Archive for March, 2016

It may not be early modern, exactly, but I can’t be the only person here who would be interested in the new(ish) Medieval Logic & Semantics blog. All the noisy animals in title appear in Sara Uckelman’s recent post, Bacon on animal communication.

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The International Berkeley Society invites submissions for inclusion in its group session at the Eastern APA meeting in Baltimore, MD, January 2017. Abstracts of up to 500 words for 25-minute presentations should be prepared for blind review and submitted to IBS Associations Coordinator Seth Bordner at seth.bordner@ua.edu. Submission deadline is April 20, 2016.

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The following announcement is being posted on behalf of Don Rutherford and Dan Garber.

The Editors of Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy are pleased to announce that the Marc Sanders Foundation has established a prize for scholarship in Early Modern Philosophy. The Sanders Prize in the History of Early Modern Philosophy is a biennial essay competition open to scholars who are within fifteen (15) years of receiving a Ph.D. or students who are currently enrolled in a graduate program. Independent scholars may also be eligible, and should direct inquiries to Donald Rutherford, co-editor of Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy at drutherford@ucsd.edu.

The award for the prizewinning essay is $10,000. Winning essays will be published in Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy. This year’s deadline is October 1, 2016.

For more details on submissions, see: http://www.marcsandersfoundation.org/sanders-prizes/modern-philosophy/

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This post is based on a panel presentation about Teaching Modern Philosophy for the Society of Modern Philosophy group session at the recent Eastern Division meeting of the APA.

By Eugene Marshall — Florida International University

In this talk, I would like to discuss how to teach modern philosophy to undergrads.[1] In order to answer the question of how, though, it might be useful first to ask Why.  

Why do we teach surveys of modern philosophy to undergrads? Most departments offer such a course and many require it for the major.  Why is this course such a staple of departments across the country?  Now, I am not simply asking why this course is worthy, full stop; rather, I am interested in why we so often offer or even require this course rather than other courses we could offer or require.  Is the hoary History of Modern survey worthy of its central location in undergraduate curricula?  If so, why?  That is the question I’d like to investigate.

Let me begin by stating what should be the obvious, given this forum: I DO think we should teach surveys in modern philosophy to our undergrads!  In this talk, however, I’m going to problematize a bunch of reasons that I normally hear in answer to the why question.  I’ll finally settle on a modest answer to the why question and then see how that answer shapes how and why we should teach in modern surveys.

Before I consider a bunch of reasons I often hear, let me make a distinction between the group of reasons one might give for conducting research in the history of modern philosophy (or perhaps teaching grad seminars in it) and requiring it of undergrads.  Given that most undergrad majors do not go to grad school to become philosophy professors, these two groups of reasons might be fairly distinct. What I will say concerns only teaching to undergrads.  Though some of my observations might apply to the former, I’ll leave such applications aside today.

So: why teach modern to undergrads?  I suppose one reason someone might give is that we ought to do so because we always have (for rather short values of ‘always’).  Call this institutional inertia.  I think we can all agree this reason stinks, frankly, and so I won’t spend much time on it.

OK, I shall divide the reasons I often encounter into two groups, intrinsic value (A) and instrumental value (B).  Most people probably believe the modern survey has both intrinsic and instrumental value for undergrads, and I agree, so I do not take my little taxonomy here to be exclusive — or exhaustive, for that matter.  First, I’ll consider some claims about the intrinsic value of the modern survey course for undergrads.

(A1) The first claim of intrinsic value I sometimes hear given to support why we should teach modern philosophy to undergrads could be called the “Great Books” justification.  One might say that studying Descartes or Kant is part of this complete philosophical education, that a student has not properly been educated in philosophy until they have studied this or that.  I find this argument pretty tiresome, to be honest.  Why value Descartes intrinsically over a thinker from another period or culture, for example?  Why not a survey of a different period in history, such as Medieval or Renaissance philosophy? Or a survey of philosophy from outside of Western Europe, such as one of Ancient Chinese ethics and politics instead?  Or even one on Alan Turing or Octavia Butler?

Recall this discussion concerns the real world, in which we cannot simply say, “Yes students should study ALL of these”.  Yes they should, but I am concerned instead with the question a curriculum subcommittee of a philosophy department at an American university takes up when it decides what courses to offer and what to require for the major.  Modern surveys usually make the cut, while Medieval and Confucius and Turing and Butler usually do not. Unless one adopts a problematically old fashioned notion of a canon of Great Books that includes Descartes but excludes more recent work, or that by women and people of color, as well as anyone writing outside of the Western European context, this justification falls a bit flat.  We often find the more hagiographic teachers and writers assuming such things, that their chosen authors or periods are somehow the only ones who got it right.  OK, let’s hope we can find a better reason for requiring modern than this.


(A2) Still, someone might wish to argue that such a survey does have intrinsic value.  For example, one might invoke Dan Garber’s reasons for his own interest in the history of philosophy, what he calls an antiquarian interest.  These concepts and debates are really interesting and beautiful on their own terms and that might just be enough justification for some people to study them and, indeed, for some students to learn about them.  Though I think this is a noble and, to me, quite familiar motivation for studying the more obscure elements of Spinoza or Cavendish, say, I don’t find it as effective as a justification.  After all, all the courses I listed above, those on Medieval or Confucius or Turing or Butler, for example, could provide the same justification. So, while the antiquarian justification might be enough to, for example, justify offering a modern survey as an elective (hey it’s neat, so why not?), it is less effective as a reason to require such a survey…unless, of course, a case could be made that the texts and debates of the Modern Period are objectively more interesting from an antiquarian perspective than those others.  But that’s not an argument I’m willing to make, as I mentioned above.

