Many philosophy departments require a course in the history of (usually early) modern philosophy for their majors.  My impression of the way such courses are usually taught is that they focus on metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind:  the metaphysics of substances; the epistemology of empiricism versus rationalism, both of which are classically foundationalist; ideas, impressions, and other varieties of sense data in the philosophy of mind. I imagine that this curriculum was set back in the mid-twentieth century, when M&E was considered “real” philosophy.  But nowadays, it strikes me as bizarre.

Nobody believes in sense data these days.  Nobody thinks concepts are mental images.  Nobody believes that the epistemological prime directive is to avoid error at all costs.  Nobody thinks experience is theory-free.  Not many people have a dog in the substance-metaphysics fight.  (Obviously, sentences about philosophy which begin, “Nobody believes…” are all false; I mean these views are not widely influential.)

On the other hand, consider some of the social and political views formed in the early modern period.  Lots of people believe in natural human rights.  Lots of people think of social and political associations as a variety of contract.  Lots of people believe that humans are natural individualists, that human beings are not intrinsically social animals.  Lots of people believe church and state should be separated and that conscience should not be coerced.  Lots of people believe that morality is more a matter of sentiment than of reason.  Lots of people believe that society corrupts a person born naturally good. 

And lots of people disagree with them!  These are huge debates in our society today.  Couldn’t you make an excellent case for teaching the reverse of the traditional curriculum:  skipping the M&E of the 17th and 18th centuries entirely, and teaching only social, political, and moral philosophy?  Does anybody do that?

15 Replies to “The Early Modern Philosophy Curriculum

  1. Heath,
    Lots of thoughts about this topic, but I think you’re basically correct that the moral and political thought of the 17th and 18th is seen as part of the contemporary conversation in moral and political philosophy in a way that the metaphysics and epistemology of that era are not part of the contemporary conversation in metaphysics and epistemology. I gather that more people teach the works of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, etc., in introductory ethical theory courses than teach, say, the metaphysics of Leibniz or Berkeley in an introductory metaphysics course.
    That being acknowledged, there are some things to be said in favor of the traditional early modern M&E course.
    1. Even if few contemporary philosophers working in M&E would characterize their views with reference to early modern thinkers, they would likely acknowledge that those thinkers instigated a lot of the lines of thought that preoccupy contemporary M&E. No, debates about substance dualism don’t dominate philosophy of mind, but there’s a lively debate about the relationship between the physical and the mental, etc. So understanding these issues as they were investigated by early modern philosophers helps to understand those same issues in contemporary philosophy.
    2. What about philosophy of religion? It seems to me that much of that subdiscipline is very much concerned with early modern questions: not just the various arguments for God’s existence, but questions about the relationship between reason and faith, etc.
    3. You seem to suggest that most of the early moderns held mistaken views about a variety of philosophical questions. However, it can be pedagogically beneficial for students to figure those mistakes out. Moreover, I’d suggest that many of the mistakes made by early modern thinkers were good mistakes, i.e., not mistakes arising from simple carelessness, but mistakes that it takes a lot of effort and logical acumen to diagnose or trace. I’ve certainly found, e.g., when I’ve taught Spinoza, students find his overall metaphysics implausible, but the real learning occurs when they are made to identify the what, when, and why behind its implausibility.
    4. There’s something to be said for studying an era of philosophical thought *because* it’s discontinuous with ours. Dare I say that it improves the soul to encounter systems of thought that are distant in time but also distant in orientation or fundamental assumptions? It expands one’s intellectual sympathies, etc. This is true even with respect to early modern moral and political philosophy. It’s fascinating to see how students react to Hobbes, in part because they (unlike Hobbes) have no direct experience living in a time of political instability and revolution. Thus, they find it challenging to relate to his apparent absolutism, preoccupation with united sovereignty, etc.

  2. At my university, they seem to teach M&E and social and political philosophy evenly. However, as with many other universities I suspect, the two part early modern philosophy course from Descartes to Kierkegaard is required for majors and honors in philosophy.
    This is because, like Michael said, these philosophers created what we now know as modern philosophy and modern thought in today’s universities. The cogito with Descartes, the negative liberty of Locke, Hume’s skepticism, Kant’s noumena, and Kierkegaard’s religious ethics, helped create the “Zeitgeist” of what today’s universities are pre-occupied with.

