Philosophy Early Modern Philosophy, 1600-1750
Antonia LoLordo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0318


In 21st century academic philosophy, “early modern philosophy” refers to the study of texts written in a specific time and place, and understood as works of philosophy in that context. The time is, roughly, the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century. This article is limited to philosophers who published or wrote most of their major works between 1600 and 1750, thus including Hume and Condillac but omitting near-contemporaries like Rousseau. The place is often described as Western Europe, but this is a bit misleading: with very few exceptions, the philosophers discussed here were from France, Holland, or what is now the United Kingdom. The traditional canon of Early Modern philosophers was very small: Locke, Berkeley, and Hume on one side of the English Channel; Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza on the other. In the last decades of the 20th century and first decades of the 21st century, the canon was expanded significantly. Two main factors drove the expansion of the canon. One was increased attention to works of what was then called natural philosophy, like Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. The other was increased attention to the work of women. This bibliography aims to capture some of this expansion, but still, hundreds of other works could have been included—and more will be as time goes on.

Primary Sources

This list includes standard original-language editions, when there is a standard edition, and standard English-language translations, when relevant.

Francisco Suárez

Spanish Jesuit (b. 1548–d. 1617). The last great scholastic philosopher, Suárez worked in ethics, legal theory, metaphysics, and natural philosophy. His best-known work is the Metaphysical Disputations, which mostly remains untranslated. (There is, however, a complete translation into Spanish.)

Francis Bacon (Lord Verulam)

Bacon (b. 1561–d. 1626) was a lawyer, philosopher, and politician. He became Lord Chancellor of England under James I, but his political career came to an abrupt end due to accusations of bribery.

Galileo Galilei

The Italian astronomer, mathematician, and physicist Galileo (b. 1564–d. 1642) popularized heliocentrism and served as inspiration for René Descartes (b. 1596–d. 1650) and the rest of the circle of philosophers centered on Marin Mersenne (b. 1588–d. 1648).

Marie de Gournay (Marie le Jars de Gournay)

Montaigne called this novelist and philosopher (b. 1565–d. 1645) his adopted daughter, and she edited the Essais after his death. Unusually, in her time, she remained single and made her living by writing.

Eustachius a Sancto Paulo

Eustachius was one of the most widely read textbook authors of the period (b. 1573–d. 1640), not known for original philosophical thought.

Hugo Grotius

The Dutch diplomat, historian, legal theorist, and philosopher Grotius (b. 1583–d. 1645) is considered the founder of international law.

  • Grotius, Hugo. The Rights of War and Peace. 3 vols. Edited by Richard Tuck. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2005.

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    A reprint of Grotius’s most important work: the 1625 De iure belli ac pacis libri tres (Three books on the law of war and peace), translated into English by Jean Barbeyrac in 1735.

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Tommaso Campanella

The Italian philosopher Campanella (b. 1568–d. 1639) spent twenty-six years in prison for heresy and rebellion. He is usually considered a Renaissance philosopher, but spent the last five years of his life in Paris where he met Marin Mersenne (b. 1588–d. 1648) and others in his circle.

Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes was a historian, mathematician, natural philosopher, and more, but he is best known in the early 21st century as a political theorist (b. 1588–d. 1679). Hobbes was considered dangerous in his day due to materialism and alleged atheism. He spent the English Civil War in exile in Paris and joined the circle of philosophers surrounding Marin Mersenne (b. 1588–d. 1648).

Marin Mersenne

Mersenne was a mathematician, music theorist, and natural philosopher (b. 1588–d. 1648) who served as the center of a European correspondence network. He championed Galileo Galilei (b. 1564–d. 1642) and published a French paraphrase of the Discorsi. He also helped René Descartes (b. 1596–d. 1650) solicit the set of Objections published along with his Meditations.

Pierre Gassendi

An astronomer, humanist, and philosopher (b. 1592–d. 1655), who is best remembered for his attempt to revise a form of Epicurean atomism, revised to fit Catholic theology. Few of his works have been translated into English.

René Descartes

The inventor of analytic geometry and founder of a new physics (b. 1596–d. 1650). He wrote on fencing, meteorology, optics, and philosophy, but he is best known in the early 21st century for the tag line “I think, therefore I am.”

Anna Maria van Schurman

Van Schurman was a Dutch painter, poet, and philosopher, famed for speaking fourteen languages (b. 1607–d. 1678).

