History Of St Olaf Philosophy Department

Philosophy has been taught at St. Olaf College from its beginning.  In 1889-90, under the rubric of “Mental Philosophy,” a logic class was required for the first senior class, and our first president, T. M. Mohn, was the instructor.  During the early years, the presidents tended to be the instructors in classes that eventually included ethics, history of philosophy, and psychology.   The latter was taught as part of philosophy until 1938, as was common in Europe.  In 1917, E.O. Ringstad arrived as Professor of Psychology and Philosophy, and “The Elements of Psychology” (Philosophy 1 and 2) became the prerequisites for other philosophy courses.  By the early 1920s, a student could earn a philosophy major by taking all of the six philosophy courses, including the psychology ones, and two religion courses.

Ringstad is rightly recognized as the father of philosophy at St. Olaf; he had an immense influence on students because of his breadth of learning and his sterling character.  He also seemed to know how to introduce philosophy to Lutherans, writing in one of the Viking yearbooks that Kant was a true child of the reformation, with a love of scripture inherited from his pietist parents.  It is appropriate that Ringstad be remembered each year with the E.O. Ringstad Prize for the best essays in philosophy.  With the death of Ringstad in 1939, psychology and philosophy divided, with psychology joining education in the Department of Education and Psychology, and philosophy joining religion in the Department of Religion and Philosophy. The previous year, Howard Hong (St. Olaf class of 1934) had been appointed as “Instructor in Religion and Psychology,” but immediately took a fellowship from the American Scandinavian Foundation to translate Kierkegaard in Denmark.

When he returned the next year to teach philosophy and religion, Hong added courses in Contemporary European Philosophy and American Philosophy, but the philosophy section in the catalog was still under the heading of Religion and Philosophy.  Hong wrote the following statement of purpose for philosophy, a statement that remained in the catalog until 1964, when the catalog dropped introductory statements until the late 1980s:

The purpose of the courses in philosophy is to acquaint students with the attempts which have been made through the ages to find a unifying principle in the universe and to offer an explanation of its phenomena.  It is the aim through these courses also to offer training in careful and systematic thinking and in the discovery of fallacies of thought to the end that students may rightly evaluate the many thought currents of the present day.

Thus began the dual emphasis on intellectual history and intellectual skills that still is a hallmark of the department.

During World War II, many students and faculty left the campus, including Hong, who was a conscientious objector and who served until 1946 as Field Secretary in the U.S. and Germany for a YMCA program to aid prisoners of war.  The only philosophy taught during this time was a history course, which was taught by Carl Mellby, the polymath whom the Mellby Lectures honor each year, and Harold Ditmanson.  After the war, Hong returned for one year, adding courses in Philosophy of Literature, Art, and Plato.  He then left in 1947 for two years of working with refugees in Europe.  William Narum (St. Olaf class of 1943) was hired as Hong’s replacement; he taught here until his retirement in 1991, when he wrote a history of the department from which this account is largely taken.

When Hong returned in 1949, philosophy became a department of its own.  Joining Hong and Narum were Walter Stromseth (St. Olaf class of 1950) in 1956 and Frederick Stoutland (St. Olaf class of 1954) in 1962.  These four were the builders of the department, introducing a full range of courses, establishing appropriate requirements for the major, and setting high standards for teaching and scholarship.  Hong retired in 1978, Stromseth in 1996, and Stoutland in 1997.  Trees were planted in their honor in the “philosophers’ grove” to the west of Holland Hall.  Narum and Stromseth were two of the founders of the Paracollege in 1968, which Narum served as first Master (a title later changed to Senior Fellow and then to Senior Tutor), and in which many philosophers taught until its demise in the middle 1990s.  Also, the department has had close relationships with the Howard and Edna Hong Kierkegaard Library, of which Hong, (until 1984), C. Stephen Evans (1984-94), and Gordon Marino (1994-  ) served and serves as Curator.