It looks like the usual justifications for teaching modern philosophy because of its intrinsic value over other worthy courses has a hard road to travel.  What about instrumental reasons to favor it over other courses?  I’ll turn to those now.

(B1) Most commonly, when someone offers an instrumental justification for why a department should offer, or even require, a modern survey, they will claim that one can understand present philosophical problems by studying their origins (or, if the speaker wishes not to offend the ancient philosopher in the room, they might refer to the modern period as the time at which these philosophical problems took their modern form).   I’ll refer to this as a genealogical justification of modern surveys.

(B1a) I have three worries about this approach.  The first is simply to wonder whether the assumptions here are true. First, do our major 21st C philosophical problems in fact derive from those of the modern period, rather than being new, or rather than deriving from some other period of philosophy? And second, even if present problems really derive from this period, do students get a better grasp of them by studying their histories? This may be an assumption that flirts with the genetic fallacy, if not outright commits it.

(B1b) The second comes from the contextualist historian of philosophy within me, who says that this is a presentist, anachronistic way to approach 17th or 18th C philosophy.  Bringing one’s 21st C philosophical problems and looking for them in the 17th C will inevitably distort our historical understanding, and so on.

On the other hand, I then say to myself, this is supposed to be an instrumental justification for teaching these courses to undergrads — if the purpose here is to give them certain skills, or to help them think about 21st C philosophy, who cares if they get the 17th C wrong?  After all, why should we think that getting the 17th C right is of intrinsic or instrumental value for undergrads in a modern survey?  So I am not sure just yet about that line of thought, though I shall return to it below.

(B1c) I have a third, more serious worry about this genealogical justification for teaching modern surveys, however.  I worry that this justification — that 21st C philosophy originates from the texts of the modern period — may turn on an unnecessarily conservative view of what present philosophical practice looks like, for it assumes a too narrow continuity between what mostly white male Christian Europeans cared about four hundred years ago and the whole practice of philosophy today.  For if 21st C philosophy is truly to be broader and more inclusive than how it was then, the justification for a modern survey course could apply equally to a course in any other national/continental context, such as Asian Philosophy, indigenous philosophy, Africana philosophy, etc… But those courses never get justified by presentist concerns (i.e., this course will help us to understand present debates)  And not just with regard to the perspectives and subject positions, but also the content.  After all, some might think that philosophy has sufficiently changed, perhaps due to scientific advance, say, such that the concepts and arguments of Descartes are different enough in kind that no good presentist justification is forthcoming. So I worry that you have to make a fairly conservative “timeless debates, eternal concepts” kind of assumption for this argument to work.

(B2) An entirely different sort of instrumental justification given for studying modern philosophy — indeed, a kind of photo negative of the above — is as tales of warning.  You know the type: people teach Descartes only so that they can focus on how bad the Circle is and so on. Students leave such classes wondering why they needed to learn about these guys at all if they got everything so badly wrong.  I for one don’t find this pedagogically very valuable.  If we simply want a list of bad negative examples, I am not sure why we would need to slog through a bunch of weird historical context and terms to get to them.  I will also include in this category those who say that teaching modern philosophy is somehow the best way to teach critical thinking.  I agree that it is A way to teach critical thinking, but surely not the best.  Indeed I suspect that it is in fact worse than many contemporary classes, given the extra historical baggage one must unpack before one gets to any argument analysis, for example. Surely, there are enough examples of bad philosophy published more recently?

(B3) OK, it’s looking bad for modern philosophy here; so far, all the common reasons given for its inclusion seem pretty weak.  But take heart, for now I’d like to propose another instrumental reason for teaching modern surveys, one that might be somewhat more successful. I’d like to suggest that one special value that a modern survey can offer is a chance to study an alternative history of ideas, so to speak. What follows is in part inspired by something Eric Schliesser wrote on his blog.[2]

One worry I raised concerning the genealogical justification is its inherently conservative nature. As Schliesser puts it, this justification displays a clear status quo bias.  Perhaps we can reduce this bias, however.  It is true that, if one focuses on the ‘winners’ of the debate, the ‘canonical’ texts, this bias emerges.  But what if one considers those who ‘lost’ the debates, or those who were forgotten — or even erased?[3]

It might be that, in showing students the alternatives to our present conceptions — the stories that failed, so to speak — we can render more contingent the victors. And, to the extent that they see the reasonableness — in the historical context, at least — of those views, they can come to understand the reasonableness of views that they currently do not accept, in principle at least. And, finally, if it is true that these philosophical concepts shape their worldview beyond just the realm of academic philosophy — as in political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics broadly construed, topics of race and gender, etc — getting students to encounter and buy into the views that lost really can help them to develop a multiplicity of philosophical perspective taking, so to speak, which might very well be a good thing.

So, perhaps something like a genealogical justification can work, but not a hagiographic attitude of praising the victors, elevating the Great Books. Rather, one could adopt a critical genealogical  justification for teaching the history of modern philosophy survey.  If it is the case that at least some of our prevailing philosophical worldview and at least some of our central philosophical debates took their modern form in early modern Europe, then studying the period critically, and doing so in a way that recovers and considers the lost and forgotten from the period, will actually have instrumental value for the students, in that it will help them to consider more fully their own assumptions and the assumptions underlying those contemporary concepts and debates.

