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Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida

Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida

Professor Lawrence Cahoone Ph.D.
College of the Holy Cross

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Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida

Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida

Professor Lawrence Cahoone Ph.D.
College of the Holy Cross
Course No.  4790
Course No.  4790
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

What is reality? It's a seemingly simple question. But penetrate beneath its surface and the simplicity drops away, a succession of subsequent questions luring you deeper—to where even more questions await. Ask yourself whether you can actually know the answers, much less be sure that you can know them, and you've begun to grapple with the metaphysical and epistemological quandaries that have occupied, teased, and tormented modern philosophy's greatest intellects since the dawn of modern science and a century before the Enlightenment.

During this rich period of philosophy, fascinating minds like Kant, Locke, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein (to name but a few) struggled to improve our understanding of the world against the backdrop of unprecedented scientific, technological, and historical developments. The resulting tension brought forth a vast range of questions:

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What is reality? It's a seemingly simple question. But penetrate beneath its surface and the simplicity drops away, a succession of subsequent questions luring you deeper—to where even more questions await. Ask yourself whether you can actually know the answers, much less be sure that you can know them, and you've begun to grapple with the metaphysical and epistemological quandaries that have occupied, teased, and tormented modern philosophy's greatest intellects since the dawn of modern science and a century before the Enlightenment.

During this rich period of philosophy, fascinating minds like Kant, Locke, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein (to name but a few) struggled to improve our understanding of the world against the backdrop of unprecedented scientific, technological, and historical developments. The resulting tension brought forth a vast range of questions:

  • Is the scientific view of the world compatible with human experience? And is the issue made more difficult by concepts like free will, moral responsibility, and religion?
  • What is the mind's place in a physical world? And is the mind itself different from the brain?
  • Is there such a thing as objective truth? What are the implications of the answer for politics, science, religion, and other aspects of human civilization?

And, ultimately, the most important question of them all:

  • What is the ultimate nature of reality, and what are the limitations on our knowledge of it?

To understand the answers to these questions—as well as the ideas of the modern philosophers who asked them—is to amplify not only your understanding of the Western intellectual tradition, but of history and science as well. And you will likely become an even more astute observer of contemporary trends and events by developing broader and deeper perspectives from which to observe them.

The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida offers you an introduction to the basics of modern and contemporary Western approaches to the philosophies of both reality (metaphysics) and knowledge (epistemology), right through the end of the 20th century, when some philosophers were even questioning the value of philosophy itself. Led by author and award-winning Professor Lawrence Cahoone of the College of the Holy Cross, these 36 lectures will take you on an engaging intellectual journey that encompasses prominent figures from all the major traditions of Western philosophy.

You'll explore the ideas behind modern philosophy's most important movements, including

  • dualism, where much of modern philosophy began;
  • rationalism, which views reason as the seat of all knowledge;
  • empiricism, which views the senses as the source of all knowledge;
  • idealism, where ideas formed the basis of the nature of reality;
  • existentialism, the iconic 20th-century philosophy of alienation; and
  • postmodernism, which radically refuses all notion of objective truth.

Just as important, you'll get a clear sense of how these and other movements fit into philosophy's broader progression—for example, the division into "analytic" and "continental" philosophy—to the present day.

Explore a Radical Period in Western Philosophy

Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Peirce, Nietzsche, James, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Rorty, Derrida—these and the other minds you meet in this course are easily recognized today as among the most influential in human history. But this was not always the case.

While these thinkers were indeed shaped by the currents of thought that swirled around them and their ideas frequently respected and accepted, they were also often considered intellectual radicals, their views appreciated far less in their own era than in later ones. This is, in fact, a key reason why the work of so many of them has endured and why we still read them today.

Their unique perspectives on generally accepted ideas and frequently divergent views pushed philosophy in dramatically new directions. As intellectual radicals unwilling to passively accept the contemporary status quo, they offer an enduring bond of kinship with anyone who is eager to encounter new and challenging approaches to the most fundamental questions the human mind can seek to answer.

