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François Poulain de la Barre and the Invention of Modern Equality
by Siep Stuurman
Harvard University Press, 2004
Cloth: 978-0-674-01185-4 | eISBN: 978-0-674-04409-8
Library of Congress Classification HM821.S78 2004
Dewey Decimal Classification 305


In a tour de force of intellectual history, Siep Stuurman rediscovers the remarkable early Enlightenment figure François Poulain de la Barre. A dropout from theology studies at the Sorbonne, Poulain embraced the philosophy of Descartes, became convinced of the injustice and absurdity of the subjection of women, and assembled an entirely original social philosophy. His writings challenging male supremacy and advocating gender and racial equality are the most radically egalitarian texts to appear in Europe before the French Revolution.

In exploring Poulain's breakthrough, Stuurman sheds new light on the origins of the Enlightenment, the history of feminism, the emergence of rational Christianity, and the social and political implications of Descartes's philosophy. This groundbreaking work, the first comprehensive study of Poulain, brings to life the men and women of the Radical Enlightenment, who pioneered ideas about equality that would shape humankind to this day. Impeccably researched, cogently argued, and lucidly written, this is truly a masterpiece of scholarship.

Table of Contents:

Notes on Spelling

Introduction: Origins of the Enlightenment
1. The Making of a Philosopher
2. The Feminist Impulse
3. Cartesian Equality
4. The Power of Education
5. Reason and Authority
6. Anthropology and History
7. The Road to Geneva
8. Rational Christianity
Conclusion: Inventing the Enlightenment


This is a brilliant work: vastly original, deeply learned, and urgently needed. For the first time it gives Poulain, little known until recent decades, the full treatment warranted by the philosophical breakthrough he effected. The writing is superb. Stuurman makes dense philosophical arguments accessible without oversimplifying, and has an unusually good sense of what the reader needs to be told as he moves through his presentation. The book will without question assume an important place in Enlightenment scholarship and stimulate debate over the origins of modern liberal social thought.
--Carolyn Lougee Chappell, Stanford University

I hardly suspected Poulain's importance until I was convinced of it by this thoroughly interesting and cogent book. Stuurman has a remarkably broad perspective on the history of philosophy, society, and political thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There is a considerable amount of original research here that is exceptionally well integrated into the wider Enlightenment context, and the whole is very well written. Stuurman's discussion of Enlightenment debates about race and color among humanity is one of the most striking and original parts of the book. This is a fine work on an essential topic.
--Jonathan Israel, author of Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

Stuurman rescues from obscurity the revolutionary thinking of Poulain de la Barre and shows him to be a political philosopher of singular importance whose vision of human equality, particularly the full participation of women, was breathtaking in its audacity. Beginning with the new metaphysics of matter in motion he found in Descartes, Poulain went on to lay a philosophical foundation for democracy. This brilliant book makes us rethink the meaning of early modern scientific thought as well as the entire fabric of early modern political philosophy and its boundaries.
--Margaret C. Jacob, University of California, Los Angeles

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