Textbook Prices: I Protest! – or – A Brief History of Modern Philosophy

by John Holbo on November 24, 2009

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?



kevincure 11.24.09 at 5:43 am

Certainly there’s no enough depth, but I found Scruton’s Short Introduction to be perfectly readable for 13 bucks, and it certainly captures the high points of the “Descartes to Kant” run (although as you note, you can’t skip grue and Russell, both of which strike me as thoroughly modernist; really, the same goes for Wittgenstein). The trickiness here is that such a course really is a course in Knowledge – epistemology is the heart of modernism, is it not?, and to really cover that mind-blowing topic, you’ve got to leave out, say, the broad part of Kantian ethics.

As for Spinoza and Leibniz – they’re not too hard, are they? Surely, the concepts are far, far simpler than, say, basically anything written by a German between 1800 and 1950!

That said, there’s no reason not to teach the course with primary sources and some cheap introduction to modern philosophy – the Scruton above is good, but there are many, many others, well-reviewed, available for under $15.


Patrick E. 11.24.09 at 5:50 am

I think a fun way of teaching Spinoza would be to show why he was/is so misread. Spinoza the pantheist! Spinoza the radical atheist! I mean, seriously, the guy was way out there.

But why not the primary texts? A little Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz are all possible for undeveloped undergraduate minds, if they are fed in small doses. I think Hume can be fed in large chunks, as he is rather readable, but Locke and Berkeley both probably have to be spoon fed.

It might end up being more than $90 for the primary texts, but I’m sure that 5 or 6 books for $90 goes down more easily than 2 books for $90.


Billikin 11.24.09 at 7:39 am

Yes, why not primary texts? Something to chew on instead of pabulum. :)

Also, primary texts fit with your theme: “Everything I’m supposed to teach you about X is wrong”. What better way to show it’s wrong than to go to the source?


Hidari 11.24.09 at 11:04 am

‘History of Modern Philosophy’.

Ahem. I think you mean History of Modern Western Philosophy.

Europe is not the world.


Nick L 11.24.09 at 11:11 am

Seconding Patrick’s point about Spinoza. His actual views are so radical that they don’t need any special spin. Nature/God, the connatus, seeing the world under a species of eternity, radical republicanism and so on are arresting enough for anyone actually interested in the history of thought.


Gareth Rees 11.24.09 at 11:15 am

the nature of consciousness

It’s the Philosophy of the Gaps! Have you also considered the arrow of time and the nature of dark matter?


John Holbo 11.24.09 at 11:22 am

Sorry, I take it for granted that there will be primary texts. The only question is what secondary texts I will assign in addition.


Jonathan M 11.24.09 at 11:50 am

One framing of the debate I have significant sympathy with is one that you hint at with your point about Descartes not always being a modern thinker.

It’s simple : Hume is a modern philosopher. The further you get to Hume, the closer you get to scholasticism with Hegel being the metaphysically baroque, over-systematising lunatic theologian in the corner.

Descartes, Berkley and Kant are all examples of thinkers struggling with modernity who wind up fudging their arguments in order to keep a hold of certain basic axioms of the medieval world-view (though to be fair, Kant is more sophisticated and subtle in his backsliding, it’s not as though he goes “oh and God exists natch”).

The Empiricism Vs Rationalism debate is utterly misguiding. The meat of the period is the formation of the modern approach to philosophy and science. The resurgence of materialism and the compromise between raw empiricism for data acquisition and rationalist theorisation for more abstract matters. This is an approach that appears organically out of the rise and fall of the various thinkers of the period. Even Hegel has his part to play as without his incomprehensible popularity there would not have been logical positivism or the traditional analytical philosophy that emerged out of it.


J. Meader 11.24.09 at 12:08 pm

BBC Radio 4 has a 45 minute programme called “In Our Time” – it covers all kinds of topics, but dips its toe into philosophy from time to time. I find them entertaining and interesting if you know nothing about the subject, but a bit brief if you do, as in 45 minutes you are very restricted in what can be covered. They have a programme on Spinoza at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_20070503.shtml

To listen to the programme you have to have software that reads RAM files, but this can be downloaded for free.

This doesn’t really help with texts for your students, as it’s obviously not a substitute, but perhaps could be used as a little multimedia extra? At least it doesn’t cost them anything (except 45 minutes of their time).


Tim Wilkinson 11.24.09 at 12:10 pm

Given the desiderata:

S: freewill/determinism or a tangent thereof, L:possible worlds or necc/analytic/a priori?


