Origins of Modern Thought: Montaigne to Sartre

Spring 2013

HIEU 3782

Origins of Modern Thought: Montaigne to Sartre

Allan Megill

Updates (book list, syllabus, etc) will appear, when available, on Allan Megill’s site at When the course COLLAB site is launched, versions of the COURSE DESCRIPTION AND REQUIREMENTS and of the DETAILED SYLLABUS will appear there in the Collab Resources section.

Professor: Allan Megill

TA: Tom Butcher: Tom Butcher has previously graded for Prof. Megill. In addition, in fall 2011 he TA’d for the companion course HIEU 3812, Origins of Contemporary Thought.

We have requested a lecture time of MW 2-2:50, but as of this writing the time has not been confirmed (Oct 1, 2012).

The main purpose of “Origins of Modern Thought” is to offer an account of the basics of European intellectual history from about 1600 to the mid-twentieth century. Students will find out who the most original thinkers were, when they lived, what their central arguments were, and how they fit into a wider pattern. A second purpose is to give some sense of the background to our own disciplines and ways of thinking now. I anticipate that students majoring or planning to major in a wide variety of fields will find the course useful and interesting. Finally, the course aims to cultivate and encourage the practice of critical and analytical reading.

We shall look at such intellectual trends or movements as skepticism, seventeenth-century “rationalist” philosophy, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, idealism, positivism, historicism, and existentialism. Among the thinkers whom we shall read (selectively) are Montaigne, Bacon, Descartes, Grotius, Pascal, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Montesquieu, La Mettrie, Rousseau, Smith, Bentham, Schiller, Humboldt, Coleridge, Madame de Staël, Hegel, Comte, Kierkegaard, J. S. Mill, D. F. Strauss, Nietzsche, Weber, and Sartre. To try to impart some order to this diverse material, I propose that we regard these thinkers as articulating a sequence of world views or "epistemes" leading from what I call "unified ordering" through "balanced tension" to "embedded progress," and finally to the collapse of any unified conception. We shall focus on four concerns: "being" or "world," nature, method, and humanity.

The course does not presuppose specialized knowledge, although it does presuppose an ability to listen and read carefully and to write precisely. It is intended to be my most basic 3000-level course. However, it is more analytic than are most courses in history. It is really a combination of history and philosophy.

There will be ca. nine or ten short-answer “think questions” that are absolutely required but that are not graded on a scale; a 50-minute midterm; a term paper that asks you to synthesize some of the reading; and a final. The term paper and the final exam each pretty much count for 50% of the final grade, but the TQ’s and the midterm can move things up or down a bit.

BOOK LIST: The following book list is subject to change. However, it is very close to what the final book list will be: Montaigne, Essays (selected), trans. J. M. Cohen; Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Montesquieu, Persian Letters, Rousseau, On the Social Contract; Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals; J. S. Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays; and Marino, ed., Basic Writings of Existentialism. There will also be a course packet, available at THE COPY SHOP, and there are some in-copyright readings on COLLAB that will need to be printed out on paper.

Note: The book list may be slightly updated in due course. All updates will appear on the site until such time as the COLLAB site for this class is activated.

The course was last taught in spring 2010, and before that it was taught in fall 2007. I shall probably next teach it in fall 2014 or spring 2015.

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904

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