The Modern Turn

September 10 
Richard Hassing, The Catholic University of America (webcast)
Modern Turns in Mathematics and Physics
Abstract: Aristotelian, classical and quantum physics are compared and contrasted. Two fundamental features of classical physics are brought out: species-neutrality, which concerns the relation between the intelligible and the sensible, and physico-mathematical secularism, which concerns the question of the difference between mathematical objects and physical objects, and whether any differences matter. In contrast to Aristotelian physics, which is species-specific, classical physics is species-neutral. In contrast to both Aristotelian and quantum physics, classical physics assumes that any differences between mathematical objects and physical objects make no difference for the conduct of physics. Aristotle’s act and potency and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle are discussed as counterexamples to the physico-mathematical secularism of classical physics. The algebraicization of thought in conjunction with the disposition and program for the mastery of nature lead to the homogenization of heterogeneities in both mathematics and physics and, therewith, to confusion concerning the place of human being in the whole.

September 17
Nathan Tarcov, University of Chicago (webcast)
Machiavelli’s Modern Turn
Abstract: In both The Prince and Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli presents himself as an ardent advocate of the imitation of ancient virtue and a severe critic of modern weakness and idleness and seems to invoke the authority exclusively of ancient writers. Nonetheless, in both works Machiavelli also lays claim to originality and in crucial respects rejects the views of all previous writers, ancients included. In what respects then does Machiavelli present himself as modern, as breaking with his ancient predecessors, and why does he obscure his modernity under a call for imitation of antiquity?

September 24  
Michael Rohlf, The Catholic University of America (webcast)
Happiness in Rousseau and Kant
Abstract: One aspect of the modern turn in philosophy is that modern views of happiness tend to be more subjectivist in comparison with a pre-modern tendency toward more objectivist views of happiness. Rousseau and Kant are characteristically modern philosophers in this respect. Rousseau understands happiness fundamentally in terms of the feeling of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, while Kant understands it in terms of satisfying one's desires. But their subjectivist conceptions of what happiness is do not prevent them from recognizing certain objective goods that help us to become happy. In fact, both Rousseau and Kant hold that some of the same objective goods that Aristotle thinks happiness consists in - including virtue, the development of our rational powers, and love of others - are either necessary for or at least tend to promote one's own happiness.

October 1
Thomas W. Merrill, American University (webcast)
Slave to the Passions: On Science and Philosophy in Hume's Treatise of  Human Nature  
Abstract: In the Treatise of Human Nature David Hume famously writes that "reason is and ought to be slave to the passions." This statement has contributed to the widespread view that modern reason is instrumental reason, unable to settle controversies about ends. Yet Hume's statement is often read without attention to what he means by the terms. Hume uses reason in the context as a synonym for modern science, and he tells us soon after this statement that the strongest passion is curiosity or the love of truth. I thus argue that the slave of the passions passage is a polemical overstatement whose true meaning is, "science is and ought to be slave to philosophy." I support this reading with an interpretation of Hume’s views about science and philosophy, including the key to Hume’s mature thought, his quasi-Socratic turn from natural philosophy or science to the human things. 

October 8
Harvey Mansfield, Harvard University (webcast)
Tocqueville's Alliance of Religion and Liberty  
Abstract: In America, Tocqueville finds liberty and religion together in harmony, not at odds as in Europe. Rather than a philosophy of liberty, he proposes an alliance between religion, standing in for philosophy, and liberty in order to oppose the main enemy of both democracy and liberty, which is materialism. His is a liberalism with soul and a religion with pride.

October 15
Paul Guyer, University of Pennsylvania (webcast)
Kant, Autonomy, and Modernity
Abstract: Kant's conception of autonomy as the fundamental aim of morality may seem distinctively modern, but in fact numerous aspects of are already found in ancient philosophy, especially in Plato and the Stoics. But Kant's conception of autonomy as not just freedom from domination by our own desires but as the freedom to set our own ends is novel and distinctively modern. Kant struggled to find a way of arguing for the fundamental value of freely setting our own ends, but ultimately came up with a strategy that anticipates the contemporary strategy of "reflective equilibrium" and which in that regard may also be distinctively modern.

October 22
Nicholas Jolley, University of California, Irvine (webcast)
Leibniz: Modern or Pre-Modern Philosopher?
Abstract: In a number of autobiographical passages in his writings Leibniz describes his discovery of the 'modern' philosophers as one of the most important events in his life.   Although at least one commentator has written of Leibniz's conversion to the 'moderns', his own statements on this topic are usually more qualified.   Since Leibniz and his contemporaries contrast modern and pre-modern philosophers, the debate over how he should be classified is not anachronistic, but it does run the risk of equivocation. In the first half of this paper I distinguish seventeenth-century and more recent senses of the term 'modern' and argue that Leibniz is not really a modern philosopher in either sense; in particular, Leibniz is not a modern philosopher in the sense in which the term is employed to characterize Descartes as 'the father of modern philosophy.'   In the second half of the paper I argue that, though they are not always apparent, Leibniz's deepest affinities are with Renaissance philosophy by virtue of his commitment to Neoplatonism and syncretism or eclecticism in philosophy.   I argue further that there is a conceptual connection between these two aspects of his Renaissance legacy.

October 29
Steven Nadler, University of Wisconsin, Madison (webcast)
Spinoza and Toleration
Abstract: The seventeenth-century Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza is usually (and rightly) regarded as one of history’s earliest and greatest defenders of a liberal, tolerant, secular, democratic society. In this lecture, we will consider the nature of Spinoza’s views on toleration, and especially the extent to which he is a proponent of two central pillars of the modern doctrines of toleration and civil liberties: freedom of religion (or the separation of church and state) and freedom of expression. It is often assumed that Spinoza argued for the separation of church and state; however, as we shall see, this is a serious misrepresentation of his view. Moreover, we will consider some troubling problems raised by Spinoza’s discussion of the freedom to express ideas, problems that suggest that he was not sufficiently consistent in his defense of this freedom, and that he did not (even by his own principles) go far enough.

November 12
Michael Pakaluk, Ave Maria University (webcast)
From Natural Law to Natural Rights in John Locke

November 19
Tad Schmaltz, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (webcast)
Descartes’s Critique of Scholastic Teleology
Abstract: It has been said that one mark of Descartes's modernity is his rejection of scholastic teleology. However, I argue that Descartes's attitude toward teleology is more flexible than this rejection may seem to indicate. I illustrate this flexibility by focusing on Descartes's argument that teleological explanations in scholastic physics derive from the confused sense that there are "little souls" that cognize the ends of inanimate bodies. I link this objection to remarks in Descartes's writings that indicate that his critique of teleology is qualified insofar as it allows for (1) genuine final causation in the case of finite minds, (2) the possibility that God's action is conditioned by (indifferently created) ends, and (3) a kind of finality in the case of the mind-body union that does not depend on divine teleology.  

December 3 
Michael Gillespie, Duke University (webcast)
Distinguishing Crime and virtu: Machiavelli's Modernism and the Christian Tradition

December 10 
Rémi Brague, The Sorbonne and Ludwig Maximilian University (webcast)
The Failure of the 'Modern Project'

All lectures are held at 2:00 p.m. in the Auditorium of Aquinas Hall at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 20064.

This series is made possible by a generous grant from the Franklin J. Matchette Foundation and the support of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Foundation and the George Dougherty Foundation.

For further information, contact the Office of the Dean, School of Philosophy, 202-319-5259,

To request disability accommodations, contact Ms. Melissa Grim (x5260) at least a week prior to the event.  A good faith effort will be made to provide the accommodations requested.