  • van Schurman, Anna Maria. The Learned Maid, or, Whether a Maid May Be a Scholar? A Logick Exercise. London: John Redmayne, 1659.

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    The 1659 translation of a 1648 correspondence, the Amica dissertatio . . . de capacitate ingenii muliebris ad scientias (Friendly Discourse . . . on the capacity of a woman’s mind for the sciences). Available online.

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Robert Desgabets

The Benedictine monk and early Cartesian Desgabets (b. 1610–d. 1678) combined his defense of the philosophy of René Descartes (b. 1596–d. 1650) with a form of empiricism.

Antoine Arnauld

This logician, philosopher, and theologian was sometimes known as “Le Grand Arnauld” (b. 1612–d. 1694). He engaged in a long correspondence with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (b. 1646–d. 1716) as well as exchanges with René Descartes (b. 1596–d. 1650) and Nicolas Malebranche (b. 1638–d. 1715).

Henry More

The philosopher, poet, and theologian More (b. 1614–d. 1687) was one of the Cambridge Platonists—a group of English philosophers in the middle of the 17th century associated with Cambridge University and influenced by Plato and Plotinus. The group also included Ralph Cudworth (b. 1617–d. 1688) and Anne Conway (b. 1631–d. 1679).

  • Jacob, Alexander, trans. Henry More’s Manual of Metaphysics: A Translation of the Enchiridium Metha Physicum (1679): With an Introduction and Notes. 2 vols. By Henry More. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms, 1993.

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    The 1679 Enchiridion Metaphysicum (Manual of metaphysics) may be More’s most widely read work.

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  • More, Henry. The Immortality of the Soul. Edited by Alexander Jacob. Dordrecht, The Netherlands, and Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.

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    The last and, arguably, most important of More’s works. Gives an outline of an entire metaphysics in addition to lengthy argumentation for the immortality of the soul.

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Ralph Cudworth

Ralph Cudworth (b. 1617–d. 1688) was one of the Cambridge Platonists—a group of mid-17th-century philosophers associated with Cambridge University and influenced by Plato and Plotinus. The group also included Henry More (b. 1614–d. 1687) and Anne Conway (b. 1631–d. 1679).

Elisabeth of Bohemia (Elisabeth, Princess Palatine)

Elisabeth of Bohemia (b. 1618–d. 1680) was a child when her father lost his throne. She ended up in The Hague, where she met and corresponded with René Descartes (b. 1596–d. 1650). Later in life she became an abbess and was associated with prominent Quakers including Anne Conway (b. 1631–d. 1679).

  • Elisabeth of Bohemia, and René Descartes. The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes. Edited and translated by Lisa Shapiro. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

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    Elisabeth’s only substantive philosophical work. Main topics of the correspondence are ethics, happiness, mathematics, mind-body interaction, and the passions.

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François Bernier

Bernier (b. 1620–d. 1688) got his start as secretary to Pierre Gassendi (b. 1592–d. 1655). Later he traveled to India and served as court physician for the heir-apparent of the Mughal Empire, Dara Shukoh.

Margaret Cavendish (Née Margaret Lucas)

Like Thomas Hobbes (b. 1588–d. 1679), the novelist, philosopher, playwright, and poet Cavendish (b. 1623–d. 1673) spent the Civil War in exile in Paris. She is best known for her advocacy of a form of materialist panpsychism.

Robert Boyle

Boyle (b. 1627–d. 1691) is known primarily for his contributions to chemistry, his experimentalism, and his advocacy of corpuscularianism. He was also deeply concerned with theology.

Anne Conway (Née Anne Finch)

Anne Conway (b. 1631–d. 1679) was one of the Cambridge Platonists—a group of English philosophers in the middle of the 17th century associated with Cambridge University and influenced by Plato and Plotinus. The group included Henry More (b. 1614–d. 1687), Ralph Cudworth (b. 1617–d. 1688), and Conway. Conway became a Quaker.

John Locke

Locke (b. 1632–d. 1704) was a philosopher, physician, and civil servant. He is known for his empiricism, his version of social contract theory, and his arguments in favor of religious toleration, as well as much else.

Baruch (or Benedictus) Spinoza

The child of Portuguese Jews living in Amsterdam, Spinoza (b. 1632–d. 1677) was excommunicated—perhaps because of his extremely unorthodox conception of (or denial of) the immortality of the soul.

