Course Details

01:510:321 The Age of Enlightenment (3)

  • Academic Credits: 3
  • SAS Core: WCd
  • Syllabus:   pdf Spring 2022 (60 KB)

    Syllabus Disclaimer:  The information on this syllabus is subject to change. For up-to-date course information, please refer to the syllabus on your course site (Sakai, Canvas, etc.) on the first day of class.

  • Course Description

    What is Enlightenment? A question voiced most famously by Immanuel Kant in 1784 has intrigued historians ever since. Did the Enlightenment constitute a unified body of thought? What was the goal of the “Enlightenment project”? And how do we make sense of the origins, development, and enduring effects of this body of thought? Until the final third of the 20th century, intellectual historians dominated the study of the Enlightenment. Scholars such as Ernst Cassirer (1930s) and Peter Gay (1960s) studied the Enlightenment was by focusing on a small coterie of intellectuals, the books and treatises they published, and the canonical debates in which they engaged. The Enlightenment belonged squarely in the history of ideas.


    This course organizes our study of the Enlightenment around a series of ongoing – and often contentious – debates. Men and women in the 18th century debated: How should “moderns” use and build upon the wisdom on the ancients? What is the boundary between religious faith and toleration? Are science and rationality antithetical to religious belief? Or, can one harmonize the insights of science and religious traditions? How should governments facilitate progress? What is the purpose of human social interactions (sociability)? What is the role of natural law? How can a society insure equality? And, how can individuals find happiness?


    To understand these debates, we’ll roam throughout Europe – from London and Edinburgh to Milan and St. Petersburg -- with Paris as our home base. We’ll listen in on the conversations that animated the canonical writers of the Enlightenment – Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Hume, Smith, Gibbon, Mendelssohn, Beccaria, and Kant, to name just a few of the luminaries. But we’ll also explore how less well-known Europeans responded to the changing patterns of social, cultural, economic, and political life in eighteenth century. We’ll explore the new ways that men and women read books, attributed new meaning to art, listened to music, debated how best to raise their children, and explained racial categories. To underscore the role of conversation and debate in the Enlightenment, students will participate in a “pop up” salon in the second half of the semester. Students will study the position of a key philosopher of the Enlightenment and come to our in-class “salon” prepared to debate key topics with fellow philosophes and salon guests.