Let me try now to pull out the positive elements here and put the together into a unified justification for teaching modern philosophy. First of all, surveys in modern philosophy can be inherently interesting and worthwhile, in the same way that the content of most other courses are, so it is not unreasonable to consider including such courses in a department curriculum.  Second, one can teach critical thinking and close reading skills via a history survey, though probably no better than via any other philosophy class. Again, these can serve as a reason not to exclude such classes, but not yet a reason to include them over others.

Finally, though, we might say that surveys in the history of modern philosophy that attend to the debates out of which some of our prevailing philosophical concepts originated, making sure to include the losers of those debates, so to speak, can provide students with a way to take up philosophical perspectives different from their own.  That is, assuming that at least some of the concepts and assumptions that shape 21st C America have some of their origin in early modern Europe, it follows that surveys in modern philosophy are better positioned than most other courses to provide students a chance to see the contingency of their own beliefs — or, at least, of the beliefs they encounter in the world around them.  Thus modern surveys may have a special justification that most other course might lack.

In short, then, there is a qualified sense in which a critical genealogical justification for favoring the teaching of the history of modern philosophy over some other courses might work, namely, that it is uniquely situated to help students understand not only how the prevailing concepts around them came to be, but to see those concepts are being contingent, as having reasonable alternatives, and being vulnerable to challenge.

Now to return to my reason for raising the question of why we should teach history of modern surveys, if indeed we should at all.  I think that this answer conditions how one should teach the course — and what one should include.  In short, one has to tell the story of how some prevailing norms or concepts came out of live debates in the period and one must include a sympathetic or charitable focus on those who lost those debates.  Only the inclusion of such thinkers can achieve the effect I’ve identified as being especially well suited for modern surveys.

Secondarily, our courses should include texts and arguments that are also intrinsically interesting, to appeal to the antiquarian in our students.  And finally, they should also teach critical thinking and reading skills, as all philosophy courses should.

It may be, however, that the above given justifications also work for teaching 19th C philosophy and even an historical approach to 20th C philosophy. So be it; I for one would welcome the inclusion of a late modern (19-20th C) history of philosophy survey alongside the early modern one.


Let me offer one further, more speculative justification that favors modern philosophy in particular, even over 19th and 20th C courses, though I am less convinced of the following reason than I am of those I gave in the previous paragraph.

Perhaps modern surveys are better than other courses to require of students because the texts that modern surveys cover may very well be the last real examples of philosophical texts that cover debates across a wide scope of topics and disciplines in a way that an undergrad would be able to understand.  In short, I would suggest that, after the 18th C, the division of labor in philosophy and scholarship in general advanced to such a point that really serious work was either highly specialized and thus not accessible to undergrads, or fairly narrow and thus did not give students a chance to dabble in as rich of a conceptual experience as they could in the 17th C, say.  For example, the ethics or political philosophy of the 17th C is often explicitly metaphysical and in dialogue with the natural philosophy of the time; indeed, many texts one might read in the 17th C will tie together science, religion, metaphysics, and politics in a way few texts in the past two hundred years are able to do. This is beneficial because it allows students to see the connections across these areas in a way that is harder to bring to the surface in more recent texts.  And seeing these connections — how aesthetics connects to philosophy of mind and metaphysics and on to religion and science, for example — uniquely situates the modern philosophy survey as a gateway to more specialized study in philosophy.

So, perhaps, in addition to the critical genealogical justification I gave above, I might offer one final, more tentative justification for favoring modern surveys over other courses: it is the last time philosophy texts were written that would allow undergrads to engage philosophical issues across a wide range of topics, without requiring them to have studied a great deal of philosophy beforehand, which makes the modern philosophy survey a good gateway drug, if you will.

And if this is a legitimate rationale, the teaching upshot would be that we should include texts that do indeed engage a variety of topics in philosophy, broadly construed.  Putting this last speculative reason together with what came before, then, we are left with the following.  One should teach modern philosophy surveys that cover a range of philosophical subfields, not one that focuses solely on epistemology or metaphysics, for example, and one should further be sure to include all sides of the various debates of the period, so as to promote alternative philosophical perspective taking.[4]

[1] I’ve written on this before. See my “How To Teach Modern Philosophy,” Teaching Philosophy, Volume 37, Issue 1, March 2014.

[2] Eric Schliesser, Digressions&Impressions, http://digressionsnimpressions.typepad.com/digressionsimpressions/2014/10/teaching-the-history-of-philosophy-and-a-bit-more.html#more , publishing 10/23/2014, accessed 12/10/2015.

[3] See Eileen O’Neill, ”Disappearing Ink: Early Modern Women Philosophers and Their Fate in History,” in Philosophy in a Feminist Voice, ed. Janet Kourany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

[4] Of course, what I have offered here very well might only be one viable way to justify a modern philosophy survey…YMMV. And, certainly, I do not mean it as an attack on those who do not wish to teach in just the way I have suggested here. Instead, I see this as a way to defend your modern surveys to your colleagues on the curriculum committee, so to speak.

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This post is based on a panel presentation about Teaching Modern Philosophy for the Society of Modern Philosophy group session at the recent Eastern Division meeting of the APA.