Nicolas Malebranche

Nicolas Malebranche (b. 1638–d. 1715) was heavily influenced both by René Descartes (b. 1596–d. 1650) and Augustine. He is best known for occasionalism (the theory that only God is a genuine cause) and the vision in God (the theory that we think about the external world by perceiving ideas in God’s mind).

Samuel Pufendorf

Pufendorf (b. 1632–d. 1694) was a historian, philosopher, and legal theorist who argued for a modern, Protestant form of natural law theory.

  • Pufendorf, Samuel. On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law. Edited by James Tully and translated by Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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    A 1673 epitome of Pufendorf’s massive De jure naturae et gentium (On the law of nature and nations) (1672).

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Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton (b. 1642–d. 1727) was best known for his theory of universal gravitation and his invention of calculus (around the same time as, but independently of, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (b. 1646–d. 1716)), Newton also wrote an important treatise on optics and spent a great deal of time on chemistry and theology.

Simon Foucher

Foucher (b. 1644–d. 1696) was a skeptic in the academic tradition, philosopher, His best-known work is his 1675 attack on Nicolas Malebranche (b. 1638–d. 1715), the Critique de la recherche de la verité, included in Watson and Grene 1995.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

The philosopher, mathematician, legal theorist, theologian, and historian (b. 1646–d. 1716) fought a bitter dispute with Isaac Newton (b. 1642–d. 1727) about the invention of calculus (now agreed to have been independently discovered by both around the same time). Leibniz’s complete works are currently in progress.

Pierre Bayle

Bayle (b. 1647–d. 1706) was a French Protestant who converted to Catholicism in 1669 and back the next year. The most prominent skeptic of his generation, Bayle founded and edited the enormously influential journal Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres (News of the Republic of Letters).

Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle

Fontenelle (b. 1657–d. 1757) is one of the earliest historians and popularizers of science.

  • de Fontenelle, Bernard le Bovier. Conversations on the Plurality of the Worlds. Translated by William Gardner. London: A. Bettlesworth, 1715.

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    A dialogue between a philosopher and a marquise, concerning heliocentrism as well the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence. An 18th-century translation of the 1686 original.

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Damaris Cudworth, Lady Masham

Cudworth (b. 1658–d. 1708), one of the first known English female philosophers, was the daughter; she is often called “Masham” to avoid confusion. Masham was a close friend of John Locke (b. 1632–d. 1704), and Locke lived in her household for many years, but her views are very different from both Locke and her father.

Mary Astell

Mary Astell (b. 1666–d. 1731) is best known for her writings on the education of women, but also wrote in other areas of philosophy.

Giambattista Vico

Vico (b. 1668–d. 1744) was a historian, legal theorist, philosopher, and rhetorician.

Bernard Mandeville

The economist and philosopher Mandeville (b. 1670–d. 1733) was born in Rotterdam, but spent most of his life in London.

Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury)

Lord Shaftesbury (b. 1671–d. 1713) was educated by John Locke (b. 1632–d. 1704), secretary to his grandfather, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (also Anthony Ashley Cooper). Shaftesbury is remembered mainly for his work in ethics and aesthetics.

Samuel Clarke

The philosopher and theologian Clarke (b. 1675–d. 1729) is best known for defending the work of Isaac Newton (b. 1642–d. 1727).

Catharine Trotter Cockburn

Cockburn (b. 1679–d. 1749) was well known as both a playwright and a philosopher. John Locke (b. 1632–d. 1704) was very pleased with her Defence of Mr. Locke’s Essay of Human Understanding, although she defends Locke’s account by altering it significantly.

Christian Wolff

The German mathematician and philosopher Wolff (b. 1679–d. 1754) was one of the first philosophers to write in German. He is sometimes described as a follower of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (b. 1646–d. 1716), but the accuracy of this characterization is disputed.

George Berkeley

George Berkeley (b. 1685–d. 1753) is best known for his idealism but is also important as a philosopher of science. He developed a form of instrumentalism as a way to reconcile idealism with natural philosophy. He also wrote on the theory of fluxions (calculus), economic reform in Ireland, and the curative value of tar-water.

  • Berkley, George. The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. 9 vols. Edited by Arthur A. Luce and Thomas E. Jessop. London: Thomas Nelson, 1948–1957.

