The history of philosophy is sometimes called the “history of ideas” or “intellectual history.” It is the study of the great ideas in history. In this course you’ll take a journey with one of our history or philosophy teachers through 2500 years of thought, tracing the ideas that form the backbone of the western philosophical and intellectual tradition, with a few critical detours into non-western thought. As we cover great thinkers like Plato, the Stoics, Rousseau, and Kant, we’ll anchor their contributions in the context of their times. We’ll ask what was happening in Europe when Rousseau postulated his theory of the innate goodness of an uncivilized human (i.e. the “noble savage) or dive into the political and economic history of ancient Greece when Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were teaching and writing.
History of Ideas – Begin with the Greeks
As with all our courses, this one can be highly customized around your interests and background. If you’ve never studied philosophy before then we will probably begin with Greek philosophy and Plato, a central figure whom many consider to be the touchstone of all western philosophy. (Alfred North Whitehead once famously quipped that all western philosophy is merely “a series of footnotes to Plato.”
If you’ve done some reading in philosophy and want to veer off into pre-Socratics or even the eastern traditions of Confucianism and Taoism, that’s not problem. In one-to-one learning, we have ultimately flexibility.
Modern Intellectual History
Our journey will invariably carry us toward Modernity, and we will probably linger in the Enlightenment (1685 – 1815) when political and economic upheaval in Europe gave rise to the intellectual underpinnings of modern democratic liberalism. This was the time of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, who all greatly influenced Jefferson and the American project, but also Marx and Communist theory a century later. In many ways our modern social, political, and intellectual landscape still bears the marks (some might say scars!) of the Enlightenment.
But, this course isn’t prescriptive. It’s a history of philosophy course with you—the student—driving the bus, and our teacher guiding the way. So, we can spend less time on certain areas, and focus more on others.
Some potential stops include:
- The Ancient World: Where we will interrogate Plato and his contemporaries’ quest for knowledge and how their ideas shaped the Western intellectual tradition.
- Middle Ages and Renaissance: Where we will explore how medieval thinkers like Aquinas and Augustine merged classical philosophy with religious thought, and witness the rebirth of intellectual exploration during the Renaissance, with a focus on humanism and scientific inquiry.
- The Enlightenment and Modernity: Where we’ll investigate the Enlightenment’s pursuit of reason and its role in shaping modern thought and analyze the ideas of key figures like Descartes, Locke, and Kant.
- Eastern Philosophical Traditions: Where we will attempt to integrate an understanding of Eastern thought by examining the philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and then compare and contrast these with Western ideas.
- The Scientific Revolution to Einstein: Where we will explore how the Scientific Revolution transformed our understanding of the natural world.
Endgame: A History of Philosophy
Whatever our specific path together, our journey will continually strive to tie thinkers together and to their time, so that by the end of the course you’ll land with a strong understanding of how philosophy and intellectualism have evolved over more than two millennia.
This is a great course for any student who loves history, has an interest in ideas, and wants a taste of what college might be like.