What is Philosophy?

While a general description was outlined in our introduction, let’s consider this question with a fresh perspective. Philosophy, in the most general sense, is something you have been practicing since you first used your imagination and reflected on questions such as 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 the question of whether there is a divine, sacred reality. These are questions that emerge in childhood and remain for the rest of our thinking lives.

As we progress from childhood and keep asking questions, our intellectual travails tend to lead us to 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 a cosmos exists in which science itself is possible and are not answerable in terms of science itself. 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?

Once again, “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 as well as 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, one is still assuming a philosophical position, namely 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 Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, John Stuart 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 of inquiry need to be solved in darkness that, for a philosopher, 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 Denmark, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Russia, 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