The movement in the eighteenth century collectively called “the Enlightenment” attracts less attention from historians of philosophy than the philosophers who wrote just before or just after them. (Those who do receive attention, like Hume, are studied for other reasons than their role in the movement.) To some extent, the Enlightenment has been a victim of its own success: many of the theses and arguments that appeared to their contemporaries most controversial — about the universal rights of all people, the need for religious tolerance, the importance of scientific investigation to the well-being of humankind, and the importance of political freedom, of democracy and of free intellectual inquiry, for example — have come to seem obvious to us. Hardly worth stating, let alone requiring, argument. Other of the hottest disputes of the day seem to us now as museum pieces. Who worries about the divine right of kings nowadays?
But many interesting and important things are passed over when we neglect this history. This class will strive to reverse the neglect of the period by studying the writings of some of these classic thinkers, including Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Montesquieu, J.J. Rousseau, David Hume, D'Holbach, Mary Wollstonecraft, Edward Gibbon, and Moses Mendelssohn as well as thinkers especially associated with the American Revolution: Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine. We'll also consider a classic essay by Immanuel Kant: “What is Enlightenment?” A special section of the course will be devoted to the influence of the Enlightenment on the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence.
To better understand the philosophical dimensions of the enlightenment, we'll also study some thinkers who provided important groundwork for the enlightenment developments by reviving the classic traditions of the Pyrrhonian and Academic skepticism. Readings will include work of Michel de Montaigne, and Pierre Bayle, as well as Hume's epistemological writings.
To round out the picture, we'll read (or in some cases just read about) some of the thinkers who made up the reaction that scholar Isaiah Berlin has called the “Counter-Enlightenment”. We'll read some classic essays by Berlin himself on this intellectual tendency, and look at Joseph De Maistre, Giambattista Vico and Edmund Burke, as well as Rousseau's anti-enlightenment side.
Readings will include both primary and secondary sources. The class will require three short papers (3 - 4 pages) spaced throughout the term, with one of them the basis of a class presentation, and one longer project (15 - 20 pages) due at the end of the term. The longer project can be an extension of one of the shorter papers.
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