Introduction

Module Description

This module investigates three sets of questions. While they may seem unrelated at the surface, they all invite us to reflect on the positive and negative legacy of the historical doctrine of “empiricism” (a theory which states that all knowledge comes from the senses). This doctrine, in large part, came out of the scientific revolution of the 17th century and emphasized the importance of observation and experiment in the investigation of the natural world. These three sets of questions are:

  • Can reason and empiricist science prove that religious faith is irrational? Once we get rid of God, what do we appeal to in distinguishing right from wrong: our biological nature, sentiments, reason or traditions?
  • Do humans have the right to dominate and exploit nature? How do we draw the line between what we can and cannot do (for example, in the case of genetic engineering or environmental development)?
  • Does “race” exist as a biological category or social construct? Can racial differences be scientifically established and still be compatible with multicultural aspirations?

These three sets of questions, which are still much debated today, actually arose in the Age of Enlightenment, an 18th century intellectual movement so important that it shaped the modern West, and arguably, much of the rest of the world. We will examine whether and how principles involved in selective central Enlightenment debates are still operative in our age. The module does not aim only at exploring historical intellectual currents, but also at understanding our present concerns and projects from a historical perspective.