Matt 11.24.09 at 12:26 pm

I’ve never taught the class and it’s been way too long since I took it to have a clear idea on what worked. We used two of those Mentor Philosophers volumes (Hampshire on _The Age of Reason_ and Berlin on _The Age of Enlightenment_ but I don’t think they are in print anymore and are sort of a mixed bag. (I think the Berlin volume is worse, if I recall.) The Routledge Philosophy Guidebooks are, in general, quite good and I’m sure there are volumes for most of what you’d want to cover, but even though they are not too expensive, you’d need a lot of them. Less directed right at the specific authors, but perhaps interesting to use as a guide, would be the _Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Philosophy_. All the parts I’ve read have been great. It’s set up around themes and developments and not figures so it would require a bit of thought beforehand on how to use it.

(While we are complaining about publishers let me complain about Cambridge letting the paperback version of Larry May’s book _Crimes Against Humanity_ go out of print or become unavailable just before I was to use it for a class. It’s also wildly expensive, even for the paperback, but since it was for law students I felt less bad about that. My understanding is that publishers claimed that the sharp rise in prices recently was due to increased paper prices, but I’m pretty sure that paper, like all commodities, has dropped greatly in price, but no decline in book prices has been seen, of course- a good example of a “sticky” price, perhaps.)


Barry 11.24.09 at 12:28 pm

Scan the books, OCR them and re-font them in sans serif.

Problem solved :)


Charlie 11.24.09 at 12:48 pm

Spinoza: Davidson?


John Holbo 11.24.09 at 1:27 pm

“Ahem. I think you mean History of Modern Western Philosophy.

Europe is not the world.”

No way. There are places outside of Europe?

No, seriously. ‘Modern Philosophy’ is sort of accepted as a name for a particular period and set of figures. See, for example, the Wikipedia entry:


Now, of course, the name is Eurocentric, so maybe it should be retired … But it is a name. (Incidentally, I am surprised that the Wikipedia entry thinks modern philosophy ends roughly with the start of the 20th Century. I think of it as ending with Kant – maybe I could stretch it as far as Hegel, but only as a personal favor.)

In other words, the problem with saying I meant the History of Modern Western Philosophy is that actually using that phrase would indicate that I was going to discuss a broader topic than mere Modern Philosophy. The thing Descartes is the father of.

And, of course, it’s all nonsense anyway, because the potted story about the titanic battle between the rationalists and empiricists is too potted. Still, it’s interesting to read Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant, all in a row.


Matt 11.24.09 at 2:07 pm

Other options include the volumes _The Empiricists_ , edited by Margaret Atherton and _The Rationalists_, edited by Derk Pereboom in the Critical Essays on the Classics series. I think both sell for about $25 each and have quite a few good essays from top scholars. (I don’t know how well they’ll work with undergrads, though.)


Glen Tomkins 11.24.09 at 2:13 pm

Your usual method seems to be to try and clear away the work of bad academics, whose functional goal seems largely to lie in the dismissal of earlier thinkers (after mining them for stray bits that support their own pet theories), so that your students might stand a better chance of actually taking them seriously on their own terms. It seems that this method is stymied in the case of Spinoza and Leibniz, because the bad academics haven’t found them useful to mine and dismiss, so there hasn’t grown up around them a layer of academic barnacles that needs scraping off.

I can’t offer any help with Leibniz, because I haven’t read any Leibniz. But it seems to me that your usual method can be adapted readily to Spinoza. In his case, the bad academics of philosophy have tended to avoid favoring him with their attentions because he did theology, which by that point in history had seperated itself off from philosophy to go its own way in support of one corporate, church, interest or another. For Spinoza’s thinking, the bad academics are the doctors of the various churches, and the great barrier to your students taking him seriously is the novelty of the idea that thinking about God is not confined to folks with some worldly church agenda to rationalize. When this Ratzinger person, or Dr. Dobson, or some ayatollah, are your exemplars of theological speculation, it’s rather too easy to dismiss the whole idea of thinking about God. I would think that the great value of giving Spinoza an actual look is in seeing that theology can be done seriously, and its looks quite a bit different than when it is done commercially, so to speak.


Matt McGrattan 11.24.09 at 2:15 pm

FWIW, I think A.C. Grayling’s book on Berkeley is good. Probably too long, and too involved for an introductory course, though.


John Holbo 11.24.09 at 2:26 pm

“It seems that this method is stymied in the case of Spinoza and Leibniz, because the bad academics haven’t found them useful to mine and dismiss, so there hasn’t grown up around them a layer of academic barnacles that needs scraping off.”

