The resources below aim to remedy a major impediment to including early modern women in the philosophical canon, namely the lack of readily available teaching resources for including women’s philosophical works in undergraduate or graduate courses. Since Margaret Atherton’s pioneering 1994 collection, Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period – which provided instructors and students with a window into the philosophy of Princess Elisabeth, Cavendish, Conway, Masham, Astell, Cockburn and Shepherd – only a few teaching-friendly works have appeared on the subject. To date, there is no single comprehensive, critical edition or anthology of women’s philosophical works in the early modern era. Moreover, given their social exclusion from public intellectual debate, many early modern women participated in philosophical debates by means of private letters, which may be difficult to find, may not be translated, or may simply have been lost, leaving us with only half the conversation. Although there is now an active interest in reviving early modern women’s philosophical work in the scholarly community, there is no easy and simple of way finding resources such as high quality sample syllabi or student-friendly readings. It is also not always clear how to “fit” the works of the women into existing course syllabi. It is often easier to tack extra readings onto a syllabus, which does not do justice to the influence that the women and their philosophical views had within the context of their own time.

The aim of our project, therefore, is to promote the full integration of women philosophers into the canon through a narrative approach, situating them as active participants in the philosophical dialogues of their era. The narratives on this site also reflect developing trends in early modern philosophy, which see a greater focus on male “non-canonical” and “scientific” figures. The narratives suggest a variety of ways that an introductory, or an early modern, course can be structured to reflect these developments. This list is by no means exhaustive. Sometimes a modular, topic oriented approach may be preferable, and we have made room for that.

In the future, we plan to add more sample syllabi and teaching resources, such as lecture notes, to this site. We would be delighted to have your feedback and contributions – please contact us at projectvox@duke.edu.

1. Rationalism vs. Empiricism, a traditional version

The 17th and 18th centuries saw a struggle between two great philosophical camps, the rationalism of figures such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, and the empiricism of figures such as Locke, Berkeley and Hume. The latter camp are often said to trace their ideas back to Boyle and Newton, and ultimately to Bacon. Kant then synthesizes the best aspects of the two camps with his transcendental idealism, ending the great debate and shifting the focus on philosophy in the 19th century.

This narrative has room for more figures. As is well known, Princess Elisabeth corresponded extensively with Descartes, so she is an important part of the early history of rationalism. Philosophers such as Cavendish and Masham, the latter of whom was an important figure in Locke’s circle, can be added to discussions of empiricism.

Below you can find sample syllabi that follow this traditional narrative whilst including women philosophers:

Margaret Atherton, University of Milwaukee Wisconsin – 2014 History of Modern Philosophy

Colin Chamberlain, Temple University – 2016 Continental Rationalists

Rebecca Copenhaver, Lewis & Clarke College – 2013 Early Modern Philosophy

Trevor Pearce, UNC-Charlotte – 2014 Modern Philosophy

Trevor Pearce, UNC-Charlotte – 2014 Network Map

Alison Simmons, Harvard University – 2016 Beyond Dualism

Justin Steinberg, CUNY Brooklyn – 2016 Modern Philosophy

Julie Walsh, Wellesley College – 2018 Early Modern Philosophy

2. Rationalism vs. Empiricism, a new version

The old idea that early modern philosophy is best understood as involving a grand debate between Continental rationalism and British empiricism is widely regarded as anachronistic, hailing largely from a post-Kantian idea of philosophy’s development. It is more historically accurate to say that early modern thinkers were interested in other questions, for instance, the distinction between what was then called the experimental philosophy, which was defended by everyone from Boyle to Hooke to Newton to Locke, and the speculative philosophy, which was defended by everyone from Descartes to Hobbes to Leibniz. This version of the history has benefits: it enables the inclusion of figures such as Boyle or Hooke who are typically ignored in history of philosophy classes, and it breaks up the Continental-British divide into its proper parts, noting that Hobbes was an early British thinker who was a great critic of the experimental approach championed by Boyle, and later by Locke.

