Origins and Evolution of Modern Thought

This two-semester course immerses students in an exploration of significant exemplars, milestones and developments of human thought from ancient to modern times. The fall semester (HONR 1015) engages students in an exploration of foundational thought and texts of the ancient world. This fall semester also fulfills university UW 1020 requirements. The spring semester (HONR 1016) builds on the encounter with foundational ancient thinkers and texts provided in the fall course by engaging students in the exploration of key developments and trajectories in human thought and inquiry to modern times.

Who Should Take These 

Freshmen take one Origins and Evolution of Modern Thought course each semester.


Power and Resistance

Professor Craig French
HONR 1016:10 - 3 Credits
CRN: 38104
MW 12:45-2:00 PM

Fulfills: CCAS: Humanities; ESIA: Humanities; GWSB: Humanities; SEAS: Humanities

Course Description: What is power? Under what circumstances can one human being come to have legitimate power over another? When individuals are subject to illegitimate power, what strategies of resistance are open to them, and do these strategies include violence? We will grapple with these questions through a reading of texts in social and political theory drawn from the modern and contemporary periods. Authors are likely to include Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, WEB DuBois, Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Luther King and Ghandi. 

The Rise of the Individual 

Professor Ronald Dworkin
HONR 1016:11 - 3 Credits
CRN: 33344
M 3:30-6:00 PM

Fufills: CCAS: Humanities; ESIA: Humanities; GWSB: Humanities; SEAS: Humanities

Course Description: This course traces the development of the “individual” from antiquity to the present day. Students will learn about the “individual” in the same way that the world did: first as a revolutionary concept in philosophy; then as a political and economic reality in the U.S. and Europe. The reaction against the “individual” will then be studied—again, first in philosophy, then in the form of twentieth century mass political movements such as fascism and communism. Thus, the course is not a pure philosophy course, but, instead, is designed to show how ideas have consequences for everyday life. Saint Augustine, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Burke, Nietzsche, Marx, and Tocqueville are among the writers studied. The various facets of the “individual” will also be examined—for example, the difference between individualism and individuality, and how the concept of the individual stands in relation to other concepts in modernity, such as democracy, equality, and liberty. The course examines post-war trends in American individualism, including the intense conformism of the 1950s, followed by the aggressive individualism of the 1960s and 70s. More recent trends in American individualism, including the quest for community and the rise of expressive individualism, will also be examined. Finally, non-Western perspectives on the individual will be discussed.


Professor Joseph Trullinger
HONR 1016:12 - 3 Credits
CRN: 33346
TR 12:45-2:00 PM

Fufills: CCAS: Humanities; ESIA: Humanities; GWSB: Humanities; SEAS: Humanities

Course Description: Modernity is often understood as an era of innovation and upheaval, of new ideas and ways of life. Modernity seems new by virtue of its idea that what is new is permissible, if not preferable, over against adhering to time-honored order. This section of Origins will attempt to understand modernity as an era of revolution, of radical breaks with all sorts of established order: political, familial, economic, moral, cultural, and everything in between. In addition to those who argue for a sweeping overhaul of society, we will engage important critics of revolution, who make the case that the complaints of revolutionaries are ill-founded, or else can be resolved through gradual reform rather than sudden revolution. Reform versus revolution: the opposition between these views will form the basic framework for our exploration of a wide array of texts, criticizing and calling for bourgeois revolution, anti-colonial revolution, feminist revolution, slave revolts, communist revolution, fascist revolution, moral repentance, spiritual renewal, and revolutions in social values as fundamental as democracy and individualism.

Freedom and the Modern Age

Professor William Winstead
HONR 1016: 13 - 3 Credits
CRN: 34739
MW 2:20-3:35 PM

Fufills: CCAS: Humanities; ESIA: Humanities; GWSB: Humanities; SEAS: Humanities

Course Description: The modern age has often been characterized as the epoch of absolute freedom. Its insistence on individual liberty and the right to live one's life as one wishes, free of interference from the state and the weight of tradition, are symptomatic expressions of modernity's radical commitment to freedom. The scope of its emancipatory impulse may be measured not only by the revolutionary politics of the age (the American, French, and Russian revolutions), but also by its defense of unrestrained expression in the aesthetic sphere (artistic freedom, freedom of speech) and toleration of individual conscience in the moral sphere. Our readings this semester will examine the intellectual revolutions that established freedom as the central value of the modern project and institutionalized it in the liberal state, the market economy, and the self-reflective individual. Readings will include Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, de Beauvoir, Wallace Stevens, Freud, Marcuse, and the Zen Buddhist tradition.


