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

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course The professor did a very good job explaining how human beings began to use the ideas of reason and science to explain the world. I was impressed with how he could present the case for competing ideas, giving compelling arguments for each without apparent bias. I also liked the way that he made it clear how thinkers were reacting to each other. So often we are taught a philosophical idea without it being put in context. For example, even though I have read a lot about utilitarianism, I came to a much greater understanding by seeing how it related to changes in religious ideas of the time. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2020-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So interesting!!! I'm impressed by how the Professor expertly synthesized and connects the dots regarding the different philosophies and ideas of the past.
Date published: 2020-09-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My favorite lecturer Of several Great Courses on (intellectual) history I have listened to so far, the lectures by Alan Kors are my favorites: He speaks at a good pace (not too fast) and transmits his enthousiasm. Kors is really great in translating the sometimes complicated philosophical views into a language that listeners can make sense of. I listen to this one over and over again.
Date published: 2020-09-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Lackluster delivery Although the ideas discussed in this set of lectures are interesting, I find the presentation from the professor somewhat boring. There are a lot of tangents and I find myself losing interest in almost every lecture, contrary to many other series I have purchased. This is a lecture series I would not recommend and will not revisit. If I could get a refund, I would.
Date published: 2020-05-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Bridging the gap between Renaissance and the Moder Having been the beneficiary of numerous Great Courses history and art classes from Ancient Greece through the Renaissance, I finally felt able to venture into this class. I will admit it was daunting, but the professor was excellent. He tackled the densest intellectual material in a way that made it accessible. While I would hesitate to take an exam on the material, I did accomplish my goal, which was to immerse myself in the period's intellectual trajectory and come out the other end with at least a rudimentary understanding of how civilization moved from a religious foundation for how the world came to be to an empirically based, research founded, and (ostensibly) apolitical system. Thank you for that Professor!
Date published: 2020-03-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best of the Great Courses What a great course! It has great content and engaging subject matter. In 24 lectures you'll follow the history of the transformation of the European mind. It is a journey well worth taking. I've listened to many of the Great Courses, this is my favorite.
Date published: 2020-01-10
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Very Poor Lecturer I've listened to at least two dozen Great Courses products, ranging from very good to what I would call poor. This is the first one that I was unable to finish. Dr. Kors speaks with no inflection, has no sense of humor and pauses interminably not only at the end of each sentence but within each sentence. The subject matter is abstract enough that it needs a vibrant speaker to bring it forth. Whether I could have appreciated the course in the hands of another I can't say; I certainly did not do so here.
Date published: 2019-10-09
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
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Introduction—Intellectual History and Conceptual Change
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.

34 min
The Dawn of the 17th Century—Aristotelian Scholasticism
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.

31 min
The New Vision of Francis Bacon
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.

31 min
The New Astronomy and Cosmology
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.

31 min
Descartes's Dream of Perfect Knowledge
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.

31 min
The Specter of Thomas Hobbes
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.

31 min
Skepticism and Jansenism—Blaise Pascal
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.

31 min
Newton's Discovery
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.

30 min
The Newtonian Revolution
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.

31 min
John Locke—The Revolution in Knowledge
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.

32 min
The Lockean Moment
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.

32 min
Skepticism and Calvinism—Pierre Bayle
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.

32 min
The Moderns—The Generation of 1680-1715
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.

32 min
Introduction to Deism
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.

33 min
The Conflict Between Deism and Christianity
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.

31 min
Montesquieu and the Problem of Relativism
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.

30 min
Voltaire—Bringing England To France
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.

31 min
Bishop Joseph Butler and God's Providence
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.

31 min
The Skeptical Challenge to Optimism—David Hume
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.

32 min
The Assault upon Philosophical Optimism—Voltaire
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.

31 min
The Philosophes—The Triumph of the French Enlightenment
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.

31 min
Beccaria and Enlightened Reform
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.

31 min
Rousseau's Dissent
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.

32 min
Materialism & Naturalism—The Boundaries of the Enlightenment
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.

33 min
Alan Charles Kors

Voltaire always has the last laugh on us all, which may be by design. Laughter was a weapon for Voltaire, and irony was essential to that laughter.


Harvard University


University of Pennsylvania

About Alan Charles Kors

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 Smith Richardson Foundation.

Professor Kors won two awards for distinguished college teaching and the Engalitcheff Award for defense of academic freedom. He is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Professor Kors is the author and editor of several books on European intellectual history, including D’Holbach’s Coterie: An Enlightenment in ParisAtheism in France, 1660-1729: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief; and Anticipations of the Enlightenment in England, France, and Germany. He is editor-in-chief of the four-volume Oxford University Press Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. With Harvey A. Silverglate, he is coauthor of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses.

Professor Kors has served as a member of the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities and on the editorial boards of several scholarly journals.

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