Megill, Allan

Origins of Modern Thought: Montaigne to Beauvoir

HIEU
3782
Undergraduate
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 amazon.com or bookfinder.com or similar sites, where prices may be lower. I note the list prices on amazon.com 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.

Course Instructor: 

Philosophy and Theory of History

HIEU
5062
Undergraduate
Graduate
Fall
2015

Purpose of Class: (a) To explore some theoretical and methodological issues relevant to historical and social scientific investigation; (b) To give students the opportunity to write a paper of ca. 20-25 double-spaced pages that has something to do with issues of history in the modern world (or in the ancient or medieval worlds, as long as current theoretical issues [e.g., relating to memory, to narrative in its relation to historical argument, to academic authority, to making claims under conditions of bad evidence, and so on] are raised).

Personnel: This class is open to qualified undergraduate students as well as to graduate students. In the fall 2014 version it had a total official enrollment of eleven, of whom nine were third- or fourth-year undergraduates and two were graduate students.  In addition, the class was attended by a visiting graduate student in anthropology from Brazil and three visiting professors, one from a university in Hong Kong and two from universities in mainland China.

I continue to welcome qualified third- and fourth-year undergraduates. Do you have the need or desire to write a term paper, or part of a senior thesis, on a topic that has some relation to history or to theory of history? The course might be a possibility for you, then.

A “qualified undergraduate” is, first of all, an actual third- or fourth-year student as of fall 2015. You must have a declared major in the humanities or social sciences (not necessarily in history). In addition, you should have taken at least one empirically-oriented course at the 2000 level or, preferably, above in history or in any humanities or social science discipline, and you should also have taken at least one serious course at the 2000 level or, preferably, above that focuses on theory (such courses can be found in philosophy, sociology, politics, history, anthropology, religious studies, and English—not all will be suitable, but courses taught by a number of my colleagues in other departments certainly are suitable).

I welcome graduate students not only from history but also from other departments and from the law school. I anticipate that there will also be two or three visitors in the class, most likely visiting scholars from China.

What the Class Covers:  In part, the purpose of the course is to give students an overview of the longstanding tradition of “philosophy of history” (ca. 1860—1960s) and of the more recent genre of “theory of history” (late 1960s/70s—present). We shall cover the philosophy of history tradition rather quickly, with more time devoted to recent works. Not all of the latter works will be oriented specifically to historical theory.

The recent works are important for the treatment they give of such topics as the relations between history and memory, the problems of historical trauma and of justice, the role of narrative in historical writing and in social research more generally, and modes of objectivity. The earlier works are important for their laying of the groundwork for the scientific discipline of history (which was also, it turned out, a political discipline).

In fall 2014, we unexpectedly read some very recent works that turned out to be relevant to class interests, notably Peter van der Veer, The Modern Spirit of Asia, and Rolf Torstendahl, The Rise and Propagation of Historical Professionalism.

Course Requirements: The basic requirements are two:

(1) To participate actively in the class (doing the reading, contributing to discussion, occasionally writing up the course “protocol” or a short report, and so on);

(2) to write a fairly substantial paper, of 20-25 double-spaced pages length, that has something to do, as noted above, with issues of history in the modern world (or in the ancient or medieval worlds, as long as current theoretical issues [e.g., relating to memory or to objectivity] are raised).

Undergraduates should think about how the paper might carry forward your own aims by allowing you to explore an issue relevant to your major or to law school, grad school, and so on. With the permission of the instructor, work done in this class could potentially become part of a a distinguished majors thesis or other major-related paper.

The key is to define a topic, or some part of a topic, that will be sufficiently circumscribed that you can easily do it in a semester (a semester necessarily laden, of course, with many other things that need to be done).  Such a paper might be a research paper focused on some specific instance or issue that raises theoretical problems, an intelligent survey of one small part of the literature relevant to theory and history, a theoretically-informed account of a particular historical issue or event, and so on. There is to be substantial discussion with the instructor about the paper topic.

Graduate Students: Graduate students (including law students) should craft a paper topic that will lead them forward in own programs. I should note that n the past, law students in the joint MA/JD program have taken this class as one of their history courses.

Every year that I teach this course I introduce some of my own current research-and-writing concerns into the mix of things considered in this class.

Course Instructor: 

Philosophy and Theory of History

HIEU
9021
Graduate
Fall
2015

In the last 25 years the philosophy and theory of history has been revitalized, with three vibrant international journals now publishing and thought-provoking books and articles appearing every year. This tutorial will quickly cover the classic literature and issues in the field and, more intensively, the recent literature. Emphasis will be on those segments of the literature most relevant to envisaged dissertation themes.

Course Instructor: 

History of Ideas-Intellectual History: Modern Europe

HIEU
9022
Graduate
Fall
2015

This tutorial focuses on European-sourced conceptions and theories, with an emphasis on modernity in the broades senses. Characteristically, students will negotiate with the instructor a set of themes and texts to consider, e.g., notions of knowledge, interpretation, labor,  identity, civil society, revolution.. These should be related to the student's projected dissertation area.

Course Instructor: 

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

  

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