’s ubiquity and the flattening power of linguistic and cultural imperialism. These various sorts of universalism may at first glance seem unique to the contemporary moment, but, as we will see in this class, they are not. Focusing on that crucial period around the turn of the sixteenth century, when the emergence of print and the rise of global exploration rendered claims to comprehensive knowledge and power both newly relevant and patently inadequate, this class examines the relationship between early and late modern theories of universalism.

Readings and visual materials by Hernando Colón, Konrad Gessner, St. Isidore, Pedro Mexía, Sebastian Münster, Antonio de Nebrija, Juan Páez de Castro, Alonso de Palencia, and Ptolemy, as well as scholarship by Alain Badiou, Ann Blair, Fernando Bouza Álvarez, David Damrosch, Umberto Eco, and others. This course will be conducted in English, Spanish, or a mixture of both, depending upon the preferences of the students who register.

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