Draw New Connections between Philosophy, Science, and History

As Professor Cahoone notes, historical and scientific changes have driven the progress of modern Western philosophy. He points out the origins of modern philosophy among great social changes you might not expect to encounter in a philosophy course, including the discovery of the Americas, the decline of feudal aristocratic institutions, the growth of a commercial middle class, the Protestant Reformation, the growth of the nation-state, and the Scientific Revolution.

Similarly, throughout The Modern Intellectual Tradition, you'll be reminded repeatedly of the links connecting history, science, and philosophy, against a backdrop of further transformations such as the growth of liberal republicanism; the rise of industrial capitalism, Communism, and Fascism; and the scientific advancements of the 20th century. You learn how natural science grew out of what was once called natural philosophy, how the seeds of the social sciences were first planted in the soil of philosophical inquiry, and why Professor Cahoone believes that it is philosophy itself that holds the key to reintegrating the divergent fields with which it has a bond.

Moreover, the course's focus on metaphysics and epistemology will strengthen your understanding of the entire process of "doing" philosophy. For it gives you a chance to ask yourself the same question so many thinkers before you have had to confront as they pondered where the starting point of philosophy should be. And you may well find, as so many of them have, that your answer depends on just which aspect of an increasingly complex world you have foremost in mind.

Meet Some of Modern Philosophy's Greatest Minds

One of The Modern Intellectual Tradition's great strengths is the skill with which Professor Cahoone conveys both an understanding of the new and sometimes complex directions offered by the great minds in the course, and a glimpse into their human sides as well.

By presenting his portraits with clarity, an easy-going style, and constant attention to where each thinker fits into philosophy's historical matrix, Professor Cahoone demonstrates exactly why his teaching skills have been honored.

You learn, for example, that

  • Baruch Spinoza, the Jewish philosopher whose presentation of "pantheism" helped reconcile the existence of God with Aristotle's metaphysics, was actually a lens-grinder and had at a young age been excommunicated from his synagogue as an accused atheist;
  • Immanuel Kant—the great philosopher whose influence on Western philosophy is on a level with Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel—spent the first half of his life as a mathematical physicist whose only reported instance of being late for his daily constitutional was the day he first read Rousseau;
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the most influential philosopher of the 20th century, was originally training to become an aeronautical engineer when he became so obsessed with questions of mathematical logic that he eventually abandoned his studies to learn under Bertrand Russell; and
  • Alfred North Whitehead, convinced that metaphysics must keep pace with 20th-century physics, developed an alternative formulation of Einstein's general relativity with empirical predictions that initially performed just as well as Einstein's.

With The Modern Intellectual Tradition, you'll get to experience these and many other great thinkers, both individually and together, from all the major traditions of modern Western philosophy. All you need to bring is your own curiosity about how you can know the world. From there, you'll learn how the things you know come together and discover the implications that come with whatever position you take on the world around you.

