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The Rationalists (PH243)

Do you or do you not believe in God? Either way, do you clearly understand the nature of the God you do or do not believe in? Do you think your mind controls your body or vice versa? Do you think your actions are free or determined (and what do you think “freedom” actually means)? These are some of the questions we will consider in this module. We will do so by studying two of the greatest Early Modern philosophers, Spinoza and Leibniz.

The main part of the module will be devoted to Spinoza (1632–1677), who challenges conventional conceptions of God by arguing that God is the principle of creation and order within in nature rather than a being that lies beyond the world. To deny that God is transcendent is thus, for Spinoza, not to deny God altogether, but rather the first step towards understanding what God is. Spinoza also challenges our conventional views about the mind and the body by maintaining that neither controls the other, but that they are in fact the same thing expressed in two different ways; and he develops a sophisticated conception of freedom that equates the latter with self-determination, rather than unconstrained choice.

Leibniz (1646–1716) differs from Spinoza by retaining a more traditional conception of God, but also by placing much greater emphasis on the unique individuality of every person and thing. Indeed, for Leibniz, the most perfect world is precisely the one in which the greatest diversity is combined with the greatest harmony. Leibniz also examines the relation between freedom and necessity and argues, in a way that has fascinated later generations, that we are in fact free by necessity. Spinoza and Leibniz have influenced later philosophers, such as Kant, Hegel and Deleuze, and they will offer you an opportunity to study and discuss some of the most profound and important issues in human life.

Module Director

Stephen Houlgate

Timing and CATS

This module runs in the Spring term and is worth 20 or 30 CATS depending on your programme of study.