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The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida

Get an introduction to the contemporary Western approaches to the philosophies of both reality and knowledge, led by an author and award-winning professor, as you explore the ideas behind modern philosophy's most important movements.
The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 126.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from This Should Not be So Hard I enjoyed the course, largely though because it validated this precept: "What is true is not nearly as important as what is possible." The fascination with scientific rationality reflects that fact that life is ephemeral in its confrontation with entities that cannot modify their behavior. In exploring that realm, scientists are allowed the possibility of designing new senses that give them a less obscured view of reality. But by their nature, emergent systems (such as living creatures, intellect (what Cahoone calls "mind"), and culture adapt to circumstances. In those systems, attempts to assert control generate resistance from the other participants. Philosophy, I would hope, would guide our strategies to the circumstances that we are trying to influence. That, indeed, is "wisdom." In the creative field of this reality celebrated by Cahoone, it is only philosophy that stands at enough of a distance to discern the trends. Cahoone's final image of an expanding spiral is meaningful and should humble those that seek to impose "truth" on others.
Date published: 2023-09-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Mostly Incomprehensible, but it's not the professo A great deal of this course is incomprehensible, but the most incomprehensible portion of the course was the part on Heidegger. I have never in my life come across anything as nonsensical as the rambling and babbling of Heidegger. I only hope that the professor included Heidegger in this course out of some sense of obligation to include anyone who is believed to have influenced modern thought. Heidegger was a fraud, and anyone who has read Heidegger and thinks otherwise is a fool. I would not recommend this course, but not because of the professor. The professor is fine and did and made a heroic attempt at making a lot of nonsense appear meaningful. I would not recommend the course because almost all of the modern thinkers covered in the course are like Heidegger - but Heidegger is the worst.
Date published: 2023-02-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating, but in need of clarifying examples I took this course to try to understand what philosophy is and why it has employed some of the greatest minds in history. Under the exceptional guidance of Prof. Cahoone, I was not disappointed by this thoughtful yet challenging course. The lectures are well organized, and Dr. Cahoone frequently reviews past lectures to continually illustrate the manner in which philosophical thought has progressed to the present. At the end, I feel that have a good understanding of the history of and reasons for this area of human endeavor, as well as the current controversies and direction of the field. However, I had a more difficult time grappling with some of the abstract concepts of certain philosophers and their schools of philosophy, despite Prof. Cahoone's energetic attempts to clarify them. My main challenge mostly lay in trying to translate the idiosyncratic terminology invented by various schools into more common familiar terms or concepts familiar to laypersons. For example, the term "analytic proposition" seems to me the same as a "definition" (as in the example given "All bachelors are unmarried"), or the term "sign" as used in the analysis of language really describes "words", "synonyms", "antonyms" etc., doesn't it? In any case, it would have been helpful if more examples were given to illustrate the abstract concepts used modern philosophy. Nonetheless, I found Prof. Cahoone to be an exceptional teacher. His presentations are not really lectures, but rather feel more like an intimate conversation with a brilliant and knowledgeable colleague.
Date published: 2023-01-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Authoritatively covers large field. I love to read books. Some are books by geniuses. But that is often hard work. And their books are centuries old. There are also new ideas since they wrote their books. It is nice to watch a lecture given recently by a prestigious professor. And even to compare to it your own interpretations. Professor Cahoone 2010 helped me to discover that Richard Rorty is very famous today. It is like a school inside your home!
Date published: 2022-10-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining, intelligible and extensive! I enjoyed watching it some years ago and after sporadically engaging in Philosophy came back to it for a second view. The course is very well presented, and sensibly structured. It is an excellent base to venture out to your topics of interest and substantial and entertaining enough to come back to it to refresh what you learned and delve deeper into the topics with new understanding. (The only idea for improvement I have is making the subtitles more readable. Not having them spread the whole screen but centering them more instead. Please keep the Philosophy content coming - e.g. a second part of Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy would be greatly appreciated!)
Date published: 2022-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A lucid view of the last 300 yrs of philosophy This series is quite a large number of lectures that if you can stay with the whole course you will get a very good understanding of modern philosophy during the last 300 plus years. You should be motivated to try to get the gist of each lecture if you want to make sense out of modern philosophy. There are quite a few lectures - 36 all together. This was my final philosophy course. The first was with the early philosophers Plato, Aristotle, etc. The 2nd was religion in the ancient Mediterranean world, 3rd was Skeptics and Believers, another was Free Will and Determinism. This course was by far the best and most thorough and most sensible series of all.
Date published: 2022-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The most enjoyable cousre on philosophy I found the lectures engaging and easy to follow. I particularly enjoyed the last 2 lectures.
Date published: 2022-06-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good summation This is overall a good course for those curious on the development of western philosophy since 1600. The professor is knowledgeable, interesting, and the lectures are well prepared. He condenses and explains the material well, trying to motivate the reasonings for different philosophies, and highlight the differences between thinkers. I lost steam on this course about two-thirds of the way through, once it reached the 20th century. I would say that was more due to the abstruse nature of the subject material than any defect of the instructor. For those with the interest to continue on, they will probably be satisfied.
Date published: 2022-04-16
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Explore the foundations of modern and contemporary Western approaches to reality and knowledge with The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida. Guided by award-winning Professor Lawrence Cahoone, these 36 lectures take you on an engaging intellectual journey that encompasses prominent figures like Locke, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger-intellectual radicals whose ideas completely revolutionized how we look at and understand the world around us.