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    Berkeley’s best-known works are An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (Vol. 1), The Principles of Human Knowledge: Part 1 (Part 2 was lost on a trip to Italy and never rewritten) (in Vol. 2), and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (also Vol. 2).

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Montesquieu (Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu)

The historian, legal theorist, and philosopher Montesquieu (b. 1689–d. 1755) is best known for his arguments in favor of separation of powers.

Francis Hutcheson

Francis Hutcheson (b. 1694–d. 1746) is a key early figure in the Scottish Enlightenment; professor of moral philosophy at Dublin and later at Glasgow. He is best known for his work in ethics and aesthetics.

Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet)

The philosopher, playwright, and poet Voltaire (b. 1694–d. 1778) was one of the leading philosophes of the French Enlightenment and a close associate of Émilie du Châtelet (b. 1706–d. 1749). Four of Voltaire’s many works are particularly relevant to historians of Early Modern philosophy.

Jonathan Edwards

The American philosopher and theologian (b. 1703–d. 1758) Edwards put forward a version of idealism, defended determinism, inspired the missionary movement, and wrote about the religious revivals of the Great Awakening. He was briefly president of Princeton and died of complications after a smallpox inoculation.

Émilie du Châtelet (Gabrielle-Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet)

Châtelet was ahilosopher and physicist (b. 1706–d. 1749). Her posthumously published translation of Newton’s Principia is still the standard French translation. She is associated with Voltaire (b. 1694–d. 1778).

  • du Châtelet, Émilie. Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings. Edited by Judith Zinsser. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

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    Contains selections from du Châtelet’s Institutions du Physique—a treatise on physics that synthesizes Leibnizian and Newtonian elements into a new whole —as well as her Discourse on Happiness.

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Julien Offray de La Mettrie

The French philosopher and physician La Mettrie (b. 1709–d. 1751) lived in exile as a result of the reception of his views.

David Hume

The Scottish philosopher Hume (b. 1711–d. 1776) is best known for his alleged atheism and skepticism.

Étienne Bonnot de Condillac

Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (b. 1714–d. 1780) forwarded a revised version of the empiricism of John Locke (b. 1632–d. 1704) that became popular in France. He ejected innate faculties as well as innate ideas and considered the pedagogical implications of his theory of the mind.

Secondary Sources

This section concentrates on primary sources, both because there are so many and because almost all scholarship focuses on specific philosophers, problems, or themes within Early Modern philosophy rather than on providing a general overview. However, a few reference works and teaching tools are worth noting.

Reference Works

Many histories of Early Modern philosophy and other reference works are available. Garber and Ayers 1998 and Haakonssen 2006 are, in my view, the two most useful print sources. Project Vox and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy are two of the best online sources.

Teaching Tools

Many textbooks are also available. Ariew and Watkins 2009, supplemented by Atherton 1994, is in my view the best option currently available. Duncan and LoLordo 2012 is good for students needing a more in-depth engagement with the material.

  • Ariew, Roger, and Eric Watkins. Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources. 2d ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2009.

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    Perhaps the best anthology currently available. Sensible arrangement, good translations, and reliable introductions, but also some shocking gaps—most notably the absence of a single female author.

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  • Atherton, Margaret, ed. Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994.

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    Short volume containing selections from Elisabeth of Bohemia (b. 1618–d. 1680); Margaret Cavendish (b. 1623–d. 1673); Anne Conway (b. 1631–d. 1679); Damaris Cudworth, Lady Masham (b. 1658–d. 1708); Mary Astell (b. 1666–d. 1731); and Catherine Trotter Cockburn (b. 1679–d. 1749).

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  • Duncan, Stewart, and Antonia LoLordo, eds. Debates in Modern Philosophy. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2012.

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    An anthology concerning interpretive debates on topics such as the Cartesian Circle, Locke on personal identity, etc. Intended to model scholarship in Early Modern philosophy for students.

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  • Some Texts from Early Modern Philosophy.

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    Offers “versions of some classics of early modern philosophy, and a few from the 19th century, prepared with a view to making them easier to read while leaving intact the main arguments, doctrines, and lines of thought.” Contains just under 100 works by thirty different philosophers. Not recommended in lieu of the original texts, but some students—especially serious students with less-than-perfect English—report that it’s extremely helpful.

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