William Nelson

William Max Nelson is assistant professor at the University of Toronto. He specializes in the history of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. His research focuses on the ways that ideas about time, race, and biopolitics emerged in eighteenth-century France and the Atlantic world. He co-edited the book The French Revolution in Global Perspective (2013), and is the author of a book manuscript about the birth of biopolitics in the eighteenth century.



"The Circulation of Ideas of Race in the Atlantic World"

This seminar will analyze the development of ideas of race and their movement around the Atlantic world in the second half of the eighteenth century. We will particularly investigate the ways that certain ideas spread around the Atlantic in books without a clear sense of their origins, due to the great amount of unattributed quotation and paraphrasing that occurred in the eighteenth century, given the very different norms of authorial attribution. Focusing on a few specific ideas of the French naturalist Buffon, we will see how they spread in the Anglophone Atlantic without acknowledgement of their roots through the books of best selling authors such as Oliver Goldsmith.

  • Tuesday 22 May 2018, 10:00-12:00 - EHESS/CENA (room 12) - 105 bd Raspail 75006 Paris


"Enlightenment Biopolitics"

The existence of biopolitical ideas and plans in the eighteenth century begs the question of how the Enlightenment produced such powerful discourses of social and political inclusion based on ideas of toleration, equality, cosmopolitanism, and natural rights at the same time that it produced powerful and lasting discourses of exclusion based on the perception, and the conceptual creation, of differences of race, sex, and gender. In this seminar, I will argue that these Enlightenment exclusions were inextricably intertwined with Enlightenment inclusions. In a number of cases, in fact, arguments for inclusion were dependant upon the creation of new types of exclusion. This resulted in novel ideas of equality producing new arguments justifying various forms of inequality.

  • Friday 25 May 2018, 11:00-13:00 - EHESS (room AS1_23) - 54 bd Raspail 75006 Paris


"The Atlantic Origins of Racial Segregation"

This seminar will investigate the trans-Atlantic development of ideas and practices of complete racial segregation in the eighteenth century. There were intellectual, legal, and personal connections linking the French legal regime of racial segregation in the 1770s and 1780s (known of as the Police des Noirs), American ideas about sending emancipated slaves to a distant colony, and British ideas of colonial settlement of former slaves in Africa. These topics have always been treated separately. I will argue that they are better understood if they are seen together as developments of the Atlantic world.

  • Monday 28 May 2018, 14:00-16:00- EHESS/CENA (room 12) - 105 bd Raspail 75006 Paris


"The Enlightenment Origins of Organicism"

This seminar will discuss the history of ideas of organicism in the Enlightenment. This is a relatively overlooked aspect of Enlightenment thought that presents quite a different picture from the traditional story of the Enlightenment as an Age of Reason characterized by calculative, mechanical rationality. The seminar will cover the origins of the idea of the organism in Enlightenment scientific theories of “organization” and “organized bodies.” It will then show how these scientific ideas were translated into social and political thought.

  • Tuesday 29 May 2018, 10:00-12:00 - EHESS/CENA (room 12) - 105 bd Raspail 75006 Paris