Great Courses: The Birth Of The Modern Mind: The Intellectual History Of The 17th And 18th Centuries: Part I, taught by Professor Alan Charles Kors
I must admit that I am fond of intellectual history, in part because I have pretty strong intellectual interests in general as well as with regards to history and in part because the field is so obscure. When we look at the world of ideas, if we do, we will notice that ideas and worldviews have a history. This comes as a surprise to many people because when we are living in a particular place and time, the commonplace truths of the contemporary age appear to be so obviously true that we do not stop to examine their history and context. When we do, as the professor of this course does, we get something that is remarkable and enjoyable and somewhat rare, in that the author takes ideas seriously and wishes to present the various thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as people seriously interested in the issues of their time and influenced by their own personal context and what they knew of the past. Some of these thinkers are easier to like in the present-day, and some of them have been nearly forgotten, but this professor gives them all their due, and that is certainly admirable, whatever his own views happen to be.
The twelve lectures over six hours in this part of the course are divided so that they cover a wide variety of thinkers, mostly in the 1600’s. The professor begins with a discussion of intellectual history as a discipline and the process and nature of conceptual change over time (1). After this the author looks at the worldview that was dominant in the western intellectual world at the beginning of the 17th century, namely Aristotelian scholasticism (2). After this introductory material to set the context, the author discusses the new vision of Francis Bacon (3), the new astronomy and cosmology that legitimized a new view of science and philosophy (4), and Descartes’ dream of perfect knowledge (5). After that comes a look at the specter of Thomas Hobbes (6), the combination of skepticism and Jansenism that led to the fideism of Blaise Pascal (7), a couple of lectures of Newton’s discovery (8) and the revolution in thought that came about because of his writings (9). After that the first part concludes with lectures on John Locke’s thinking (10) and his massive influence on his times (11) as well as the skepticism and Calvinism and fideism of the largely forgotten Pierre Bayle (12).
There are a few threads that connect the various thinkers discussed in these lectures. For one, all of them were strongly influenced by the political, religious, and intellectual issues of their days. This included the rise of absolutist monarchs in France, the fallout from the Protestant Reformation, the political turmoil in places like England and Germany, the struggle for religious liberty for minorities, the repercussions of the Copernican theory, and the degree in which human beings could be confident in their rational capacities. The complexities and cross-currents of the time meant that people were often involved in many aspects of the issues of their time–Newton wrote extensively on faith as well as mathematics, Locke was involved in practical politics as well as educational and political theory, and Bayle’s skeptical writing was done in part in an attempt to convince the French monarchy that Protestants were not disloyal citizens, so that he and his co-religionists could return home from exile. The author does a good job presenting a nuanced understanding of a variety of important thinkers based on their own context and contemporary pressures, and does it well.