Abraham Anderson

AB, Harvard College. PhD, Columbia University. Fellowships at École Normale Supérieure and the University of Munich. Interests in philosophy and history of science, history of modern philosophy, and the Enlightenment. Author of The Treatise of the Three Impostors and the Problem of Enlightenment, as well as articles on Kant, Descartes, and other topics. Contributor to the new Kant-Lexikon. Has taught at the Collège International de Philosophie, St. John’s College, Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas, and elsewhere. SLC, 2007–

Undergraduate Courses 2023-2024


Descartes and Princess Elizabeth: From Metaphysics to Morals

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall

René Descartes can be seen as the founder of modern philosophy. He carried out much of his intellectual life through correspondence, and one of his most important correspondents was Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. A central topic of their correspondence is the “union of mind and body”; i.e., how thought is related to matter but also how the perspective of science is related to the passions and human life. This problem is posed by Descartes’ treatment of mind and body in his Meditations, which led Elizabeth to begin the correspondence. Their exchanges led Descartes to write his last book, The Passions of the Soul, on psychology, the passions, virtue, and vice. We will begin by reading the Meditations, then focus on the correspondence between Descartes and Elizabeth, and finally turn to the Passions.


Kant’s Political Philosophy

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Spring

Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone is a book about religion, but it is also a book about Enlightenment—or how to build a rational society; for this purpose, religion, in Kant’s view, is indispensable. We shall study how Kant seeks to reform Christianity to make it compatible with a rational society and what the limits are on this enterprise. The topic is of interest nowadays, when the attempt of Kant and others to make religion compatible with Enlightenment is under challenge, and religion has once again come into some tension with science and the hope for progress founded on collective rationality.


Philosophy and the Founding of the Modern World

Open, Small Lecture—Year

Where does the modern world come from? In large part, it is the product of philosophy that took on a political role it had never had before: the role of founding a new social order organized around science and technology and which, it was hoped, would tame the religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries. We will begin by reading Francis Bacon’s Preface and Proemium to the Grand Instauration, as well as parts of his Advancement of Learning, in which he sets out the plan for the new science and technology and seeks to make it politically and religiously acceptable, and his New Atlantis, a sketch of the new scientific-technological order. Then, we shall go on to read Descartes’ Discourse on Method, in which he combines the plan for a new physics and a new technological order with a new metaphysics of God and the soul and a new ethics of self-determination—different from the ethics of the ancient Stoics and Skeptics on which it draws, as well as from the ethics of Aristotle, Plato, and Epicurus and from Christian conceptions of virtue and vice. We shall then study Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise, which is at once a scientific study of religion and a proposal for a new social order, in which religion will serve simply to support morality and obedience to the law while not interfering with science and philosophy. In group conference, we will study the ancient philosophy from which the moderns take their departure: selections from Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, and Seneca. In the spring semester, we will turn to modern reactions to the earlier modern attempts to remake the world. We will begin with Shaftesbury, who seeks to save Plato’s defense of moral teleology from both Christian rejection of the world and the attacks of Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza by appealing to comedy and the sense of the beautiful. We will then turn to Hume, who seeks to invent a new common sense based on custom and feeling. Finally, we will consider Rousseau’s attack on the arts and sciences and his attempt to reconstruct the doctrine of political right without appealing to the natural order. In group conference, we will continue reading the ancients, especially Plato and Lucretius, to consider how those authors draw on them and react against them.


Previous Courses


Economics and Moral Philosophy

Open, Seminar—Year

In the history of economic thought, one of the classic topics has been the “Adam Smith problem,” the problem of how Smith—whose The Wealth of Nations was thought to teach that selfishness is, and ought to be, the primary motive of human behavior—could also have written The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which makes sympathy and benevolence central to human moral psychology. In this course, we shall attempt to understand whether there really is an “Adam Smith problem.” We shall do so by beginning before Smith, with Shaftesbury‘s Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit, which teaches that human beings are fundamentally sociable, and Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, which argues for the political and economic value of selfishness. We shall then go on to read The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Our focus will not be on economic theory. Rather, we shall be interested in the question of human nature and its relevance to politics and political economy—and, for example, to disagreements among American “conservatives,” many of whom defend the virtue of selfishness, and American “liberals,” many of whom wish to regard human beings as fundamentally sociable and who wish to cultivate a universal benevolence. Reading these four books slowly and carefully may take us the whole year.


First-Year Studies: Literature and Philosophy: Enthusiasm, Fanaticism, Superstition


We live at a time when fanaticism, religious and otherwise, has become a subject of great concern. This is not a new problem: Western literature and philosophy have been concerned with fanaticism since the beginning, and we cannot understand the way the problem of fanaticism appears to us now without going back to the earlier discussions and transformations of that question. The reading list, which may be modified, is Euripides, Bacchae; Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedrus, Lucretius, On the Nature of Things; St. Paul, Epistle to the Romans; Montaigne, “On Presumption”; Shaftesbury, Characteristics; Swift, Gulliver’s Travels; Hume, “The Natural History of Religion,” “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm,” “Of Parties,” History of England, Vol. 5, an excerpt on the New Model Army; Kant, Dreams of a Spirit-Seer; Lessing, Nathan the Wise; Bentham, “Anarchistical Fallacies”; Orwell, Animal Farm, 1984. During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences with some opportunities for small-group meetings; in the spring, we will normally meet every other week.


Gender and Sexuality in Greek Literature and Philosophy

Open, Seminar—Fall

Modern discussions of gender and sexuality have a predecessor in the literature and philosophy of ancient Greece, which have informed recent thought on the topic. Of the Greek discussions, we shall focus on just a few. We shall begin with poetry by Sappho, Sophocles’ Antigone, and Euripides’ Bacchae. We shall go on to Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, and Book Five of Plato’s Republic.


Philosophy as Therapy

Open, Lecture—Year

Since Socrates, philosophy has understood itself as therapy—of “opinion” (Socrates, Plato), of anxiety and passion (the Stoa), of superstition (the Epicureans), and of dogmatism (the Pyrrhonian skeptics and the New Academy). This conception of philosophy receded in the Middle Ages—when philosophy in Christian Europe was conceived of as a “handmaiden to theology”—but returned in the Renaissance and continued to be important in the Enlightenment. Among the moderns, thinkers who understand philosophy as involving therapy include Montaigne, Descartes, Shaftesbury, and Kant, as well as some in the 20th century. In the fall semester, we shall focus on the ancients; in the spring, on the moderns.



Open, Seminar—Spring

Is there truth over and above the point of view of the individual or group? This topic received considerable discussion in the philosophy of Plato, whose treatment of the topic remains indispensable for grappling with it. We shall read the Euthyphro, on piety; The Apology, in which Socrates defends himself against the charge of subverting the religion of Athens; and selections from The Republic, in which Socrates considers whether justice is just a matter of convention. We shall then go on to the Theaetetus, on knowledge, and the Sophist, on falsehood.