But actually this offers me a chance to be one of those truly charming academic types. I lean over, cocking an eyebrow dangerously, and hiss at my students urgently: “Everything you think you know about Spinoza is wrong WRONG!”


Gareth Rees 11.24.09 at 2:32 pm

For a bite-size story about Leibniz, surely it’s his battle with Newton over the credit for the invention of the calculus? (Leibniz: better notation. Newton: better publicists.)


marcel 11.24.09 at 2:47 pm

As a secondary source on Leibniz, esp. a potted one, can you do better than Candide?


harv 11.24.09 at 2:56 pm


Manuel Vargas 11.24.09 at 3:05 pm

If you don’t already know about this, you might find it useful:


Lots of translated texts of standard early modern (European philosophy) texts, available for free! free! free! All done by Jonathan Bennett. Interestingly, there are even contemporary translations of Locke and Hume, which can be a relief to students who didn’t grow up speaking 18th century English.


Margaret Atherton 11.24.09 at 3:21 pm

Can I make a suggestion? Abandon this enterprise and find someone else in your department who really likes reading and talking about 17th and 18th century philosophers. I mean, these are very smart and interesting people and there is actually no need to pretend that they lived in the middle of the 20th century.


matt 11.24.09 at 3:22 pm

A few thoughts:

You could center the history around ethical questions. Schneewind’s sourcebook is great.

Instead of the Meditations, you could do Rules and Le Monde. (So that skepticism isn’t presented as the whole game.) You could do Book I of Leviathan as an intro to Spinoza (selections from Ethics).


bigcitylib 11.24.09 at 3:31 pm

Your Berkeley section could include the distortions of his work by other philosophers. He was a representative realist with “Spirit” standing in for matter.

Also his views on language resemble later Witt. and the instrumentalists in interesting ways.


John Holbo 11.24.09 at 3:53 pm

Margaret Atherton: “Abandon this enterprise and find someone else in your department who really likes reading and talking about 17th and 18th century philosophers.”

You are misunderstanding me, Margaret. I like them and am looking forward to having another crack at the class. I just don’t want to have to cram these pegs, exhibiting varying degrees of roundness, into a square peg frame. (The standard narrative is not so terrible, by any means. I think the Cottinghham and Woolhouse books are quite good, if only they were a bit cheaper. Still, I decided I didn’t want to make the standard narrative the backbone of my own course.) As to the rest of your comment: “I mean, these are very smart and interesting people and there is actually no need to pretend that they lived in the middle of the 20th century.” I’m not sure whether you meant it to come out this way, but I think it’s not really a supportable notion that, in order to relate 17th and 18th Century philosophy to contemporary debates, you have to treat the former as if they actually are 20th Century philosophers.

bigcitylib: “Your Berkeley section could include the distortions of his work by other philosophers. He was a representative realist with “Spirit” standing in for matter.”

I was actually thinking that maybe I would defend the medicinal benefits of tarwater, in the Berkeley section. (Damn those academics. They act as though all he wrote about was idealism!)

For Hume? History of England. All six volumes. (Or whatever it is.) Surely that’s the way to go.


John Holbo 11.24.09 at 4:03 pm

Ah, I see now that the post itself might suggest that I don’t enjoy studying these particular figures. Actually what I didn’t enjoy was my own teaching of them, in the past. I felt that I was not doing as good as job as I could. I intend to do better, if I can.


Alejandro 11.24.09 at 6:40 pm

For Spinoza and Leibniz, how about Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic? It is immensely readable, but maybe too “popular” for an academic course?


br 11.24.09 at 8:04 pm

The most entertaining secondary work for your students would certainly be Bryan Magee’s “The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy”, based I think on a BBC TV series where Magee just sat and chatted with eminent living philosophers about the great philosophers of the past. The first 75 pages cover Plato, Aristotle and the medievals but the remaining 275 go from Descartes through Frege and Wittgenstein. Good fun and good value at USD12.82. That plus the Scruton should do it.


Kenny Easwaran 11.25.09 at 12:07 am

Doesn’t Pinker explicitly say at some points that he really is a Rationalist fighting against the evil forces of Empiricism? Maybe I’m thinking more of the self-characterization of Chomsky as described in The Linguistics Wars (I forget who that book is by).


John Holbo 11.25.09 at 12:36 am

“Doesn’t Pinker explicitly say at some points that he really is a Rationalist fighting against the evil forces of Empiricism?”

