Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries

Course No. 447
Professor Alan Charles Kors, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
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Course No. 447
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Course Overview

Modern science, representative democracy, and a wave of wars were caused by a revolution of the intellect that seized Europe between 1600 and 1800. Shaking the minds of the continent like few things before or since, this revolution challenged previous ways of understanding reality and sparked what Professor Alan Charles Kors calls "perhaps the most profound transformation of European, if not human, life."

Revolutions in thought (as opposed to those in politics or science) are in many ways the most far-reaching. They affect our entire sense of legitimate authority, of the possible and impossible, of right and wrong, and of the potentials of human life.

The goal of these lectures is to understand the conceptual and cultural revolution of the Enlightenment. In them, you see the birth of modern thought in the dilemmas, debates, and extraordinary works of the 17th- and 18th-century mind.

Professor Kors is Henry Charles Lea Professor of European History at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has taught for over 30 years. His courses on European intellectual history have won two awards for distinguished teaching.

He is the editor-in-chief of the multi-volume Oxford University Press Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment and has written and edited several books on European intellectual history.

The Power of Aristotle and the Churchmen

When the 17th century dawned in Europe, past authors who had stood the test of time dominated the world of learning and understanding.

Their system of thought—Aristotelian scholasticism—emerged from the fusion of those authorities and Christian doctrine. Professor Kors shows how fully these ideas had suffused and controlled thought and society.

The Walls begin to Crumble

A series of fundamental assaults upon the inherited intellectual system dominated the intellectual life of the 17th century.

Those assaults constituted nothing less than a conceptual revolution that altered the European relationship to thought, nature, and human possibility. With Professor Kors, you examine the key thinkers who changed the world.

  • Francis Bacon, politician and philosopher, criticized the entire Western intellectual inheritance, revising the human quest for knowledge and transforming the uses of knowledge into power over the forces of nature.
  • René Descartes created a coherent philosophical system that became the major challenge to scholasticism on the Continent. Descartes sought to demonstrate that humans can establish a criterion of truth and, with it, know with certainty the real nature of things.
  • Thomas Hobbes, author of the monumental work of political philosophy known as Leviathan (1651), argued that the entire world was matter in motion according to mechanical laws. Thus, there was no freedom of the will, and all things were the necessary results of prior causes.
  • Blaise Pascal was one of the 17th century's most influential fideists. Philosophical skepticism is the belief that we may know nothing with certainty. When used to humble human reason and demonstrate our dependence on religious faith, it is termed "fideism"—yet another systematic assault on Aristotelian scholasticism.
Physics, Politics, and the End of the Old Order

The new knowledge had gained a foothold, but then you see how Newton made it dominant. The 1687 publication of Newton's Principia Mathematica was not merely a major event in the history of Western science but a watershed in the history of Western culture.

Newton's Principia convinced the majority of its readers that the world was ordered and coherent and that the human mind, using Baconian inductive methodology and mathematical reasoning, could grasp that order.

John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) changed the way in which the culture thought about the whole phenomenon of human knowledge.

To Locke, the mind begins as a blank slate on which experience imprints ideas via the senses and via reflection. Because experience is not logically determined, our knowledge of the world is merely probable. The Baron de Montesquieu expanded Locke's idea in the areas of law, society, and politics.

The Dam Bursts

The 18th century sought to take the models of Newton and Locke and apply them to the fullest possible range of human inquiry and endeavor.

The heirs of that conceptual revolution—the "new philosophers"—both popularized what they took to be the substance and implications of what had occurred in the 17th century and extended them to new areas of inquiry. You study the work of David Hume, Voltaire, the "philosophes," and the encyclopedist Denis Diderot.

  • They dealt with the dramatic implications of the new philosophy for religious issues: miracle, revelation, supernaturalism, the authority of the priesthood, human nature, sin, and virtue.
  • They sought to understand both society and religion in increasingly natural terms, to establish the rights of freedom of inquiry and belief, and to discredit, reform, or replace those authorities that could not justify themselves by the new criteria and proper uses of knowledge.

By the end of the 18th century, the prestige of ancient thought and of the inherited system was a thing of the past.

The new ideas were not accepted without dissent. Rousseau, writing in the middle of the 18th century, framed a profoundly influential critique, which echoes down to our own day. He argued that cultural "progress" inevitably leads to moral decadence via the proliferation of artificial needs and inequalities. But his protest did not stop the march of progress.

Educated Europeans believed that they had a new understanding—of thought and the human mind, of method, of nature, and of the uses of knowledge—with which they could come to know the world correctly for the first time in human history and with which they could rewrite the possibilities of human life.

Soon, under the weight of these new ideas, all over the globe, monarchs fell.

This course puts us at the heart of the most far-reaching and consequential intellectual changes in the history of European civilization.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Introduction—Intellectual History and Conceptual Change
    Revolutions in thought—as opposed to those, for example, in politics or science—are in many ways the most influential and far-reaching, because they affect our entire sense of legitimate authority, of the possible and impossible, of right and wrong, and of the potentials of human life. x
  • 2
    The Dawn of the 17th Century—Aristotelian Scholasticism
    The intellectual inheritance of the educated world in the 17th century was a fusion of Aristotelian, and other Greek, philosophy and of Christian theology. It was—and is—known as "scholasticism," or, more precisely, as Aristotelian scholasticism. This system dominated the universities and schools of Europe at the time. x
  • 3
    The New Vision of Francis Bacon
    Francis Bacon, politician and philosopher, undertook the sizeable tasks of criticizing the Western intellectual inheritance, revising the human quest for knowledge, and transforming the uses of knowledge into power over the forces of nature—upon which humans' suffering, or well-being, was thought to depend. x
  • 4
    The New Astronomy and Cosmology
    Astronomy was an eminent science in the 17th century, and much of the challenge to scholasticism began in that field of inquiry. Among the challenges to Aristotelianism was neo-Pythagorean thought, which viewed the universe in terms of mathematics and geometry, not in terms of Aristotelian "qualities," and which saw the Sun as an emblem of God's divinity. x
  • 5
    Descartes's Dream of Perfect Knowledge
    In the first half of the 17th century, Descartes created a coherent philosophical system that became, on the Continent, the major challenge to scholasticism. Descartes sought to demonstrate that humans can establish a criterion of truth and, with it, know with certainty the real nature and the real causes of things. x
  • 6
    The Specter of Thomas Hobbes
    Hobbes, author of the monumental work of political philosophy known as Leviathan (1651), argued that the world, including the entire realm of human experience, was matter in motion according to fixed, mechanical laws; there was no freedom of the will, and all things were the necessary results of prior causes. x
  • 7
    Skepticism and Jansenism—Blaise Pascal
    Philosophical skepticism is the belief that we may know nothing with certainty. When used to humble human reason and demonstrate our dependence on religious faith it is termed "fideism"—yet another systematic assault on Aristotelian scholasticism. Blaise Pascal was one of the 17th century's two most influential fideists. x
  • 8
    Newton's Discovery
    A significant number of critics of Aristotelianism were in communication with each other by the middle of the 17th century. In England, such a group evolved into the Royal Society, which first published the monumental scientific work of Sir Isaac Newton. x
  • 9
    The Newtonian Revolution
    The 1687, publication of Newton's Principia Mathematica was not merely a major event in the history of Western science, but a watershed in the history of Western culture. Newton's Principia convinced the majority of its readers that the world was ordered and coherent, and that the human mind, using Baconian inductive methodology and mathematical reasoning, could grasp that order. x
  • 10
    John Locke—The Revolution in Knowledge
    John Locke's influence upon the late 17th and early 18th centuries cannot be overestimated; his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) changed the way in which the culture thought about the whole phenomenon of human knowledge. x
  • 11
    The Lockean Moment
    In Locke's empiricist view, the mind begins as a blank slate on which experience imprints ideas via the senses and via reflection. We cannot know, nor should we speculate about, what is beyond our experience. Because experience is not logically determined, our knowledge of the world is merely probable. x
  • 12
    Skepticism and Calvinism—Pierre Bayle
    Although obscure to most contemporary readers, the French Protestant fideist Pierre Bayle was one of the most influential authors of his time. His Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697) is intended to expose the arrogance of reason and show that anything but a simple, peaceful faith leads to superstition, intolerance, and cruelty. x
  • 13
    The Moderns—The Generation of 1680-1715
    This generation of readers and authors increasingly rejects the presumptive authority of the past, increasingly believes induction from data (not deduction from inherited premises) to be the path to truth, and makes a systematic inquiry into experience—now seen as "the book of nature," the heart of natural philosophy, which holds that there are no supernatural beings or causes in the world. x
  • 14
    Introduction to Deism
    Deism, a widespread religious phenomenon among the educated classes of Europe in the 18th century, embodies belief in a God whose existence and goodness are proven by nature, and disbelief in the Judeo-Christian (or any other) tradition and revelation. x
  • 15
    The Conflict Between Deism and Christianity
    Deism represents the first fundamental challenge to Judeo-Christian theology to emerge strongly within Christian culture itself. Deist and Christian thinkers clash over the most essential theological issues: the source of our knowledge of God, the grounds of religious belief, sin, and more. x
  • 16
    Montesquieu and the Problem of Relativism
    If, as the Lockeans believed, knowledge and moral ideas are determined by one's experience, then one's sense of the world must necessarily be relative to one's time, place, personal experience, and physical senses. The Baron de Montesquieu explores this idea, particularly as it touches on questions of law, society, and politics. x
  • 17
    Voltaire—Bringing England To France
    Few works had greater impact in popularizing the intellectual revolution of the 17th century, and in inaugurating the debates that would shape the 18th century in France, than Voltaire's Lettres Philosophiques (1734), in which the author celebrates English religious, political, commercial, and intellectual liberty. x
  • 18
    Bishop Joseph Butler and God's Providence
    Bishop Butler, the preeminent moral theologian of the Church of England, argued that human beings are made for happiness and virtue, and that our nature conduces to both simultaneously. Among those influenced by this revered and pious churchman's views was Thomas Jefferson. x
  • 19
    The Skeptical Challenge to Optimism—David Hume
    In his posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), the philosopher and skeptic Hume challenged the fundamental premise of natural religion: That we must infer logically from the data of nature a wise, intelligent, good, omnipotent, and providential God. x
  • 20
    The Assault upon Philosophical Optimism—Voltaire
    Candide is Voltaire's most famous and enduring work. On the surface it is a lively satirical novella. It has dark and serious undertones, however, for it marks the author's agonized rejection of the optimistic notion that God would only have created "the best of all possible worlds" and, thus, that all things in the world serve an ultimate good. x
  • 21
    The Philosophes—The Triumph of the French Enlightenment
    In 18th-century France, there emerged a diverse community of thinkers and writers who thought of themselves as new philosophers and whose mission was a critical re-examination of knowledge, authority, and institutions. These were the philosophes of the French Enlightenment. x
  • 22
    Beccaria and Enlightened Reform
    The view that both individuals and societies should seek happiness led the 18th century to place great weight on the role of the legislator. This, in turn, spawned a great interest in the law and one of the most influential works of the time, Cesare Beccaria's On Crimes and Punishments (1763)—an effort to reform, rationalize, and soften the criminal laws of Europe. x
  • 23
    Rousseau's Dissent
    Rousseau, writing in the middle of the 18th century, dissented from prevailing Enlightenment beliefs. He framed a profoundly influential critique, which echoes down to our own day, by arguing that cultural "progress" inevitably leads to moral decadence via the proliferation of artificial needs and inequalities. x
  • 24
    Materialism & Naturalism—The Boundaries of the Enlightenment
    The natural, and at times atheistic, world of the philosophe and encyclopédiste Denis Diderot marks the ultimate rejection of the purposeful, qualitative world of Aristotelian scholasticism and begins the debates of the modern age in all of their intensity. x