  3. I agree, and then again, I disagree. My introduction to moral philosophy course is drawn entirely from modern sources. So I think that it is important for students to be exposed to this material in its original form. That’s the part where we agree. The part where we disagree is conducting metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind ahistorically. In my opinion, a lot of this material is reduplicating early disputes without much consciousness. A lot of philosophy of mind, for example, will appear, at least several decades hence, as ridiculous as sense data theory now appears to many (though not to all). Let me end by highlighting an agreement. It is *always* worth studying a philosophical period discontinuous from our own, not just in practical philosophy—we suffer less from too many idea, than from too few…

  4. I like Heath’s suggestion–there doesn’t seem to be any good reason that M&E should have the market cornered on Modern and early Modern philosophy. I’m teaching Modern philosophy next spring and I am probably–and happily–going to revise my course plan.
    On the other hand, I think there is quite a bit to be said for early modern M%E, quite apart from allowing us to understand philosophy’s historical roots.
    First of all, Descarte’s demon still haunts many philosophers. If he didn’t (or maybe it’s a she?) people wouldn’t keep on trying to disprove skepticism. Many philosophers glibly dismiss global skepticism, but the fact that there are about a thousand glib responses to the same problem suggests gives me pause. Additionally, I think many good philosophers are genuinely worried about skepticism and take it seriously (unlike, say, the ontological argument, which is just an infuriating sort of parlor trick that no one thinks is right.
    Pedagocially, I also think that the careful writing and circumspect reasoning of the moderns who wrote most on M&E provides a great introduction to the philosophical method. One of my friends was so impressed by the moderns’ methodology, and in particular by Descartes’ courageous willingess to follow his reason wherever it might lead him, that he became an athiest (and, for a brief time, a huge fan of Descartes–until he got to the part in Chapter three when God emerges out of nowhere and eradicates any reason for skepticism. Still, though my friend sank into a deep depression from which he has never fully emerged (he sleeps about 22 hours a day) he remained, and I think rightly so, a convert to the basic methodology that Descartes initially embodied in the Meditations.
    Also, the modern and early modern failures to solve the metapysical/epistemological questions that they raise give nerds a chance to finally get some sort of insight into why Nascar fans love it when cars blow up.
    Also, some of the modern stuff is great cannon-fodder.
    Liebniz, maybe, is just a historical curiosity. Except for the whole monad thing, which is obviously right.

  5. Liebniz? Who’s he? 🙂
    I’ve heard of Leibniz who, well, already thought about possible worlds, the rule-following considerations, Leibniz’s law and other curiosities of contemporary philosophy.
    Personally, I have to say I’m far more fascinated by early modern metaphysics and epistemology than I am by early modern ethics and political philosophy. But, I’ve been spoiled by teachers like John Cottingham and Galen Strawson who have been able to make the early modern debates alive.

  6. This is a very interesting issue. I’m not sure whether it’s true that the modern’s M&E is less relevant than their moral & political views. But that modern philosophy is generally taught by focusing on M&E, not moral & political, is something of a puzzle. Heath’s suggestion seems probably right, that it comes from an earlier generation’s preoccupations.
    However, I don’t think a good case can be made for skipping the M & E and only teaching the moral and political. For one thing, although few hold the M & E doctrines as they are formulated by the moderns, few hold their moral and political views as they formulated them either. For another, and relatedly, the M & E views we do hold nowadays are, as Mark pointed out, both related to the views of the moderns and often illuminated by the way they thought about these issues. Perhaps it is worth, however, not ignoring the moral and political views in a course for majors.

  7. Thanks to everyone for commenting. Some responses and clarifications:
    I am by no means opposed to historical awareness in philosophy. On the contrary. My concern, rather, was whether it was a good idea for the early modern philosophy curriculum to be dominated by M&E. Obviously there is too much material to teach everything, so some principle of selection has to be invoked. My instinct is that the big questions students / our culture have now are the ones a philosophical education should address first and foremost, and the historical learning that helps with that project is the stuff to be emphasized. But I think reasonable people can differ here, and I wouldn’t want to be a totalitarian about it. Every philosophy major should read the Meditations.
    A couple of people suggested that studying ideas we find strange can be educational. Again, I agree. I will note, however, that this somehow doesn’t translate into curricular enthusiasm for Plotinus or Aquinas or Hegel. What’s going on, I think, is that the time periods emphasized (quite narrow! about 200 years in the ancient world, and 200 in the modern, out of a 2500 year span) and the subjects emphasized (M&E) are those which mid-twentieth century philosophers thought of as contributing to “where we are now.” (Note what’s excluded: normative philosophy, religious philosophy, idealism of various kinds. This is a scientific, secular “us”.) This says a lot, I think, about the sort of intellectual identity our profession tends to carry around in its head. But that identity has been evolving for some time, if it was ever stable, and it is worth re-thinking how we teach something called “the history of philosophy” in light of it.

