PHIL41840 Invention of the Modern Self

Academic Year 2023/2024

The aim of this MA module is to explain why Descartes is considered the "father of modern philosophy". However, numerous scholars insisted in the past decades on the medieval heritage of Descartes and on his training in the Jesuit schools. Building upon this scholarship, the purpose of the module is to examine the conceptual difference of Descartes's philosophy with respect to the medieval understanding of one of the major topics in Western Philosophy: the mind/body problem. We will study how Descartes is forced to sharpen and clarify his own views on the topic and insist on the concept of "unity" (of mind and body) in contrast to previous philosophers who discussed the "union" (between mind and body) and "conjunction" (of one intellect to each individual body), in order to define the thinking subject, the famous "ego cogito". The explanation of the "union" was clarified by Thomas Aquinas, and endorsed by most theologians and philosophers, whereas more radical authors developed the concept of "conjunction" following Averroes.
We will begin by studying an interesting episode of Descartes' self-proclaimed "disciple" Regius. Misunderstanding Descartes' views, Regius endorsed a problematic view that was attributed to Descartes by the theologians from the University of Utrecht who accused him of being an atheist and endorsing the positions of Averroes and Latin Averroists. The important quarrel that followed ended with the condemnation of Descartes's teaching. But this debate allowed Descartes to explain further his thoughts and revise some of the themes presented in the Meditations. In order to understand the accusation and Descartes' replies, we will study the most relevant doctrines on the soul that were known to and accepted or rejected before the Utrech dispute.

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Curricular information is subject to change

Learning Outcomes:

Students will acquire a broad and deep understanding of the most relevant epistemological views preceding (and preparing) modernity (from Aristotle to Descartes).
The conceptual novelty that Descartes brings to the history of philosophy will be studied against this complex historical background Descartes’ “modern” self, the thinking ego, seen as fundamental unity of the "res cogitans", will be better understood by contrast with previous opinions and texts.

Indicative Module Content:

Students will be introduced to Aristotle's epistemology and to major doctrines of soul and body preceding Descartes, such as abstraction, phantasia, agent and possible intellect, Averroes' doctrine of the unicity of the intellect, "operans instrinsecum" and Aquinas' reaction and rejection of both Averroes and the Latin Averroists. Descartes' views will appear deeper in this context and in contrast with these doctrines.

Works studied (English translation provided):
Descartes' Meditations and Letters.
Aristotle's De Anima III
Averroes’ Commentary on De Anima
Siger of Brabant’s Commentary on De Anima III
Thomas Aquinas’ On the Unity of the Intellect

Student Effort Hours: 
Student Effort Type Hours
Autonomous Student Learning






Approaches to Teaching and Learning:
Reading. An essential component of this module is *reading* and interpreting philosophical texts. Explaining and understanding seminal works is a necessary step to assimilate concepts and stimulate solid and creative, personal thinking. Students will have to read between 2 to 5 pages every week.

Writing. Expressing written arguments remains the most relevant way to structure personal thoughts and also how to engage with primary and secondary bibliographies. 
Requirements, Exclusions and Recommendations

Not applicable to this module.

Module Requisites and Incompatibles
Not applicable to this module.
Assessment Strategy  
Description Timing Open Book Exam Component Scale Must Pass Component % of Final Grade
Essay: One well-structured essay at the end of the trimester - minimum 3000 words and maximum 5000 words. Explicit and clear references to primary and secondary bibliography are required. Week 12 n/a Graded No


Carry forward of passed components
Remediation Type Remediation Timing
In-Module Resit Prior to relevant Programme Exam Board
Please see Student Jargon Buster for more information about remediation types and timing. 
Feedback Strategy/Strategies

• Feedback individually to students, on an activity or draft prior to summative assessment
• Feedback individually to students, post-assessment

How will my Feedback be Delivered?

Not yet recorded.

the texts are at the disposal of students on Brightspace

Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, VI (in The Philosophical Writings (transl. John Cottingham et alii, vol. II, Meditations on First Philosophy, CUP 1984.
-, Letter to Regius (December 1641), in The Philosophical Writings (transl. John Cottingham et alii), CUP, 1991, p. 199-201 [the English translation provides only fragments!!].
-, Letter to Regius (January 1642), in The Philosophical Writings (transl. John Cottingham et alii), CUP, 1991, p. 205-209 [the English translation provides only fragments!!].
-, Letter to Regius (February 1642), in The Philosophical Writings (transl. John Cottingham et alii), CUP, 1991, p. 210 [the English translation provides only fragments!!].
-, Letter to F. Dinet (in The Philosophical Writings, transl. John Cottingham et alii, CUP, 1984 [be careful to use the 1984-CUP edition which includes fragments (!) from the Letter to F. Dinet - the 1996-CUP edition does not include any fragment from the Letter to F. Dinet])

Aristotle, On the Soul (II.1-4 and III.4-5) [we will work on Burnyeat's translation*, but any other edition/translation is acceptable]

Averroes, Long Commentary on the De Anima of Aristotle, transl. R.C. Taylor, Yale University Press, 2011 [notably book III, comm. 5, 19 and 20].

Thomas Aquinas, On the Unity of the Intellect Against the Averroists, transl. B.H. Zedler, Marquette University Press, 1968, p. 21-75.

*M. Burnyeat, Aristotle's Divine intellect, Marquette University Press, 2008.
Timetabling information is displayed only for guidance purposes, relates to the current Academic Year only and is subject to change.
Seminar Offering 1 Week(s) - Autumn: All Weeks Tues 09:00 - 10:50