By Kirsten Walsh — University of Calgary

1     Introduction

In the 1870s, the University of Cambridge received an important donation: the Portsmouth family were willing to donate Newton’s papers to the University Library.  In 1888, following a “lengthy and laborious” process, the Cambridge committee assigned to the task of sorting through Newton’s papers delivered their verdict: Cambridge only wanted the scientific papers—the rest, namely the alchemical and theological papers, were of ‘no great value’.  Those papers remained in the attic of the Portsmouth mansion until 1936, when they were sold at auction.  It is significant that not a single institutional buyer attended the auction.  Eventually, the majority of the papers were acquired by two men: Abraham Yahuda and John Maynard Keynes.  Both recognised the importance of these papers, and by the 1960s, most material was available to the public.

I introduce this story to illustrate a point about frameworks.  They are often introduced for good reasons—to highlight particular aspects of an event, historical period, or discipline.  But, by directing our attention towards certain things, we ignore others.  After Newton’s death in 1727, his niece Catherine Conduitt and her husband John did a superb PR job.  They cultivated the image of Newton as the genius scientist, and hid away the bulk of his papers—an enormous amount of religious and alchemical work that didn’t fit their framework of rational, objective science.  This was almost certainly done with good intention: to preserve Newton’s reputation from charges of heresy.  And it ensured that scholars continued to study Newton’s scientific and mathematical work.  However, this same framework led the Cambridge committee to dismiss the bulk of Newton’s work, and, until recently, few scholars have recognised these manuscripts for what they are: serious scholarship which displays deep connections with his work on mechanics and optics.

Frameworks play an important role in the development of philosophy.  They help decide the scope and direction of research, setting the terms for the study of the history of philosophy.  They also play a role in how we, as contemporary philosophers, see ourselves and our field’s development.  Finally, they influence pedagogy: how and what we teach.  Take the rationalist-empiricist distinction (hereafter ‘RED’), for example.  The RED’s historical narrative has played a key role in setting the scope and direction of research and teaching in early modern philosophy, and has influenced the contemporary philosophical emphasis on ‘core’ epistemology.  Frameworks such as the RED have shaped our field in ways that we often don’t even notice.  Many scholars have criticised the use of such frameworks.  They argue that frameworks distort our understanding of the history of philosophy.  Though, many argue that the extent to which this occurs, and the damage it causes, varies depending on the framework.  And they suggest that reliance on such frameworks is counterproductive to many of our pedagogical aims.  Although, it should be noted that many scholars who criticise the use of frameworks in professional philosophy advocate their use in teaching philosophy.[1]

In this paper, my concern is with a particular set of biases: those relating to the kinds of skills we want our students to acquire.  One of the challenges of teaching history of philosophy is that our pedagogical goals are diverse.  We want our students to learn about historical ideas, figures and texts, and to develop an interest in the history of philosophy.  But we also want our students to develop historical skills, such as those required to read and evaluate primary texts and manuscripts, and philosophical skills, such as the ability to construct, reconstruct and assess arguments.  These latter skills are especially important, since they are transferrable—the vast majority of our students won’t become historians of philosophy or even philosophers, but general philosophy skills have all sorts of useful applications.  And yet these skills are frequently neglected in history of philosophy courses, from which students walk away with some names, dates and a knowledge of the ‘general shape’ of things (usually with a tacit belief that modern philosophy was developed by a small group of wealthy white men).  In framework-based courses, the focus on grand narratives and complete philosophical systems typically does not lend itself to the development of historical and philosophical skills.

I offer an alternative to framework-based teaching.  Instead of structuring our courses around grand narratives, or complete philosophical systems, we may take a much more localised approach: present arguments and theories as clusters of solutions to some particular problem.  I call this a problem-based approach, and argue that it offers pedagogical payoffs that are lacking in the more traditional approaches.  Before we continue, however, two caveats are in order.  Firstly, I do not pretend to be offering a new approach to teaching history of philosophy.  Indeed, many of you will already be doing many of the things I suggest—especially in upper level courses.  But I do think it’s worthwhile making this approach explicit, and noting the pedagogical benefits of the approach.  And so, secondly, I do not take credit for this approach.  The approach I describe, the benefits I identify, and the course I outline were all developed in discussion with other teachers of early modern philosophy.  In particular, the course I use as an example was conceived by Dana Jalobeanu, and developed by Dana, Michael Deckard and I when we co-taught it last Spring.

So here’s how I’m going to proceed.  I’ll start by identifying some of the well-known problems with the traditional, framework- or narrative-based approach.  I’ll argue that, while there are better and worse frameworks available, many pedagogical problems don’t just go away by switching frameworks.  I’ll then outline the features and pedagogical payoffs of a problem-based approach.  Finally, I’ll conclude by offering some examples of problem-based courses.