As centuries of thinkers before you have learned, it's a journey of unending wonder.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Philosophy and the Modern Age
    Preview the course, beginning with the scientific and social changes of the 17th through 19th centuries that forced all major philosophers to develop dramatically new views. Then see how the 20th century unleashed three diverging pathways for Western philosophers, each producing its own wave of this radically new thought. x
  • 2
    Scholasticism and the Scientific Revolution
    Grasp how the Scientific Revolution arrived in a world already reeling from religious and social upheaval, fragmenting the medieval Aristotelian-Christian view of the cosmos. Can philosophers discover a way to follow God and the new science at the same time? x
  • 3
    The Rationalism and Dualism of Descartes
    Learn how Descartes forged the first and most influential solution. He posited a private self-consciousness, with its own innate ideas, as the foundation of knowledge, with reality fundamentally divided into both matter and mind (or soul). The former is the realm of science; the latter is that of religion, psychology, and ethics. x
  • 4
    Locke's Empiricism, Berkeley's Idealism
    See how Locke's denial of innate ideas created the modern empiricist view of knowledge as based solely on experience, instigating centuries of empiricist-rationalist debate. Later, Berkeley inaugurated modern idealism with his conclusion that empiricism must deny matter's very existence; there are only minds, with experiences programmed by God. x
  • 5
    Neo-Aristotelians—Spinoza and Leibniz
    Follow the attempts of two thinkers to integrate religion, philosophy, and science without straying from Aristotelian foundations. For Spinoza, everything is one substance—God. For Leibniz, every substance has its own mental properties and "view" of the universe, with God binding all together. x
  • 6
    The Enlightenment and Rousseau
    Watch the Enlightenment's self-conscious heralding of modernity, where science, freedom, and cosmopolitan education will mean progress in the face of superstition, authority, and tradition. The greatest dissenter is Rousseau, who argued that progress in art, science, and the economy yields no progress in morality or happiness. x
  • 7
    The Radical Skepticism of Hume
    Watch Hume drive empiricism to the extreme of radical skepticism, dismissing all metaphysics as nonsense. If we only know through experience, all we know is experience, so science cannot rationally say that the sun will rise tomorrow or even that it probably will. x
  • 8
    Kant's Copernican Revolution
    Learn how Kant tried to find an answer to Hume, without which neither science nor philosophy can claim general knowledge of reality. His reasoning changed philosophy forever as he argued that the human mind does not passively receive our experience of the world but actively constructs it from sensation. x
  • 9
    Kant and the Religion of Reason
    Kant's saving of science came at a price—the ability to know things as they appear but never "things in themselves." Reason, he argues, cannot prove—nor can science disprove—God, the soul, or free will. Kant protected faith from contradiction and created a different path for the German Enlightenment. x
  • 10
    The French Revolution and German Idealism
    See how the French Revolution and Kant inspired German idealists like Fichte and Schelling to invent a new kind of philosophy, with spirit—hence, freedom—as the basis of nature, not the other way around. x
  • 11
    Hegel—The Last Great System
    Grasp Hegel's synthesis of Fichte's idealism and Schelling's panentheism with world history as the story of God's coming to self-consciousness. We can follow the "dialectic" of partial, incomplete historical perspectives up to the perspective of the Whole, that is, of God. x
  • 12
    Hegel and the English Century
    Watch how the Industrial Revolution, the rise of European imperialism, and the philosophy of Hegel inspired other thinkers—including Comte, Spencer, Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and, especially, Darwin and Marx—to create historical explanations for the development of mind and society. x
  • 13
    The Economic Revolution and Its Critic—Marx