Such a course can easily expand to include the contributions to experimental philosophy by Cavendish, and to discuss Du Châtelet’s extensive discussion of the importance of, but also fundamental limits to, speculation and hypotheses in philosophy and science.

Below you can find sample syllabi that follow this new version of the narrative whilst including women philosophers:

Marcy Lascano, California State University Long Beach – 2011 Early Modern Philosophy

Marcy Lascano, California State University Long Beach – 2015 British Empiricism

Samuel Rickless, University of California San Diego – History of Philosophy – Early Modern

Anthony Fisher, University of Washington—2021 British Empiricism

3. Philosophy & Science, version one

The Aristotelian, Scholastic order was disrupted by the emergence of the new science of the 16th and 17th centuries. Philosophers spent much of their time analysing and pondering the implications of the new ideas of the physical world found in figures such as Copernicus, Kepler, Harvey, Galileo and Newton. The philosophers who followed historically the Scientific Revolution fall into two camps: those, like Descartes and Leibniz, who were enamored of the new science and all that it meant for what we often call the corpuscular or mechanical philosophy; and those, like Berkeley and Hume, who were skeptical of the new science and who spent considerable energy indicating the limits to scientific knowledge. There are intriguing questions about which category other philosophers, most prominently Locke, fall into.

Figures like Cavendish, Conway, and Du Châtelet can each figure in a discussion of the implications of the new science, with Du Châtelet playing the role of a later thinker who was interested in developing a metaphysical foundation for science, like Leibniz, but who was also very influenced by the Newtonian tradition, unlike Leibniz.

Below you can find sample syllabi that follow this version of the narrative whilst including women philosophers:

Andrew Janiak, Duke University – 2014 Historical & Philosophical Perspectives on Science

4. Philosophy & Science, version two

The Scientific Revolution did not lead to a philosophical consensus. Although numerous figures, from Bacon to Galileo to Boyle to Newton, agreed that Aristotelian ideas had to be overthrown in order for philosophical and scientific progress to be possible, later thinkers could not agree on the right path forward. This narrative begins by considering early challenges to Aristotelian ideas, emphasizing especially Bacon and Descartes. It then proceeds to consider two influential reactions to the Cartesian system, those of Leibniz and Newton, emphasizing the great debate between these two philosophers and mathematicians that took place from the late 17th into the early 18th century. The Leibniz-Clarke correspondence is therefore a key text in this course. After Leibniz and Newton articulated their differences, it was left to Kant at the century’s end to formulate a via media between their two approaches. He very explicitly contended that whereas the great physics of the era was Newtonian, its great metaphysics was Leibnizian.

This version of the course on philosophy and science would benefit greatly from adding Du Châtelet, whose Foundations of Physics (Institutions de Physique, Paris, 1740) preceded Kant in asking the question of how Newtonian and Leibnizian ideas could be synthesized. The course can also incorporate Masham in its discussion of Leibnizian metaphysics.

Below you can find sample syllabi that follow this version of the narrative whilst including women philosophers:

Andrew Janiak, Duke University – 2014 History of Modern Philosophy

5. Cartesianism and its aftermath

Skepticism as a guiding problem of modern philosophy

With his Meditations of 1641, Descartes founded modern philosophy: he not only vanquished Aristotelian ideas more thoroughly and powerfully than any other 17th century figure, including Galileo, he also set the philosophical agenda of the next century by focusing attention on the problem of skepticism. Every great thinker after Descartes, from Leibniz to Spinoza to Locke to Hume, had to confront the problem of skepticism in one way or another. Some, such as Leibniz, believed that knowledge of nature was still possible; others, such as Locke, were pessimistic about the possibility of true scientia, true knowledge of nature; and still others, especially Hume, seemed to adopt a more radical skeptical position, rendering the question of skepticism the most pressing problem of modern philosophy. This conception of skepticism’s centrality is reflected in a considerable portion of epistemology in the 20th century. Background materials might include Montaigne and others, but the focus is on Descartes and his aftermath. This course would benefit from adding Conway and Masham.