2     Problems with ‘Grand Narratives’ and system-based approaches

The RED’s historical narrative has played a key role in setting the scope and direction of research in the history of ideas, the teaching of early modern philosophy, and even in the contemporary philosophical emphasis on ‘core’ epistemology.  Traditionally, philosophers from the early modern period have been divided into Rationalists and Empiricists.  Let’s remind ourselves of the traditional narrative. According to this story, successive figures in each camp developed the epistemological positions of their predecessors (e.g. Carruthers, 1992, Cushman, 1911, Lennon & Dea, 2014). Moreover, each camp rejected the central claims of the opposing one.  And so, the early modern period can be characterised as two separate, dialectically opposed, progressions.  This back-and-forth ended when Kant combined the insights of both rationalism and empiricism in his new Critical Philosophy.  This distinction, and its complementing narrative, has come increasingly under scholarly attack.  Critics of the RED hold that the distinction introduces three biases into early modern scholarship (Vanzo, 2013){Vanzo, 2013 #187}:

  • The epistemological bias. Histories of early modern philosophy based on the RED tend to overemphasise the role of epistemological commitment in the central doctrines, developments and disputes of early modern philosophers.
  • The Kantian bias. Histories of early modern philosophy based on the RED tend to overemphasise the lack of common ground between the two camps, and Kant’s role in drawing the early modern period to a close.
  • The classificatory bias. Histories of early modern philosophy tend to overemphasise the extent to which all or most early modern philosophers can be classified as either empiricists or rationalists.  This has led to some unconvincing classifications and a failure to recognise the extent to which ‘rationalists’ were influenced by ‘empiricists’ and vice versa.

In short, reliance on the RED has distorted our understanding of early modern thought and the ways in which our field has developed.

Recently, the ‘Otago School’ has offered an alternative framework: the distinction between Experimental and Speculative Philosophy (hereafter the ‘ESD’).  To put it very briefly, speculative philosophy states that natural phenomena can be explained without recourse to systematic observation and experiment, and encourages the use of hypotheses and conjectures in the construction of metaphysical systems.  In contrast, experimental philosophy states that natural phenomena can only be explained after observations have been collected and ordered—thus, experiment plays a vital foundational role in natural philosophy.  These are not simply new labels for old categories.  Where the RED is an epistemological distinction focusing on knowledge’s ultimate source and justification, the ESD is methodological and explanatory: it asks how we go about generating knowledge and explaining natural phenomena (and, for a number of 18th-century philosophers, moral phenomena).[2]

The differences between these frameworks become clearer when we ask: what was the main driver of change in early modern philosophy?  Insofar as the RED gives us an account of what mattered in early modern philosophy, it generates stories about foundational, a priori investigation into the nature of knowledge.  In contrast, the ESD tells stories of philosophical progress driven by scientific achievement, technological development and methodological innovation.  These are two very different narratives about the development of early modern thought.  Moreover, they emphasise the contributions of different historical figures, the RED emphasising the canonical seven—Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant—and the ESD emphasising figures such as Boyle, Hooke and Newton.  On the RED, scientific advancement is at best a side-show, on the ESD it is the main event.[3]

The ESD doesn’t introduce any of the above biases, and so it has certain advantages over the RED.  However, presumably it is a mistake to think that any one factor has played a privileged role in shaping intellectual history.  Thus, arguing that the history of philosophy is methodology-driven, rather than epistemology-driven, creates far too stark a dichotomy.  And drawing out this distinction between the RED and the ESD demonstrates that our traditional early modern philosophy courses, where we teach the rationalists and the empiricists, present extremely biased accounts of the history of philosophy.  And, while the ESD can avoid the particular biases presented by the RED, it runs the risk of introducing its own biases.

Frameworks such as the RED and the ESD generate grand narratives.  And so, in a framework-based course, we tend to introduce historical figures one at a time, focusing on names, dates, and developing an understanding of their complete philosophical systems.  The problem here isn’t so much that we are teaching simplifications and distortions.  It’s true that, a lot of the time, these narratives are false, or not the whole truth—figures tend to be shoehorned, certain key figures and features of particular views are ignored or avoided.  But we can’t teach everything.  Indeed, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is no teacher’s maxim.  We must be selective, otherwise students would drown in the details.  In short, simplifications and distortions are necessary.[4]  However, the focus on grand narratives, I argue, is problematic for three reasons.  Firstly, by focussing on grand narratives, we omit most of the messy details.  But in doing so, we miss all the fun—the personalities, the criticisms (the clever and the snarky), the comments scribbled in margins.  If we want to cultivate in our students a love for the history of philosophy, then these details are worth preserving.  Secondly, to do justice to the grand narrative in a single semester, we really only have time to focus on a few key figures.  But in doing so, we teach our students that early modern philosophy was an activity for wealthy white men.  If we want to encourage diversity (and surely we do!), we need to provide examples of women and other minorities engaging in philosophical discussions.  Thirdly, by focussing on grand narratives, we encourage our students to focus on names, dates and complete philosophical systems.  But this causes us to neglect other historical and philosophical skills, such as those required to read and evaluate primary texts and manuscripts.  The focus on grand narratives and complete philosophical systems does not lend itself to the development of such skills.  Luckily, there is another approach that can avoid these pitfalls: the problem-based approach.

3     Towards a problem-based approach

In this section, I introduce a problem-based approach to teaching early modern philosophy.[5]  This approach stems from the recognition that philosophers do not develop their positions ex nihilo, but in response to problems and challenges arising in their historical context: observations, events and other philosophical positions.  In addition to this, while a lot of philosophical work was focussed on developing philosophical systems (i.e. complete systems with epistemological and metaphysical components), in many cases, the most interesting and important developments occurred at a more local level: hammering out details and addressing particular problems.

