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Invoking a World of Ideas

Theory and Interpretation in the Justification of Colonialism

David Boucher

Keywords: colonialism; European settlers; imperialism; John Dewey; the Americas; world of ideas

In this article I want to draw upon examples from European settlement in the Americas, Australasia and South Africa in order to argue that modern colonisation and imperialism, despite considerable variation, drew upon a range of justificatory principles which constituted a background theory, or worldview, that was invoked in part or in its entirety in justifying the civilising mission which was viewed by its proponents as both a right and a duty. I begin by showing how the infamous ‘Requirement’ (‘Requerimiento’) of 1513 becomes intelligible as a performative utterance when connected to the constellation of ideas which makes it warrantably assertible, to use John Dewey’s terminology. It is not so much about the land or its use in conceptual terms but instead about the larger value judgements the colonists were applying. It is contended that despite the variation in emphases and conclusions, and the different levels of discourse at which justifications are offered, the efficacy and veracity of colonial and imperialist justifications invoke the authority of the world of ideas in which the assertions alone have intelligibility.

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