Early Modern Philosophy

Feature Image

Course Description

Philosophy in Western Europe underwent a dramatic shift in the 17th and 18th centuries. Spurred by the ongoing revolution in science and the rediscovery of some lost works of Classical Greek and Roman philosophy, philosophers of this period turned away from the scholastic disputes practiced in the universities of Europe to a whole new set of philosophical questions, including: What am I? How do I relate to my body? Is knowledge possible? If so, where does it come from? For proponents of this new approach to philosophy, exploration of these questions did not require extensive education or training, only the exercise of one’s inborn rational faculties. For this reason, philosophy in this period also witnessed another revolution: the increasing influence of women philosophers.

This course will introduce you to the major questions and figures of 17th and 18th century philosophy in Western Europe. We begin with René Descartes, arguably the most important thinker of the 17th century. Descartes' philosophical work posed the questions with which subsequent philosophers would wrestle. After looking at Descartes' answers to these questions, we’ll turn to those of his contemporaries and successors, including Malebranche, Cavendish, Leibniz, Berkeley, Locke, and Hume. Finally, we’ll close our survey with a look at the most important philosopher of the 18th century: Immanuel Kant, whose transcendental philosophy represents the culmination of Descartes' philosophical legacy.

Course Objectives

This course will emphasize close reading, analysis, and evaluation of basic philosophical works from the early modern period, with the aim of establishing a broad understanding of the philosophical controversies of that period and cultivating the skills necessary for appreciating these and other topics in philosophy. The successful student will demonstrate the ability:

  • to state and articulate philosophical questions and ideas, both verbally and in writing,
  • to read and critically assess philosophical literature,
  • to identify the elements of an argument and assess it for soundness and validity, and
  • to apply these skills to novel cases.

The key to success in this course is to keep up with the assigned readings and to attend and participate regularly in class activities.

If you keep up with the lectures and readings you will not be assigned anything for which you are unprepared!

Course Components

There are two basic components of this course, lectures and guided reading. Both components are mandatory, and both are moreover crucial for your success in this course.


The job of my lectures is to introduce you to the theories, concepts, and problems that make up the content of the course. These lectures will be accompanied by slide-show presentations, which I will share with you to use outside of lecture as a guide to reading the assigned texts. Hence, you will not be expected to come to the lecture having read the material assigned for that day, but rather to use what you learn in lecture to help you read the text on your own.

Guided Reading

After attending lecture, you will be responsible for working your way through the assigned readings. The assigned readings are inevitably difficult: they are texts written centuries ago for audiences very different from us, a fact which accounts as much for their enduring interest as their difficulty for modern readers. The lectures are designed to help you as you work out the meaning of the text for yourself, providing you with the necessary context, key ideas, and outlines of important arguments. Your progress in coming to grips with these texts by a series of reading responses assigned for each Unit, which you will turn in for credit one week after the completion of the relevant Unit.


Your success in meeting these objectives will be assessed on the following bases:

  1. Completion of four reading responses assigned at the beginning of each Unit and due one week after its completion. The questions assigned in each of the reading responses are designed to orient your reading as well as to gauge your comprehension of the assigned texts.

  2. Two 3–5 page argument analysis papers, each dedicated to an important passage discussed in lecture.

  3. Additionally, students will assessed for participation by means of self-assessments prepared by the student after each Unit. See below for more information.


Participation is crucial for grasping the content and developing the skills at which this course aims. However, there are more ways to participate in a course than just verbal, in-class participation, which can also be exclusionary, imprecise to grade, and insensitive to students whose circumstances at home are not optimized for remote learning. Rather than traditional participation, we will use self-assessments to reflect on how we have engage with the course in general, or supported others in their engagement, and how we might improve our efforts. To this end, I will be assigning self-assessment quizzes (on Blackboard) at end of every Unit.

You are required to fill out a self-assessment for every unit.

