Accessibility Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map Menu

PHIL331 Early Modern Philosophy A: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, a selection of on-campus papers will be made available via distance and online learning for eligible students.
Find out which papers are available and how to apply on our COVID-19 website

The central issues in the philosophy of Descartes and its subsequent impact on the philosophy of Spinoza and Leibniz.

Paper title Early Modern Philosophy A: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz
Paper code PHIL331
Subject Philosophy
EFTS 0.15
Points 18 points
Teaching period Not offered in 2021, expected to be offered in 2022 (On campus)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $913.95
International Tuition Fees (NZD) $4,073.40

^ Top of page

One 200-level PHIL paper
PHIL 201, PHIL 220, PHIL 231, PHIL 320
Schedule C
Arts and Music
Teaching staff
Convenor and Lecturer: Professor Michael LeBuffe
Paper Structure

There will be two 1.5-hour classes per week. Each class will include both lecture and discussion. The paper will begin with a close reading of some of Descartes's central works, emphasising the Meditations together with some important correspondence. Important doctrines include:

  • Cartesian structuralism
  • The place of sense experience in Cartesian epistemology
  • A priori knowledge and its place in Cartesian science
  • The Cartesian circle
  • The role of God in Cartesian epistemology and metaphysics
  • The mind/body relation
  • The transparency of the mental
  • Descartes's theory of error

We will then turn to Spinoza's Ethics. Spinoza uses Cartesian terminology and clearly takes up some Cartesian themes. We will examine the extent to which Spinoza is a Cartesian. Important doctrines include:

  • Monism
  • The theory of attributes
  • The substance/mode relation
  • Naturalism
  • Necessitarianism
  • Determinism
  • Spinoza's critique of traditional religion
  • The adequacy of ideas
  • The three kinds of knowledge
  • The critique of free will

The last third of the paper will be devoted to several works of Leibniz, a critic of both Descartes and Spinoza. Leibniz is sometimes presented as a great reconciler of pre-Cartesian scholastic philosophy and Cartesian views. We will test this thesis. Important doctrines include:

  • The principle of sufficient reason
  • The best of all possible worlds hypothesis
  • The concept containment theory of truth
  • Pre-established harmony
  • The theory of monads


  • Two essays 30% each
  • Exercises 10%
  • Examination 30%

Different exams will be offered to PHIL 231 and PHIL 331 students and different standards will apply to the assessment of papers.

Teaching Arrangements
After the first, introductory class, each section will include discussion of central issues of continuing interest. Discussion will be followed by lecture introducing new material. This structure may vary as needs of the paper dictate.
  • Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, (trans. John Cottingham), Cambridge University Press, 978-1107665736
  • A Spinoza Reader, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0691000671
  • G.W. Leibniz, Philosophical Texts, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0198751533
  • The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes, editor Lisa Shapiro, University of Chicago Press, 978-0226204420

Other, complementary readings will be distributed electronically or in class.

Graduate Attributes Emphasised
Global perspective, Lifelong learning, Scholarship, Communication, Critical thinking, Cultural understanding, Ethics, Research.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
Learning Outcomes
Students who successfully complete the paper should be able to
  • Present, criticise and defend the positions and central arguments of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz
  • Demonstrate understanding and correct use of philosophical concepts involved in the paper
  • Explain different accounts of the relation between scientific practices in 17th-century Europe and the authors' positions in metaphysics and epistemology
  • Explain different accounts of the relation between religious practices in 17th-century Europe and the authors' positions in metaphysics and epistemology
  • Demonstrate familiarity with and understanding of central course texts in English translations
  • Use texts effectively in written interpretative argument

^ Top of page


Not offered in 2021, expected to be offered in 2022

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system