Pinker does say things like that – not quite that, or maybe he does say it somewhere. (If he does, I’d like to use it!) There are often haphazard attempts by the likes of Pinker to link themselves to Kant, so forth. I was just listening to a Pinker-Wright podcast in which Pinker does so. These attempts are somewhat slippery because … well, because Pinker isn’t a transcendental idealist, for starters. I don’t regard this as an objection to Pinker. It always grates on a scholar’s nerves to study all the doctrinal details of a thinker, then have someone else carelessly ride roughshod over all that for the sake of a sweeping, popularizing comparison. But that’s really the scholar’s problem. (The problem with Pinker will never be that he doesn’t get Kant exactly right.)

Anyway, it is my theory that a good way to make the empiricism-rationalism debate clear and accessible to young minds is not just to reconstruct it in its own terms (or in Hegelian terms), but to reconstruct it by way of comparison/contrast with some contemporary debates. That is, to be a bit more careful about these sweeping analogies than the likes of Pinker himself usually is. (And of course this does not mean I will falsify the historical debates, by way of pretending that Kant was just Pinker all along – to allay Margaret’s anxieties in that regard.)


Patrick S. O'Donnell 11.25.09 at 1:14 am

The desire “to make the empiricism-rationalism debate clear and accessible to young minds is not just to reconstruct it in its own terms (or in Hegelian terms), but to reconstruct it by way of comparison/contrast with some contemporary debates,” is quite a worthy goal, although I doubt any existing texts do this in an introductory or survey format. Of course Pinker is no philosopher, and when he does philosophize, I cringe, but his popularity and influence warrant philosophical attention, especially for impressionable young minds.

In addition to Matt’s suggestions, you might want to place on reserve Bruce Aune’s Rationalism, Empiricism, and Pragmatism: An Introduction (1970), which has excellent “study questions” and suggestions for “further reading” at the end of each chapter (I know, I’m showing my age). It’s a classic in some respects but now out of print (I suspect the library would have it or perhaps one could find a used copy without too much trouble).

A possible course text might be the 2nd ed. (I have the first ed., which I enjoyed, even if it’s occasionally idiosyncratic, which it is, but in a charming sort of way) of Stephen Priest’s The British Empiricists (2007), 357 pgs., pbk., priced online at Amazon: $29.90 (I would think the publisher should have a course adoption discount).

[Matt: That’s a shame about the May book, which I acquired when it first came out at a fairly reasonable price. I’m very happy to see you using it, as I think this book, together with the other volumes in the series, are excellent and deserve wide exposure. I plan on reviewing the Crimes… book for Sharon Lloyd’s Hobbes Blog in a couple of weeks.]


CJColucci 11.25.09 at 2:34 am

This topic is close enough to allow me to repeat something I overheard many years ago and have been looking for an excuse to use. Earnest philosophy student says to someone I think was a T.A.: “So if the Critique [presumably the Critique of Pure Reason] was Kant’s response to Hume, what did Kant do beyond declaring victory and getting out?”
Since I was on my way somewhere, I could not, unfortunately, stay for the answer.


Bill Benzon 11.25.09 at 2:44 am

The Linguistics Wars by Randy Allen Harris — it’s quite good.


John Holbo 11.25.09 at 2:53 am

“For Spinoza and Leibniz, how about Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic? It is immensely readable, but maybe too “popular” for an academic course?”

I don’t know that one. Off-hand I’m guessing that Leibniz is the courtier and Spinoza is the heretic! I can see why a nice discussion of that contrast, running against the grain of their rationalist affinities, would be fun. (I was thinking about teaching Leibniz on Brunswick royal genealogy for the Leibniz section! That would fit in well with teaching Hume on English history.)

There was a funny film I watched several years ago. Israeli film. The story of Spinoza’s life retold as if it were a contemporary tale about Israel-Palestine. (Reference to Spinoza’s somewhat utopian diplomatic aspirations.) The guy who played Spinoza looked like Lou Reed.


John Holbo 11.25.09 at 3:04 am

“The Linguistics Wars by Randy Allen Harris—it’s quite good.”