I intend to be as inclusive as possible in assessing your efforts to engage with the course. Participation and engagement in the course might include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • doing course readings or accessing preparatory material;
  • asking or answering questions in class;
  • contributing to class discussion;
  • engaging with the contributions of others in a charitable and respectful way;
  • discussing course material (in person or online) with others outside of class, including with those not enrolled in this course;
  • starting or contributing to discussions on blogs or social media;
  • seeking out additional resources on course topics, such as articles, books, podcasts, or lectures;
  • taking detailed notes on course readings; sharing your academic strategies, tips, and habits with others;
  • creating and sharing artistic media relating to course content, such as drawings, paintings, poetry, music, comics, videos, podcasts, or short stories;
  • visiting a museum (virtually or in person) or seeking out artistic works in other ways and sharing how these works relate to course topics;
  • reflecting either in writing or in discussion on the relation of course topics to recent news stories, opinion pieces,or magazine articles or to research, theories, or findings from other disciplines.
Our ability to credit you with these modes of engagement depends on your ability to document them, so please be detailed and, if possible, provide evidence!


Final grades will be determined according to the following rubric:

Assignment Percentage of Final Grade
Reading Responses (x4) 12.5%
Argument Analysis 1 20%
Argument Analysis 2 20%
Participation 10%
Total 100%
You must complete all assignments in order to pass the course. No extra assignments will be given.

Grading Scale

Score Grade Performance
96–100 A+ Surpasses All Grading Criteria
90–95 A Satisfies All Grading Criteria; No Errors
87–89 A- Satisfies All Grading Criteria; At Least One Minor Error
83–86 B+ Satisfies Most Grading Criteria; Minor Errors
80–82 B Satisfies Most Grading Criteria; Perhaps Some Major Errors
77–79 B- Satisfies Most Grading Criteria; One or More Major Errors
73–76 C+ Satisfies Some Grading Criteria; Some Major Errors
70–72 C Satisfies Some Grading Criteria; Several Major Errors
67–69 C- Satisfies Some Grading Criteria; Many Major Errors
64–66 D+ Satisfies Almost No Grading Criteria; At Least One Critical Error
60–63 D Satisfies Almost No Grading Criteria; One or More Critical Errors
0–59 F Satisfies No Grading Criteria, Incomplete, or Plagiarized
Final grades will be rounded up from the 2nd decimal place; no exceptions will be made.

Texts & Course Materials

Required Texts

Most of the readings for this course are collected in:

Ariew, Roger and Eric Watkins, eds. Modern Philosophy: an Anthology of Primary Sources, 3rd ed. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub. Co, 2019.

It is available at Pandora . Additional readings will be posted to Blackboard.

Additional Materials

Students looking for additional study materials are encouraged to consult the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I am also compiling a playlist of YouTube videos related to modern philosophy; there is a link to it on Blackboard.

Course Policies

Announcements & Class Discussion

We will use the Google Chat client for all announcements and class discussion. You will be added to the course chat room towards the end of the first week.

Office Hours & Appointments

Office hours and appointments will also be held via Zoom .

Email Policy

Feel free to ask questions to me, your TA, or your classmates in the class chat, either in public or in private. If you must email me, please allow me two business days to respond. Please do not email me with questions of philosophical substance—that is what lecture, discussion, and office hours are for—and please consult this syllabus before asking questions about course policy.

Late Submission Policy

Late submissions will be penalized 1/3 of a letter grade (e.g., from A to A-) per day late. I often permit extensions, but you must ask me in advance of the due date.

Disabilities and Different Styles of Learning

Education is a pluralistic enterprise: there are several and often incompatible styles of learning. If you believe there is an alternative approach to this material that would better suit your style of learning, do not hesitate to bring it up with me. If you have a disability for which you are or may be requesting accommodation, you are encouraged to contact both me and the Office of Disability Services at 0 (212) 338 10 42 as early as possible in the term. ODS will verify your disability and determine reasonable accommodations for this course.

Academic Honesty

The goal of this course is to promote and assess your satisfaction of the above-stated course objectives. Cheating not plagiarism will not be tolerated. Students suspected of violating the University’s policy on academic integrity, noted below, will be required to participate in the required procedural process as initiated by the instructor. A minimum sanction of a zero score for the quiz, exam, or paper will be imposed.

Be sure you are familiar with KU’s complete policy on academic honesty, which is available in the Student Code of Conduct