  8. Wow, what a fantastic topic! I’ve been grappling with this issue myself over the past few years. I’ll post something soon. In the meantime, though, I’d like to recommend a very interesting article on how the M & E (more particularly, the E) emphasis came about: you can find it at . Here’s an excerpt:
    “The epistemological paradigm for the history of early-modern philosophy has held sway so universally, at least until recently, that it may be surprising to suggest that it itself has a history; in fact, that it can be traced back to a particular episode or couple of episodes at the close of the eighteenth century. The paradigm became so widely accepted because it was propagated by two remarkably successful philosophical movements in which a useful past was an integral part, namely, as mentioned, the Scottish Common Sense philosophy formulated by Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart and the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant. As far as the latter is concerned, the way had been cleared in one fundamental respect by Jacob Brucker’s and the Wolffians’ downgrading of practical philosophy relative to theoretical philosophy, as Tim Hochstrasser has shown. However, it was the Kantians who had the decisive influence on the writing of the histories.
    “The pattern of philosophical history laid down by Reid, Kant, and their followers became prescriptive far beyond their own heyday. One reason for this continuing impact seems to have been that the history of philosophy became the subject of more or less basic university courses on the European continent during the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century. It was during this period that it became widely accepted that the best introduction to the discipline of philosophy was through its history, and the textbooks for these courses were written under the influence of the views indicated here. Thus was created a teaching and textbook tradition that, as Ulrich Johannes Schneider has shown in great detail, swept through German- and French-dominated Europe. It also crossed the Channel, for although the English and Scottish universities were much slower to adopt systematic tuition in the history of philosophy, there was clearly an interest in the subject sufficient to sustain public lecture series…”
    There’s much more of interest there.

  9. I know that there’s only so much time in a semester, but “M&E vs. ethical/politica” doesn’t seem like an either/or choice to me. It’s not like the two are unrelated.
    And Justin’s comment helps explain a related question I’ve had: Why does the 19th century often get skipped in philosophy curricula? Maybe more departments ought to institute a two-semester sequence covering M&E and ethical/political philosophy from 1600 to 1900.

  10. 19th century philosophy, with the possible exceptions of Mill and Kierkegaard, don’t fit in with 17th and 18th century philosophy. The concerns of philosophers after Kant are highly different than those that came before Kant.
    Kant pretty much ended the debate between rationalists and empiricists which preoccupied 17 and 18th century M&E; by attempting to unify them with the ideas of the phenomena/noumena and the faculties.
    What that did was open a new can of philosophy that was entirely based on responding to the crisis Kant gave with his philosophy; in Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

  11. I like the sound of that idea. Actually, it’s somewhat connected with something I’ve been thinking over recently and promised to post yesterday.
    Here’s the situation: at my school (Vancouver Island University), 2nd-year students typically take a two-term course entitled ‘History of Modern Philosophy’. The two courses together are meant to span the period from 1600 to the present, with 1800 being a convenient midway stopping-point. At least one of these courses is required for those taking the major. And as of last year, it’s been my duty to teach those courses.
    So what to cover, and how? It seems that previous teachers of those courses had tended to select two or three philosophers to cover per course, and to pick from the works of each philosopher one significant philosophical work. All these works seem to have been of the M & E variety.
    This seems problematical to me (though I can see that I could well be wrong — my main reason for posting this is to elicit critical feedback, so please provide it!). I think this is true whether or not one restricts one’s scope to M & E.
    One major problem is that there are relatively few stand-alone pieces that second-year students in a four year program, with no prior exposure to early modern history, should be expected to understand. Also, I want above all else to ensure that these students come to understand and develop the level of rigor needed to do philosophy: for that reason, it seems obviously wrong to have them read Hume’s Treatise, say (or even one book of it), and to thereby give the impression that reading such a book in the space of a month is giving the arguments and subtleties due consideration.
    There are some pieces that one could cover adequately in the space of one month each: one could, for instance, do Leibniz’s _Monadology_ in September, Berkeley’s _Three Dialogues_ in October, and Kant’s _Groundwork_ in November. But would this really serve the purpose of a history of early modern philosophy? I doubt it. Students would walk away with a weird idea that philosophy was primarily concerned with metaphysics from 1600-1750, but that toward the close of the 18th century, people started getting interested in ethics, or something. There would also be no sense of the ways in which different philosophers try to deal with the same problem, in which they respond to one another’s work, etc. And most of the great philosophers of the time would be skipped entirely.
    The next option to consider, I thought, was to say a little about all the major philosophers of the period, but make clear what the connections between them are by focusing on one aspect of their work — for that purpose, one could of course go with the traditional (but seriously misleading) textbook choice of epistemology. But this also seemed wrong. After spending some time reading Descartes, I’m pretty well convinced that Desmond Clarke is right in saying that Descartes’ concerns were not really epistemological at all, and it seems very doubtful that one could accurately present Spinoza or, say Hobbes, in this way either. And it seems far less than ideal to me for students to take my PHIL 200 course without ever having heard of the Humean theory of moral motivation, or Kant’s opposing theory, or the ultimate point of Spinoza’s Ethics, or the political views of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, etc.
    So what I ended up deciding on was this: I spend only one week on each major philosopher from that period (following an introductory week and a week covering the medieval scholasticism to which so many of these philosophers were responding). And during the week in which I cover each philosopher, I try to present his views in a way that gives due consideration to all aspects of that philosopher’s corpus, and also some consideration to the religious, political, scientific, etc. background circumstances that help explain why the philosophers in questions dealt with the issues they did in the way they did.
    Naturally, this approach focuses on giving students the big picture, but gives relatively few opportunities to deal with many arguments in depth. I regret this shortcoming, but I always make clear to the students that the 200 course is only meant to give them a very general understanding of what these philosophers were up to, and that if they want to do these philosophers any justice, they should take an upper-level course dealing with just one philosopher (or, better, just one book or part of one book) and do the whole thing more rigorously. I also tell myself (correctly?) that one can’t really provide adequate depth in a 2nd-year survey course anyway.
    The general picture I work toward now is that students in their second year of study should get a good ‘big picture’ of philosophy and learn some specific techniques (as they do in the formal logic course, etc.), and that they should work toward the goals of rigour and precision in their own discussions (for which I provide an online forum). Then, in their 3rd and 4th years, they can take this background and use it to come to grips with the latest and greatest in the fields in which they have an interest.
    I can’t tell whether this is a reasonable way of thinking about an undergraduate curriculum, or whether I’m just deluding myself because it’s the only way I can make sense of an early modern philosophy curriculum. Any thoughts, anyone?