    The socially wrenching birth of industrial capitalism, with its massive human costs, provoked many critics, but the most influential was a young German follower of Hegel, Karl Marx. See how his ideas became the 20th century's greatest challenge to Western liberalism. x
  • 14
    Kierkegaard's Critique of Reason
    Kierkegaard remains the most radical philosophical critic of reason itself. Follow his rejection of Hegel and any attempt to "rationalize" the human condition. For Kierkegaard, the human spirit is subjected to fundamental choices that cannot be reconciled, particularly religious faith, which is intrinsically irrational and higher than reason. x
  • 15
    Nietzsche's Critique of Morality and Truth
    Meet the most violent critic of the Judeo-Christian and, to some extent, Greek values of Western civilization. Nietzsche declared that morality makes the individual sick. The modern decline of religion leaves only the "will to power" and the need for a new set of values. His deepest concern was what those values would be. x
  • 16
    Freud, Weber, and the Mind of Modernity
    Besides Hegel, Marx, and possibly Nietzsche, two other German-speaking authors created much of the background for analyzing the unique form of life evolving in the 20th century. Listen as Freud's and Weber's arguments that modern society will generate increasing discontent were taken up by later philosophers. x
  • 17
    Rise of 20th-Century Philosophy—Pragmatism
    Watch as late 19th-century philosophy begins to fragment into the three subcultures that would characterize philosophy's next century: analytic, continental, and pragmatic. The last would become the indigenous American tradition, exemplified by its two major contributors, Charles Peirce and William James. x
  • 18
    Rise of 20th-Century Philosophy—Analysis
    Grasp how Frege's invention of the first new logic since Aristotle, combined with Russell's and Moore's attack on the dominant idealism of the age, led to a new approach, "analytic" or "Anglo-American" philosophy. It would become the dominant philosophical approach in all English-speaking countries. x
  • 19
    Rise of 20th-Century Philosophy—Phenomenology
    Watch as Husserl tried to formulate a new ideal philosophy of meaning on the basis of a nonempiricist, holistic analysis of human experience. His solution changed all subsequent European philosophy, liberating the investigation of lived experience from empiricism, psychology, and natural science. x
  • 20
    Physics, Positivism, and Early Wittgenstein
    Witness the logical positivists' reaction to the new physical view of the world offered by special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, and Hubble's discovery of the universe's expansion. They declared that reality is knowable only by science's "verifiable" constructions of sense data. As the young Wittgenstein wrote, beyond those limits we should be "silent." x
  • 21
    Emergence and Whitehead
    Learn about both British Emergentism, which argued for a nonreductive metaphysics of science, and the work of Alfred North Whitehead, the one 20th-century philosopher to take up the 17th-century goal of a metaphysical system consistent with physics to explain the place of mind, values, and God. x
  • 22
    Dewey's American Naturalism
    Encounter the work of the most prominent American philosopher of the 20th century. Most famous as a philosopher of education, John Dewey called for a transformation of philosophy on pragmatic and naturalist principles and wrote in virtually every area of philosophy. To many Americans, Dewey was philosophy. x
  • 23
    Heidegger's Being and Time
    Learn how one of the most important philosophical books of the 20th century created the basis for modern existentialism, as Martin Heidegger put Husserl together with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to forge a new kind of phenomenology that seeks the meaning of human existence. x
  • 24
    Existentialism and the Frankfurt School
    Witness European philosophers exploring individual alienation in mass culture as the modern Western world swirls in the turmoil of World War II. The German Frankfurt school merged Marx with Freud to find domination in reason itself. The French combined existentialism with Marxism. And Heidegger—without apology then or later—joined the Nazi Party. x
