Great thinkers of the 20th century

Methodology courses and philosophy of science

Course information

ECTS: 2.5 
Number of sessions: 4
Hours per session: 3
Course fee:

  • free for PhD candidates of the Graduate School
  • € 525,- for non-members
  • consult our enrolment policy for more information


Telephone: +31 (0)10 4082607 (Graduate School)

Session 1
January 29 (Wednesday) 2020
Mandeville building (directions), room T19-01

Session 2
February 5 (Wednesday) 2020
Mandeville building (directions), room T19-01

Session 3
February 12 (Wednesday) 2020
Mandeville building (directions), room T19-01

Session 4
February 19 (Wednesday) 2020
Mandeville building (directions), room T19-01


Thinkers are great when they continue to surprise and to educate, to inspire and to fascinate. And sometimes to annoy and frustrate, because we cannot really seem to get a grip on them. Perhaps the best reason for us to want to read primary literature from great thinkers is to avoid the cliché’s surround them in secondary literature.

Almost invariably, the author of a classic text has written something quite different from, and much more subtle than, most standard references to them lead us to believe. Unfortunately, we increasingly seem to have less time to read, or understand, those Great Books, burdened as we are with publishing and teaching. And when we do venture into them, they seem almost impenetrably shielded by the many layers of secondary literature that make us feel like amateurs when we want to approach the Great Work directly. But then again, we often need elucidation from this secondary literature because by themselves the great works often appear quite mysterious and baffling. Ever tried to just read Max Weber’s Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, or Michel Foucault’s Les mots et les choses?

Obviously in this course we won't have time to read such works either. But we will have time to discuss a few of them in some depth, and to ask about how they are interrelated. We will see how they can be placed in the period in which they arose – true to Hegel’s insight that philosophy is its time captured in thought. And we will discuss the contributions these works make to their respective fields – or across several fields – in thematic, systematic, and historical perspective. We will focus on books and thoughts from after the Second World War. A recurring question in the course will be: 'What about the French?' – as it seems that especially French authors forever elude our grasp.

Our main theme will be anthropologically inspired: Man – what, how, and where? We will inquire how man – or more philosophically speaking: the subject – appears to himself, to others, and to society, and of course to the social sciences and humanities that study him, or her. We are aware that 'man' has become a problematic concept – nobody will publish a tract called ‘An essay on man’ anymore today, as for instance Ernst Cassirer did before the War. Man is elsewhere, otherwise, fragmented, or perhaps even dissolved – as for instance (post)structuralists, deconstructionists, and communication theorists have often claimed. Or s/he has been ‘assimilated’ into some system or network obscuring the difference between humans and things, as for instance actor-network theory proposes.

Aims and working method

This course discusses major thinkers in the Social Sciences and the Humanities in the post-war era. It does so from several perspectives: historical, systematic, and thematic. Thinkers, theories and schools are not discussed in isolation, but in relation to each other and to the context – both academic and socio-political – in which they arose. Similarities, discrepancies, and contrasts are being sought out and investigated. Special attention is paid to 'French thought', in its relation or contrast to other 'continental' thought on the one hand, and Anglo-American developments on the other.

The course will consist of four four-hour sessions and will didactically be based intensive interaction between participants. Whenever possible the topics of the course will be discussed in relation to the topics and methodologies involved in the PhD-research of the participants. Participants will be challenged to provide cases and examples from their own field or experience. Participants will be informed well in advance on how to prepare for the sessions.

Learning objectives

After course completion participants will:

  • Have deepened their familiarity with major currents, thinkers, and perspectives in the social sciences and humanities;
  • Are better able to relate currents, thinkers, and perspectives from different fields and disciplines to each other;
  • Have a wider understanding of how to relate thought to academic, social and historical context
  • Are better able to (inter)relate thought traditions stemming from France, Germany, Britain, and the United States; they understand better how concepts ‘migrate’ from one national or academic context to another.
  • Are better able to see the relevance of such thinkers, currents, and perspectives for their own research

Session descriptions

Session 1
Introduction: The postwar condition of man

  • Horkheimer & Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung (1945)
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanisme et terreur (1947)
  • Hannah Arendt, The human condition (1958)

Session 2
The social conditions of reason

  • Michel Foucault, Folie et déraison (1961)
  • Jürgen Habermas, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1961)

Discipline, emancipation, and public life

  • Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir (1975)
  • Richard Sennett, The fall of public man (1977)

Session 3
Law against virtue

  • Martha Nussbaum, The fragility of goodness (1985)
  • Jacques Derrida, Force de loi (1994)

Body and biopolitics

  • Judith Butler, Gender trouble (1990)
  • Peter Sloterdijk, Regeln für den Menschenpark (1999)

Session 4
Revolution & the other

  • Slavoj Zizek, diverse works
  • Jacques Rancière, Le partage du sensible (2000)

Concluding discussion

About the instructor

Gijs van Oenen is Associate Professor in Practical Philosophy at the Erasmus School of Philosophy (ESPhil) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. He received his PhD from the University of Amsterdam in 1994, with a dissertation on legal philosophy.

His research focuses on political theory, rule of law, 'gedogen' (forebearance), multiculturalism, architecture, (art and) public space and interpassivity. Van Oenen plays an active role in academic as well as in public political, social and philosophical debates.