Module Details

PY400-5-FY-CO: Knowledge & Reality

Note: This module is inactive. Visit the Module Directory to view modules and variants offered during the current academic year.

Year: 2016/17
Department: Philosophy
Essex credit: 30
ECTS credit: 15
Available to Study Abroad / Exchange Students: Yes
Full Year Module Available to Study Abroad / Exchange Students for a Single Term: Yes
Outside Option: Yes

Supervisor: Dr Steve Gormley (autumn); Dr Jorg Schaub (spring)
Teaching Staff: Dr Steve Gormley (autumn); Dr Jorg Schaub (spring)
Contact details: Sarah Mumford, Deputy School Administrator email:

Module is taught during the following terms
Autumn Spring Summer

Module Description

A second year compulsory module for students on the BA Philosophy. A recommended module for second year students taking a philosophy joint degree, and in particular for those wishing to take PY413 Contemporary Political Philosophy and PY500, Kant`s Revolution in Philosophy, in their third year. It is also available as an outside option.

Module Outline (updated March 2015)

This module is devoted to the study of a few key philosophical texts that helped lay the conceptual foundations for what is now called the modern era. In characterizing the work of these philosophers as foundational, we are mirroring their own claims to establishing a new direction for human theoretical and practical activity predicated upon a clear rupture with the past. The philosophers of the early modern period were seeking to open up new possibilities for human thought and action in a context where scientific and philosophic inquiry was profoundly circumscribed by the authority of the Church. As a consequence, early modern philosophy had to address the problem of the ultimate foundations of every decision, be it about the scientific method or the political organization of the community.

This module will introduce students to the debate between philosophers who, following Descartes, sought to provide a foundation of the human project by stressing the power of human intellect unaided by divine revelation and those who responded to these new challenges by stressing the limited and contextual nature of the human intellect, and its relation to or dependence upon on our historical, animal or socio-political nature. The module will give students a deeper understanding of our intellectual history and a more profound perspective on the still active debates stemming from the positions taken by these philosophers. In the process, we will come to see modernity in terms of a specific set of problems rather than one particular answer to them.

Autumn term

In the Autumn, we will focus mainly on the work of Descartes, and of two `Cartesian` philosophers, Spinoza and Leibniz, who shared with Descartes the conviction that some absolute knowledge was in the reach of the human mind. Despite this shared conviction, however, there are profound differences between these individual philosophers, and we will highlight the differences in the way they approach the modern project. We will more particularly focus on the following questions. What is the nature and limit of human knowledge? What role does human subjectivity have to play in the foundation of a new theoretical and practical world? Must a rationalist approach to the world rely on God? What must be the relations between faith and reason? Is human freedom compatible with a scientific vision of the world as made of natural laws? What is the relation between the body and the mind? The bulk of the term will be devoted to an examination of Descartes` two quite different programmatic statements of his philosophy, in the Discourse on Method and the Meditations on First Philosophy. We will then see how Spinoza and Leibniz, while both working within the discursive framework laid out by Descartes, respond to quite different and in many ways opposed elements in Descartes` philosophy.

Spring term

In Spring term, we will turn our attention to key figures in modern moral and political thought. We will, for example, examine how Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan shaped the way in which we think about the state and political liberty. We will also familiarise ourselves with modernity`s foremost social critic: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Human Beings, Rousseau provides a compelling account of how we come to care so much about what others think about us and how this desire for recognition is the root for most social evils in the modern world (e.g. economic inequality).

Learning Outcomes

The aims of the module are:
to introduce students to selected texts of some of the leading philosophers of the early modern period;
to introduce students to core issues in metaphysics, epistemology and (particularly during the spring term also) moral, social and political philosophy through the study of these texts;
to give students some impression of how the texts and authors selected contributed to the theoretical framework underlying developments in philosophy and political theory.

By the end of the module, students should be able in their essay and examination work to:
summarise and expound in their own words theories and arguments from early modern philosophy;
expound and criticise commentaries on the traditional authors and texts;
expound and criticise some of the theories proposed by philosophers to cope with problems raised by selected authors.

Learning and Teaching Methods

1 x one-hour lecture each week followed by a one-hour discussion seminar at which issues covered in the lecture will be discussed. Weeks 8 and 21 are Reading Weeks. Weeks 30 and 31 (Summer term) are revision sessions.


100 per cent Coursework Mark


Autumn term: 1 x 700-1500 word essay (10% of the coursework mark) 1 x 2000-3000 word essay (40% of the coursework mark). Spring term: 1 x 700-1500 word essay (10% of the coursework mark) 1 x 2000-3000 word essay (40% of the coursework mark). (see Philosophy Undergraduate Handbook and full module description on ORB from September for further details).

Other information

Erasmus/IP students must have already taken an introductory module in Philosophy at their home institution.
Compulsory for: BA Philosophy students in their second year.


  • Brief Bibliography and Preparatory Reading (updated March 2015)
  • Preparatory reading:
  • Students wishing to do some preparation over the summer should begin with the following:
  • René Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy.
  • George Berkeley: Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous.
  • The primary texts for the autumn term are:
  • Primary literature
  • René Descartes: Discourse on Method, Meditations on First Philosophy.
  • Baruch Spinoza: Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect.
  • G.W. Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics, Monadology.
  • The following editions by Hackett Publishing have all of our required readings in good translations and are relatively inexpensive:
  • Philosophical Essays and Correspondence
  • Edited, with Introduction, by Roger Ariew
  • Ethics with The Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect and Selected Letters
  • Translated by Samuel Shirley
  • Philosophical Essays
  • Translated by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber
  • The primary literature for the spring term:
  • Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau: `The Discourses` and Other Early Political Writings: v. 1, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought.

Further information