  • 25
    Heidegger's Turn against Humanism
    Watch Heidegger's later work take a new, decidedly anti-humanist direction. He called for a rejection of Western metaphysics—which expressed the triumph of technology and individualism dictating to Being—and instead asked that humans patiently "listen" to the call of Being. x
  • 26
    Culture, Hermeneutics, and Structuralism
    See culture and language seize a prime position in philosophical thought with Ernst Cassirer's neo-Kantian view of culture, Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutics (amplifying Heidegger's claim that language is the "house of Being"), and Ferdinand de Saussure's and Claude Levi-Strauss's creation of structuralism. x
  • 27
    Wittgenstein's Turn to Ordinary Language
    Plunge into perhaps the most influential work of 20th-century philosophy as Ludwig Witt-genstein rejected his own earlier positivism to declare that linguistic meaning is dictated by its use, not by logic but by the contextual social activities in which sentences operate. Philosophical problems are caused by ripping terms out of their practical context. x
  • 28
    Quine and the End of Positivism
    See how Willard Van Orman Quine, who studied with the logical positivists, undermined their view. He showed that their distinction between truths of reason and truths of experience, borrowed from Kant, was a mistake. x
  • 29
    New Philosophies of Science
    With the decline of positivism, see the appearance of new interpretations of scientific knowledge. Learn about Popper's rejection of the idea that science seeks to confirm its theories, Davidson's formulation of an alternative to reductionism, and Kuhn's provocative view of scientific revolutions. x
  • 30
    Derrida's Deconstruction of Philosophy
    Learn about the most famous of the French postmodernists and his "deconstruction" of the history of Western philosophy. All writing (or sign-use, in general), Jacques Derrida asserted, must involve the pretense that the meanings of signs can be controlled, a pretense he vigorously denied. x
  • 31
    The Challenge of Postmodernism
    Derrida's work and that of kindred French thinkers Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard created postmodernism. This movement's radical rejection of modern philosophy's central notions—and perhaps even philosophy itself—joined with a view of postmodern society as no longer requiring a "metanarrative" or foundational philosophy. x
  • 32
    Rorty and the End of Philosophy
    Sample the thinking of the most famous American contributor to philosophical postmodernism. Richard Rorty argued that the search for the foundations of "knowledge" —little more than whatever the verification procedures of society say it is—is a bankrupt enterprise. Traditional philosophy, according to Rorty, is well forgotten. x
  • 33
    Rediscovering the Premodern
    Learn how a series of 20th-century philosophers—including Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and Alasdair MacIntyre—called for reincorporating premodern notions to supplement modernity. For if modern philosophy is indeed at a dead end, might not its departure from premodern thought be responsible? x
  • 34
    Pragmatic Realism—Reforming the Modern
    See how pragmatism enjoyed a resurgence as a means of preserving the philosophical search for realist truth in the absence of foundationalism. Encounter a variety of attempts at nonfoundational epistemology, as thinkers like Habermas, Putnam, Margolis, and Campbell demonstrated this pragmatic renaissance. x
  • 35
    The Reemergence of Emergence
    While various applications of pragmatism resurfaced in the theory of knowledge, there was also a noticeable return of the metaphysical doctrine of emergence. Witness this return not only in the work of philosophers of science but also in science itself, exemplified by the late 20th-century interest in "complexity." x
  • 36
    Philosophy's Death Greatly Exaggerated
    After the unprecedented philosophical radicalism of the 20th century, the question of philosophy's future still remains. Sample some of the most likely approaches by which philosophy might successfully integrate—and find common ground among—an increasingly complex array of human activities. x

