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

Learn about the age of Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Rousseau, and more from one of world's leading intellectual historians.
The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 153.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Professor Kors delivery of these most interesting lectures is passionate and contagious. This course should be included in the category of Philosophy as this course is indeed better than many of the Philosophy courses of the Great Courses. I thoroughly enjoyed and learned from these 24 lectures. I wish there were more courses from professor Kors.
Date published: 2024-06-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Whenever I want to orientate myself in the history o f ideas I turn to Korse, Robinson, Cahoon and Noble [all courses in under this format], but although they are illuminating and help full in the aforesaid objective I am puzzled, especially in this course, by the omission of Spinoza and Kant. It ill behoves a reviewer and critic to criticise adversely a course because it does not coincide with the course he would give himself never-the-less to stop on the cusp of modernity and yet omit Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant seems arbitrary, My complain then is not about content but what is not comprehended. I follow Professor Korse with interest in those aspects with which I am less familiar but when I want to relate what he covers to areas of the history of Ideas with which I am familiar but still in need of education and explication I am marooned on this treasure is of intellectual history rather like Ben Gun transporting cap'n Flints Treasure to his cave. For me Kant's Ethics is the dernier cri and although I have augmented this with Popper, and Ayer the life of a secular humanist becomes possible because of Kant. I would define my position and Kant's position to be Lutheran Humanism. Never the Less I want, and need, to understand the origins of this intellectual Rubicon of a 'Faith in Reason' because here we have a decisive break in Western Intellectual Thought. No longer needing for one's precarious Ethics a posture of Deism or Fideism to justify being agnostic in Faith, and yet recognising dependence on the Ethical inheritance from the Christian centuries. This is an excellent course,, and Professor Korse an informed guide to an age of transition from the Mediaeval to the Modern which makes the omissions more mystifying, but for any one wishing to know how the modern mind was forged from its classical and Mediaeval antecedents they could hardly wish for a more comprehensive guide, but I rather think the more inventive and dynamic spirit of Robinson Crusoe serves better than Ben Gun if they want to cross over the to the more intelligible, more modern Philosophic tendencies that lead away from Kant rather than precursors and fend for one's self. When I was invited to give lecture on 'The Baroque' I defined my period as from Descartes to Kant and I identified two figures who mediated the transition from Baroque to Classical, Joseph Haydn and Immanuel Kant, I just wish the passage might have been more pointed in Professor's Korse' otherwise complete Intellectual Atlas..
Date published: 2024-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Inherited Western Culture If you want to understand what our inherited western culture was, you'll have to understand Voltaire, Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu, to name a few. Professor Kors' lectures and energetic and informative. You must understand these philosophers to understand our Constitution.
Date published: 2023-11-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enlightening course I thought this was an excellent course, in which the ideas being discussed were very clearly explained. It was well organized and had a clear direction of travel. I liked the Professor; his regular summaries were useful, and he is the only one who says 'thank you' at the end of his lectures!
Date published: 2023-10-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course Dr. Kors presents everything in a easy to understand manner. It is one of the finest courses I have found on Wondrium concerning philosophy. The course builds upon itself and by the end, if you followed along with the book you have a solid comprehension of not only this subject but Aristoletian philosophy as well.. I took the video version but I think if you use the text, the audio would work as well.
Date published: 2023-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A really important course as well as a good one This course does so much to explain where our current ideas about ourselves and the world came from. It wish I had had this course 50 years or so ago - but better late than never!
Date published: 2023-05-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting Course Professor Kors enthusiastically presents to us the movement of human thought from long time history to the advent of materialism. He presents slowly so that you have time to let the statements sink in. I believe that he gives all sides of the arguments a fair analysis.
Date published: 2023-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have 180 undergraduate credits and have watched many great courses lecture series snd this was the most interest course I have ever taken. I have begun watching it for the third time.
Date published: 2023-04-01
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Between 1600 and 1800, Europe was seized by an intellectual revolution that challenged previous ways of understanding and sparked radical changes in thought and life. Learn about the age of Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Rousseau, and more from one of world's leading intellectual historians.


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.


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 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.

By This Professor

Introduction—Intellectual History and Conceptual Change

01: 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

02: 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

03: 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

04: 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

05: 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

06: 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

07: 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

08: 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

09: 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