Encountering the Enlightenment: Science, Religion, and Catholic Epistemologies Across the Spanish Atlantic, 1687-1813
Klaeren, George Alan
University of Kansas
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During the eighteenth century, a wave of thought inundated the Spanish empire, introducing new knowledge in the natural sciences, religion, and philosophy, and importantly, questioning the very modes of perceiving and ascertaining this knowledge. This period of epistemic rupture in Spain and her colonies, commonly referred to as the Enlightenment, not only presented new ways of knowing, but inspired impassioned debates among leading intellectuals about the epistemology and philosophy that continued throughout the century. The previous scholarly literature has largely dismissed Spain’s intellectual activity in the eighteenth-century, arguing that its predominantly conservative and Catholic culture stifled innovation and relegated it to a peripheral and derivative position in the broader European Enlightenment. Only recently have scholars given serious attention to the conception of a widespread “Catholic Enlightenment.” This dissertation places the intellectual and religious activity of the eighteenth-century Spanish empire within this Catholic Enlightenment, specifically examining the ways in which religious intellectuals mediated and contested Enlightenment thought. It particularly highlights the works of Counter-Enlightenment thinkers who engaged eighteenth-century philosophy but ultimately rejected it. This dissertation examines the leading theological, philosophical, and scientific writings of religious intellectuals, university professors, natural philosophers, and physicians in eighteenth-century Spain, New Spain, and Peru, additionally considering personal letters, Inquisitorial evidence, and writing from the popular press of the period. In so doing, it assesses the way in which such writings contended for an epistemology which would satisfy both the new philosophies and sciences as well as the Catholic faith; showing how eighteenth-century Spaniards defined the relationship between these fields and how they conceived of the disciplines of knowledge. Ultimately, this dissertation argues that the work of Catholic Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment individuals in Spain was less radical than the philosophies adopted by French or British counterparts. The Spanish Enlightenment experience was the result of a deliberate, thoughtful, and careful negotiation between ancients and moderns and an attempt to conciliate new methods of knowledge into the existing Scholastic framework which had been held in the Spanish empire for centuries, rather than accepting a complete epistemological rupture. It demonstrates the role of conservative intellectuals in contesting epistemological hegemony in the mid-eighteenth century by proposing alternative, and at times, mutually exclusive, systems for understanding and pursuing truth. It similarly shows how these epistemological debates impacted the way that Spaniards conceived of the relationship between science and religion. This, in turn, impacts the way in which historians understand both the way that Spain related to the European community, especially France, during the eighteenth century, as well as the way that various religious groups encountered the Enlightenment movement.
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