The European Enlightenment, c.1680-1799

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Timothy Hochstrasser SAR 2.14


This course is available on the BA in History, BSc in Government and History, BSc in International Relations and History and BSc in Politics and History. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

HY315 is available to General Course students starting in the Michaelmas Term ONLY in 2020/21.

Course content

The European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century is conventionally taken to be the period in which the disciplines of philosophy, history, economics and anthropology, and other social sciences began to emerge as discrete disciplines independent of state and church control. This course therefore sets out to explore the new ideas generated in these areas as a result of a fresh understanding of man's place in the physical world. But while the course aims to look at ideas and concepts in themselves it is also concerned with the way that they were applied in political practice and adapted to provide new understanding of social structures, or as contemporaries put it, a 'Science of Man'. The chronological context of the Enlightenment is taken to be Europe between the reign of Louis XIV and the end of the Directory in France in 1799. Within this broad framework the following large themes provide the subject matter of both lectures and classes in the Michaelmas Term: the impact of the Scientific Revolution upon institutionalised religion; the emergence of a 'Republic of Letters'; English and French critiques of absolutist monarchy; the creation of scientific approaches to the study of ethics and politics; the political theory of enlightened despotism; the intellectual origins of the French Revolution; intellectual encounters with the New World; the concept of a Counter-Enlightenment; and the move from a private to a public sphere of cultural inquiry. The contributions of Newton, Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau - among others - will be highlighted. In the Lent Term the focus will be more narrowly directed to the study of individual key authors and texts and on the impact of enlightened ideas in particular countries, notably England, France, Prussia, Russia and the Habsburg Monarchy. Space will also be found for an examination of the contribution of enlightened thought to the visual arts and music in the 18th century. The course gives students the chance to consider whether or not the Enlightenment was an era of European history that fostered the application of reason to political and social reform, an end to censorship, torture, and hierarchical social models, and a beginning to religious toleration and recognizably modern concepts of human rights, international law and social equality. The focus throughout will be on the writings of the philosophes themselves and their attempts to convert theoretical innovation into practical reform through the agency of bureaucracy and rulers.


Recorded lectures. Classes will consist of a blend of campus and online teaching.

There will be a reading week in week 6 of the Michaelmas and the Lent Terms. 

Formative coursework

Two pieces of formative assessment are required, the first a source-criticism exercise in the Michaelmas Term (week 4), and the second a conventional essay in the Lent Term (week 7). In addition students will do a mock.

Indicative reading

A full reading list will be provided at the start of the course. The following represent basic introductory reading only, and an indication of some primary sources: T C W Blanning, The culture of power and the power of culture (2002); D Outram, The Enlightenment (1995); T Munck, The Enlightenment (2000); R Porter, The Enlightenment (2001). Anthologies: I Kramnik (Ed), The Portable Enlightenment Reader (1995); S Eliot & B Stern (Eds), The Age of Enlightenment (2 vols, 1979).


Exam (70%, duration: 3 hours) in the summer exam period.
Presentation (15%) and class participation (15%) in the MT and LT.

Students MUST give an assessed presentation in either the MT or the LT.

Class participation will be graded across both the MT and the LT.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: International History

Total students 2019/20: 10

Average class size 2019/20: 10

Capped 2019/20: Yes (15)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills