The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida

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

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
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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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Your professor

Lawrence Cahoone

About Your Professor

Lawrence Cahoone, Ph.D.
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...
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The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 103.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Review Bought this course on sale and it would have been a reasonable buy at pre-discount price. Comprehensive! Thorough! Easily assimilated! This course is a great way to re-learn what you’ve forgotten or get inside what you’ve never encountered
Date published: 2020-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful course Fascinating, engaging. Weaves together so many important thinkers with penetrating insights into the essential issues.
Date published: 2020-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I appreciate the professors delivery style. It is clear and without mannerisms or artifice.. He has a clear delivery style. I bought this course to try to fill in gaps in my understanding of this period. Some with more knowledge than I may find it too basic.elementary. I
Date published: 2020-01-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Summary of Modern Philosophy Professor Cahoone is a wonderful lecturer and presents the history of modern philosophy from the audacious foundationalist daring of Descartes to its ultimate exhaustion in Rorty and Postmodernism with consummate skill and deep honesty. The written materials accompanying the course are weak, but the lectures are outstanding.
Date published: 2019-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really impressive I have never come across a mind that understands philosophy that much or explains it the way you do, Prof. Cahoone. That's really impressive.
Date published: 2019-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent History of Modern Philosophy Lawrence Cahoone’s “Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida” is brilliantly done. I wish this series of lectures existed when I was first dabbling in philosophy, because the clarity of the explanation of the philosophical ideas and general discussion is such that a high schooler of modest intelligence could understand the lectures. However, the sophistication of this course is such that, with years of academic training in philosophy and years of self-study, I have taken away a few nuggets from the course that I had not known before. Anyone interested in this lecture series should know that, while title claims that it goes from Descartes to Derrida, this was done for alliteration: the course actually covers many of the postmodern thinkers, as well as a responses to postmodernism. One aspect of the lecture series that I think any viewer will appreciate is that Cahoone understands and explains all philosophers and philosophies sympathetically and generously. In fact, I could not determine his philosophical leanings until I researched some of his papers and books. This level of non-dogmatic and unbiased presentation is very rare. Usually, philosophers can’t present an opposing philosopher’s ideas as the opposing philosopher would; moreover, they typically can’t wait to tell you what they think about any given issue. I will say that the viewer should be cautious on one philosophical presentation –that of Nietzsche and his work. It is clear to me that Cahoone did an honest job of presenting every philosopher, but I would maintain that he is guilty of a creative misunderstanding of Nietzsche’s work. Actually, the rationale behind the misunderstanding of Nietzsche’s thought is such that I’d like to know what the source for his understanding is. It could be that he didn’t read much of Nietzsche’s original work and got his Nietzsche from a professor during his education –or possibly even someone like Schopenhauer, which is a big mistake. At any rate, when watching the lecture on Nietzsche, I would definitely be careful about taking anything as a fact. As I said, the misunderstandings and misinterpretations are interesting enough that I was hoping to find their source, though I have not. Having read everything (including notebooks, etc.) that Nietzsche wrote, as well as many contemporary works on Nietzsche (e.g., by Kaufman, Robert C. Solomon, etc.), I hope I’m not being too presumptuous in thinking that it is Cahoone’s understanding of Nietzsche that is outside of the norm. Whatever their origin, Cahoone has interesting things to say. Overall, I recommend this book to anyone short the graduate level of philosophy, but even philosophy grad-level students will find items of interest in this course. I feel that everyone interested in philosophy should know the content that Cahoone presents in this course. I think the people who will get the most bang for their buck will be those who are outside of academic philosophy study, who are interested in getting their bearings within the subject.
Date published: 2019-07-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Better than philosphy courses I had in college Very concise and understandable. Tremendous amount of ground covered in each half-hour lecture. Technical terms carefully explained as they were being used.
Date published: 2019-06-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from WELL TAUGHT WORTHWHILE It is a well-taught and worthwhile course that outlines and explains the radical revolution in thinking. I don't like the animations and special visual effects. I find that animation mildly distracting in this course. Maybe it is my age, but I think the highlighting and other effects just diminish concentration.
Date published: 2019-03-21
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