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Module VPR-2101:
Early Modern Philosophy

Module Facts

Run by School of History, Philosophy and Social Sciences

20 Credits or 10 ECTS Credits

Semester 2

Organiser: Dr Toby Betenson

Overall aims and purpose

This module will cover the ‘early modern’ period of philosophy, spanning the 17th and 18th centuries. This period witnessed some of the most important revolutionary developments in philosophy, and an understanding of modern philosophy is central to understanding many topics within contemporary philosophy. Ideas about personal identity and the soul; freedom and ethics; God, good, and evil; knowledge and the limits of human understanding; politics and ethics… We will cover all the major thinkers of the modern period who have contributed to these topics and more. Particular focus will be on David Hume – a philosopher so radically ahead of his time that we are only now coming to fully appreciate his contribution to philosophy – and the contrast that Hume’s sceptical empiricism has with the continental rationalists, whose ideas would go on to shape postmodernity. Through this contrast, we can conclude by coming to see the contemporary ‘analytic/continental’ divide as a continuation of this well-worn debate.

Course content

The course begins with Descartes (traditionally thought to be the father of modern philosophy) and Francis Bacon (who, though less appreciated as a philosopher, can equally be seen as the father of modern philosophy, particularly for the empiricists). We track the development of those ideas into both ‘rationalism’ (Leibniz, Spinoza) and ‘empiricism’ (Locke, Berkeley), with particular emphasis on David Hume. We contrast Hume with Kant, and from there cover the contrast between Hegel and Schopenhauer. We conclude by indicating the progression from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, and on to postmodernity. With all this in view, we then take a view on the contemporary state of philosophy, in particular the supposed divide between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy.

Assessment Criteria


(A- to A*) Work in this band will demonstrate comprehensive and very detailed understanding of early modern philosophy, based on extensive background reading, and will demonstrate an outstanding ability to construct a logical and coherent argument relevant to the content of this course.


(D- to D+) Work in this band will demonstrate a cursory knowledge of the thinkers and themes of the early modern period of philosophy, but might show a lack of understanding, and will not demonstrate an ability to analyse or evaluate the philosophy of the early modern period. Work in this band will fail to develop a successful argument relevant to the content of this course.


(C- to B+) Work in this band will demonstrate good knowledge and understanding of the early modern period of philosophy, and (for the higher grades) will be able to apply that knowledge and understanding to the construction of an argument relevant to the content of this course. This argument might show some minor misunderstandings, or might not be presented with impeccable structure, but will nonetheless demonstrate the student's knowledge and understanding of the subject area, and will show that they are capable of constructing a logical and coherent argument.

Learning outcomes

  1. To analyse, research, and construct a sustained argument applicable to the content of this course.

  2. To demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the philosophical context of modern philosophy, and the influence of the modern period on the progress of philosophy.

  3. To demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the major themes, thinkers, concepts, and arguments within the modern period of philosophy.

Assessment Methods

Type Name Description Weight
ESSAY Essay 50
EXAM Exam 50

Teaching and Learning Strategy

Private study 178
Lecture 22

Transferable skills

  • Literacy - Proficiency in reading and writing through a variety of media
  • Computer Literacy - Proficiency in using a varied range of computer software
  • Self-Management - Able to work unsupervised in an efficient, punctual and structured manner. To examine the outcomes of tasks and events, and judge levels of quality and importance
  • Exploring - Able to investigate, research and consider alternatives
  • Information retrieval - Able to access different and multiple sources of information
  • Inter-personal - Able to question, actively listen, examine given answers and interact sensitevely with others
  • Critical analysis & Problem Solving - Able to deconstruct and analyse problems or complex situations. To find solutions to problems through analyses and exploration of all possibilities using appropriate methods, rescources and creativity.
  • Presentation - Able to clearly present information and explanations to an audience. Through the written or oral mode of communication accurately and concisely.
  • Argument - Able to put forward, debate and justify an opinion or a course of action, with an individual or in a wider group setting
  • Self-awareness & Reflectivity - Having an awareness of your own strengths, weaknesses, aims and objectives. Able to regularly review, evaluate and reflect upon the performance of yourself and others

Subject specific skills

  • Articulacy in identifying underlying issues in a wide variety of debates.
  • Precision of thought and expression in the analysis and formulation of complex and controversial problems.
  • Sensitivity in interpretation of religious and philosophical texts drawn from a variety of ages and/or traditions.
  • Clarity and rigour in the critical assessment of arguments presented in such texts.
  • The ability to use and criticise specialised religious and philosophical terminology.
  • The ability to abstract and analyse arguments, and to identify flaws in them, such as false premises and invalid reasoning.
  • The ability to construct rationally persuasive arguments for or against specific religious and philosophical claims.
  • The ability to move between generalisation and appropriately detailed discussion, inventing or discovering examples to support or challenge a position, and distinguishing relevant and irrelevant considerations.
  • The ability to consider unfamiliar ideas and ways of thinking, and to examine critically presuppositions and methods within the disciplines of philosophy and religion.


Reading list

(1) Anthony Kenny, The Rise of Modern Philosophy (2) Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy (3) Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy: A Survey (4) Descartes’ Meditations (5) Spinoza’s Ethics

Courses including this module

Optional in courses: