Majors, Concentrations

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, which arise naturally in the course of a liberal education, are not only fascinating in their own right, they also touch on issues central to understanding and improving human life in our own society and in the world. Because they involve complex and controversial issues, 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.

Engaging in philosophy develops skills in careful and fair-minded interpretation, creative but rigorous argumentation, and perceptive, wise evaluation of complex issues. These valuable abilities are applicable to any subject matter and in any human context and are useful for negotiating the ambiguities of today’s career paths.

Students can find philosophy courses that satisfy each of the six categories of core general education requirements. Also, a significant number of the courses that satisfy the EIN requirement are taught by philosophers. On the department’s website, the department provides for each term a prospectus that describes the special focus for each course and section.

Overview of the Major

A major in philosophy is highly recommended not only for those who wish to pursue graduate study in philosophy but also as preparation for other careers that require the ability to think in a creative and disciplined manner about questions that are new or whose method of solution is debated, including careers in law, theology, business, management, medicine, journalism, politics, and education.

Philosophy majors are encouraged to participate in the student-run Philosophy Forum, to attend special lectures and events sponsored by the department, to explore study abroad programs, and to participate in departmental social events.


See Academic Honors

Departmental distinction in philosophy is awarded by a vote of the department to those graduating students whose discourse, both oral and written, exhibits such philosophical virtues as clarity, coherence, and sensitivity to the full range of relevant considerations, fair-mindedness, rigor, and creativity. Candidates submit a portfolio of papers by mid April to the department chair. Additional information about applying for distinction is available on the department’s website.

Special Resources

The Howard and Edna Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf is an internationally acclaimed center for the study of Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher who is widely recognized as the father of existentialism. Every year, researchers from around the world come to the library to participate in its visiting fellows program. It is an invaluable resource for students, too. A number of philosophy students have worked in the library, and seniors and recent undergraduates have participated in the library’s fellowship program for young scholars. The library also sponsors The Reed, an undergraduate journal of existential thought.