Europeanness in the Imaginary of Turkish Humanism

    • Cover Photo
    • Presentation speakers
      • Firat Oruc, Georgetown University


    With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century and the founding of the Republic in 1923, a new ruling class of military-civilian bureaucrats and official intellectuals came to power in Turkey. Under the leadership of Ataturk, they embarked on a series of cultural reforms aimed at leaving the country’s Ottoman and Islamic past irrevocably behind. The driving force behind these reforms was the institution of an officially-sanctioned Turkish Renaissance that the elite believed was necessary to save Turkey from its state of purgatory between East and West, past and present, tradition and modernity. But the Turkish elite soon had to confront a tremendously vexing question: what would the content of this culture be? For them, the answer was the European humanist canon. The cultural elite believed that by translating and re-creating the humanistic corpus of the Western thought and literature not simply in form but in spirit, understanding and worldview, Turkey would find its true cultural identity. Europe, they argued, was far from foreign to Turkey’s national sense of self. To this end, they embraced the translation of the European canon as a dual-pronged strategy for modernization and nationalization, and also as a necessary apprenticeship in the course of fulfilling Turkey’s ambitions of becoming the cradle of a new twentieth-century humanism. This paper examines the role of European humanism in the nation-building project of a secular elite aspiring to sovereignty but looking West for an image of self. Its central claim is that the Turkish intellectual elite of the 1930-40s adopted a regime of translating, reading, adopting, and circulating the European canonical works as ‘reference culture’; that is, a source culture that is recognized as a high authority and an iconic signifier by the recipient culture.