Course level: Undergraduate

Fall 2020
The American University of Paris


In the 17th and 18th centuries European and North American societies experienced revolutionary shifts in science (e.g., Newton physics), technology (e.g., the steam engine), politics (e.g. the American and French revolutions) and the economy (e.g., the industrial revolution). These shifts have been influenced by, as well as influenced, new philosophical theories of knowledge and reason, morality and politics, nature and the human being. The new theories by the “modern philosophers” (e.g. Locke, Hume, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant) have profoundly shaped the intellectual debates and cultural self-understandings of Western societies ever since. Ideas such as the freedom and equality of human beings, scientific progress through experimentation and the human domination of nature have become central elements of modern societies.

However, ever since its inception the Enlightenment has continuously been subject to (internal and external) criticisms. For example, these criticisms have challenged its universalism from communitarian, feminist and ethno-nationalist perspectives, its “faith” in science and instrumental reason from aesthetic and democratic perspectives and its belief in social progress, civilization and development from post-colonial and post-development perspective. In these ways the Enlightenment and its critics have shaped not only the (mis-)developments of Western societies but also those in non-Western societies as well as the relationships between these two types of societies over the course of the last three centuries.

Today the Enlightenment project stands at a crossroads. The rise of populist and nationalist movements, human-induced climate change and the asymmetric post-colonial relationships between the West and “the Rest” seriously put into question several of the Enlightenment’s core commitments, such as the moral ideas of freedom and equality, democratic politics, social progress and the scientifically-informed, rational control of the natural environment.

The course will examine not only the historical origin and development of the Enlightenment ideas and their institutional manifestations, but also possible solutions to the contemporary challenges that engaged global citizens perhaps should pursue. For that purpose it will combine historical and philosophical modes of inquiry and study the following four key themes: Progress and Colonization; Race; Gender; Nature.

Guiding questions:

  • What is and how do we evaluate “the Enlightenment?” How do we historically and philosophically analyze the historical period we call “the Enlightenment”? Should we evaluate “the Enlightenment” as a time of oppression or emancipation or both?
  • What are the legacies of the Enlightenment? To what extent have struggles for emancipation or experiences of oppression after the 18th century been an extension of the Enlightenment? Are some of the conflicts in our contemporary world an ongoing struggle for Enlightenment? Or did the Enlightenment end in the 18th century, and is everything we see afterwards something different?
  • How do historians and philosophers approach “the Enlightenment” in different ways? What is the role of history in a philosophical argument? And how do philosophical ideas figure in historical argumentation? What methodological tensions exist between the two disciplines?

More information:

Syllabus_Reason in Dark Times_Past and Present of the Enlightenment_27 Oct 20 (514.40 KB)