Since the sixties at least, the department has met several times each semester as a colloquium to discuss papers and chapters written by its members.  Also, at its meetings, it has often discussed its curriculum, its major, and various pedagogical issues.  At least three times it has made a special effort at self-study.  First, in September, 1978, after a summer of relevant readings, it held a retreat to examine its curriculum and consider changes.  The outside consultants were Roy Elveton of Carleton College, and Kent Bendall of Wesleyan College.  Second, in April, 1986, it held another retreat with Michael Root of the University of Minnesota as a consultant.  Preceding this meeting was a series of informal meetings with non-philosophy colleagues, and the sending out of numerous questionnaires to St. Olaf faculty and administrators, asking about their perceptions of the role of philosophy and the department at the college, and seeking their recommendations about possible changes.  In particular, the department discussed the balance between philosophy as intellectual history and as a traditional set of areas and issues, on the one hand, and, on the other, philosophy as the activity of critical thinking and practicing important intellectual skills.  Third, as a result of the college-wide demand for outcomes assessment, over the past decade the department has formulated a statement about its overall educational mission and its objectives: “To foster a love of wisdom and to develop competence in critical interpretation, critical reflection, and philosophical literacy, so that graduates will be well-prepared for whatever calling or career they pursue.”  An on-going discussion involves what these objectives mean and what they imply for teaching, what assessment methods are appropriate, and how to use the results of the latter.  We conducted an in-depth self-study in 2002-03 as part of a review of the department.  The external reviewers were Martin Gunderson, MacCalester College, Philip Quinn, University of Notre Dame, and Caroline Simon, Hope College.  Much of the discussion was about how to define, implement, and assess specific educational objectives, especially given the staff reduction in the 1990s that occurred after the original aims and objectives were formulated.

We have had many department members involved in interdisciplinary teaching, including The Great Conversation and Science Conversation.  Also, we have always had department members actively involved in a wide range of professional activities, including extensive publishing, leadership roles in professional societies, refereeing and editor roles for professional journals, and hosting annual meetings of the Minnesota Philosophical Society and of its annual student meetings.  Meanwhile, our graduates have had success at many of the first and second ranks of graduate schools, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Michigan, Brown, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Teaching philosophy at St. Olaf before it became a separate department, in addition to those mentioned above, were: President John Kildahl (1899-1914), Andrew Fossum (1899-1900, 1901-10), Julius Boraas (1910-22, 1938-46), Hans Hilleboe (1935-36), Rolf Syrdal (1937-39),  Abner Hansen (1938-39), and Gerrit Schipper (1939-40).

Teaching philosophy at St. Olaf after it became a separate department, in addition to those mentioned above, were and are: Kenneth Bailey (1954-55), Jenkin Davies (1954-55), Charles Magel (1957-58), Paul Johnson (1959-60), Ed Miller (1963-66), Owen Jones, (1964-65), William Mann (1967-72), Albert Anderson (1967-68), Mark Ylvisaker (1969-70), Douglas Alfors (1971-72), Edward Langerak (1972-2011), Karen Gervais (1972-74, 1989-  ), Karen Fiser (1972-74), Al Brinton (1974), Carl Brandt (1974-75), Gregory Mellema (1974-75, David Peters (1974-77), Howard Mueller (1978-82), David Hoekema (1977-84), Gary Deason (1977-90s), Karen Warren (1978-85), Vicki Harper (1979-2012), Mary Anne Warren (1979-80), Haavi Morreim (1982), Stephen Evans (1984-94), Cynthia Sundberg (1984-85), Charles Taliaferro (1985-  ), William Lad Sessions (1985-86), Sandra Menssen (1985-1990), Patricia Sayre (1985-87), Peggy Crouch (1985), Carla Johnson (1985), Dean Jon Moline (1986-94), Peter Shea (1986-87), Patrick Goold (1987-94), Corliss Swain (1987-  ), Rick Fairbanks (1988-04), Andrew Ward (1988-91), Josh Roberts (1988), Mark Linville (1991-97), Ken Casey (1992-97), David Vessey (1993-94), Jack Schwandt (1995), Gordon Marino (1995-  ), John Poling (1995-2000), Jeanine Grenberg (1996-  ), Edmund Santurri (1995-  ), Piotr Boltuc (1996-98), James Harold (1998-99), Geaofrrey Gorham (2000-01, 2003-04, 2007-08), Anant Rambachan (2000-  ), Anthony Rudd (2001-  ), Paola Kindred (2003-2005, 2007),  Elizabeth Galbraith (2004), Jennifer Manion (2004-08), Toben La Francois (2007),  Arthur Cunningham (2008- ), Deepanwita Dasgupta (2009-2010), Danny Munoz-Hutchinson (2009, 2010-  ),  Michael Fuerstein (2011-  ), Jason Marsh (2012-  ), Charles Watson III (2012-13), Kathryn Swanson (2014-15, 2016-  ), Laura Engel (2016-17), Brendon Westler (2019- ).

Chairs of the Philosophy Department since it became a separate department: Howard Hong (1949-58), William Narum (1958-69), Walter Stromseth (1969-77), Fred Stoutland (1977-87), Ed Langerak (1987-98), Rick Fairbanks (1998-2001), Corliss Swain (2001- 09), Vicki Harper (2008-12), Jeanine Grenberg (2012-13), Charles Taliaferro (2013-2019), and, currently, Danny Munoz-Hutchinson (2019- ).