Seventeenth-century Europe was a world in crisis, in many ways resembling our own. It saw various religious wars, civil wars, social upheavals, natural disasters, and bouts of plague that shook the political and natural worlds. Intertwined with these was a sense that the world of knowledge itself – the world of one’s beliefs, certainties and expectations – was also going through a crisis. A variety of challenges to established forms of knowledge, such as the Reformation, Humanism, and the New Philosophies we now refer to as promoters of ‘The Scientific Revolution’, questioned ‘the old’ (mostly identified as the Aristotelian scholastic tradition) in the name of something ‘new’ that, in fact, often claimed to return to something even older, and thus truer and purer, than ‘the old’ itself. In order to understand some of the dimensions of this historical crisis that ultimately founded modern Europe, we will study the ways in which historical actors represented for themselves what they were going through.

What did the contestation of traditional authority look like? Was novelty embraced triumphantly, or were there silent negotiations between ‘old’ and ‘new’? Were the reformers of knowledge all of a mind or was there polemics, and thus a war of representations, dividing their camp? How did the new philosophers see what they were doing, in other words, what kind of images of their activity did they project in the public space? And what were the social and cultural resources of these images? If science as we know it today is a communal enterprise, what did the early modern representations of scientific communities look like? And what was the impact of such representations on real historical events? Finally, how did the early moderns see the relationship between the pursuit of knowledge and morality? And in what way can these views constitute resources for our own reflection on similar issues today?

We will focus mainly on early modern England, but references to other European spaces will also feature in our discussions, since the ‘Republic of Letters’ that forged our modernity was indeed a European (imagined) community.

Instructor: Dr Sorana Corneanu


Week 1: Introduction

Week 2: The reformation of learning

Reading: Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration, Preface, in Novum Organum I (1620), in The Oxford Francis Bacon XI, ed. Graham Rees et al. (Oxford, 1996-), 10-25. Materials to be provided in class: Sprat, Wooton.

Week 3: The ‘Scientific Revolution’

Reading: Daniel Garber, ‘Why the Scientific Revolution Wasn’t a Scientific Revolution and Why It Matters’ in R. Richards and l. Daston, eds., Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty (Chicago, 2016), pp. 133-150. Materials to be provided in class: Descartes, Bacon, Sorel, Rapin, Leibniz.

Week 4: Ancients and moderns

Reading: Sorana Corneanu and Koen Vermeir, “The Art of Thinking”, in David Miller and Dana Jalobeanu (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Philosophy of the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming. Materials to be provided in class: Rapin, Coste.

Week 5: The polemics over ‘enthusiasm’

Reading: Michael Heyd, ‘Be Sober and Reasonable’: The Critique of Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries (Leiden, 1995), Introduction (1-10) and chap. 5 (144-164). Materials to be provided in class: Swift.

Week 6: Science as social practice

Reading: Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth (Chicago, 1994), xxv-xxxi. Materials to be provided in class: Sprat, Boyle, Steele.

Week 7: The persona of the philosopher

Reading: Richard Yeo, ‘John Locke and polite philosophy’ in Condren et al., The Philosopher in Early Modern Europe, 254-275. Materials to be provided in class: Locke, Port-Royal.

Week 8: Idols of the mind

Reading: Bacon, Novum Organum I (1620), in The Oxford Francis Bacon XI, ed. Graham Rees et al. (Oxford, 1996-), 79-109. Materials to be provided in class: Urbach on Bacon and Popper.

Week 9: Epistemic virtues: the philosophical perspective

Reading: Robert Roberts and Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues. An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (Oxford, 2007), chap. 7, 183-198. Materials to be provided in class: Glanvill, Locke.

Week 10: Epistemic virtues: the historiographic perspective

Reading: Herman Paul, ‘‘What is a Scholarly Persona? Ten Theses on Virtues, Skills and Desires’, History and Theory 53 (2014), 348-371. Materials to be provided in class: Hayden White on metahistory; Daston and Sibum on scholarly personae.

Week 11: Science and literature

Reading: Francis Bacon, The Wisdom of the Ancients, Preface and ‘Pan’, in The Works of Francis Bacon, eds. Spedding et al., Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, 14 vols., 1963-1994, vol. VI, 695-9, 707-14. Materials to be provided in class: Peter Dear on science and literature.

Weeks 12-13: Communities

Reading: Francis Bacon, New Atlantis, in The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford, 1996), 457-489, 785-802. Materials to be provided in class: sequels to / re-writings of New Atlantis.

Week 14: Round-up and discussion of essay/exam topics


  • A minimum of 50% attendance
  • Participation in class discussions, counting for 25% of the final mark
  • An end-of-term written essay or written test, counting for 75% of the final mark