The problem-based approach has three key features.  Firstly, it is localised, in that arguments and theories are presented, not in terms of a grand narrative, but as a cluster of responses to a particular problem—where that problem is understood as it was at the time.  And arguments and theories are treated as responses and solutions to the problem.  And so, to the extent that there is a focus on historical figures, the focus is not on learning about the figure for the figure’s sake, but on learning about the figure as someone trying to solve a particular problem.  Secondly, the problem-based approach is contextual.  That is, arguments and theories are understood and assessed, not in isolation nor in terms of their role in a completed philosophical system, but with respect to the problems they are intended to solve.  Thirdly, the problem-based approach is text-focused.  Arguments and theories are drawn, in the first place, from particular primary texts and passages.  This focus on particular texts and passages is a consequence of the fact that we are treating arguments and theories as localised and contextual.  Instead of dealing with the great books and completed systems of philosophers expressed in secondary texts, we emphasise correspondence, manuscripts, and lesser-known texts.  To the extent that secondary material, and discussion of frameworks, philosophical systems and grand narratives, are introduced (and indeed they often need to be), they play a subordinate role—they become positions to examine and challenge.

There are roughly three kinds of payoff to this way of teaching.  Firstly, the approach allows us to sidestep the canon.  That is, women and other non-canonical philosophers can be addressed without shoehorning or side-lining them.  This offers payoff in terms of diversity and inclusivity in the classroom.  We don’t just have to focus on non-canonical figures in terms of their contact with the canonical seven; we can look at them on their own terms.  This might have the benefit of providing female role models to students.

Secondly, the approach offers payoff in terms of development of historical skills.  This is because the approach lends itself to studying lesser-known texts, correspondence and unpublished materials.  This allows students to develop their skills in reading and interpreting historical texts.  Once we move beyond the canonical seven, we are on less trodden ground—we just don’t know as much about these scholars.  This means that we cannot rely so much on secondary literature and critical editions.  Often we will read manuscripts, correspondence, and texts that only went through one edition, and have been out of print since the 17th or 18th century.[6]  Focusing on such texts helps to develop very different skills to those developed when one focuses on secondary literature.

Thirdly, the approach offers payoff in terms of development of philosophical skills.  Whereas a traditional early modern course tends to focus on a fairly specific narrative, establishing influence, dates and development of the ideas of a specific figure, a problem-based course tends to focus on a puzzle and various solutions and assumptions around it.  This leads to a focus on articulation of problems and their assumptions, and assessment of various solutions.  And so there is scope for the development of transferrable philosophical skills, such as reconstructing and assessing arguments.


You might think that one reason to continue teaching the traditional narrative is because it provides us with a shared knowledge base.  The thought being that, in order to understand anything about the history of philosophy, then you need to understand Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza and Kant.  Any other figures are relevant only insofar as they influenced or were influenced by one of these figures.  And this shared narrative provides us with some common ground.  In short, you might think that we should teach the traditional narrative, because it provides a strong foundation for further early modern scholarship.

Moreover, students often want to orient themselves when discussing historical figures, and grand narratives tell us what is important, what to focus on, and make great ‘pushing off’ places for original research.

Here’s my response.  Researchers of the history of philosophy, if they have ever focused on such things, are moving away from the ‘grand narrative’ approach—and with good reason.  Human history is messy and, typically, simplistic, one-size-fits-all explanations are inapplicable.  In other words, academic history of philosophy doesn’t focus on the canon, so neither should our students.  If we want our students to become good philosophers and historians of philosophy, then we should teach them skills; not a (basically false) narrative.

Finally, different approaches serve different purposes, and there may be a legitimate place for a traditional ‘survey’ course on history of philosophy (although, I do think that these courses are not useful at an introductory level—anecdotally, there is very little uptake in such courses, so the benefits are slim).  Moreover, it’s clear that some ways of simplifying early modern philosophy are better than others.

4     Some Examples

In this section, I offer an example of a problem-based course: a course on the science of space.  I do not take credit for what is an exciting new course.  It was conceived of by Dana Jalobeanu at the University of Bucharest.  Dana, Michael Deckard and I taught it together, and developed aspects of it as we went.  I then offer some additional ideas for topics that could be incorporated into existing courses.

4.1    A course on the science of space

Course introduction:

One of the most persistent received views in the history of philosophy/history of science attributes the emergence of modern science to a change in the representation of space.  This narrative originates with Alexandre Koyré, who argues that the scientific revolution is the product of two related actions: the dissolution of the Aristotelian cosmos (the ‘closed world’ of the ancients and medievals) and the ‘geometrisation of space’.  On this story, modern science began when Galileo and Newton started to do physics in the tri-dimensional, Euclidean space.  This account has been repeatedly criticised and qualified, but there is something appealing in his connection between the fundamental breakthroughs of the early modern classical mechanics and the ‘geometrisation of space’.  It is intuitively compelling to think of ‘modern physics’ as something taking place ‘in space’ and of the universe of the moderns as consisting of infinite, homogenous, tri-dimensional space, in which bodies are placed according to the laws of mechanics and geometry.

The course has two main objectives:

  • To investigate the diversity of competing conceptions of space in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the extent to which these conceptions of space were also paired with different conceptions concerning the relations between physics (natural philosophy), mathematics and theology.
  • To see if we can offer an alternative story to Koyre’s ‘geometrisation of space. This involves investigating how a science of space seemed to have emerged from discussions and debates over a cluster of natural philosophical concepts we would assimilate today to the notion of force.

Course outline:

Problem: a conflict between Copernicus’ descriptions of planetary phenomena and accepted explanatory principles.