  12. Has anyone read the American Philosophical Association’s suggestions to teach majors in Philosophy?
    Here are some interesting passages: The primary aim of an introductory course should not be “coverage” of a period, a field, or a set of problems, let alone all of philosophy. Introductory work should cultivate the abilities to recognize philosophical questions and grasp philosophical arguments; to read philosophical texts critically; to engage in philosophical discussion; and to write philosophical papers involving interpretation, argument, and library research. These skills can be developed in courses organized historically, by problems, or by field.
    In introductory and intermediate courses, they may appropriately be expected to master basic reasoning skills and to learn to grasp one philosopher’s critique of another, e.g. Aristotle’s of Plato, Kant’s of Hume, or Kierkegaard’s of Hegel.
    So in first and second year intro and survey courses in history of philosophy, I don’t worry about the “big picture” of philosophy, that’s the domain of third and fourth year philosophy; I focus on getting my students familiar with the tools of philosophy, to grasp argumentation, and to provide two or three in depth critiques to help practice this argumentation: like Descartes vs. Locke, Hume vs. Kant, Hegel vs. Kierkegaard; etc.

  13. Thanks, Eric. Very interesting stuff. I hadn’t realized that the APA had advice on these matters.
    I’m inclined to agree that one shouldn’t try to cover an area exhaustively in first-year courses, but should instead introduce students to what philosophy is and how it is done through a discussion of some cases that could be both interesting and useful to them in their later work. I do briefly mention the big picture in first-year courses sometimes, but I avoid almost entirely discussions of historical figures, for a number of reasons.
    However, I’m not sure I can fully agree with the thought that one shouldn’t aim to give a big picture in a _survey_ course. How could a survey course be a survey course if it doesn’t try to survey the field? If I had my students discuss Malebranche’s response to Descartes’ metaphysics for a term, that would surely not be a very good survey of early modern philosophy, despite the fact that students would doubtless learn some important things and skills from doing this.
    Incidentally, your previous post wasn’t up when I added mine… and I have a quibble with it. The picture of ‘rationalists’ and ’empiricists’ fighting it out until Kant united them is, as far as I’ve been able to determine, purely a concoction of the Kantian philosopher Kuno Fischer in his widely-used textbook on the history of modern philosophy (it came out in 1870). It tries to fit all pre-Kantian early modern philosophy into the thesis/antithesis mold of Hegelianism, so that Kant can be brought in as a synthesis. But it seems highly inaccurate historically. Descartes was not aware of founding a ‘school’ of rationalism, and neither Spinoza nor Leibniz used that name or seemed to agree with the tenets typically associated with it. All three philosophers engaged in empirical science (Descartes engaged in it far more than he did in metaphysics, and certainly more than he engaged in epistemology), but the ‘rationalists’ label gives students the mistaken impression that they did not consider such endeavors fully legitimate. Also, I’m not aware of any characterizations of ‘rationalism’ and ’empiricism’ that give any historically defensible reason to list Berkeley as an ’empiricist’ along with Locke and Hume.

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