Matthew Senior

  • Ruberta T. McCandless Professor of French

Areas of Study


  • BA, University of Kansas, 1976
  • Licence ès Lettres, La Sorbonne, Paris IV, 1978
  • PhD, Yale University, 1990


I teach French language, literature, and culture courses, from beginning French to intermediate and advanced surveys and seminars on early modern literature, philosophy, and art. At all levels, my goal is the same: to help, challenge, coach, provoke, inspire, and collaborate with Oberlin students in their acquisition of the French language and their exploration of the multifaceted, storied culture that French has always carried with it, in metropolitan France and in many corners of the world.

Learning another language and culture is one of the most important and lasting achievements of a college education: It opens new linguistic worlds and sharpens one’s understanding of one’s own language and culture and stimulates critical thinking.

On a shrinking planet, where all too often political decisions are based on calculations of wealth, power, and violence rather than peace and intercultural understanding, we need more practice positioning ourselves in other cultures and speaking their languages.

My current research and upper-level teaching interests focus on representations of the natural world in early modern France. In my work on zoos, medical and religious practices, literature, and philosophy, I have been studying a major shift in knowledge and sensibilities toward nature during the period 1500-1800, as a Renaissance paradigm of relatedness to nature and microcosm was being replaced by a mechanistic, Cartesian world view.

I have edited three collections of essays on the history and philosophy of animality: Animots: Postanimality in French Thought (Yale French Studies, 127, 2015); A Cultural History of Animals in the Age of Enlightenment (Berg, 2007); and Animal Acts: Configuring the Human in Western History from the Middle Ages to the Present (Routledge, 1997) and contributed essays to these as well.

A related area of interest of mine is the process by which humans create themselves, mentally and symbolically, as human beings, a practice modern philosophers have called “supreme humanization” (Nietzsche), “hominisation” (Teilhard de Chardin), “anthropogenesis” (Giorgio Agamben), and “anthropotechnics” (Peter Sloterdijk).

This ties into my earlier research on the role of confession in the formation of the self in Western history, the subject of my first book: In the Grip of Minos: Confessional Discourse in Dante, Corneille, and Racine (Ohio State University Press, 1994).

Fall 2024

Plague Literature and Medicine — FYSP 157
Français intermédiaire II — FREN 206
L'histoire du corps, 1500-1800 — FREN 423

Spring 2025

Français intermédiaire II — FREN 206
Passions du corps et l'âme (1600-1900) — FREN 353


Matthew Senior Contributes Chapter

October 24, 2018

Matthew Senior, Ruberta T. McCandless professor of French, contributed a chapter,“Classify and Display: Human and Animal Species in Linnaeus and Cuvier,” to Animals, Animality and Literature, Bruce Boehrer, Molly Hand, and Brian Massumi, eds., Cambridge University Press, 2018. The essay examines the intersection and overlap between systems of classification for plants and animals and those used to classify humans according to racialized anatomical differences. For this article Senior consulted rich holdings in natural history in the Special Collections department of Oberlin Libraries, including a famous illustration from the work of Linnaeus depicting intermediate species between Homo sapiens and members of the ape family.

Matthew Senior Presents Invited Paper

December 8, 2016

Ruberta T. McCandless Professor of French Matthew Senior presented an invited paper, “Taxonomy: Human and Animal Patterning, 1485-1760,” at the Patterns in Early Modern France conference in Lisbon, Portugal.

Matthew Senior Presents Papers at Conferences

January 21, 2016

Ruberta T. McCandless Professor of French Matthew Senior presented two papers at international conferences during the Fall 2015 semester. '"Only the soul feels': Disembodied Emotions in Descartes" was part of the interdisciplinary conference Compassion in Early Modern Culture, 1550-1700, hosted by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, September 19, 2015.

The second paper, "Le visage de l'animal (XVIe-XVIIIe siecles): de l'anthropomorphisme au zoomorphisme," was presented at the Portraits: regards sur l'animal et son language conference, hosted by the universities of Le Mans and Angers, October 8, 2015.

Matthew Senior Co-edits, Contributes Essay

November 9, 2015

Ruberta T. McCandless Professor of French Matthew Senior co-edited and contributed an essay to the spring 2015 issue of Yale French Studies. The special volume, Animots: Postanimality in French Thought, co-edited with Carla Freccero (University of California Santa Cruz) and David L. Clark (McMaster University), examines the role of real and figural animals in French philosophy, literature, and art, ranging from Georges Bataille’s writings on prehistoric art to medieval bestiaries, animals in Holocaust literature, and animals in contemporary cinema. Senior’s essay is "'L'animal que donc je suis': Self-Humaning in Descartes and Derrida.”

Matt Senior Presents, Publishes

May 27, 2014

Professor of French Matthew Senior gave an invited talk, “1671: The Zoomorphic Face in Charles Le Brun,” at an interdisciplinary conference hosted by the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley, April 11-12. Entitled “About Faces,” the conference examined philosophical theories of the face as well the history of the face in film, literature, physiognomy, portraiture, surveillance, and plastic surgery.