Course Description

European History

HIEU 3802

Origins of Contemporary Thought

Spring 2016
This course examines the work of four thinkers who have been massively important in modern thought: Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Martin Heidegger. The span is from Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) to Heidegger’s philosophically path-breaking Being and Time (1927), but issues of contemporary relevance will be kept firmly in mind, and these thinkers will all be connected to the wider intellectual and cultural contexts that they reflected and in part also created.
There is heavy emphasis in the course on students’ own reading of the material. After students attempt to grasp the reading (which is sometimes fairly difficult), the instructor explicates it in class. By the end of the semester, students will have a quite good idea what the central views articulated by Darwin et al. actually were. They will also be more skilled at reading complex texts.
Goals (in brief): (i) to model skill at reading theoretical texts and at thinking conceptually; (ii) to impart knowledge of some theories, and the assumptions underlying them, advanced by Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger; these theories are of continuing relevance and, in some cases, use; and (iii) to impart knowledge of the place of these theories, concepts, and assumptions in modern and contemporary thought.  
Requirements (in brief): The crucial requirement is to do the reading alertly and on time. More specifically, students will (i) answer ca. 8-10 short “think questions,” on time; (ii) take a 50-minute midterm; (iii) write a term paper of six single-spaced pages, based on assigned class reading (not additional outside reading); (iv) write the final exam (2½ hrs.); and (v) complete online evaluations of the class and sections. Items (iii) and (iv) count highest in the grade: they each generate close to half the final grade. The other exercises can move the grade slightly up or down. In short, the term paper and the final exam are very important.
BOOK LIST: We read crucial parts, and sometimes all, of the following: Darwin, The Origin of Species; Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Genealogy of Morality,Portable Nietzsche; Freud,  Interpretation of Dreams and civilization and Its Discontents; and Heidegger, Being and Time. A secondary reading is Allan Megill, Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida. There is also a course packet, from N. K. Print and Design (7 Elliewood Ave.), which costs around $12. Eventually I shall put up information about book editions on my Website; if you don’t see the information there, e-mail me at

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
Department Contacts