Note: Last Updated on 4-7-11
45.336 Early Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Kant
(general education humanities and ethics)
Spring Semester 2011
TTH 11:00am-12:15pm
René Descartes (1596 - 1650) John Locke (1632-1704) Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) Anne Conway (1631-1679) Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) David Hume (1711-1776) Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Professor Eric S. Nelson                                                                        Email: esnel at
Office: Olney 101b                                                                                     Telephone: 978-934-3996
Spring Office Hours: TTH 2:00-4:00pm and by appointment

Course Description

We will examine some of the central figures and questions of early modern European philosophy in this course, including its origins in the scientific revolution, and its cultural, religious and scientific contexts. We will explore movements such as the Mechanical Philosophy, Rationalism, Empiricism, and Transcendental/Critical Philosophy. Topics will include issues significant to philosophy, religion, and scientific inquiry such as the possibility and character of knowledge and scientific explanation, the nature of the human mind and personal identity, the possibility of a philosophical understanding of God and the self, and the debate between faith and reason.

The primary goals of this course are for students to:

(1) become familiar with major themes and figures in early modern philosophy,
(2) develop skills in applying philosophical reflection to concrete problems,
(3) become proficient at writing essays and other assignments,
(4) detect and address weaknesses in arguments,
(5) collaborate with other students, and
(6) learn how to present and support ideas in public.


1. Attendance, active participation, in-class assignments: 25% of final grade.

            Note that missing classes and not participating in class and group discussions will result in a lower final grade; attending and participating in classes will improve your final grade. There will be oral and written, individual and group, in-class assignments and take-home assignments based on the readings and class-discussion.

2. Three Papers: 75% of final grade.

            Grading will be based on (1) knowing the texts and our class discussions and (2) being able to make your own arguments and interpretations.

Required Texts

1. MP: Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins (editors), Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources, second edition (Hackett; 978-0-872209787)

2. WP: Margaret Atherton, Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period (Hackett, 978-0872202597)


1. Jan 25, T: Introduction to the course and the emergence of the new sciences

I. Doubt, Reason, and Experience

2. Jan 27, TH: Snow Cancelation

3. Feb. 1, T:  The emergence of the New Sciences and Descartes discovery of a new method. Read MP, Descartes, selections from the Discourse on Method, pages 25-34

4. Feb. 3, TH: Descartes' Methodological Skepticism and the Discovery of the Cogito. Read MP, Descartes, Meditations one and two, pages 40-47

5. Feb. 8, T: Descartes, the Church, and God's Existence. Read MP, Descartes, Letter of Introduction and Meditation three, pages 35-37, 47-54. Also see Pascal's comment on Descartes, p. 106

6. Feb. 10, TH: From the self to the world. Read MP, Descartes, Meditations four to six, pages 54-64

7. Feb. 15, T: Mind and Body continued and Descartes' Exchange with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. Read MP, Descartes, Meditation 6, pages 64-68, and WP, pages  9-21

8. Feb. 17, TH: Descartes and Princess Elisabeth continued; Locke's Introduction. Read MP, Locke, 316-320

Paper I due on Sunday, Feb. 20 (

10. Feb. 22, T: Ideas Continued; Simple and Complex Ideas and Primary and Secondary Qualities. Read MP, Locke, 320-342

11. Feb. 24, TH: Liberty and Personal Identity. Read Locke, MP, 250-255, 367-376

12. March 1, T: Locke and Catherine Cockburn. Read WP, pages 126-146

II. Nature and God

13. March 3, TH: Margaret Cavendish. Read WP, pages 22-45

14-15. March 8 and 10, T and TH, Nature and God. Read MP, Spinoza, Ethics, Part One, pages 144-165, 195

March 12-20: Spring Break

16. March 22, T: Anne Viscountess Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Read WP, pages 46-76

17. March 24, TH: Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics. Read MP, 224-235

18. March 29, T: Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics. Read MP, 235-247

19. March 31, TH: Leibniz, Monadology. Read MP, 275-283. Damaris Cudworth (Lady Masham), Correspondence with Leibniz. Read WP, 77-95.

Paper II due on April 4 (

III. Causality, Doubt, and Critical Reason

20. April 5, T:   Introduction to Hume and Skeptical Empiricism. Read MP, Hume, 533-542

21. April 7, TH: Understanding and Skeptical Solutions. Read Hume, MP, 542-555

22. April 12, T: Necessary Connection. Read Hume, MP, 555-564

23. April 14, TH: Liberty and Necessity. Read Hume, MP, 564-575

24. April 19, T: class cancelled today

25. April 21, TH: Kant's Prefaces to the Critique of Pure Reason. Read Kant, MP, 717-724.

26. April 26, T: Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason. Read Kant, MP, 724-729

April 28: No class, Friday Schedule

27. May 3, T: Space and Time; The Transcendental Aesthetic. Read Kant, MP, 729-737

28. May 5, TH: Transcendental Illusion and the Third Antimony. Kant, MP, 783-785, 798-300

29. Paper III due before 11:59pm on Wed., May 11 (