PHIL 352 17th Century Philosophy

Fall Semester 2013 | Day | Burnaby


INSTRUCTOR: L. Shapiro, WMC 5661 (lshapiro at


The 17th century in Western Europe was marked by a significant change in understanding of the natural world. It seems so obvious to us now, but in the 17th century understanding the natural world in terms of nothing but efficient causes was revolutionary. The new science rejected the Aristotelian model of explanations in terms of forms, and the associated notions of formal and final causation. Of course, the new science won out, for the causal explanations we employ in the sciences are also efficient causal explanations. Contemporary philosophy is driven by the challenges of understanding key aspects of our experience -- knowledge, consciousness, the good -- from this naturalist perspective, but those challenges begin in the 17th century as key philosophers differ in their answers to fundamental philosophical questions: What exists? How do these existants interact with one another causally? What is the nature of efficient causation? What is thought and knowledge? What moves us to act? What distinguishes good and bad actions? What is the human good?

We will focus on how some key philosophers of the period – Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza – address some of these questions, but we will also take stock of the positions of some other thinkers -- Thomas Hobbes, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, Pierre Gassendi, Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway -- to consider both objections and alternative strategies.

NOTE: A visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see the Persuasive Visions exhibit, which pairs 17th century Dutch art with contemporary pieces is being arranged. The visit will occur during the second week of classes and will be free to students in the class. Please plan to participate, and contact the instructor over the summer to indicate possible conflicts.

See for information about the exhibit.


  • Descartes, Selected Philosophical Writings, Cambridge University Press
  • Malebranche, Philosophical Selections (S. Nadler, ed.), Hackett Publishing
  • Spinoza, Ethics and Other Writings (E. Curley, ed.), Princeton University Press
  • Additional readings either provided in class or available online.
  • Various secondary source materials will be available on reserve or through the library databases.


  • 1 paper (3pp.) - 25%
  • 2 papers (5 pp. each), 30% each - 60%
  • Participation, including weekly questions/responses for discussion - 15%


Prerequisites: PHIL 100 or 151, or permission of the instructor. Students who have completed PHIL 353 or PHIL 354 prior to Fall 2006 may not take this course for further credit.