I do know that one, and it’s interesting, but that would take me too far into the weeds away from my proper subject. I do want to be teaching Descartes to Kant and I can’t spare the time for all the positions in the Linguistics Wars. I am thinking of assigning a few bits from Pinker, The Stuff of Thought. And basically saying: This is sort of like Kant, sort of not. It cross-cuts the empiricist rationalist line because it is a basically empirical argument for a form of rationalism – that is, for an innateness hypothesis about certain basic cognition patterns/elements. Without really getting into the details, but trying to say what kind of a theory Pinker’s really us, essentially, for better or worse. What are the really basic scientific/metaphysical assumptions/commitments of this brand of ‘naturalized epistemology’ – what is it assuming/hypothesizing about the mind, and about the nature of the study of mind; what is it concluding, and what sorts of arguments does it think are acceptable. And then look back at Descartes-to-Kant and try to say, precisely, what the similarities and differences are. If Pinker were to look carefully at each of the figures I am studying, he would conclude that basically each is making, not just scientific mistakes, but basic conceptual category errors when it comes to conceptualizing the study of mind and knowledge. And those figures wouldn’t be too impressed by Pinker either, I think. So that’s my goal: to clarify empiricism-rationalism by contrast with certain versions of ‘naturalized epistemology’ (Pinker doesn’t use that more Quinean term, mostly because, for him, naturalism isn’t something that’s controversial enough even to be signaled.)


LM 11.25.09 at 4:42 am


I’m not sure I have understood you. On the one hand, you say (and I agree) that the traditional story about modern philosophy is potted; on the other hand, you seem to still want to teach that class – except that you want to teach, at the same time, the shortcomings of the story. Now, I would think that its being potted would be a good reason for not teaching it at all, but you seem to think there’s still a reason for teaching it. But why still stick to the traditional tale at all? This is not to say that there are no good reasons for teaching it; but I, anyway, would like to hear yours.

I guess I ask this because I, like others who commented here, think this story is so potted that even focusing primarily on epistemological issues is already sticking too close to the story – and missing out a lot that is interesting about the period.

Another way, I guess, one could be critical of the traditional story is to question the traditional characters of the story – a very different picture could emerge if you focused on other philosophers. It would be especially cool, I think, if you added to the syllabus works by the female philosophers of the time.


David Hilbert 11.25.09 at 5:15 am

Maybe it’s been too long since I’ve attempted the big picture course going all the way from Descartes to Kant in one go but I really do wonder whether it’s necessary to import quite so much 20th century stuff to make the historical figures seem interesting. I find that students really can get interested in the incredible intellectual audacity of these figures without trying to relate them to contemporary concerns. This at least is true when I teach courses focused on a smaller range of figures which I typically do for undergraduates without any secondary sources at all. Maybe throwing them a little tar water would do as much good as discussion of current concerns. Unlike Margaret I don’t doubt your interest in the topic but I wonder if you should have a little more faith in your students.

Finally, for all of Berkeley’s published poetry and directions for making tar water go to:


Cholbi 11.25.09 at 4:37 pm

Echoing harv (21), I like Tlumak, but the book my students have gained the most from is Garrett Thomson’s Bacon to Kant.


Hidari 11.25.09 at 7:29 pm

‘I do know that one, and it’s interesting, but that would take me too far into the weeds away from my proper subject. I do want to be teaching Descartes to Kant and I can’t spare the time for all the positions in the Linguistics Wars. I am thinking of assigning a few bits from Pinker, The Stuff of Thought. And basically saying: This is sort of like Kant, sort of not. It cross-cuts the empiricist rationalist line because it is a basically empirical argument for a form of rationalism – that is, for an innateness hypothesis about certain basic cognition patterns/elements’.

Right I’m out of my depth when talking about Kant (I know a lot about Pinker. Too much)…..but Nietzsche remarks somewhere or other that Kant’s ‘categories’ etc. were logically necessary. In other words, as human beings (or anything, in theory) we have to use, for example, the basic concepts of causality to make sense of the world.

But my understanding of ‘mainstream’ rationalism is that they believed that the rational thoughts or (whatever they are) are things you are born with, which isn’t quite the same thing. And of course this is the bit that Pinker runs with. He believes that large aspects of human cognition (even relatively high level aspects of cognition) are biological, genetic, and inbuilt. You’re born with them cos they are ‘programmed’ in the brain. Which is (I think) very different from what Kant says.

I think Pinker’s ’empiricism’ is deeply superficial (to coin an oxymoron). It’s true that he makes references to empirical evidence at times. But he hardly relies the results of these experiments or studies in a neutral way. He’s a polemicist. His more normal way of arguing is just to go…’Look! For XXXX’s sake! It’s obvious! How could we possibly learn all that stuff! I mean look at me! I’m at a top University and I haven’t learnt anything in 20 years! You must be born with it! I haven’t learnt anything since I was born!’

Which in his case might well be true, ha ha ha ha thangew thangew I’ll be playing Jongleurs for the rest of this week.

No but more seriously: Pinker is very very much of the school of Chomsky and cognitivism more generally, which is very much in the Rationalist tradition. Hence his polemics against (Locke’s) Blank Slate. But I don’t think there’s much of the Idealist about him either.


