PHIL 32 -- The Origins of Modern Philosophy
Winter 2010

Instructor:    Clinton Tolley
   office:   HSS 8061
   hours:   Thurs, 1:30-3:30pm
   phone:  2-2686
   email:   ctolley [at]

Teaching Assistant:   Andrew Wong
   office:   HSS 8073
   hours:   Weds, 3:15-5:15pm
   phone:  ---
   email:   adw003 [at]


Time:        Tues & Thurs, 11:00am-12:20pm
Location:  Peterson Hall [PETER] 102 [map]

Discussion sections:
   Monday, 11:00am-11:50am, Center Hall [CENTR] 217A
   Wednesday, 2:00pm-2:50pm, Humanities and Social Sciences [H&SS] 2154

Required textbook

Readings in Modern Philosophy, Vol. 1:
Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and associated texts
eds., Roger Ariew & Eric Watkins  (Hackett, 2000)  [cover]
{available at the Price Center bookstore}

Course description

In the aftermath of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the Scientific Revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries, a radically new form of thinking emerged, one which still shapes our own consciousness to this day. The rallying cry: let each person cultivate the power to think for themselves. And thus the ‘modern’ worldview was born. In this course, we will follow René DESCARTES, Thomas HOBBES, Antoine ARNAULD, Baruch SPINOZA, and Gottfried Wilhelm LEIBNIZ, as they try to make sense of this bold new project. Their task: to sort out what it could mean – and whether, in the end, it is even intelligible – for each person’s capacity to think things through, each person’s ability to reason with one another, for Reason itself (as they would come to say) to be the ultimate arbiter of the true and the good -- to be, in effect,  the measure of all things.

Topics to be covered include: the meaning and value of knowledge, the difference between everyday and scientific knowledge, the limits of knowledge and the possibility that we might not know anything at all,
the basic 'categories' of being, the problematic status of 'spiritual' beings (such as the divine and the human) and their 'freedom' in the world of the new science, the special nature of a human being's relation to itself, the possibility that there is no 'final' (or 'absolute') reason for things being the way they happen to be.

(Note: Phil 32 may be used to fulfill the Muir College breadth requirement.)

Course requirements

{a more detailed description of the requirements can be found at WebCT.}

Weekly questionnaires
Take-home open-book mid-term exam
In-class closed-book final exam

Schedule of readings

{A more detailed schedule can be found at WebCT.}

Descartes, Discourse on Method
Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy
Arnauld, Hobbes, and Descartes, Objections and Replies to the Meditations
Spinoza, letters to Oldenburg and Meyer
Spinoza, Ethics
Leibniz, letters on Descartes
Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics
Leibniz, letters to Arnauld

Reference links

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries (requires sign-in)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries

Overview of 'continental rationalism'
  (i.e., Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, as well as Nicholas Malebranche);

  life and works,
  theory of knowledge,
  theory of ideas,
  argument for God's existence

Spinoza: overview
Arnauld: overview

For students who haven't taken a course in philosophy before, Simon Blackburn's Think (Oxford UP, 1999) is a short and very readable text that gives a nice introduction to what philosophy is and what philosophical thinking and writing is like.

For those looking for a companion treatment of many of the themes and figures to be discussed in this course, John Cottingham's The Rationalists (Oxford UP, 1988) is especially recommended.

Course URL

last updated: January 7th, 2010