Philosophy addresses the perennial and fundamental concerns of human beings to gain a reflexive understanding of, and practical orientation to, themselves and the world. In particular, philosophy conducts fundamental inquiry into being (ontology), thought (mind), knowledge (epistemology), action (intentionality), language (linguistics), identity (philosophical psychology), morality, art (aesthetics), politics (political theory), law (jurisprudence), literature, sexuality, etc. It does this in a spirit of critical inquiry that demands individual judgment be developed within a de-centered awareness of historical, cultural, and social traditions. Like other disciplines, philosophy is an evolving, historical, and specialized enterprise: namely, scientific inquiry. Unlike other disciplines, however, philosophy retains a commitment to gaining an understanding of the whole, the entirety, or the comprehensive breadth of the human condition, precisely to provide understanding and orientation amidst the complexity of the modern world. Unlike mythological narratives, cosmological teachings, or religious doctrines, contemporary philosophy has relinquished any pretention to provide guidance on the “final,” “absolute,” or “ultimate” purpose or significance of human life. It does not provide wisdom about how to live one’s life but, instead, reasoned argumentation about unavoidable dimensions of the rational conduct of life, particularly amidst modern complexity. It is unique in its sustained and radical commitment to criticize its own historical, cultural, and social assumptions about truth, rightness, and authenticity.
Philosophy is distinctive in another important respect. Historically, it has grappled with the fundamental questions itemized above and, in this way, established the fundamental conceptual framework for the specialization, separation, and independence of disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts, and humanities. Philosophy distinguishes itself from such empirical, creative, and interpretive disciplines by retaining its relation to the “whole” of the human condition, but it continues to raise fundamental critical questions about their basic frameworks: e.g., ontological assumptions, methodologies, theoretical commitments, and objectives. By raising such fundamental questions, philosophy has therefore constructed, critically challenged, and reconstructed the frameworks of other disciplines. For the most part, philosophy conducts itself in a cooperative interdisciplinary fashion, neither superior nor subordinate to empirical inquiries, each learning from the other while retaining its distinctness. Moreover, philosophy raises basic questions about the meaning, justification, and bindingness of “normative” obligations, whether religious, moral, ethical, conventional, or legal. In this normative task, philosophy assumes the crucial role of offering reasons – hence criticism, insight, and guidance – in the practical rationality at work in social and political order. Finally, philosophy addresses questions about the conditions within which humans gain a personal, singular, or unique orientation to their own, individual existence, allowing identity formation to retain its principled commitment to the unique significance of individuals within their encompassing historical, social, and cultural milieu.
Until the last two or three hundred years, all branches of human knowledge were considered part of philosophy, which was conducted as cosmology or theology. In the modern period, however, philosophy has come to be considered a distinct, secular discipline separated from theology or cosmology. Nevertheless, as the natural and the social sciences become more reflective and critical about their own conceptual foundations as empirical research disciplines, and as the humanities struggled to distinguish their enterprises from those of the sciences, philosophical thinking, philosophy set itself off from them as distinctive forms of modern, secular knowledge formation. Nevertheless, philosophy has come to play an increasingly important interdisciplinary role in cooperation with these conduct of other fields of knowledge. This demand for closer ties between conceptual and empirical work has forced philosophers, from one side, to acquire expertise in other fields and forced scientists and humanists, from the other, to acquire a knowledge of their philosophical traditions.
Traditionally, philosophy has been conducted as an inquiry into the human condition, seeking to identify constant, general, or universal features of human social life as such. Like all of the disciplines that emerged as the “liberal arts,” it has confronted its own prejudices, parochialisms, and pretensions in regard to the remarkable diversity of human life. Feminist critiques of traditional philosophy revealed its pervasive masculinist assumptions and led to further, far-reaching concerns with gender, culture, race, and ethnicity. A good deal of what counts as philosophical scholarship has been conducted within the western tradition and is, hence, subject to the charge of being Euro-centric: i.e., not only ignorant of other traditions but largely insulated against them. The self-critical examination of an emerging philosophy can only be conducted in open, cooperative dialogue with other traditions, and a crucial dimension of this dialogue is the self-reflexive historical examination of what currently counts as western philosophy. A genealogy of western philosophy examines its roots, not only in homo sapien evolution as such but, more specifically still, in its dualistic inheritance of the Greco-Hellenic tradition (cosmology) and the Judeo-Christian tradition (religion). This genealogy of knowledge and faith is crucial for establishing the conditions for fruitful dialogue about its culture-centric prejudices, particularly given the secular nature of contemporary philosophy. As secular, contemporary philosophy sharply distinguishes itself from mythological narratives, cosmological teachings, and religious doctrines, although it maintains it long-standing dialogue with theology. In this regard, philosophy sustains itself within an ongoing dialogue with both science and religion.
The Department’s curriculum is designed to reflect these essential historical-developmental aspects of philosophy. The Department captures both historical traditions and contemporary research in philosophy by offering both a historical sequence and a variety of subfield and specialized-subfield courses. The eight historical courses cover the main periods of Western philosophy from ancient to contemporary times, and the subfield courses consider problems in epistemology, logic, ethics, aesthetics, and political theory. Specialized subfield courses address basic issues in the study of law, language, literature, healthcare and the environment. Through such courses, the Department intends to demonstrate the crucial relevance of philosophy to modern times and, more specifically, to the mission of a liberal arts education. The Department encourages and supports interdisciplinary work both within individual courses and while fulfilling major and minor requirements. The requirements for a major are designed to accommodate a double-major declared within the first two years, and the minor requirements allow a student to choose courses that establish strong interdisciplinary ties to a student’s major course of study.