Early Modern Philosophy

The Sanders Prize in the History of Early Modern Philosophy is administered by Donald Rutherford, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego and editor of Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy.

This contest is now open! The submission deadline is October 1, 2024.

Submissions and inquiries should be directed to Donald Rutherford, editor of Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy at drutherford@ucsd.edu.

Competition Details

The Sanders Prize in the History of Early Modern Philosophy is a biennial essay competition open to scholars who are within fifteen (15) years of receiving a Ph.D. or students who are currently enrolled in a graduate program. Independent scholars may also be eligible and should direct inquiries to Donald Rutherford, editor of Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy at drutherford@ucsd.edu.

The award for the prize-winning essay is $5,000. Winning essays will be published in Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy.

Submitted essays must present original research in the history of early modern philosophy, interpreted as the period that begins roughly with Descartes and his contemporaries and goes to the end of the eighteenth century. (Following customary disciplinary boundaries, papers on Kant will be considered only if they are primarily concerned with Kant’s relations to earlier seventeenth and eighteenth century figures.) The core of the subject matter is philosophy and its history, though philosophy in this period was much broader than today and included a great deal of what currently belongs to the natural sciences, theology, and politics.

Essays should be between 7,500 and 15,000 words. Since winning essays will appear in Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy, submissions must not be under review elsewhere. Refereeing will be blind; authors should omit remarks and references that might disclose their identities. Receipt of submissions will be acknowledged by e-mail. The winner will be determined by a committee appointed by the editorial board of Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy and will be announced by the end of November during the prize cycle year. (The editorial board reserves the right to extend the deadline, if no essay is chosen.)

At the author’s request, the editor will simultaneously consider entries in the prize competition’s submissions for publication in Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy independently of the prize. Submissions and inquiries should be directed to Donald Rutherford, editor of Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy at drutherford@ucsd.edu

Prize Winners

2022 Winner

Gabriel Watts, University of Sydney

Title: "Hume’s Gambit: Irreligion, Animals, and Truth”

This year’s winner is Gabriel Watts (University of Sydney) for his essay “Hume’s Gambit: Irreligion, Animals, and Truth.” There were 29 entries for the prize, and the panel of judges consisted of Donald Rutherford, Mary Domski, Elizabeth Radcliffe, Mogens Laerke, and Desmond Hogan.

Gabriel Watts is currently a research fellow at the University of Sydney, he wrote his essay as a junior research fellow with the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities “Human Abilities” group, Freie Universität Berlin. He completed his DPhil in 2020 at Oriel College, University of Oxford.

The winning submission offers an elegantly written and sophisticated treatment of a momentous question in Hume’s Treatise, namely, how Hume can justifiably support the use of reason in the wake of the devastating skeptical doubts posed at the end of Book 1. We believe it is exactly the sort of paper that should be awarded the Sanders Prize. It pushes forward an important conversation and does so with insight and thoughtfulness.


In this paper I develop an irreligious reading of Hume’s decision to return to philosophy after his sceptical crisis at the end of Book One of A Treatise of Human Nature. Any irreligious reading of Hume’s epistemology must articulate Hume’s epistemic grounds for preferring his experimental science of human nature to sophisticated superstitious anthropologies. I argue that Hume believes his use of animal analogies to confirm his hypotheses offers him the best possible “security” against positing false causal claims about the nature of our “mental operations”, and that the superior security of this experimental method of reasoning provides him with epistemic grounds for preferring his science of human nature to superstitious metaphysics, even though both have title to our assent. I conclude by suggesting that in continuing to philosophise after his sceptical crisis, Hume risks his intellectual reputation on a bet that “the latest posterity” will find his science of human nature a surer path to useful truths than superstition, because his experimental philosophy of human nature is the most epistemically secure form of anthropology there is. This irreligious gambit, I claim, is the origin of Hume’s philosophy.

2020 Winner

Matthew Leisinger, York University

Title: Cudworthian Consciousness

This year’s winner is Matthew Leisinger (York University) for his essay “Cudworthian Consciousness”. There were 64 entries for the prize, many of which were excellent. The panel of judges consisted of Donald Rutherford, Peter Anstey, Mogens Laerke, Elizabeth Radcliffe, and Lisa Shapiro.



Ralph Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) is credited with the first instance of the English word “consciousness” used in a distinctively philosophical sense. While Cudworth says little in the System about the nature of consciousness, he has more to say in his (largely unpublished) freewill manuscripts. I argue that, in these manuscripts, Cudworth distinguishes two kinds of consciousness, which I call “bare consciousness” and “reflective consciousness”. What both have in common is that each is a kind of reflection or reflexive perception that therefore involves a “duplication” of the soul as both subject and object. While it is less clear how Cudworth takes these two kinds of consciousness to differ, I argue that the central difference for Cudworth is that, whereas bare consciousness is always directed towards individual cogitations, reflective consciousness is the kind of consciousness that the soul achieves through reflection upon itself as a whole. As a result, reflective consciousness introduces a unity into our experience that is not present at the level of bare consciousness.

2018 Winner

John Grey, Michigan State University

Title: "The Metaphysics of Natural Right in Spinoza" (PDF)

In the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP), Spinoza argues that “the right of each thing extends as far as its determinate power does” (TTP 16.3, G III/189); subsequently, in the Tractatus Politicus (TP), he offers a slightly revised argument for the same conclusion. I offer an account of the reasons for the revision. In both arguments, the natural right of finite individuals is derivative of God’s right. However, the TTP argument hinges on the claim that each individual is part of the whole of nature (totius naturae), and for this reason inherits part of the natural right of that whole. Using several analogous cases from the Ethics, I show that this form of argument from division is not compatible with Spinoza’s considered view about the way in which finite individuals derive properties from God. The revised argument, by contrast, avoids the pitfalls of his earlier efforts. It also better reveals the deep roots by which the monistic metaphysics of the Ethics feeds into Spinoza’s conception of natural right.

2016 Winner

Julia Joráti, Ohio State University

Title: “Leibniz’s Ontology of Force” (PDF)

Leibniz portrays the most fundamental entities in his mature ontology in at least three different ways. In some places, he describes them as mind-like, immaterial substances that perceive and strive. Elsewhere, he presents them as hylomorphic compounds. In yet other passages, he characterizes them in terms of primitive and derivative forces. Interpreters often assume that the first description is the most accurate. In contrast, I will argue that the third characterization is more accurate than the other two. If that is correct, Leibniz’s monadological metaphysics is even more radical than it initially seems: his ontology is best understood not as a substance-mode ontology but as a force ontology. At the metaphysical ground floor, we do not find substances that possess force; instead, we just find forces. Interpreting Leibniz as a force ontologist has far-reaching consequences. For instance, it requires us to reconsider the status of time in Leibniz’s system and to revise our understanding of appetitions and perceptions.

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