As the beginning of the semester approaches, I am starting to evaluate (or re-evaluate) my syllabi. And I figured that this was as good a reason as any to start a discussion about approaches to teaching Early Modern Survey courses. I’ll post some of my thoughts, to start the discussion off, but please feel free to share comments whether or not they are direct responses to things I say here.
A common requirement for a major in Philosophy is that one take a survey early modern course. I imagine that the course is often conceived of along the lines of “Descartes to Kant” or “Descartes to Hume”, though I know that there is probably a lot of variety in what thinkers get covered in the course.
It seems to me that some important features of these courses include: a) for most of the students taking it, it is their first course with a sustained focus on early modern thinkers, b) it may well be their first course in history of philosophy, c) it is often a prerequisite to more advanced courses in early modern (such as a course on the British Empiricists, or an undergraduate seminar on Spinoza). Also, in my experience, such courses are predominantly focused on early modern M&E, rather than early modern value theory.
Brief aside: Here at UB, the assigned number for the course is, lamentably, PHI 370, which signals to students that it is principally a course aimed at juniors and seniors. This severely reduces the possible enrollment for a “special topics in early modern” class or an upper-level undergraduate seminar in early modern, because so many people don’t wind up meeting the prerequisite for such courses until immediately before they graduate. (I am looking into getting this changed, but, of course, getting such changes made is a more involved process than one would expect).
Here is a link to the syllabus I used last time I taught the course. As you can see from looking at the reading schedule, my approach to the survey course is built around breadth of exposure to a variety of different thinkers (rather than, say, cutting way back on the number of figures we read, and aiming for extreme depth of coverage).
Ok, so here are some of my thoughts about such courses/facts about how mine is organized:
A) One of the most under-appreciated tools in the philosophical toolbox is that of charitable interpretation. I think it often gets second billing to things like argument extraction/evaluation, counter examples, and thought experiments (all of which are important philosophical tools). And for any student, whether or not they are going to continue working on early modern philosophy, there is value in exercising their charitable interpretation muscle with the early moderns. So I always try to forefront the importance of charitable interpretation with my students in this sort of class.
B) There is a “standard” narrative of the early modern period (especially if your survey course is Descartes to Kant), involving the Rationalists and the Empiricists (with Kant emerging as the hero who overcomes those categories). I know lots of people disagree about the accuracy and utility of that narrative, and even fans of the narrative recognize that it is a massive oversimplification of the actual landscape of the early modern period. My survey early modern course is structured around the narrative, but I use several selections from Margaret Atherton’s “Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period” to break up the narrative a bit. I also stress , throughout the course, the extent to which the standard narrative is an after-the-fact attempt to categorize/explain what was going on during the period.
C) Berkeley’s Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous is probably my favorite text to teach in an undergrad early modern survey course (also in the running: the correspondence between Descartes and Elisabeth). It is as though Berkeley knew exactly how the minds of 21st century undergraduates would work, and thus, knew precisely how to intrigue them and frustrate them. I feel like students are constantly coming up with objections to Philonous about two to three pages before Hylas does, which is great. Also, they often get very upset with Hylas, for not doing a good enough job defending material substance.
D) I close the course with Thomas Reid, rather than Kant, because, given how much I try to fit into my courses, I don’t think I could possibly do justice to Kant, and also because I think it is easier for students to grasp and evaluate Reid’s diagnosis of what everyone was doing wrong in philosophy before he showed up to fix things, than to do the same for Kant.
E) I mentioned above the general tendency for people to teach these courses as Early Modern M&E, without much focus on value theory. My course follows mostly along those lines as well, the major exception being that my coverage of Spinoza is really based more around book V of The Ethics, rather than Book I. I don’t have strong reasons for going along with the default here, except insofar as the standard narrative privileges epistemology and metaphysics.
F) My last point is just a brief complaint about how early modern readers work. There are basically three reasons that I use an edited anthology, rather than assembling my own primary sources and having the university copy shop make up a course reader that way:
1) It is easier for me. I won’t defend this as a good reason, but causally speaking, it plays a role.
2) Expert judgment on the quality of translation/choice of edition for a given text. Many of the readings I want to cover were first written in other languages, and if I just cast around the internet looking for public domain translations, who knows if they are any good.
3) Expert decisions on what to abridge/excerpt. Again, if I had all the time in the world to focus on crafting a reader, I could decide exactly which paragraphs from Locke’s Essay I’d want in the student’s readings, and which ones can be excised. But it makes no sense for every individual professor teaching passages from the essay to make such detail oriented decisions.
But using an edited Anthology restricts me in ways that can be frustrating. As an example, my students have to buy two separate books, because none of the women philosophers are included in the larger anthology that I use. I’d much prefer for the readings from women philosophers to be integrated into the same reader as all the other readings.
Here is what I would like to see happen: A publishing company moving to something more like an a la carte model for assembling primary source readers. The editors would still curate a body of primary source selections, ensuring the quality of editing and choice of edition and translation for those texts, but instead of always putting them all together in a single book, professors can construct their own reader from arbitrary sub-sets of the available texts.
It might sound like I am proposing that every professor reinvent the wheel, but I don’t think that would really be the model. Rather, the editors could provide recommended packages of readings (different packages for different focuses of the course: “if you want to focus on early modern philosophy of science, we recommend this set of texts….”, “if you want to focus on disputes in metaphysics, try these….”). The packages could even be unit-sized rather than course-sized (“if you want to cover occasionalism, we recommend these readings…”). The professor could then select some recommended bundles as a base, and (here is the crucial part) tweak that bundle to their own satisfaction. If someone wants to go entirely piecemeal, they could, but the important thing is that the model wouldn’t require everyone to do that. This model also makes it much easier for the publisher to expand the stable of primary texts available. Currently, to add primary texts that aren’t already included, a volume needs to be expanded (which, given size constraints, might require cutting out other texts), or the text becomes part of a whole new volume. On the a la carte model, if a lot of people have interest in including some passages that aren’t already in the stable, they can be added to the stable fairly easily, without having to remove other texts from the stable, or finding a whole host of companion texts with which to create a new volume.