The French Enlightenment continues to represent a crucial moment in European literary and intellectual history, characterized by systematic rational examination of inherited traditions, the linking of advances in scientific knowledge to social progress, and the formulation of universal (or universalizable) concepts of human rights. “Understanding French Enlightenment” will introduce students to major philosophical and literary works of the period, including Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality, and Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedia. Class discussions will focus on the relevance of Enlightenment ideas in past and present debates about civil society, political institutions, nature, morality, artistic creation, scientific progress, religion, and changing notions of selfhood. Students will have the opportunity to pursue research topics of their own choice by delving into a variety of sources across the semester.
All readings will be available in English translation. No knowledge of French is required.