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Lawrence Cahoone
Ph.D. Lawrence Cahoone
College of the Holy Cross

Dr. Lawrence Cahoone is Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, where he has taught since 2000. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. A two-time winner of the Undergraduate Philosophy Association Teaching Award at Boston University who has taught more than 50 different philosophy courses, Professor Cahoone is not only a skilled teacher, but also an author. With a background in recent European, American, and social and political philosophy, as well as interests in postmodernism, metaphysics, and the latter's relation to the natural sciences, he has written:

  • The Orders of Nature
  • Cultural Revolutions: Reason versus Culture in Philosophy, Politics, and Jihad
  • Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics
  • The Ends of Philosophy: Pragmatism, Foundationalism, and Postmodernism
  • The Dilemma of Modernity: Philosophy, Culture, and Anti-Culture

He edited From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology and his play, Wise Guys: A Philosophical Comedy, is available at

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Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 67 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by The New Gold Standard in Teaching Philosophy! I’ve taken many philosophy courses during the past two decades, from both TTC and three universities, and this course by Lawrence Cahoone is by far the best of them all. I have a hard time even imagining how anyone could do a better job of teaching philosophy. I really didn’t want this course to end! Don’t get me wrong though – this isn’t philosophy made simple. If we’re to be honest, philosophy is never simple because, almost by definition, it takes on those very questions which are nearly or actually intractable, yet still important enough that we can’t really afford to ignore them. I certainly had to work hard when going through this course, and you don’t want your attention to lapse for even a few seconds. But we can ask that a professor ease our burden by making things as clear as possible, and Cahoone does exactly that, avoiding both oversimplification and overcomplication, and pacing his delivery in a way that makes you wonder if he’s reading your mind (at least that was my experience). Regarding the scope of the course, keep in mind that this isn’t an attempt to cover all of philosophy. Instead, Cahoone focuses on modern and contemporary Western philosophy, especially metaphysics and epistemology, starting from the 1600s and taking us through postmodernism and into post-postmodernism (yes, you read that correctly). This leaves out all of Eastern and other non-Western philosophy, nearly all of ancient and medieval Western philosophy, and most of moral philosophy, but he still covers a huge amount of ground, with a great balance between analytic, continental, and pragmatic philosophy and their precursors. And he does it with an expertise which gave me the impression that he has somehow managed to carefully read and fully understand everything under the sun. One result is that he can offer fresh insights into the ideas of even those philosophers you might already be quite familiar with. It’s not possible to summarize the content of a course like this, since too many different ideas are covered. However, as I was listening, I often wondered what general conclusions might be drawn at the end of such a remarkable intellectual journey. I was pleased to find that Cahoone rises to this challenge by sharing his own conclusions in the last lecture, and I was extra pleased to find that I agree with all of his conclusions. I’m tempted to quote him at length, but I’ll instead avoid spoiling the ending for you. For now, suffice it say that “philosophy’s death is greatly exaggerated.” Obviously, I can’t possibly recommend this course more strongly to anyone interested in philosophy – buy it without hesitation the next time it goes on sale. I imagine that the course would be a great introduction to philosophy for motivated beginners (but be prepared to go through the course more than once), and old hats will also benefit both because Cahoone’s teaching is so superb and because he is himself a real philosopher (not just a teacher) who can contribute original and significant interpretations and insights. Beyond this course, of course TTC must immediately commission Cahoone to produce more courses, with potential topics including pragmatism, 20th-century philosophy, and sociopolitical philosophy. To miss out on that opportunity would be unthinkable! July 23, 2010
Rated 5 out of 5 Filled in my French Void I started my education in Philosophy with Daniel N. Robinson's the Great Ideas of Philosophy.when it was only 50 lectures. The Teaching Company was describing him as "the professors professor". I agreed, of course. My father-in-law had a PhD in New Testament and Systematic Theology from Drew University. He recognized that the concept of the Big Bang meant that the world had a beginning. My father-in-law worked on a manuscript for several years. I reviewed two nearly final versions. From this, I was well aware of intellectual history though the logical positivists. I also learned that Secular Humanism is the Devil Incarnate. Larry Cahoone in this Course filled in the void in my understanding of intellectual history. I have watched Daniel N. Robinson's 2nd Edition and am disappointed in the additional ten lectures. This course was the first one I saw with the new set. I think it works well with "the narrative" paradigm. However, I believe we have recently entered a paradigm shift more along the lines of Karl Popper and Sir, Ronald Aylmer Fisher. Popper was wrong to try to apply single factor social engineering. Fisher had an analytical approach appropriate for the Real World. March 28, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Best Intro to a Complex Subject If you've always wanted to understand modern philosophy, especially how it ties in with language etc., then this is your course. Prof. Cahoone makes it as easy as possible. However, even then, this course will require careful listening and maybe side reading to thoroughly understand some of the material, especially with regard to the 20th century concepts (Heidegger anyone?). You can almost feel the professor's mind straining as he struggles to keep these complex ideas manageable, and he actually pulls it off. You have to do your part, though, to get maximum value from this course. Simply listening once and half-heartedly will not do, nor can you extract much value without reflecting on each lecture afterwards. In other words, unlike some of the lighter TGC courses, this one requires work. I often found myself looking up concepts on the web to get a deeper understanding of the material or just to confirm my understanding. However, if you cooperate by seriously paying attention, you will learn more than you ever thought possible. Professor Cahoone is precise and does not waste words; since everything he says is relevant, you will likely need to take your time and repeatedly listen to some of the lectures to get it all. He presents this rigorous material in the friendliest way possible to anyone willing to meet him halfway. Prof. Cahoone's other course, Modern Political Tradition, is a cakewalk by comparison. This Modern Intellectual Tradition course is about the most abstract ideas, while the political course is about practical ideas. I love them both, but this Modern Intellectual Tradition course is unique and makes a dry, difficult, and rigorous subject interestng and accessible to all. January 16, 2015
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