Early Modern Philosophy (PHIL555)

Course Description

As the seventeenth century teaches us, method is very important! So as we investigate the notion of philosophical reason that arises in the early seventeenth century and trace it into the mid-eighteenth century, we will also spend time reflecting on the methods our philosophers use to approach reason and the methods we use to think about them. Philosophy interacts strongly with both mathematics and science: how can we understand that interaction in a non-reductive way? While philosophers admire and imitate mathematics and science, they also assert the autonomy of philosophy, and aim both to criticize and to transcend the other disciplines. This is in part because they believe that reason has moral and political uses, and that a well-developed account of philosophical reason must account for the human as well as the natural world. The conditions of intelligibility of nature are different from, though informative of, the conditions of intelligibility of human political formations. Meanwhile, we need to think about the relation between the history of philosophy, the history of mathematics, and the history of science (and the history of governments), and keep in mind that our philosophical interest in these matters is not merely historical, but driven by the conditions in which we find ourselves, as philosophers, citizens and human beings, here at the turn of the millennium.

The beginning of the seventeenth century witnesses a profound transformation in the way that Europeans understand the world and human knowledge. The Copernican Revolution (d. 1543) and the work of Kepler (d. 1630) and Galileo (d. 1642) set the stage for the Scientific Revolution. Luther (d. 1546) and Calvin (d. 1564) inaugurate the Protestant Revolution within European Christianity. Cromwell (d. 1658), along with restive nobles and a rising mercantile bourgeoisie in many countries, call the European monarchy into question as well as the feudalism on which it rests. His ‘Glorious Revolution’ foreshadows the French and American revolutions. Early modern philosophy witnesses the rise of both idealism and materialism. Descartes’ first two Meditations change Western philosophy forever by offering consciousness itself (apart from any of the objects of consciousness) as a philosophical topic. There is an almost obsessive tendency in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to approach philosophically things that cannot be grasped by the senses: consciousness, space and time, force and causal connection, the infinite (including of course God) and the infinitesimal. Sense perception is subordinated to an aetherialized reason.

At the same time, there is a resurrection of materialism, abetted by anti-religious sentiment, the re-editing of classical Epicurean texts in Greek and Latin, and the growing conviction that terrestrial phenomena can be explained by sub-microscopic material structures and that the heavens are no different in principle from the earth. Sense perception is thus given precedence over a reason that is only a kind of summation of material states. Leibniz reads both Descartes and Locke, Spinoza is a careful reader of Descartes and a strong influence on Leibniz, Locke fails to respond to the young Leibniz but Berkeley reads Leibniz and Malebranche, Hume responds to Descartes, Berkeley, and Locke, and Kant (whom we shall not read in this course) tries to circumvent and encompass them all. Despite the Kantian synthesis, we are left with an unresolved tug of war between the ideal and the material, the abstract and the concrete, evident in both logical positivism and phenomenology.

We will study methods of scholarship: how texts are edited and translated, how traditions of scholarship are created and revised, and how we ourselves can make good use of the print and electronic resources offered by the libraries at University Park (and the wider network available through inter-library loan). Most students will use at least one primary or secondary source in a foreign language.

This course included visits by Professor Ursula Goldenbaum (Emory University) and Professor Elhanan Yakira (Hebrew University) in 2013, supported by the Schreyer Honors College.