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Enlightenment: Its Brief History

Lecturer: Martin Black

Originally Taught: Winter School 2019

The modern enlightenment promise was that a new science would make human beings masters both of non-human nature and of human affairs. The subsequent revolutions in our knowledge of the natural world and in human affairs are unparalleled in human history. Yet contemporary thought seems to reject the very notion that there are genuine answers to the fundamental questions of human existence, or true principles of nature and of human action and thought. Both the attempt to deconstruct and the attempt to continue the enlightenment, i.e. both continental and analytical philosophy, appear in different ways to relegate the human world to the status of an artifice or an illusion. This brief history of the enlightenment over the last several hundred years is in some ways a return to the beginning of philosophy.

Philosophy began as the discovery of an intelligible natural world that seemed to make the human world and most human thought an artifice or illusion. By contrast, philosophy was re-established by Socrates in a way that ambiguously centred the world on the human being as the creator of the artificial instruments by which we engage with and understand the principles of the cosmos. Socrates brought about this re-orientation of philosophy by forcing the inquiry into nature to comprehend unavoidable human questions, such as what happiness, justice or beauty is. The modern enlightenment sought to replace the false image of life with its “effective truth” or with new and more precise “orders and measures”. Thus the modern enlightenment, in the words of a proponent, constitutes a “retraction of the Socratic turning” (Blumenburg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age). However, when this effectual truth came to be understood as the knowledge of and control over the laws of nature, the ends of human life to which we could put our new powers seemed to be reduced once more to an illusion.

This course offers a reading of selected modern and ancient texts to trace back the philosophical roots of our current dilemma and a re-reading of some of the classics on the same problem.

Course Schedule

Key readings from the texts listed in the schedule of readings and discussion will be available before classes.


Discussion Nietzsche intended his claim that life has no purpose that is not created and illusory, or that there is no relation between the good and the true, to be a shocking innovation. This claim has now become routine for contemporary political and moral philosophy, albeit with an intention opposite to that of Nietzsche: to eliminate the notion of the superiority of different ways of life. In addition to the difficulty of asserting that the best understanding of human nature excludes any understanding of what is good, there are obvious difficulties with attempting to live according to the thesis that life is empty of meaning.


  • Brief excerpts from a number of continental and analytical philosophers
  • Nietzsche, Excerpts from Twilight of the Idols, Beyond Good and Evil, and the Nachlass
  • Rawls, Excerpts from A Theory of Justice


Discussion The conclusion that nothing can be said reasonably about good and bad in human life derives from the attempt to apply an inappropriate standard of rationality to questions of good and bad. This week we will discuss this hypothesis in relation to the two main strands of modern moral philosophy, the utilitarian and deontological, deriving from Mill and Kant respectively.


  • Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and “On the common saying: That may be true in theory but it is of no use in practice”
  • Mill, Utilitarianism


Discussion The inappropriate application of a standard of reason derived from mathematics issues from the founding enlightenment thinkers, in particular Bacon and Descartes. They promised that mathematics could inform a new practical philosophy that allowed humanity to conquer nature for its own benefit. They both left clues to show that they were aware of the difficulty of applying the new method to human life itself.


  • Bacon, New Organon
  • Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations


Discussion Aristotle was the main target of the enlightenment critique of ancient philosophy and the modern science that stems from it has clearly revealed many empirical facts of which Aristotle was unaware. This discussion will focus on Aristotle’s approach to the same problem of technology, power, politics and the limits of human nature that the moderns confronted.


  • Aristotle, Excerpts from the Politics, Nicomachean Ethics, Physics and other writings


Discussion Plato provided the classic image of the cave to illuminate the paradox of the relation of the human world to the truth. Plato, however, did not relegate human life to an illusion. Instead, Plato created this image (among others) as a conscious expression of the relation between an image and reality that are both aspects fo our experience. This discussion will focus on the Socratic turn, or how Plato thought individual and political life was informed by reason in its relation to the good.


  • Excerpts from Symposium, Parmenides, Phaedo, Republic and other dialogues