Demetrius Eudell lectures on knowledge, race, and German Enlightenment

Dr. Demetrius Eudell speaks at a panel at Wesleyan University. Photo courtesy of wesleyan.edu.

By Colton Williams
Executive Editor

Demetrius Eudell, Professor and Chair of History at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., recently came to the University to lecture on his work on the German Enlightenment and conceptions of race, ethnography, and ethnology. Eudell’s lecture was made possible by a “Science, Society, and the Archives” Collaborative Curriculum grant from the Associated Colleges of the South.

Kelly Whitmer, Chair of the history department at Sewanee, began the event by thanking the Associated Colleges of the South for the grant, which funds collaborative work between Sewanee, Davidson College, Furman University, and Washington and Lee University.

This work, Whitmer said, places a “special emphasis on the politics of knowledge and issues of race, class, and gender in the history of science, medicine, and technology,” and that Eudell’s visit would offer and invaluable opportunity to further conversations on those topics.

Sarah Naramore, visiting assistant professor of history at Sewanee, introduced Eudell and his scholastic work. “Dr. Eudell is an historian of quite a lot,” Naramore said, “but most of his studies have centered on the history of ‘race,’ the development, or arguably creation, of race as potentially ‘real’… and how race becomes a category in the early modern world and continues to be a category of analysis in separating out and understanding human bodies and cultures through to the present.”

Stepping up to the podium, Eudell told the audience at Gailor Auditorium, “hopefully I should not hold you too long, and hopefully I should not bore you too much.”

His lecture was comprised of pieces of the book he is currently working on that focuses on three intellectuals of the German Enlightenment and their production of knowledge around the idea of human difference: Johann David Michaelis, Christoph Meiners, and Heinrich Moritz Grellman.

Eudell’s interest is in what he called the “bifurcation” in the understanding of race between the 18th and 19th centuries, and particularly how these scholars of the German Enlightenment fit into that history.

“These professors remain unique,” Eudell said, “given the diverse range of fields in which the scholars undertook, for lack of a better term, empirical research, to investigate the questions of human difference.”

Specifically, Eudell said, these intellectuals began explore ideas of ‘being human’ in increasingly de-theologized, naturalized, and historicized terms. That is to say, an understanding of human difference for these thinkers of the German Enlightenment became less concerned with religious understanding, and more concerned with questions about geography and ethnography.

This, in turn, led to more evaluative definitions of race that focused on differences in culture, which develop in the 19th century to a more common understanding of ‘race’ and ‘racism.’

In the many threads of his talk, Eudell also noted the role of the research university — focusing on the University of Göttingen, the precursor to the modern research university — in developing ideas about race that structured the “order of knowledge” that universities still largely operate under.

Eudell aimed to show that discourses on race and other related issues were not isolated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

“These formulations played an indispensable role in the production of knowledge,” Eudell said. “So there are two claims: one being that perhaps we might want to reconsider the bifurcation between the 18th and 19th century in regards to how people understand human differences, and also that these were central constituent elements of the production of knowledge, and therefore they were not ancillary.”


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