An Introduction to Modern Philosophy

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This six-part course, comprising over two hours of video plus notes and a quiz, is for anyone who would like to sort their existentialism from their post-modernism. All the isms are here, and they are explained succinctly and very enjoyably by author and philosopher Dr Mark Vernon. Can you find the key to freedom in this satisfying chronological survey?

Join us today and acquaint yourself with the key philosophies of the last five hundred years.

Part One: Cartesianism
In this first class, we set the scene by asking what we might mean by being modern in our sense of ourselves and things, as opposed to medieval or ancient. The pivotal figure in this massive shift is Descartes, the 16th century French philosopher who invented Cartesian coordinates, is often blamed for Cartesian dualism, and derived one of the most famous phrases in philosophy: I think therefore I am. His work constellated a set of insights and challenges that we all wrestle with today.

Part Two: Empiricism and Idealism
After Descartes, the race is on for the philosopher who can derive the most satisfactory sense of how we know ourselves and the world around us. The empiricists trust the senses and material world for this task, and we consider the insights of Hobbes and Locke in particular. Various forms of idealist philosophy disagree, pointing out that our mental life is the closest, surest to us. Bishop Berkeley and Immanuel Kant are our main protagonists here.

Part Three: Utilitarianism
In the modern world we also wrestle with the good life in dramatically different ways from our forebears, in particular arguing that something can be called good if it leads to great happiness (utilitarian ethics), or if it is somehow what we should do (deontological ethics). In this lesson, we contrast those ways of doing ethics with the virtue ethics of the ancient world, and major on the figures of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant. Utilitarianism is the philosophy of most contemporary politicians.

Four: Materialism
We move squarely into the 20th century now, to consider the enormous impact of modern science on our lives. Our starting point is Karl Marx, who felt we can be at home in the world when we’re at home with our material nature. This is linked to the notion, sometimes called naturalism, that the material sciences ask the best questions and provides the best answers, when available – though it’s a philosophy readily challenged and at least limited, as we explore here too.

Part Five: Existentialism
With the so-called death of God, another distinctly modern idea that human beings can live without reference to the divine, we come to a key philosophy of the 20th century, existentialism. It begins with the sense that we are thrown into life, without asking to be born or to die. This is a frightening predicament, but might also be the key to our freedom and success. Groovy left bank types like Jean-Paul Sartre and Camus, as well as Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault are our guides.

Part Six: Post-modernism
Have we reached the end of the modern project? Do we need a postmodernity to live in the 21st century? These are the questions that lurk in our last class as we major on the great American philosophy of pragmatism – the sense that whatever may or may not be true, it must be linked to what works. The figure in this movement who provides us with the key insights for this class is William James who brings in valuable reflections on psychology and religious experience too.

About the tutor

Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist with a private practice in London, as well as working at the Maudsley Hospital. He is also a writer, broadcaster and teacher. He has a PhD in philosophy, and degrees in theology and physics. His most recent books include – The Idler Guide To Ancient Philosophy (Idler Books), Love: All That Matters (Hodder) and Jung: How To Believe (Guardian Shorts) – and he has books on friendship, belief and the good life too. Mark contributes regularly to publications in the UK, including the Guardian and Church Times, and also broadcasts on the BBC. He began his professional life as a priest in the Church of England. For more visit,