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The Dispute of the New World

The Dispute of the New World: The History of a Polemic, 1750–1900

Copyright Date: 1973
Pages: 720
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  • Book Info
    The Dispute of the New World
    Book Description:

    When Hegel described the Americas as an inferior continent, he was repeating a contention that inspired one of the most passionate debates of modern times. Originally formulated by the eminent natural scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon and expanded by the Prussian encyclopedist Cornelius de Pauw, this provocative thesis drew heated responses from politicians, philosophers, publicists, and patriots on both sides of the Atlantic. The ensuing polemic reached its apex in the latter decades of the eighteenth century and is far from extinct today.Translated in 1973,The Dispute of the New Worldis the definitive study of this debate. Antonello Gerbi scrutinizes each contribution to the debate, unravels the complex arguments, and reveals their inner motivations. As the story of the polemic unfolds, moving through many disciplines that include biology, economics, anthropology, theology, geophysics, and poetry, it becomes clear that the subject at issue is nothing less than the totality of the Old World versus the New, and how each viewed the other at a vital turning point in history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7382-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Translator’s Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  2. Prologue
    (pp. xv-2)

    THERE are several places in Hegel’s works where he describes the Americas as an immature or impotent continent, or one that is in some other way “inferior” to the Old World. In expounding these passages the exegetes, even someone like Croce, even Ortega y Gasset, have looked on them as a typical aberration of Hegel’s mind, a bizarre relic of his determination to enclose the infinite variety of the world within his scheme of triads. But in fact the thesis was adopted, not invented, by Hegel. And in its brief life-span it has reflected so many tendencies that it is...

  3. 1 Buffon and the Inferiority of the Animal Species of America
    (pp. 3-34)

    THE ongms of the thesis of the “weakness” or “immaturity” of the Americas–if one discounts the occasional image in the Elizabethan poets, Donne’s “that unripe side of earth,”¹ or Samuel Daniel’s “yet unformed Occident”²–can be traced back to Buffon in the middle of the eighteenth century.

    It was one of Buffon’s most important discoveries, and one of which he himself was particularly proud,³ that the animal species of the Old Worlddifferedfrom those of South America. And not only were those of the New World different, but in many cases inferior, weaker. When he is describing the...

  4. 2 Some Figures of the Enlightenment
    (pp. 35-51)

    IT was unfortunate that out of the whole of Buffon’s theory, so rich in motifs, so full of provocative suggestions and echoes of long-forgotten ideas, it should have been the very weakest part that his contemporaries chose to follow up, their appetite whetted by its facile moralizations, its verdicts of “better” and “worse.” And while Buffon had left it as an implicit notion of secondary importance, the philosophers seized on it and lost no time in exploring all the possibilities of such a fruitful and colorful source of polemic and scandal.

    Observing a certain caution in his choice of words,...

  5. 3 De Pauw and the Inferiority of the Men of America
    (pp. 52-79)

    SOON after Buffon, these slanders on the whole of American nature reached a definitive climax with the appearance of theRecherches philosophiques sur les Américains ou Mémoires intéressants pour servir à l’histoire de l’espèce humaineby Mr. de P. (the abbé Cornelius de Pauw).¹ The work is dated Berlin, 1768, the date and location of encyclopedism at its most glorious and triumphant. The contents of the work live up to the promise of the title page. De Pauw reveals himself a typical encyclopedist; he not only makes frequent attacks on religion and the Jesuits,² and exhibits a complete lack of...

  6. 4 European Reactions to de Pauw
    (pp. 80-156)

    DE PAUW’S paradoxical and outrageous theories rapidly produced an angry swarm of replies and counterreplies; he was criticized in general and in detail, obliquely and directly. In Europe the Prussian abbé found himself facing the defenders of the Noble Savage and Virgin Nature, flanked on one side by the admirers of the ancient pre-Colombian civilizations and on the other by the paladins of the glory and humanity of Spain; bringing up the rear there was the odd geographer and naturalist armed with his eyewitness account, and finally a host of critics and believers willing to fight to the death to...

  7. 5 The Second Phase of the Dispute
    (pp. 157-288)

    WITH these refinements and modifications of Buffon’s position the first phase of the polemic comes to a close. America and the Americans had found themselves sucked into a maelstrom of debate, trapped in the middle of its endless arguments on problems of zoological geography, ethnography, climatology, moral theology, and the philosophy of history; and with the coming of de Pauw they were thrust to the very depths of this vortex of doctrine and diatribe.

    As Europe of the Enlightenment became fully aware of itself as a new civilization with its own distinct character and a universal, no longer quite simply...

  8. 6 The Reaction to de Pauw in Spanish America
    (pp. 289-324)

    THERE are several good reasons why we can speak of reaction to de Pauw in Latin America, rather than a “polemic” on his theses. Polemic implies a dialogue: maybe even with someone already dead, but still a dialogue, the opposition of two theories, a dispute–which may suggest violent controversy, but does mean a colloquy too. It was a dispute that involved the exiled Jesuits and the American founding fathers. The Latin American authors, writing on the eve of and immediately after the liberation of their countries, react belligerently, angrily, and resentfully to Buffon’s and de Pauw’s notions, but without...

  9. 7 Hegel and His Contemporaries
    (pp. 325-441)

    AFTER Herder the dispute seems to lose emphasis and dramatic interest. The American revolution recedes into the past, the French revolution commands the attention and emotions of all Europe, the Latin American revolutions are still to come, and when they do in fact come they arouse neither the passionate hopes nor the violent reactions of the first two. America retreats to the very edge of Europe’s visible horizon. Interest in the overseas dominions fades almost to the point of extinction. “Perish the colonies rather than a principle!” the reiterated cry of Dupont de Nemours and Robespierre (1791), means this too:...

  10. 8 The Dispute’s Trivialization and Obstinate Vitality
    (pp. 442-564)

    THE internal contradictions and fundamental hesitation in Hegel’s ideas on America show how by this time the traditional terms of the dispute were no longer sufficient to contain the problems presented by the New World. On the one hand the natural sciences had broken free from the volumetric schemes and the rigid limitations of the climatic theories, and on the other the political and social development of the United States and the turbulent vitality of the Latin American countries quickly obliterated the memory of their colonial past, recent as it was, and contradicted the usual characterizations of the Creole as...

  11. 9 Supplements and Digressions
    (pp. 565-628)

    REFERRING to his “discovery” Buffon says that “the greatest fact, the most general, the least known to all naturalists before me … is that the animals of the southern parts of the old continent are not found in the new, and that reciprocally those of South America are not found at all in the old continent.”¹ In another context Buffon repeats that “this general fact, which it seems was not even suspected” is so important that it must be corroborated with all possible proof.² And later, satisfied, he will say: “I have demonstrated this truth by such a great number...

  12. Bibliography of Works Cited
    (pp. 631-654)
  13. Suggestions for Further Research
    (pp. 655-670)