John Quiggin 11.25.09 at 8:22 pm

You might like my review of Pinker’s Blank Slate (PDF)


The attack on Locke reminds me that it would be interesting to trace the political implications of all this. Pinker seems to slide pretty rapidly towards human nature conservatism. But Chomsky takes his anti-liberalism in a very different direction. Presumably someone has discussed all this.


John Holbo 11.26.09 at 1:24 am

Thanks for the recommendations. It’s useful for me to clarify myself about this. At bottom the situation is this. I am required to teach this course. That means I basically have to do the run from Descartes to Kant. I have a certain leeway there, but not a great deal. I basically like teaching this material, because I think these figures are very interesting, I know a lot about most of them, certainly enough to teach them. I have no concerns that I’m wasting the student’s time, making them read this stuff. I think it’s well worth studying. But there’s still something basically arbitrary about the standard ‘History of Modern’ storyline, which is nominally the justification for the existence of the module. To me it looks like I’ve got a grab bag of assorted 17th and 18th Century intellectual goodies here. But that’s not officially the reason for modules with this title to exist. There is supposed to be a firmer logic to this course offering. But I honestly don’t see it.

Now this isn’t a catastrophe, by any means. Just something to deal with. I teach the figures as I think best. When I say I prefer to mention, rather than use, the standard storyline, what I mean is this. It is a standard story, and it is the official reason for modules like this to exist, so I kinda feel I have to explain what the reasons for that are supposed to be, even though I don’t quite buy them myself. The standard story is not just nuts. It has its considerable merits (as you would expect.) But it has limitations. And, for me, the rubber hits the road, in that regard, when I see students struggling with their primary texts. These are hard texts, and their authors do not see themselves in the way the story sees them. Take Descartes. If I tell students to read the 2nd Med as a kind of kernel statement of Modern Rationalism, then a substantial portion of it just ends up looking ill-fitted and confusing. Medieval. So the thing to do is to wear the standard storyline very lightly. Again, I don’t mean to lean crazily over to the other side. Sometimes it’s quite useful to organize things the way the standard lineup does. That allows you to see a kind of steady order behind these texts. But be ready to say: what is going on here just plain has very little to do with rationalism-vs.-empiricism ‘theory of knowledge’. It’s about the history of physics, or whatever. Be prepared to let what may turn out to be a grab bag be just that. And if the whole production ends up looking disordered – if there isn’t a story, just seven individual philosophers in a room, for no self-evidently necessary reason, then that’s ok. They are interesting philosophers.

As to the possibility of teaching some ringer – not one of the standard figures: the first time I taught it I did Montaigne, just for fun. It worked ok. Doing that would depend on me independently having some definite idea of an unknown figure from this period that I have something to say about. Otherwise there is a certain value in sticking with the standard figures just as a kind of philosophical literacy training. If you go on to study philosophy, scholars with use Cartesian and Humean and Kantian and Lockean as little thumbnail tags for familiar, or oft-traversed quadrants of intellectual terrain. One thing students should get out of History of Modern is some thumbnail sense of what the hell that is supposed to be about. This isn’t the highest intellectual function of this module, but it is one function. If I were to decide I was going to go Full Monty for Erasmus or Malebranche or Christian Wolff, I would have to have a pretty compelling reason. As it stands, I just don’t have a strong impulse to do that.


John Holbo 11.26.09 at 1:45 am

“Another way, I guess, one could be critical of the traditional story is to question the traditional characters of the story – a very different picture could emerge if you focused on other philosophers. It would be especially cool, I think, if you added to the syllabus works by the female philosophers of the time.”

I think that would be quite interesting, but I’m just not the guy to teach it that way. I don’t have enough to say about that.

One more thing about the Pinker angle. I agree that Pinker is sometimes too much of a popularizer, and that it just turns into hopeless simplification, on the philosophical level. (Sometimes, not always. If he were just always oversimple then it would just be uninteresting.) Pedagogically, I think that can work out pretty well. I think sometimes teachers underestimate the value, for students, of ‘pop’ books that sometimes rub them the wrong way. Even oversimplicity has its teaching value, in controlled doses. And part of what I’m teaching is the influence of oversimplicity. My tentative title for the Kant lecture: “Everyone wants to be a Kantian, but no one wants to believe in Kant”. That is, there is something so appealing about the Kantian epistemological template. It gets applied and picked up on and enthused over and adapted in the most promiscuous manner. And yet Kant’s actual views are, to put it mildly, totally unsubscribed to by anyone except Kant. He has three (or so) incandescently simple (seeming) Big Ideas, that have cemented his influence. And then he has this baroque, landscaped garden of his actual philosophy. (Who can find their way around in all that? About 12 people, that’s who. Me? I know a few corners of it.) This is interesting and worth exploring. I’m going to take Pinker as my case in point because I think he will do nicely.