  1. On methodology and the metaphysical costs of the dissolution of the celestial orbs, Thomas Digges, A Perfect Description of the Celestial Orbs and Galileo, Dialogue, Day I (fragments)
  2. On the theological costs, Bruno, The Ash’ Wednesday Supper


Problem: improving the descriptions of planetary phenomena

  1. Galileo, Starry messenger
  2. Johannes and Elizabeth Hevelius, Prodromus astronomiae


Problem: finding a mechanism

  1. Gilbert’s magnetical philosophy, De magnete, Book V (ch XI-XII), Book VI (ch. I-III)
  2. Kepler’s celestial physics, Astronomia nova, Introduction
  3. The anti-vitalist programme, Descartes, Principles of philosophy, parts II and III (fragments)


Problem: Dealing with forces in the mechanical philosophy.

  1. Kenelm Digby, Two treatises, (on the magnet)
  2. Galileo’s physics, Dialogue, Days II and III (fragments)
  3. Newton, Optical queries (on the bending of light rays), Principia (action/reaction, mutual gravitation)


Problem: action at a distance

  1. Newton’s letters to Bentley
  2. Leibniz Clarke correspondence

4.2    Some additional topics

On the received world view

  • Reisch, Margarita philosophica—this is a 16th-century textbook/encyclopaedia, that appears to have surprisingly influential (it went through an incredible number of editions) and yet has been largely ignored by historians of philosophy and science.
  • The Jesuit Ratio Studiorum—this document was crafted in the late 16th century and standardised Jesuit education.


On new methods and instruments of observation

  • Galileo, Starry messenger
  • Robert Hooke, Micrographia
  • Robert Boyle, Observations and experiments
  • Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy

These texts provide observational reports and experiments, as well as discussions of experimental techniques and methodology.


On the reformation of knowledge, the advancement of learning and various utopian ‘scientific’ projects:

  • Francis Bacon, New Atlantis
  • Margaret Cavendish, Blazing World
  • Henry Oldenburg, correspondence
  • Abraham Cowley, A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy
  • Robert Hooke, A general scheme


On medicine and family health

  • Jane Sharp, Nicholas Culpeper and Daniel Sennert.
  • Elizabeth Walker, Mary Rich, countess of Warwick and Katherine Jones Viscountess Ranelagh.

It would be nice to include more women in courses on early modern science.  The trouble is, there weren’t very many of them (one could of course emphasise minority authors in the secondary literature).  One place where we can find women is in areas of medicine and family health.  Jane Sharp was a late 17th-century midwife.  Her book contains a discussion of the fact that women should be trained as physicians so they can be better midwives.  Her work contrasts nicely with the work of Culpeper and Sennert.  Elizabeth Walker, Mary Rich and Katherine Jones were pharmacists and wrote recipe books.

5     Conclusion

To briefly wrap up, I’ve argued that if we want to emphasise philosophical and historical skills, as well as broaden the scope of our early modern courses, we should turn from the kind of course based on grand narratives and philosophical systems developed by a few figures, and instead try a problem-based approach.  On this approach, a course’s narrative is built around attempts by philosophers (and others) to solve specific problems in their historical context.  Breaking free of the traditional philosophical canon, such as that encouraged by the RED can make our teaching more rewarding—not just for our students, but us as well.


6     Bibliography

Carruthers, P. (1992), Human Knowledge and Human Nature, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Cushman, H.E. (1911), A Beginner’s History of Philosophy, Volume 2, Boston, Houghton Miflin.

Lennon, T.M. and Dea, S. (2014), ‘Continental Rationalism’.  In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition)http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/continental-rationalism/.

Vanzo, A. (2013), ‘Kant on Empiricism and Rationalism’, History of Philosophy Quarterly, 30, 53-74.

Walsh, K. and Currie, A.M. (2015a), ‘Caricatures, Myths, and White-Lies’, Metaphilosophy, 46, 414-435.

Walsh, K. and Currie, A.M. (2015b), ‘What drives philosophical progress?’.  In Early Modern Experimental Philosophy: https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/emxphi/2015/02/what-drives-philosophical-progress/.  Accessed: 23 December 2015.

[1] Adrian Currie and I have explored many of these ideas in (Walsh & Currie, 2015a).

[2] Various aspects of this position have been developed on the Early Modern Experimental Philosophy Blog: https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/emxphi/

[3] Adrian Currie and I have developed this idea in (Walsh & Currie, 2015b).

[4] Adrian Currie and I have argued that there are good distortions and bad ones, and one of the main challenges in teaching early modern philosophy is to distinguish between them (Walsh & Currie, 2015a).

[5] I focus on teaching early modern philosophy, but I take it that this approach is applicable to other areas of history of philosophy.

[6] Thanks to digital collections such as EEBO and ECCO, there is now excellent online access to such rare books!

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Anonymous Modern Philosophy
Panel of the Society for Modern Philosophy
APA Pacific Division Meeting 2016
Thursday Evening, March 31: 8:00-10:00 P.M.


  • Juli Joráti (Ohio State): Early Modern vs. Medieval Anonymity
  • Alexander X. Douglas (Heythrop College/St Andrews): The Spinozist Model of Anonymity and the Tractatus-Theologico Politicus
  • Sandra Lapointe (McMaster): Rooting for the Underdogs

Authorship is central to our grasp of philosophical contributions. People tend to associate an idea with its originator—think of: ‘Platonist’, ‘Humean’—and especially for the modern period, scholarship on seven big names dominates the field. However, not all philosophical moves have been made by identified figures. Sometimes authors made deliberate efforts to remain hidden from view, be it to allow for a more neutral assessment of their work, or to distance themselves from controversial opinions. As yet, only fragmented attention has been paid to the anonymous and pseudonymous face of modern philosophy.

