History of French philosophy, Spring 2021

If you are a student in the class, please go to this page for links to the readings and additional information.


An overview of important developments in French philosophy from the 16th century to the 1960s.

We pay close attention this semester to the passions and the emotions and their role in the mind, in ethics and in artistic, social and political life.


Monday Feb 1


Wednesday Feb 3

Descartes’ project

Monday Feb 8

Descartes on the mind

Wednesday Feb 10

Correspondance between Elizabeth and Descartes on the mind and on ethics (I)

Wednesday Feb 17

Correspondance between Elizabeth and Descartes on the mind and on ethics (II)

Thursday Feb 18

Descartes on the passions (I)

Monday Feb 22

Descartes on the passions (II)

Wednesday Feb 24

Descartes on the passions (III)

Monday Mar 1

Rousseau on the arts and sciences

Wednesday Mar 3

Rousseau and the problem of society (I)

Monday Mar 8

Rousseau and the problem of society (II)

Wednesday Mar 10

The social contract (I)

Monday Mar 15

The social contract (II)

Wednesday Mar 17

On spectacles

Monday Mar 22

Rousseau revisits the problem

Wednesday Mar 24

On sympathy (I)

Monday Mar 29

On sympathy (II)

Wednesday Mar 31

Bergson on the arts

Wednesday Apr 7

Kojève on Hegel

Monday Apr 12


Wednesday Apr 14

The early Sartre on emotions (I)

Monday Apr 19

The early Sartre on emotions (II)

Wednesday Apr 21

French existentialism

Monday Apr 26

Existential freedom

Research project

Wednesday Apr 28

The situation (I)

Monday May 3

The situation (II)

Comments on research project

Wednesday May 5

Existential psychoanalysis

Monday May 10

Review session

Wednesday May 12

Final exam

Friday May 14

Research paper


Participation (5%)

Participation grades will reflect in-class and optional after-class forum participation. Participation in the peer-comment process on research projects (see below) also counts.

Point-group presentation (twice 5%)

Two group presentations to introduce the material for a session and launch the class discussion. One within the first half of the class (on or before March 17) and one after. The presentation should articulate the main question(s) the author grapples with, the position the author stakes and the principal arguments. It should also help the class identify questions to discuss and understand the relevance of the debate to our own times.

Short papers (twice 20%)

Two 1500-word papers following your participation in a point group. Due at the end of day a week after the presentation — at the end of the next Monday for a Monday presentation for example.

The paper should engage with one of the questions asked in the readings for the relevant session. It should explain the position of the author and develop at least one of their reasons to support this position, as well as critically engage with either the position or the reason. The balance between exposition and critical discussion in the paper is flexible and up to you.

The question you engage with may or may not be the main question in the readings — you are free to engage with the author on a matter of detail that you find interesting to pursue further.

Research project, comments, and paper (25%)

A 3000-word research paper on a topic of your choice, either engaging in further discussion of a philosophical view or argument, initiating a dialogue between multiple views or arguments, or applying philosophical concepts and arguments to tackle a question of interest to you. (The need for outside sources depends on the nature of the project. As a rule, they will be more important for the last kind of project.) The only formal constraints on the final paper is that it has to allow for and to facilitate dialogue between competing points of views. For example, students who find it easier to adopt this dialectical mode of thinking if they write an actual dialogue between two characters are welcome to do that.

After meeting in office hours to discuss your idea(s), you’ll submit a two-page project on which you’ll receive comments from me and from an anonymous peer in the class. The project should explain the question you engage with, the view(s) you propose to explore and the lines of questioning or objection you are considering. The project should especially concentrate on the philosophical aspects of the research paper and on the philosophical back and forth (and not exclusively on the empirical material you may need to present in the paper). The project and the comments on your peer’s paper are not graded. They are meant to help you write a strong final paper.

Final exam (20%)

Paragraph-length answers to questions about the material covered throughout the semester.