There is a parallel between Descartes and Kant here. “Everyone wants to blame Cartesianism, but no one wants to blame what Descartes actually wrote”. That is, when you actually read the texts, you find that most of Descartes’ concerns are at odd-angles with regard to the Bugaboo known as Cartesian Thought.


shah8 11.26.09 at 6:34 am

As someone who’s steeped in neurology and philosophy of mind, it bothers me that people would take Pinker seriously at all. You would be literally better off teaching off of Peter Watts’ sci-fi novel Blindsight. There are various superior philosophy of mind books for the popular audience like something from Andy Carter’s ouevre, like Being There, not to mention the harder stuff like Peter Godfrey-Smith’s approach to mind in nature (and he has taken potshots at idjits like Pinker in other books, I understand)


John Holbo 11.26.09 at 6:56 am

shah8, I haven’t read any Peter Godfrey-Smith on Pinker, but I would probably like it. One thing I have pencilled in already in my notes is, actually, Peter Godfrey-Smith on ‘function’, which will be relevant at a certain point. I guess you don’t happen to know exactly where he addresses Pinker?


Patrick S. O'Donnell 11.26.09 at 7:15 am

On Pinker (and others), absolutely essential is David J. Buller’s Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (2006). I recall Jerry Fodor reviewing it somewhere (perhaps it was the TLS).


praisegod barebones 11.26.09 at 7:16 am

No-one’s mentioned Richard Francks’ book on ‘Modern Philosophy’ which might fit your agenda quite well. Very accessible, and appropriately skeptical about the ‘standard narrative’. Also a paid-up member of what I like to think of as ‘The Campaign for Real History of Philosophy.’

(Full disclosure: he’s a former colleague. But its a very nice book from an ‘overview’ point of view)


shah8 11.26.09 at 8:43 am

I’ve read part of Godfrey Smith’s Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature, and first the book is essentially a general attempt at repudiating internalist (and computationalist) theories of the mind (though this doesn’t really cover *language* per se) that Chomsky and Pinker advocate. Moreover, the way Herbert Spencer’s material is handled in the philosophical first part makes me believe that Godfrey-Smith would have an antipathy toward Pinker. The line of thought in the *historical* presentation leaves little doubt that the good author believes that *some people* are just a little too easily tempted by naturalistic materialism into self-serving panglossian just-so thesises. He would have almost certainly have taken a very dim view of Pinker’s defense of Larry Summer’s comment about women and math :~).

I found a direct attack on Chomsky and Pinker in which Godfrey-Smith handed a one-liner at the end of the paper

And yeah, I think the book I have is what you wanted. Godfrey-Smith essentially does a compare and contrast of naturalistic materialism and pragmatism to inch people pass the “woo elements” of thinking of a mind in terms of a gestalt derived from complex interactions with the environment.

Your note might have been related to this internet posting at the Valve you did…



Random Somebody 11.26.09 at 9:24 am

Off-topic and somewhat late in the day – but I have to ask – is it entirely necessary to teach philosophy exclusively by reference to people ? I mean, I’m sure physics teaches that so-and-so came up with such-and-such theory, but will concentrate on teaching the theory rather than so-and-so. Why is it apparently so important to teach the so-and-so in philosophy as the primary framing rather than the such-and-such?


John Holbo 11.26.09 at 9:25 am

Thanks for noting the history of my writings on Godfrey-Smith! Actually, the point would be a bit different. One thing I want to note (without making it anything like the hinge of my presentation of the History of Modern) is the absence of ‘functional’, biology-style theories of mind in 7 figures I’ll be surveying. Unsurprisingly, there weren’t Darwin-style theories before Darwin. But there could have been Aristotlian one’s. But that sort of falls off the radar, from Descartes to Kant. (Unless you can show me otherwise. Maybe it’s in Leibniz somewhere and I missed it.) At any rate, if I want to say ‘no one is really thinking in this possible, functionalist way’ I want to be able to sketch what I mean by ‘function’ a bit.

I haven’t actually tackled Godfrey-Smith’s books, just a few articles, which I have liked. So maybe the book would be good. But probably too much to try to bring into my history class.