This panel will begin to address this gap. Its findings will have implications not only for efforts to reshape the philosophical canon, but also for thinking about named authorship in research practices more generally.

Event hashtag: #AnonModPhil
Web: http://anonphil.github.io


Early Modern vs. Medieval Anonymity

It was not at all rare for early modern philosophers to publish or circulate their work anonymously. In fact, nearly all commonly studied early modern figures did so at least once: Descartes, Spinoza, Conway, Locke, Masham, du Chatelet, and Hume, to name just a few. Nevertheless, the early modern period is also a period in which named authorship becomes more and more important. It is in this period that ideas come to be viewed increasingly as the property of those who first expressed them, and in which authors come to expect to be given credit when others make use of their ideas. This is evident, for instance, in the heated dispute between Leibniz and Newton over the invention of the calculus. Some early modern philosophers even argue for intellectual property rights explicitly. My paper aims to show that as a result of this new attitude toward named authorship, anonymity also takes on a different meaning for both authors and readers.

More specifically, the paper explores the shift in attitudes toward named authorship—and, relatedly, toward anonymity—that appears to coincide roughly with the transition from the medieval to the early modern period. A widely accepted narrative has it that it was quite common in the medieval period to circulate one’s work anonymously but that this changed radically shortly after the advent of the printed book. While medieval authors were not all that interested in putting their name on their work, renaissance and early modern authors were usually eager to do so, except in special cases. The shift is often attributed partly to print conventionsand partly to changing views about the centrality of the identity of the author. To put it starkly, the common narrative claims that early modern authors generally have bigger egos than their medieval counterparts, and hence stronger desires that their ideas be associated with their names.

This narrative, like most broad narratives that draw a sharp contrast between medieval and early modern attitudes, is of course over-simplified. Yet, there is some truth in it as well: the notions of intellectual property, copyright, and plagiarism seem to have developed after the invention of the printing press. The identity of the author becomes increasingly important in early modern Europe and certain authors even attain the status of celebrities. As a result, publishing under one’s name starts to become the default, which in turn means that when an author withholds her name, it is quite likely that she thinks there are special reasons in favor of anonymity. While it is entirely possible for a medieval author to write anonymously without giving much thought to the matter, it is quite unlikely in the case of early modern authors. This in turn, my paper contends, also changes the ways in which readers perceive anonymity.

The Spinozist Model of Anonymity and the Tractatus-Theologico Politicus

Why did Spinoza choose to publish his philosophy anonymously? He might have done so in order to protect himself from persecution. But there are reasons to doubt that this was his main motive.

Perhaps Spinoza aimed to show himself to be above ambition, which was in those days recognised as a vice. Descartes and his followers in the Dutch Republic were accused of harbouring this vice: while claiming to pursue truth, it was alleged, what they actually sought was to be admired for their cleverness.

Spinoza, in the Tractatus, turned the accusation against the accusers: those who condemn the writings of others do in order to win “the applause of the crowd”; they are the ones corrupted by ambition. But he then risked having the accusation turned back upon himself. Anonymous publication made any such counter accusation appear much less plausible.

It was, however, very important for Spinoza not simply to appear unmotivated by ambition in writing his philosophy, but also to be so unmotivated. His psychological theory rules it impossible to convey one’s philosophical thoughts to somebody without also transferring to her the motivations that prompted those thoughts. If ambition is among those motivations, the philosophy will have a corrupting effect. And the contagion of ambition is, for Spinoza, among the most dangerous of all the social pathologies.

Rooting for the Underdogs

There are many things wrong about our conception of what counts as canonical in philosophy in the nineteenth century, and with the idea of a canon in general. Considering the case of Bernard Bolzano is quite enlightening. It shows that the value of philosophical ideas has little to do with authorship and popularity. Our focus on “founding giants” and “great minds” is tainted by perspective, prejudice and all sorts of complicated assumptions, most of which are fed by bias. At the same time, part of the interest of doing the history of philosophy—as opposed to rational reconstruction—is to tell a story, explain how theories arise and develop in context, and anonymity is not a very good engine for narratives. This raises a number of questions about historical methodology and surprisingly little has been written on the topic. In this talk I will make a few suggestions.

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The New Narratives Conference has a Website:

If you are interested in attending the conference at Duke University April 14-17, please register on the website. Registration is free and all are welcome to attend!


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Thanks again to Chloe Armstrong and Jeff McDonough for their discussion last week. Here are links to all the relevant posts.

The paper being discussed: “Leibniz, Spinoza and an Alleged Dilemma for Rationalists”

Chloe’s first post, A Leibnizian Way Out of the Rationalist’s Dilemma (Part 1): https://philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com/2016/02/22/a-leibnizian-way-out-of-the-rationalists-dilemma-part-1/

Jeff’s first reply: https://philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/a-leibnizian-way-out-of-the-rationalists-dilemma-mcdonough-reply-part-1/

Chloe’s second post: A Leibnizian Way Out of the Rationalist’s Dilemma (Part 2): https://philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com/2016/02/24/a-leibnizian-way-out-of-the-rationalists-dilemma-part-2/

Jeff’s second reply: https://philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com/2016/02/25/mcdonough-reply-part-2/

Comments on all these posts will remain open for another couple of weeks, if anyone else wants to contribute to the discussion.


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