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Individual, Polis and Society: Philosophical Reflections in History (HI2A5)

The Thinker 

Tutor: Prof. Mark Philp
Phone: 024 76150927, internal extension 50927
Office: FAB 3.11, floor 3 of the Arts Faculty Building
Lectures: Tuesdays at 10.00 FAB 4.80

Office Hours: Tuesdays at 11.00

Seminar Group: Tuesdays at 1.00 FAB 4.79

IPS is listed as an Early Modern Option.

This introduction to the course has two parts: the formal bit is below this - entitled Formal Statement. But first I'll say what I think it does - and add some student feedback. (If you are taking this course you will find some prep reading for the summer below and you should also make sure you read the assessment page).

Historians have to learn how to read a variety of texts, to understand their contexts, and to think about the ways in which to read a range of material in trying to see how the world looked like to those inhabiting in former times. This course tries to help students do this by focusing on a major period of change - one in which the disciplines of sociology and economics first emerged, in which we move from a theologically saturated view of the world to one which can see religion as the 'opium of the people', in which we move from absolutism to liberalism in politics, and in which what people expect their individual lives to be like is utterly transformed. To grasp these changes and see them emerge in philosophical texts, novels, autobiographies and letters and diaries, and to consider them in relation to changing practices in the arts and in the rise of commercial society, students steep themselves in primary sources and develop their confidence in reading unfamiliar texts and reflecting on their implications.


"It’s great for understanding Political Theory from Hobbes better, find good essay topics and get helpful feedback for both modules."
"One gains sensibility for the origin of ideas and an attention to detail that other modules don’t demand as much, which is very helpful for any primary source study in 2nd/3rd year."
"A LOT of knowledge and fascinating (at times confusing) discussions providing an essential crash course of some of the big philosophical names and themes C17th-19th, one should know about: The perfect preparation for (more) theoretical courses/aspects of a history/humanities degree."
"This is what I (student grad in 2019) would say about IPS: IPS provides an opportunity to engage in detail with key philosophical texts of the period. It's detailed focus on primary material is great preparation for Third year units, particularly if you are interested in Intellectual History. The unit addresses a range of themes and topics; providing an opportunity to get both a broad overview and pursue areas of interest in detail. You are encouraged to develop your own responses to the texts while receiving crucial clarification and context. The quality of marking and feedback is exceptional."
(2017-18 student) "The most enjoyable aspect was engaging with primary sources. We were effectively taught the intellectual and cultural context for the ideas and allowed the space to think critically and constructively with various sources that were contemporaneous. The module was highly interactive, with many opportunities for presentations. Moreover, we were sensually submerged into the subject matter with music, theater, and trips to the opera and orchestra. It was by far my favorite module not even surpassed by an entire Masters in Intellectual History!"

Formal Statement

This module will introduce students to a range of long-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century texts in which there is sustained reflection and commentary on the individual, the polity, and an emerging conception of society and the economy. In doing so, this module raises broader philosophical questions about the construction of identity, character and virtue, political realism and idealism, and relativism and individualism. The module also involves students in reflecting on the changes in styles of painting, architecture and fashion and linking this to the core themes. The emphasis of the module is on how, as historians, we should approach some of the major pieces of writing of the period, both the more and the less philosophical. Consequently, a core component of the module is encouraging a close reading of the texts, coupling this with raising questions about the importance of historical context in generating and reflecting critically on such readings. The module is structured thematically, taking conceptions of the individual, then the polis, then society; but within those themes it is structured chronologically, allowing students to have a sense of the increasing interaction of different lines of argument. The module depends on students reading primary texts and the assessment and examination focuses on these texts.

This 30 CATS module is compulsory for second-year students of the 'History and Philosophy' joint-degree, and is also available as an Early Modern option for second-year students of History, Joint Degrees with History, and, by negotiation with other degree courses.

Guidelines for Assessment 1Link opens in a new window

Guidelines for assignment 2

Summer preparation:

The aim of the course is to encourage you to read a range of primary texts - this means that there is no real course book. Students are encouraged to read themselves into the course and, in particular, to do some preparation for the first few weeks of term. (If you look on the website for the first weeks you'll find many of the texts available in electronic form, either in whole or part).

It is worth looking at John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, or a Brief Relation of the Exceeding Mercy of God in Christ to his Poor Servant John Bunyan - to give you a sense of someone who in the 17th C sees the world and himself almost entirely in terms of religion and his duty to God. The point is to get an idea of how different (and often transgressive) many eighteenth and nineteenth century texts are in comparison.

The four big diaries that are worth looking at are Samuel Pepys's Diary (available in a one volume Penguin edition - and the whole diary is on line)) (c 1680s); The Diary of Dudley Ryder (1720s); James Boswell, The London Journal 1762-63; and the Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (one volume ed., in Penguin, ed by Sabor et al, 2001) With these my advice is to read the entries for a year or two - and to think about how they see themselves and how they experience the world around them. I have also added some diary material to the website for week 1, most of which is very much less well known - but equally interesting.

But other texts that it would be good to have read in advance are:

Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey

Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (see week 2)

Mary Hays, Memoirs of Emma Courtenay (see week 2)

The History of Mary Prince (see week 3)

Equiano/Gustavus Vassa, An Interesting Narrative (see week 3)

Stendhal, Love - +/or Hazlitt's Liber Amoris (see week 4)

Those are good ways to build up your knowledge of texts that will feature at the beginning of the course. As background you might try Droh Wahrman's The Making of the Modern Self. But the course really does want you to read and think about the primary texts - and the ones I have mentioned are among the more accessible.

If you run out - read some 18th C novels and plays (eg. Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story; Defoe's Moll Flanders, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Opie's Adeline Mowbray, Godwin's Caleb Williams, Sheridan's The Rivals, Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer). None of it will be wasted - because its also a course that wants you to read as widely as you can and to bring your own knowledge.

I hope that's some help. And enjoy it!