I hereby declare – for the benefit of anyone at Oxford UP who might be reading – that I was going to require my (probably 50-or-so) students next semester to buy your serviceable little paperback volumes: Woolhouse’s The Empiricists and Cottingham’s The Rationalists. I assigned them when I last taught History of Modern Philosophy, a few years back; and it worked out fine. But now that I see they cost $45 each, for a lousy sub-200 page, 7” x 5” paperback and pretty cheap paper. What’s that about? Do I really want my students to hate me? (Do I want to hate myself?) I am quite sure they were not this pricey a few years back. There is such a thing as charging too much, given that these books are not actually so good that they cause one’s head to explode with insight into the history of modern philosophy. So I am going to put these particular books on reserve in the library, and recommend them to my students as resources, but I am re-doing my syllabus in protest at absurd pricing. So there. Oxford UP has lost a course adoption – the holy grail of textbook publishing. Let that be a lesson to you.
So: what are some other good secondary texts on the History of Modern Philosophy, suitable for lower level undergraduate teaching? In the past I have not exactly enjoyed teaching History of Modern, because (in my purity and love of the Truth) I chafe at the potted, Clash of the Titans, rationalists-versus-empiricists, with Descartes and Kant standing at the ends, storyline. It’s Hegel’s fault we have this story, and it’s not as though we believe anything else Hegel taught us, so I don’t see why I should have to start now. But seriously …
My idea for the course, which I sort of started to work through last time I taught, is to start with ‘Everything I Am Supposed To Teach You About Descartes Is Wrong’. That’s lecture 1. There’s this Standard Picture of Descartes as the Father Of Modern Philosophy. There’s a more or less standard way of reconstructing, say, the Meditations, as a way of vaulting on towards Locke, Berkeley, Hume, on the one hand; and Spinoza, Leibniz, on the other. You can get approving and disapproving versions of this picture. Russell gives you a positive spin on it in his simple rewrites of some basic Cartesian arguments in The Problems of Philosophy, for example. (Not that Problems is pure Descartes, but parts of it are supposed to be Cartesian, and Descartes is often taught as though he were arguing, kinda sorta, as Russell argues in parts of that little book.) You can get lots of people to denounce Descartes, of course, more than will defend him stoutly. (Have the kids read a bit of Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error, or bits from any of about a million-bazillion other academics who have alleged that, somehow, Cartesian Error is the root of our Modern Troubles, and who are clamoring in discordant chorus with such force that it’s all I can do to ask them to take a number and I’ll try to get back to them but life is too short to be blaming Descartes for every little thing that goes wrong. Sheesh.) But the truth is … (pauses for effect, straightens T-shirt): the primary texts always kinda disappoint, whether you want to cast Descartes as Great Hero or Great Villain. Mostly because it’s all mucked up with clinging medievalism – Aristotelian, Thomistic stuff – and you also have to get it about how all of this is oblique argument on behalf of Cartesian physics, etc. The “First Med” goes … ok. But then: the “Second Med” has all that … stuff. The wax. Dude. OK. That’s a rationalist argument. But it’s really not, like, a modern argument, at least not as presented on the page. So if you want to make it an emblematic Modern Philosophy teaching moment, you kinda hafta be a little bit ‘pay no attention to the medieval man behind the curtain’.
[UPDATE: I see the previous paragraph was unclear. I don’t mean the primary texts disappoint. Period. I mean they disappoint if you are too insistent on casting Descartes in either the stock hero of villain role, for purposes of getting the standard narrative going. This isn’t just a scholarly point, it’s a pedagogical point. The primary sources give students trouble. And they give more trouble if you are too wedded to the standard narrative. Because these figures didn’t see themselves in the way that the narrative sees them. Not that the narrative is so bad. It certainly needs to be taught, as part of the story. But I prefer to mention it at length, rather than actually use it – if you see the distinction.]
So here’s the idea for organizing the class. It’s going to be a series of ‘everything I’m supposed to teach you about X is wrong’ lectures; for Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Berkeley. In each case, I sort of present the potted, standard version of the story. But then: here’s why this doesn’t quite fit. On the plus side, here are one or two just plain interesting things to think about in connection with this figure. For Descartes I’m going to do skepticism, on the one hand, and the nature of consciousness, on the other. (Bit of Barry Stroud, bit of David Chalmers.) I want to do something about secondary qualities for Locke, and causation for Hume. Standard enough. I want to roll the both of them up with a bit of Goodman and grue. (You leave that to me.) For the rest, I’m not decided. Spinoza and Leibniz? I’ve never had any brilliant ideas for teaching those two. They are just so damn difficult and we always seem to be hustling past pretty fast. What should I include in my ‘everything I’m supposed to teach you about x is wrong’ series, for these figures? Maybe I should let the frame go at that point, because I actually don’t feel the cold dead hand of dogma, weighing me down, concerning Spinoza and Leibniz, the way I do regarding Descartes (both pro and con).
What is an idea for a bite-sized ‘issue’ – something that can be squeezed into a single lecture, and into a relatively undeveloped undergraduate mind – for Spinoza and Leibniz? It would be great if it were really accessible, because Leibniz and Spinoza themselves are not so much, in my teaching experience.
I think I want to do a bit about nature vs. nurture/contemporary ‘blank slate’ debates. Pinker and all that. Because it bears a family resemblance to empiricism vs. rationalism. No, of course I’m not going to say it’s the same issue. The idea would be to work out: what does this have to do with that. What do you think? What’s the best way to teach History of Modern Philosophy – the whole Descartes to Kant run?