The aim of the Philosophy Department is to engage students in disciplined and imaginative thinking about philosophical issues. Philosophical questions fall primarily into four groups: questions about the nature of reality (metaphysics), about reasoning and inference (logic), about knowledge (epistemology) and about values and society, including moral values (ethics) and aesthetic values. These questions arise naturally in the course of a liberal education; they are not only fascinating in their own right, they also touch on issues central to understanding and improving human life in society and the world. These are complex and controversial issues, and there are no easy answers. Yet it matters greatly which answers are accepted, and it is therefore important to engage in discussion with others who face these questions and to seek to learn from the philosophers of the past and present.
Taking a course in philosophy should increase your analytical skills, test and improve your imagination in comparing different ideas and values, and sharpen your ability to express questions and reasons for your beliefs or doubts. Becoming a major in philosophy will further these skills as well as enable you to engage in the history of ideas, grappling with philosophies that have been the foundation for religion, science, ethics, politics and governance. At St. Olaf College we are committed to both historical and contemporary philosophical positions and practices.
It has been documented over many years that philosophy majors perform the best on LSATs, and it is therefore not surprising that some of our majors have gone on to study law and politics (at Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and elsewhere). Other majors have gone straight into the private sector, and have found that their skills often enable them to excel in a creative corporate environment better than students whose focus was narrower.
Philosophy majors have gone into the Peace Corps and other service-oriented practices (Teach for America, Lutheran Volunteer Corps), some graduates are working for the State Department, and in different non-profit organizations, while other majors pursue theology and philosophy (St. Olaf Philosophy majors have attended Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, and Princeton Theological Seminary). Majors have been accepted to do graduate work in philosophy at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, University of Chicago, University of California San Diego, Baylor University, University of Wisconsin, Emory, the University of Notre Dame, and more.
The philosophy department (Housed on the fifth and sixth floors of Holland Hall) faculty is highly dedicated to working with each student in each class, as well as working with students who are not enrolled in a philosophy class, but have philosophical questions.
So, What is Philosophy?
Philosophy, in the most general sense, is something you have been practicing since you first used your imagination and reflected on what is real, what is valuable, what should I do, what (if anything) do I owe my parents, care-givers, the state, or those who have helped me? Questions ultimately leading to, Is there a divine, sacred reality? These are questions that emerge in childhood and remain even in the oldest persons who can still think.
As we progress from childhood, and we keep asking questions we come to some of the following: What is the foundation for the physical sciences? In other words, what makes us so certain that the laws of nature are uniform throughout the cosmos? Or, why it is that the cosmos and its laws will endure over time? These are questions that are not scientific, but deeper, for they involve asking why there is a cosmos in which science itself is possible? In terms of values, we are often led to ask: What is beauty, love, justice, tenderness, anger, vanity, humility, joy? What is the nature of communication and the meaning of our language? What is truth?
“Philosophy” comes from the Greek words for love (philo) and wisdom (Sophia) and is translated as “the love of wisdom.” In Greek, love is a form of passion, a searching or craving something one does not yet possess. Aristotle located “wonder” as the beginning of inquiry; we wonder about ourselves, the lives of others, life, our place in the cosmos. For some, “wonder” might seem more like puzzlement and it is this puzzlement that leads one to think of philosophy as a “problem-solving” activity, but I suggest that “wonder” should be seen more in terms of awe and amazement. Aristotle makes clear that this is his sense of the word “wonder” for he claims that philosophy can begin with the delight and wonder we take in our perceptions of the world. So, philosophy involves awe and wonder about ourselves and the world; a passion to understand how to love wisdom in both intellectually and in practice. As a practice, philosophy is virtually impossible to avoid. Even if one is highly skeptical and you think you can know very little, that is itself a philosophy, called skepticism.
Philosophy can and is practiced outside of academic institutions and some very great philosophers did not actually hold university or college positions. This was the case for Hobbes, Hume, Mill, and others. When we look to the founding of academies in the ancient world, we find philosophy largely being practiced in the form of dialogue. In fact the term ‘Academy’ comes from the name of a garden in which Plato used to meet and engage in dialogue with his students in Ancient Athens. It is because Athena is the parton of Athens and her sign is the owl and also because Aristotle pointed out that some areas need to be solved in darkness, it is desirable to be like an owl. That is why the owl is a symbol of philosophy.
The philosophy department at St. Olaf College is very much committed to welcoming students into the practice of philosophy. You will find a wide variety of methods and expertise, but the same joy, wonder, spirit of collaboration and openness to the contributions you bring to our dialogues. Our goal is to learn from each other and the great history of ideas, and to seek to contribute –with you– to the pursuit of philosophy around the globe.
Many of us are active philosophically internationally; Members of our faculty have taught philosophy in China, some of us have offered philosophical contributions in Copenhagen, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Moscow, and elsewhere; five of us have presented papers in the United Kingdom. Books published by members of the department have been translated into Portuguese, German, Spanish, French, and Korean.
The philosophers in the department have received their graduate training at Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Chicago, University of Toronto, Penn, Emory, and elsewhere. Three of us were among the first in our families to go to college. We work together with our students to build a sense of community and mutual support.
Engaging in philosophy develops skills in careful and fair-minded interpretation, creative but rigorous argumentation, and reflective and wise evaluation of complex issues. These abilities are extremely valuable for life as a whole and are applicable to any subject matter and in any human context. Most of our students discover that these skills make philosophy very useful for continuing their education not only in philosophy but in other fields as well and for negotiating the ambiguities of today’s career paths.
Charles Taliaferro, Department Chair