The Course

Course CDC 2007

Shaping the Republic of Letters:

Philosophy, Science and Religion

in early Modern Europe

General description of the project

This project envisages the introduction of a new course on the Foundations of Early Modern Thought into the curricula of several faculties and universities around Romania. The course will offer a new perspective upon traditional and completely new material will be research-oriented and context-related, will use new methods of teaching, problematizing and dialogue with the students. Most of the courses will be taught by two proponents, working as a team. The basic material and themes of the courses were established in common with the team of professors, but the individual syllabi will differ according to the level of the students involved.

Director of the project: Dana Jalobeanu

Members of the project: Sorana Corneanu, Catalin Avramescu, Sorin Costreie, Gheorghe Stratan

Universities involved: University of Bucharest, Western University “Vasile Goldis”, Arad, Babes Bolyai University, Cluj

The course

The course takes a highly interdisciplinary approach to the origins of modernity, conceived as a philosophical phenomenon with many implications in all areas of reflection, and hence essentially intertwined with the spheres of scientific, theological, and political thought, as well as with the formation and legitimation of lettered communities in what has come to be known as the early modern Republic of Letters. We take this Republic of Letters as one of the templates of modern Europe and through this course we endeavour to investigate, and invite academic reflection on, some of the fundamental concepts that have shaped European modernity, such as the notion of cultural crisis, the idea of reform, the strategies of epistemic scepticism and tolerance, the protocols of testimony and belief, the formation of scientific or intellectual communities, the ideal of religious and political toleration, the public image of the philosopher/intellectual.

The course we offer will differ substantially from the existing ones in conception, methods of teaching and general approach. What we want is to address primary texts, less known or completely unknown in Romania, in a problem-based fashion, pointing towards the formation of the intellectual community and its values, like freedom, tolerance, critical thinking, and constant communication. The course will focus primarily on some of the famous debates of the seventeenth century, looking at the way important ideas were shaped during such debates and emerged from correspondence, critique and various “battles of the books”. Its main purpose is to shift the attention from the history of philosophy understood as a list of authors and systems, to the history of philosophy understood as a battleground between ideas and values, an open confrontation of intellects having as an outcome what has been recently labelled “the origin of modern mind”. We hope to contribute in this way to the formation of a general attitude towards studying academic subjects in a more open, problem-based and argumentative way, using the history of ideas as an exercise of intellectual freedom.


In the last decade, the public space in Romania has hosted numerous debates concerning various issues loosely connected with ‘modernity’ and ‘post-modernity’ as well as questions as to whether there was such a thing as an Eastern European (or even Romanian) modernity. Yet, despite the wide interest inside or outside the academia, the question of the origins of modernity has not entered the regular academic curriculum. An equally debated topic, and one equally absent from the curricula, has been the relationship between science and religion, or, more broadly, science and the humanities: their overlapping areas, the possibility of dialogue between them, the idea of a common culture.

As students of early modern thought know, the two topics mentioned above are related in a substantial way, and they form one of the subject matters of a field of research long established in the West: intellectual history (a dynamic interdisciplinary field that combines the history and sociology of science, the history of philosophy, the cultural history of the circulation of ideas, and the social and material history of objects, practices and institutions). It is rather striking that in Romania one cannot hold a degree in, say, history of science, or that the history of philosophy is often taught without any background information or relation to a wider field like the history of ideas.

During the last 10 years, several attempts to institutionalize such a field have been done, some of them by the Research Centre Foundations of Early Modern Thought developed at the University of Bucharest. As a result, some new elective courses have been introduced (see my list of courses above). However, the field is still at the beginning and many things are necessary in order to develop it in a coherent way. Our proposal is to introduce a coherent package of courses developed around a common core of themes and methods and to offer such courses to several departments around the country, in the hope of making the first necessary steps towards the institutionalization of the discipline.

Our team is itself an interdisciplinary group, as it comprises a philosopher (Dr. Dana Jalobeanu), a historian of science (Prof. Gheorghe Stratan), a specialist in political philosophy (Dr. Catalin Avramescu) and a specialist in cultural studies and the history of ideas (doctoral candidate Sorana Corneanu), who are all specialised in early modern thought and who have a 5-year history of working together for projects, seminars and summer schools. We will offer this course in a number of different departments, for students coming from various backgrounds: history of philosophy and science, political philosophy, cultural studies. The course outline we present below is a master course we intend to adapt to the interests of each department by highlighting the relevant themes and discussions. Building on this common core, we will develop several variants of addressing the same questions. Common to all will be the corpus of texts to be studied and a common conception of the way in which the most important questions of modernity were shaped through debates and discussions between philosophers engaged in a common quest.

Beside the current lack of institutional support for such a discipline, the existing academic courses related to the field face their own shortcomings. One of the main problems in the Romanian curriculum is the way in which most of the courses on modern philosophy remain at the level of discussing secondary literature. There are rarely discussions of primary texts and even if these are sometimes discussed, they are taken out of the context and reconstructed in the crudest manner; in such a way that it is impossible for the students to understand what was really at stake in the construction of modernity, the modern mind or the modern frame of the world. This course addresses a widely discussed subject from a fresh perspective: focusing on debates and primary texts within contexts, it tries to problematize concepts, themes and some of the major questions that gave rise to modern thought. In addition, the course brings to the attention of students authors who are now rarely or never studied in Romania, some of whom were also never translated, despite their influence in the formation of modern mind.

Therefore, we think that the course is needed for the following main reasons:

  1. It introduces an interdisciplinary area of research which is currently lacking from Romanian academic curricula and can thus attune the latter with some of the latest Western developments in the area of intellectual history.
  2. In virtue of its network format, it can foster further collaboration among the departments where it will be taught and thus help enhance the future institutionalisation of this area of research across departments and disciplines in the Romanian academe.
  3. It offers an important conceptual gateway towards a historical understanding of topical issues in today’s debates: discussions of the shape and values of modern mind, or of the relationship between science, religion and philosophy, can be enriched by an awareness of their historical origins.
  4. By its approach and method, which proposes interdisciplinary investigation as well as critical thinking and debate, it will enable students to take a fresh and creative perspective on issues which, they will come to realise, are vital to their own insertion in the history of their world.
  5. Thanks to the same interdisciplinary and innovative character, it can form habits of thinking and lines of research that may impact on the way the traditional disciplines it relates to (philosophy, science, political science, theology, literary and cultural studies) are conceived and taught in the Romanian academe.
  6. Since it is a course that aims to compete in both content and method with similar lines of research and teaching at European universities at the moment, and since it will be taught in English, it may be taken to other centres outside Romania, in view of international networking.