Professor of Philosophy
This course focuses on the development of Early Modern European metaphysics and epistemology through the works of René Descartes (1596-1650), Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618-1680), Margaret Lucas Cavendish (1623-1673), Anne Conway (1631-1679), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), John Locke (1632-1704), George Berkeley (1685-1753), David Hume (1711-1776), and Mary Shepherd (1777-1847). The Early Modern period is governed by gradual evolution away from the doctrines of Aristotle (384-322 BCE), and towards a new way of looking at the world that is sympathetic to the emerging sciences conducted within the research program of corpuscularian mechanism. It is common to think of the main figures of this period as divided into two camps: rationalists, for whom some ideas are innate and reason can penetrate into the fundamental truths about the nature of the universe, and empiricists, for whom there are no innate ideas and all knowledge of non-self-evident truths is founded on sense experience. But the interplay among the philosophers of the early modern period reveals a far more complex story, one in which the rationalist/empiricist division is only one of many. There is, for example, a divide among materialists (those who think that all is matter—e.g., Cavendish), anti-materialists (who deny the existence of matter—e.g., Conway and Berkeley), and dualists (those who think that matter exists, but is not the only kind of finite thing that exists—e.g., Descartes and Leibniz). There is a divide between those who think that mind and body can causally interact (e.g., Descartes and Locke) and those who think that causal interaction between mind and body is impossible (e.g., Leibniz and Berkeley). There are those who think that we can know a great deal about the nature of the world (e.g., Descartes, Cavendish, Leibniz, and Berkeley) and those who think that our ability to know is quite limited (Locke and Hume). Understanding the evolution of metaphysics and epistemology in the Early Modern period is one of the keys to understanding the views of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).
The purpose of this course is to consider whether human life has meaning, and, if so, what meaning it has and under what conditions such meaning may be secured. We begin with various negative thoughts: that life is nothing but suffering unto death for no purpose, that life has no meaning, or that life is absurd. We then discuss various positive answers to the meaning-of-life question: that meaning derives from the cessation of suffering, or from authoritativeness and ritual, or from free choices, or from some passion or commitment, or from spirituality or something transcendent, or from human relationships or purposeless play or open-ended activities. We will consider whether the meaning of life derives from some connection with morality, or creativity, or fundamentality. We will spend some time thinking about one of the more influential recent theories of life’s meaning: Susan Wolf’s “fitting fulfillment” view. And we will end the course by examining whether life has meaning only when it has a coherent narrative structure, and whether the survival of humanity is necessary for individual lives to have meaning.