Lawrence Cahoone

The Great Courses deeply challenged my skills in teaching philosophy, while making it fun too.


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 an author. With a background in recent European, American, and social and political philosophy, as well as interests in postmodernism, metaphysics, and the latter's relation to the natural sciences, he has written:

  • The Orders of Nature
  • Cultural Revolutions: Reason versus Culture in Philosophy, Politics, and Jihad
  • Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics
  • The Ends of Philosophy: Pragmatism, Foundationalism, and Postmodernism
  • The Dilemma of Modernity: Philosophy, Culture, and Anti-Culture

He edited From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology and his play, Wise Guys: A Philosophical Comedy, is available at

By This Professor

The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habermas
The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida
The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida


Philosophy and the Modern Age

01: 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....

31 min
Scholasticism and the Scientific Revolution

02: 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?...

33 min
The Rationalism and Dualism of Descartes

03: 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....

31 min
Locke's Empiricism, Berkeley's Idealism

04: 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....

33 min
Neo-Aristotelians-Spinoza and Leibniz

05: 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....

33 min
The Enlightenment and Rousseau

06: 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....

32 min
The Radical Skepticism of Hume

07: 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....

31 min
Kant's Copernican Revolution

08: 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....

30 min
Kant and the Religion of Reason

09: 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....

31 min
The French Revolution and German Idealism

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....

31 min
Hegel-The Last Great System

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....

32 min
Hegel and the English Century

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....

30 min
The Economic Revolution and Its Critic-Marx

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....

31 min
Kierkegaard's Critique of Reason

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....

32 min
Nietzsche's Critique of Morality and Truth

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....

33 min
Freud, Weber, and the Mind of Modernity

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....

32 min
Rise of 20th-Century Philosophy-Pragmatism

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....

31 min
Rise of 20th-Century Philosophy-Analysis

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....

32 min
Rise of 20th-Century Philosophy-Phenomenology

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....

32 min
Physics, Positivism, and Early Wittgenstein

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."...

31 min
Emergence and Whitehead

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....

31 min
Dewey's American Naturalism

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....

32 min
Heidegger's Being and Time

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....

31 min
Existentialism and the Frankfurt School

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....

30 min
Heidegger's Turn against Humanism

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....

31 min
Culture, Hermeneutics, and Structuralism

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....

31 min
Wittgenstein's Turn to Ordinary Language

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....

31 min
Quine and the End of Positivism

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....

32 min
New Philosophies of Science

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....

31 min
Derrida's Deconstruction of Philosophy

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....

32 min
The Challenge of Postmodernism

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....

30 min
Rorty and the End of Philosophy

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....

32 min
Rediscovering the Premodern

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?...

32 min
Pragmatic Realism-Reforming the Modern

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....

30 min
The Reemergence of Emergence

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."...

31 min
Philosophy's Death Greatly Exaggerated

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....

32 min