Below you can find sample syllabi that follow this narrative whilst including women philosophers:

Lewis Powell, University at Buffalo – 2013 Early Modern Philosophy

Joshua Wood, Amherst College – 2014 Early Modern Philosophy 

6. Theories of causation

This course teaches students the history of modern philosophy by focusing on theories of causation. This approach enables one to transcend the old rationalist-empiricist dichotomy by seeing interesting connections between so-called rationalist thinkers like Descartes and so-called empiricists like Hume. The early modern period saw the development of a number of fundamental and fundamentally opposed theories of causation. These theories include the occasionalism of Descartes and Malebranche, which greatly influenced Berkeley and Hume; the pre-established harmony of Leibniz and Wolff, which was designed to avoid the problems that plagued the Cartesian view; and the idealist conception of Kant, which was designed to avoid the problems with Cartesian and Leibnizian views, even while acknowledging the power of Hume’s critique of causation. The course can end with Hume, or can present Hume and then end with Kant’s famous reply to Hume in the second analogy of the first Critique (or the Prolegomena).

Princess Elisabeth is important here because she raised the first objections to Descartes’s view of mind-body causation. Du Châtelet can be added for her later views about causation in light of Leibniz and Newton. Conway also had views about causation, and Masham discussed Malebranchian occasionalism. In this way, the concept of causation in modern philosophy is sufficiently capacious to encompass all four of our philosophers.

Syllabi forthcoming. 

7. Modular approach using topics

The scientific and philosophical revolution in the early modern era saw a reexamination of a number of important philosophical topics. One way to teach a course on this period is to focus on a limited number of such topics in depth, perhaps even one of them; another way is to cover a variety of topics in an introductory fashion. Either way, such a course structure allows for flexibility in including non-canonical figures. Topics to explore include the following:

  • Cartesian mind-body dualism and substance monism (Princess Elisabeth, Conway, Cavendish)
  • Leibnizian metaphysics (Masham, Du Châtelet)
  • Knowledge, role of reason in theology (Locke and Masham)
  • Love and sociability (Astell and Masham)
  • Materialism (Hobbes and Cavendish)
  • Experimental / mechanical philosophy (Cavendish, Conway)
  • Relation between physics and metaphysics (Du Châtelet)
  • Substance (Leibniz, Conway, Du Châtelet)
  • Theories of causation (Masham, Conway, Du Châtelet, Princess Elisabeth)
  • Theodicy (Leibniz and Conway)

Below you can find sample syllabi that follow this version of the narrative whilst including women philosophers:

Fred Ablondi, Hendrix College – 2020 Seventeenth-Century Women Philosophers

Andrew Arlig, Brooklyn College – 2015 Modern Philosophy

Marguerite Deslauriers, McGill University – 2012 Topics in Feminist Theory

Karen Detlefsen, University of Pennsylvania – 2015 History of Modern Philosophy

Karen Detlefsen, University of Pennsylvania – 2016 History of Modern Philosophy

Anthony Fisher, University of Washington – 2020 Modern Philosophy

Andrew Janiak, Duke University – 2015 Gender & Philosophy

Ryan Johnson, Elon University –  2017 Modern Philosophy

Marcy Lascano, California State University Long Beach – 2010 Early Modern Women Philosophers

Marcy Lascano, California State University Long Beach – 2016 History of Modern Western Philosophy

Marcy Lascano, California State University Long Beach – 2011 Leibniz & Conway on Theodicy

Paul Lodge, Tulane University – 2003 Early Modern Women Philosophers

Eugene Marshall, Florida International University – 2012 Women of the Enlightenment

Timothy Yenter, University of Mississippi – 2019 History of Philosophy II

Timothy Yenter, University of Mississippi – 2020 Monism and Pantheism

8. Introductions to philosophy

Introductory courses in philosophy are sometimes historically arranged, in which case an instructor might find ways of including works by early modern women. This could be done in strictly chronological order, of course, but it could also be done by including various topics—gender, freedom, God, causation, etc.—that early modern women discussed in their various works.

Below you can find sample syllabi that follow this version of the narrative whilst including women philosophers:

Sandrine Berges, Bilkent University – 2016 Introduction to Philosophy