Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy Course: Philosophy of Enlightenment

Philosophy. Study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses both online and in-person. Please check the delivery format for each class before you enrol.

Please note that course materials for all classes (excluding prescribed textbooks) are shared electronically within 48 hours of a course starting. Printing is not available.

To be ‘enlightened’ is to be set free from false beliefs: in that sense of the word it is as relevant to our world as it was to the eighteenth century. But this is a complex story; the ideas of progress, reason and economic capitalism, unleashed in the eighteenth century have also fed into the destructive feature of modern history.

This course aims to understand the philosophy of the enlightenment from within its own dynamic, but also to assess those ideas in terms of the historical outcomes down to our times.

Voltaire sets the tone with his satirical polemics influencing both the American and French Revolutions. Jonathan Swift produces his biting satire of the stupidity of war and power hungry politics. Gulliver’s Travels was written against the backdrop of the industrial revolution and the coming of age of science, but Swift is also wary of ‘progress’ for its own sake. Kant turns his attention to the epistemology of human understanding, and produces a radical new theory of the autonomous human subject. Mary Wollstonecraft sets the agenda for a theory of justice based on equality; she knows only too well what happens when inequality is taken as ‘natural’ in both the private and public spheres. We will also consider Adam Smith on economics, Rousseau on “the general will” and Hegel on the state.


This course aims to:

  • provide an in-depth understanding of the politics, ethics, epistemology and economics of the eighteenth century
  • provide an understanding of how the eighteenth century has impacted on the Modern and contemporary world
  • facilitate discussion on the ideas of some of the great philosophers of the Enlightenment and how they still speak to us
  • provide an understanding of the benefits and limitations of reason in personal and social life
  • promote discussion on the issue of ‘progress’ in politics, science and technology: what does it mean to ‘make progress’?


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • understand the term ‘enlightenment’ and the complexity of its uses and applications in history
  • understand the relationship between the eighteenth century and now
  • possess a greater ability to reason about your own human nature and the workings of your own mind
  • possess a greater ability to discuss philosophical ideas and see a pattern in those ideas
  • better assess your own ideas against the ideas of the philosopher we have studied
  • know how to research the topic further.


Central concepts of the enlightenment

General introduction to the period and its philosophy of reason, science, liberty, autonomy and secularism.

Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745

Gulliver’s Travels sets a high standard for political and social satire, which influences much of the eighteenth century.

Voltaire, 1694-1778

Voltaire’s polemics influenced both the American and French Revolutions. He was an advocate of civil liberties, freedom of religion and free trade in economics.

Rousseau, 1712-1778

We will study Rousseau’s theory of the ‘general will’ and gage its connection to later socialist ideas.

Adam Smith, 1723-1790

The Wealth of Nations is considered by many to be the foundational text of Modern economics.

Hume, 1711-1766

We will study Hume’s Epistemology and Psychology, and his work on custom and reason. Hume asks: Should our account of personal identity differ from our account of the identity of physical objects? Text: Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Kant, 1724-1804: The autonomous human subject

Kant’s philosophy had a profound impact on all subsequent theory, including law and psychology. Kant asks: Can you be a moral agent without autonomy? Texts: Critique of Pure Reason; Critique of Practical Reason.

Kant on power, imagination and idealism

Can a transcendental idealist also be an empirical realist?

Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797: A revolutionary life

We will study Wollstonecraft’s critique of the public/private split; the limits of state intervention into private matters; and her proposals on how to bring about equality between the classes and between men and women? Text: The Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Hegel, 1770-1831: the end of history.

We will consider his theory of the Modern state, and his Phenomenology of Mind.

Delivery style



Handouts are provided in class.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

What others say.

  • An amazing teacher. So well researched no matter what the topic. As well as philosophy, the course covers history, ethics, art and feminism, right up to current situations. Intensely interesting, especially in a world in which it is hard to find discussions of value. Student contributions are encouraged which I find invaluable.
  • I left the course feeling enlightened!
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