Course Description

European History

HIEU 3782

Origins of Modern Thought: Montaigne to Beauvoir

Fall 2015

In this course I present an overview of Western philosophical, scientific, socio-political, and cultural thinking from roughly 1580 to the late twentieth century. The course offers what few students these days can get anywhere else, namely, a basic introduction to Western thinking from the cusp of the so-called “scientific revolution” onward. It is my most basic 3000-level course.

By “Western thought” or “Western thinking” I mean, in this context, the articulate ideas or worldviews put forward by, and exemplified in the work of, philosophers, natural scientists, social scientists, historians, literary writers, and artists. Most of this material has been systematically excluded from the curricula of middle and secondary schools and is absent from the educational experience of most college students. Some of the material is taught at UVa and other colleges, but not in such a way that the typical college student majoring in history, English, economics, politics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, computer science, electrical engineering, biomedical engineering, and so on is ever going to confront it, let alone confront it in context.

I draw almost all the course reading from figures you need to know about in order to function as an educated person. These thinkers are important because they laid the groundwork for the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and the arts as they developed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries and as they exist today. We will devote some sustained attention to Montaigne, Descartes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, J. S. Mill, and to a selection of “existentialists.” Via a course packet and PDFs, we will touch on many other thinkers, such as Francis Bacon (the 17th-century philosopher, not the 20th-century painter), Grotius, Pascal, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, La Mettrie, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Bentham, Hegel, Comte, and Weber.

To impart some order to the course, I propose that we regard these thinkers as articulating a sequence of world views, or "epistemes" (M. Foucault) 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 thematic concerns in our reading of the material: "being" or "world," nature, method, and humanity.

The course does not presuppose any prior specialized knowledge. It does require you to be able to listen, and above all to read, carefully, paying attention to each word on the page. It also requires you to follow instructions carefully. However, I know that by virtue of having been admitted to UVa you have the capacity to do these things.

HIEU 3782 Origins of Modern Thought is more analytic than are most courses in history. It is not a course in philosophy, but much of the content is, in a broad sense, philosophical. By “philosophy,” I mean an orientation toward dealing as precisely and as clearly as possible with fundamental issues of knowledge, reality, and existence.

Requirements: There will be 8-9 short-answer “think questions” (TQs), graded P/F; a 50-minute midterm that will have a marginal effect on the final grade; a term paper that asks you to synthesize much of the reading; and a final exam. The term paper and the final exam each counts for about 50% of the final grade. The TQ’s and the midterm can move things up or down a bit.

A Side Benefit: All the written work you submit will be read by me (however, some of it may initially be rank-ordered by a graduate-student grader). Recently I have become increasingly attentive to the presence of bullshit in student writing. I refer to the bullshit that the typical UVa student produces (or produced in the past) to “snow” overworked and inattentive high-school teachers or TAs. Bullshit plays an important role in American society: for example, our entire political system runs on it, as does most “marketing.” Hence the ability to produce bullshit is a great talent to have. However, some students report that their intellectual capacities improve after they have taken a class from me, because they become aware that they are producing bullshit. They thus acquire the skill of being able to switch into non-bullshit mode when they run up against intelligent and well-informed people who are actually paying attention.

Reading to Buy): All books will be available at the UVA Bookstore. But do consider ordering your books second-hand on or or similar sites, where prices may be lower. I note the list prices on for a new book (Mar. 1, 2015). Do not buy books in Kindle or e-book formats, unless you are willing to print out the books in question.

Montaigne, Essays, trans. John M. Cohen. $14.31. Penguin 014017897X, used price as low as $3.42 plus mailing.

There will be a required course packet at N. K. Print & Design, 7 Elliewood Avenue, 434-296-9669. The price will likely be a bit above $35.00 (based on previous prices). For your convenience, a copy of the course packet will also be on reserve in Clemons. Relevant pages needed by second week.

Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald Cress. $9.89. Hackett 0872204200, used price as low as $0.01 plus mailing (the latest edition isn’t needed). Needed by second week; you could use another edition, such as a copy borrowed from the library.

Montesquieu, The Persian Letters, trans. C. J. Betts. $10.37. Penguin.  0140442812, used price as low as .11 plus mailing. Needed by early October.

Rousseau, On the Social Contract, trans. Donald A. Cress. $9.00. Hackett. 087220068X, used price as low as .011 cent, plus mailing. Needed by mid-October.

Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty and Other Essays, ed. John Gray. $9.95. Oxford University Press. 019282208X, used price as low as $3.68, plus mailing. Needed by early November.

Marino, Gordon, Basic Writings of Existentialism. $14.05. Modern Library, Random House 0375759891, used price as low as $3.79, plus mailing. Needed by mid-November.

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


(434) 924-7147
(434) 924-7891
M-F 8am to 4:30pm
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