Professor Theodore Christov
HONR 1016: 14- 3 credits
CRN: 34822
M 3:30-6:00 PM

Fufills: CCAS: Humanities; ESIA: Humanities; GWSB: Humanities; SEAS: Humanities

Course Description: How is the individual liberty of the moderns distinct from the collective liberty of the ancients? While among the ancients the individual, regarded as sovereign in public affairs, had no notion of individual rights and was a slave in all his private affairs, for the moderns the individual was sovereign because of one's freedom. Why do we, moderns, continually clamor for the advantages of rights and liberties, while the ancients never felt the need for individual liberty? This Origins seminar examines the political, moral, and social sources of modern man by showing why liberty is the unique discovery of the moderns. First, liberty as a political question (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Mill); second, liberty as a social question (Marx/Engels, Arendt, and Weber); third, liberty as a moral question (Nietzsche, Freud, and Foucault). We will grapple with fundamental political concepts, such as state sovereignty, natural law, and social contract; moral ideas, such as autonomy, equality, and reasoning; and social forces, such as labor, class struggle, and human emancipation. By asking whether modernity's resources are part of nature or only convenient conventions, we will question and critique our own understanding and experience of liberty.

Modern Theories of Justice

Professor Eyal Aviv
HONR 1016: 15- 3 credits
CRN: 33347
TR 12:45-2:00 PM

Fufills: CCAS: Humanities; ESIA: Humanities; GWSB: Humanities; SEAS: Humanities

Course Description: In the second part of the course we will shift our attention from the "origins" to the "evolution" of modern thought. A special attention will be given to the rise of novel theories of justice in the modern period which appeared in conjunction with the decline of "tradition" (whether political or religious). In the pre‐modern world, traditional values served  as moral authorities. But if traditions themselves are questioned, how can we distinguish the moral from the immoral? We will read writings of religious thinkers, philosophers and novelists from variety of cultures who challenged their societies by asking the question "How do we know that it is right?," and offered new and surprising answers. Finally, we will continue to raise critical questions, discuss and debate them in class and further develop the academic skills that we began exploring in the first semester.

Body Politics

Professor Summer Renault-Steele
HONR 1016: 16 - 3 credits
CRN: 33348
TR 9:35-10:50 AM
HONR 1016: 17 - 3 credits
CRN: 34821
TR 11:10-12:25 PM
Fufills: CCAS: Humanities; ESIA: Humanities; GWSB: Humanities; SEAS: Humanities
Course Description: Until recently, modern Western social and political thought has been broadly characterized by a dismissal of the human body. Curiously, some of our most revered thinkers and texts have bequeathed a theorization of the body politic, without sufficient attention to the politics of our bodies. In contrast, this proseminar takes the human body as its point of departure. Beginning with seminal texts in social and political thought we first ask: how did the body become evacuated from this tradition? Next, we turn to contemporary Western and non-Western thinkers who reverse this orientation, asking us to consider how human labor, sex, race, and disability are instrumental in theorizing how power works in our body politic.

The Death of God

Professor Mark Ralkowski
HONR 1016:MV - 3 Credits
CRN: 33343
TR 2:30-3:45 PM

Fufills: CCAS: Humanities; ESIA: Humanities; GWSB: Humanities; SEAS: Humanities

Course Description: This course will be an in-depth study of the concepts that shaped the modern worldview. We will begin by considering the Christian origins of modern individualism, the scientific revolution and the “disenchantment of the world,” and the new politics that gave a central place to human rights and individual liberties. But the bulk of this course will be focused on several critics of modernity—e.g., Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Beauvoir, Fanon, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela—who hoped to lay the foundations for a new and better beginning. Our discussions will cover a wide range of “cultural re-evaluations” that have enabled us to think in revolutionary ways about the human place in nature, the relationship between high culture and economics, our conscious and unconscious minds, race and gender, colonialism and liberation, and anger and forgiveness. One of the aims of this course is to see how these re-evaluations were made possible by an event that Nietzsche famously called "the death of God." We will conclude with a book by one of the greatest spiritual figures of our own time, the Dalai Lama’s Ethics for the New Millennium.