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Your professor

Alan Charles Kors

About Your Professor

Alan Charles Kors, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Alan Charles Kors is Henry Charles Lea Professor of European History at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been teaching since 1968. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and his master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. He received postdoctoral fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University, and the...
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Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 129.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely Captivating Professor Kors has a particularly effective way of engaging the viewer making the lecture series captivating. Each lecture pulled me further into the subject, I'm a fan now. I have at least one text by each of the writers mentioned on my bookshelf and thought myself "clued in" on the subject...little did I know, there was so much more to know...absolutely thrilled with the course.
Date published: 2019-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A pleasure to listen to a deeply expert teacher. I have taught philosophy as instructor and adjunct at Rutgers/Douglass College, Dartmouth, and as a teaching assistant at NYU. I left academic philosophy in 1980, and in my retirement took up the study again with lectures from The Great Courses. Professor Kors is the best of the best, and his treatment of the European Enlightenment gave me an insight that 4 years at Yale, 1 year at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and NYU Graduate School of Arts and Sciences did not give me.
Date published: 2019-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Among the best of the Great Courses I can not say enough about how wonderful this course is. If you are considering it, get it. Dr. Kors's lectures are extremely well prepared. He has the unique ability to capture and convey to you the essence of great philosophic ideas. He is able to show you how our understanding of religion, science and morals evolved from antiquity through the enlightenment. You really do get the sense of seeing the world through the eyes of these great thinkers. I must also add that I listened to this course on audio during my commute and I found the style and cadence of the lecturer most engaging as they kept my mind from wandering (no droning monotone here). I have children in high school and after taking this course I have been able to confidently discuss with them the importance and nature of the changes that took place during the enlightenment. These are things everyone should know. Thank you Dr. Kors.
Date published: 2019-05-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from I give it a Fair, because Kors, whilst clearly knowledgeable, greatly struggles to communicate in a clear and succint manner to the audience. In other words, he is very painful to listen to because he drones on and on and does not get to any point before one cannot help but to tune him out and start thinking about myriad other things. I found there was nothing enjoyable in his speaking style, no myrth, no sense that he's enjoying what he's doing...his accent: nauseating.
Date published: 2019-05-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very academic college level course. The lecturer is extremely erudite with a tremendous background in philosophy from whom I learned a lot. The presentation is rapid and the accompanying guidebook is a real necessity for reference.
Date published: 2019-05-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really quite good I wanted to learn more about the intellectual history of the Enlightenment and this was a very good course to achieve that goal. To me, this was a true college level course and I had to be focused and committed to absorbing the information in the lectures. To that end, I did learn quite a lot, I found the professor to be a compelling speaker, and his knowledge of the subject matter appeared to be top notch. I am glad I bought this video and committed myself to watching it.
Date published: 2019-04-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Calvin and Hobbes and More Professor Kors takes time in one of his lectures to point out where the popular comic strip got its name, but really this is one of the few times he uses his undoubted wit. This is the second course I’ve taken from Dr. Kors, the other being on Voltaire (I gave that course 5 stars across the board). While I think that “Birth of the Modern Mind” is (in a sense) more important than the one on Voltaire, it is not as much fun. For me, I found out a lot of things about Voltaire that I had not known that were of casual interest. In this course the things that he presented that were outside of my prior knowledge tended to be difficult and required some considerable thought to assimilate. Of course this must be a good thing, but for some reason during this course I was much more distracted by Dr. Kors’ speech patterns than during his Voltaire presentation. This I think because he was not having as much fun with that course as he was with this one. Still, from the course beginning where the concept of revolutions in thought through to the end where Rousseau’s critique of the time and where modern thought matured to a far different way of looking at the world than the Aristotelian mode is summed, Professor Kors presents a logical structure that is both thought provoking and well-founded. For me, much of this was a revelation, likely because I have never studied philosophy in any formal sense. So while the lectures on Locke, Bacon and Descartes were interesting they did not expand my horizons as much as the ones on Bayle (I had no clue), Butler and Beccaria (best lecture for me, by far). Other reviwers have commented on the Kor’s delivery style. I can only wish that he were not so deliberate and slow, but OTOH, at least it gave me time to think. And that thinking made me wonder if in a couple of hundred years there will be a course on the transition of the modern to the post-modern mind. Recommend, but you really have to be interested in (or open to( the subject.
Date published: 2019-02-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellence I have listened to many, many of these courses. Professor Kors was the finest lecturer of all, combining in depth knowledge of the subject with a passion that is highly contagious. I knew nothing of the subject but learned a great deal. Treat yourself with this course.
Date published: 2019-01-11
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