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Talk: Voltaire and China
Date: 4 February 2010 

School of Modern Languages and Cultures French Talk

Voltaire and China

Professor Charles Coutel
University of Artois, France

As he worked on his Universal History, Voltaire developed a true affinity for China. Among his main references were Du Halde’s Description of China (1735), the notorious series of Edifying and Curious Letters sent by Jesuit missionaries in China between 1702 and 1776, and a translation of Confucius writings made by Father Couplet in 1687. This material represented a must read for any intellectual of the 18th century and in particular for the Encyclopaedists. It not only constituted the basis of the “China” entry in the Dictionnaire philosophique, it also contributed greatly to other key entries, including those on morality and religion. As Isabelle Laundry-Deron put it recently, a rhetorical and discursive strategy of “proof by China” came about at that time, by virtue of which “everything I say is true because the Chinese philosophers have legitimated it”.  

In his talk, Professor Coutel will examine the role and function of the “Chinese paradigm” in Voltaire’s works and his eventual transcending of it, most notably in The Orphan of China (1755) and the Dictionnaire philosophique (1764). He will conclude with a discussion of Voltaire’s remarkable encounter with the works of Confucius.

Professor Charles Coutel is a leading specialist of 18th century French intellectual thought; he is Vice-President of the University of Artois and Director of the Institut d’Etude des faits religieux. Professor Coutel has published extensively, particularly on Condorcet and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, as well as on issues related to the fields of legal and republican thought, and education. His publications include Lumières de l’Europe: Voltaire, Condorcet, Diderot (1997, Ellipses) and Les Mots de la liberté: culture générale et esprit critique (2006, EME éditions).

Thursday, February 4, 2010
5:15pm – 6:45pm
Room K726 Knowles Building
The University of Hong Kong

The talk will be conducted in French
All are welcome

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