In the most general sense, to have a philosophy is to have a view of reality or the cosmos and to have values. The philosophy of a community or individual may be explicit and articulate or it may be implicit and rarely stated in clear, public terms, but having some philosophy seems indispensable for there to be a community and any collaborative or individual endeavor. Each of the sciences is based on some philosophy or concept of what there is, how to investigate it, and some understanding of the value of the sciences. Each political community is sustained by some philosophy or concept of governance, authority, and values. While ‘philosophy’ is pervasive, in the sense that it seems almost
impossible to imagine any society or inquiry that does not contain some background of philosophical thought, the practice of philosophy as a discipline is not as pervasive and inescapable. ‘Philosophy as a practice (historically and today) involves disciplined, critical reflection on the philosophies or world-views that significantly shape human life. ‘Philosophy’ comes from the term meaning ‘the love of wisdom,’ and from the earliest time in the West, those so called ‘philosophers’ have sought not just to engage in critical reflection, but to search out and practice the love of wisdom. Unsurprisingly, there are different philosophies of wisdom, so one of the goals in the practice of philosophy is to engage in dialogue with one another in the search for what is truly wise in virtually all areas of life, from the philosophy of religion to the philosophy of science, knowledge, politics, medicine, the mind, the nature of beauty and ugliness, the arts, virtues and vices, good and evil, the philosophy of education, and so on. The importance of philosophy has been recognized by the United Nations, when UNESCO established World Philosophy Day to be celebrated the third Thursday of November each year. In establishing a World Philosophy Day, Irina Bokova (UNESCO Director-General) wrote:
“Faced with the complexity of today’s world, philosophical reflection is above all a call to humility, to take a step back and engage in reasoned dialogue, to build together the solutions to challenges that are beyond our control. This is the best way to educate enlightened citizens, equipped to fight stupidity and prejudice. The greater the difficulties encountered the greater the need for philosophy to make sense of questions of peace and sustainable development.”
Click here to see St. Olaf students celebrating Philosophy Day
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 aliberal 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 faculty (housed on the fifth and sixth floors of Holland Hall) are highly dedicated to working with every student in each class, as well as working with students who are not enrolled in any philosophy classes, but have philosophical questions.