Hidari 11.26.09 at 10:51 am

‘There are various superior philosophy of mind books for the popular audience like something from Andy Carter’s ouevre, like Being There…’

Andy Clark.


shah8 11.26.09 at 3:41 pm

I thought you wanted to know more about Godfrey-Smith’s ideas, not insert him into your class.

As far as function goes, I suspect there were many fairly undeveloped thoughts on function in the sciences, given the itty bitty bits and pieces strewn in history of science sections of books like Jablonsky and Lamb’s Evolution in Four Dimensions. There definitly were some oddball ancient greeks with evolution-like theories, but I take it about as seriously as I do Democritus…

I really wish everyone had to take some kind of in-depth survey of world religions and philosophies, but then the books would burn!


John Holbo 11.26.09 at 4:07 pm

I do appreciate the general suggestion, shah8. In general, thanks to everyone for this thread. It has contained numerous good suggestions.


Margaret Atherton 11.26.09 at 4:45 pm

To return to the original subject of this thread, I looked up Richard Francks’ book, which was mentioned earlier and which I didn’t know and it does seem as though it might be quite useful for an introductory class in Early Modern Philosophy. But the paperback edition costs more than $52. There is no way that I could possibly use that in addition to the primary texts.


shane glackin 11.26.09 at 6:30 pm

More than $52? Ouch.

That’s a pity, because it really is excellent, and gives just the sort of nuanced history you seem to be looking for.


Hidari 11.26.09 at 9:44 pm

Only one more point I’d like to make: it’s widely believed (and Google backs me up on this) that Chomsky is influenced by Kant. And indeed Chomsky does quote Kant once or twice (he agrees with Kant that there are probably absolute limits on what humans can know…but again, I’m not sure as to whether or not Kant believes these limits are biological or conceptual, which makes a big difference). But, to the best of my knowledge, Chomsky never states or implies that Kant was a major influence. Compare and contrast Plato, Descartes, the Port-Royal Grammar, and the Cambridge Platonists (e.g. Cudworth, Cherbury), or for that matter Coleridge or Schlegel, whom he quotes as evidence for linguistic ‘creativity’. All the writers in the immediately preceding sentence really are (and are acknowledged to be) major influences on Chomsky. So while stating that Chomsky is a ‘Kantian’ is not quite a myth, it does seem to be an overstatement. And of course Pinker was and is hugely influenced by Chomsky.

Don’t forget the full title of Chomsky’s favourite of his own books: “Cartesian Linguistics: a Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought”.


H. E. Baber 11.28.09 at 4:45 pm

Ditto to Vargas at #22. Bennett’s site is excellent. All the primary texts are in the public domain and I imagine that most of the secondary literature is in journal articles that are accessible online. Go textbook-free!

The trick is to assemble all readings in a convenient online package which is easy. You put up the syllabus/reading list with links to all the historical texts and articles so they’re organized in one package and accessing them is seamless for the end-user.


bianca steele 11.28.09 at 5:45 pm

JH@36: I remember sitting in intro philosophy classes 25 years ago as a computer science major and thinking this kind of applied epistemology was a very logical direction for research. Over the years as I learned more about AI, psychology, and philosophy I realized things were more hairy. Also Pinker is very much in a very specific school of AI/cogsci centered within MIT. He made his name ASIR in part by criticizing the (finally) emerging field of neural-network research, something Minsky and his followers at MIT had been doing for years, but on Chomskyan grounds. So The Stuff of Thought reads to me like an AI textbook by a member of the MIT school with the math and the pragmatic considerations elided.

I’ve tried reading Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, which seems somewhat like a critique of this kind of evo-psych essentialism from a more or less pragmatist perspective, but I dislike the style, and haven’t been able to get very far with it.


bianca steele 11.28.09 at 5:51 pm

@58: The Stuff of ThoughtHow the Mind Works


bianca steele 11.28.09 at 7:29 pm

Hidari@57: I suppose it is possible to see Chomsky’s insistence that within the mind or human brain there is a Language Acquisition Device, specifically for learning language, as equivalent to the Kantian idea that there are unanalyzable preconditions for human thought. One reason for seeing it that way is Chomsky’s attacks on what he has taken to be the insistence of AI researchers that all intelligence can be modeled using, in effect, pure predicate logic. (Minsky actually took the opposite position, attacking AI researchers who tried to use non predicate logic models, because they were Turing- and thus logically-equivalent to classic AI’s predicate logic models, thus not worth anybody’s time.) I assume that what Chomsky calls rationalism is the latter model which he criticizes.

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