Rationalists and Empiricists

The details
Philosophical, Historical and Interdisciplinary Studies (School of)
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 5
Monday 13 January 2025
Friday 21 March 2025
05 April 2024


Requisites for this module



Key module for

BA V530 Continental Philosophy,
BA V531 Continental Philosophy (Including Foundation Year),
BA V532 Continental Philosophy (Including Placement Year),
BA V533 Continental Philosophy (Including Year Abroad),
BA V500 Philosophy,
BA V501 Philosophy (Including Year Abroad),
BA V502 Philosophy (Including Foundation Year),
BA V503 Philosophy (including Placement Year),
BA V508 Philosophy (Including Foundation Year and Year Abroad),
MPHIV599 Philosophy,
MPHIVA98 Philosophy (Including Placement Year),
MPHIVA99 Philosophy (Including Year Abroad),
BA VV53 Philosophy and Art History,
BA VV54 Philosophy and Art History (Including Foundation Year),
BA VV55 Philosophy and Art History (Including Placement Year),
BA VV5H Philosophy and Art History (Including Year Abroad),
BA VVHP Philosophy and Art History (Including Foundation Year and Year Abroad)

Module description

This module will introduce students to debates that lay the foundation for modern philosophy. Starting with a close reading of Descartes' Meditations, we explore responses from key thinkers in the rationalist and empiricist traditions.

In the wake of Descartes's philosophy, the 'new philosophy' sets out to provide a foundation of the human project by stressing the power of human intellect unaided by divine revelation. The "Continental Rationalists", Spinoza and Leibniz, share Descartes conviction that the human mind could acquire substantive knowledge of the world on the basis of reason alone. Despite this shared conviction, however, there are profound differences between these individual philosophers. The "British Empiricists" thinkers, Locke and Hume, start from the shared conviction that knowledge of the world cannot be attained without recourse to sense experience. In the case of Locke, this leads to a more modest account of the scope of human knowledge; with Hume it leads to scepticism that throws the quest for knowledge into radical doubt.

We will more particularly focus on the following questions. What is the nature and limit of human knowledge? What role does human subjectivity have to play in the foundation of knowledge about the external world? What role, if any, does God play in knowledge? Does our common-sense view of the world have a philosophical foundation? Does sensory experience provide the only path to knowledge of the world, or can we gain knowledge through the exercise of pure reason? What is the relation between the body and the mind?

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to selected texts of some of the leading philosophers of the early modern period.

  • To introduce students to core issues in metaphysics and epistemology and through the study of these texts.

  • To give students some impression of how the texts and authors selected contributed to the theoretical framework underlying developments in philosophy.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this module, students will be expected to be able to:

  • Summarise and expound in their own words theories and arguments from early modern philosophy.

  • Expound and criticise commentaries on the traditional authors and texts.

  • Expound and criticise some of the theories proposed by philosophers to cope with problems raised by selected authors.

Skills for your Professional Life (Transferable Skills)

By the end of the module, students should also have acquired a set of transferable skills, and in particular be able to:

  1. Define the task in which they are engaged and exclude what is irrelevant.

  2. Seek and organize the most relevant discussions and sources of information.

  3. Process a large volume of diverse and sometimes conflicting arguments.

  4. Compare and evaluate different arguments and assess the limitations of their own position or procedure.

  5. Write and present verbally a succinct and precise account of positions, arguments, and their presuppositions and implications.

  6. Be sensitive to the positions of others and communicate their own views in ways that are accessible to them.

  7. Think 'laterally' and creatively - see interesting connections and possibilities and present these clearly rather than as vague hunches.

  8. Maintain intellectual flexibility and revise their own position if shown wrong.

  9. Think critically and constructively.

Module information

Incoming Study Abroad students must have already taken an introductory module in Philosophy at their home institution.

Learning and teaching methods

This module will be delivered via:

  • One 2-hour lecture per week.
  • One 1-hour discussion seminar per week, at which issues covered in the lecture will be discussed.

There will also be a Reading Week when no teaching will take place, exact week to be confirmed.


The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course.
The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students.
Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Coursework weighting
Coursework   Reconstruction Assignment (1000 words, max.)     30% 
Coursework   Essay (2000 words, -/+ 10%)     50% 
Practical   Moodle Reading Quizzes (total from best 2 of 4 scores)    20% 

Exam format definitions

  • Remote, open book: Your exam will take place remotely via an online learning platform. You may refer to any physical or electronic materials during the exam.
  • In-person, open book: Your exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer to any physical materials such as paper study notes or a textbook during the exam. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, open book (restricted): The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer only to specific physical materials such as a named textbook during the exam. Permitted materials will be specified by your department. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, closed book: The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may not refer to any physical materials or electronic devices during the exam. There may be times when a paper dictionary, for example, may be permitted in an otherwise closed book exam. Any exceptions will be specified by your department.

Your department will provide further guidance before your exams.

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Steven Gormley, email:
PHAIS General Office: 6.130;



External examiner

Dr Josiah Saunders
Durham University
Associate Professor
Available via Moodle
Of 907 hours, 36 (4%) hours available to students:
871 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).


* Please note: due to differing publication schedules, items marked with an asterisk (*) base their information upon the previous academic year.

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