How To Structure A Philosophy Major


What should the curriculum of a philosophy major look like?

Specific answers will vary across different types of schools, but perhaps at some level they will have enough in common such that it would be useful to discuss the question in general.

The question is prompted by an inquiry from Gregory Oakes, who is associate professor of philosophy at Winthrop University as well as assistant dean of the school’s College of Arts and Sciences.

He notes that the American Philosophical Association’s “Statement on the Major,” written by a committee headed by Robert Audi (then Nebraska, now Notre Dame) was published in 1992, and asks whether, in light of “(a) the continued assault on the humanities and (b) the need to offer relevant instruction to today’s student for today’s marketplace”—I’d add, (c) a noticeable broadening since 1992 of what is considered respectable mainstream philosophy, and increased skepticism about mapping philosophical terrain around topics that are more “central” or “core” than others —it is worth revisiting the subject.

The APA Statement is well done and a good place to start.

It notes that while the philosophy major should serve as a preparation for those who wish to enter academic philosophy as a profession, “this cannot be the primary purpose of the major in philosophy, because it is not realistic to suppose that very many students will follow this path.” Rather:

The primary purpose of the major in philosophy is better conceived as a valuable and indeed paradigmatic “liberal education” major. Its basic purpose should be to introduce interested students to philosophy in ways that will serve them well—both professionally and personally—whatever they may go on to do after graduation. Provision must be made for those who aspire to graduate study and careers in philosophy, but they must be recognized to be the exception rather than the rule. A well-conceived major, however, can be at once a valuable liberal education major and a sound preparation for graduate study leading into the life of the philosophical profession. Highly specialized study in philosophy is in any event best left to graduate school. A flexible and broadly-gauged undergraduate program is thus desirable for both purposes.

That seems right.

The document then describes four models of major programs:

The historical model emphasizes the history of philosophy. As applied to the major as a whole, it usually begins with the Presocratics or Socrates and Plato. It traces and critically discusses the views, problems, and methods of these and subsequent important philosophers, often with attention to their wider cultural setting.

The field model stresses coverage of central fields and various subfields of philosophical inquiry. They generally include metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, the theory of knowledge; logic; and ethics and value theory, together with the history of philosophy. Beyond these central fields, attention may further be given to such areas of special inquiry as social and political philosophy and the philosophy of science, language, religion, and art.

There is also a problems model. Its emphasis is on understanding major philosophical issues, such as the nature and existence of God, the mind-body problem, the nature of knowledge, and the challenge of skepticism, the free will issue, and the problem of objectivity in ethics.

A related but alternative approach is represented by the activity model. On this approach, “doing philosophy” is primary. Methods and approaches are stressed, and the main focus is on ways of dealing with philosophical problems of various kinds. Here the process of inquiry is considered more important than the results or particular conclusions reached.

The statement notes, “A philosophy major optimally will incorporate features of all four of the models described above—the historical, field, problems, and activity models—without allowing any to eclipse the others.” It would be useful to hear from those whose major programs distinctly resemble one or two of these models what they think their strengths and weaknesses are. And it would be interesting to learn about alternatives to these four models.

The also document identifies the “central elements” of a major in philosophy:

  • history of philosophy
  • ethics
  • problems regarding mind, reality, and knowledge
  • logic
  • the “expanded agenda” of applied philosophy, philosophy related to race, gender, cultural, and global issues, interdisciplinary work
  • internal challenges and controversies (e.g., what should be in the canon? analytic v. continental? incorporating different perspectives, etc.)

There’s good advice about what kind of majors to expect, and when:

In structuring a philosophy major, it should be kept in mind that most students will have had little or no acquaintance with philosophy prior to their first undergraduate courses. The decision to elect philosophy as a major thus may not be made until after the first or second year of undergraduate study, during which the student may have taken only a few philosophy courses; and the courses taken may not include any of those specifically required for the major. Such relative latecomers to the major are likely to be the rule rather than the exception, and are to be expected and welcomed. The major therefore should be so structured that it can be completed within a period of three years or less. (This provides a further reason to avoid any rigid sequencing of courses, and to keep specific prerequisites for advanced courses to a minimum.)

And there’s an emphasis on skill-development at the introductory level:

The primary aim of an introductory course should not be “coverage” of a period, a field, or a set of problems, let alone all of philosophy. Introductory work should cultivate the abilities to recognize philosophical questions and grasp philosophical arguments; to read philosophical texts critically; to engage in philosophical discussion; and to write philosophical papers involving interpretation, argument, and research. These skills can be developed in courses organized historically, by problems, or by field. They require contact with original sources, not merely textbooks; opportunities for discussion as well as lectures; and experience in writing papers, in addition to examinations.

And as for overall structure, the APA statement advises:

While there can and should be no strict rule, it is common practice in many departments to suggest a general pattern that might usefully be recommended to students seeking guidance in the planning of their studies leading to a major.

First two years: a general introductory course in philosophy and first courses in ethics and logic.

Second year: survey courses in the history of ancient and early modern philosophy, and one or two intermediate-level courses in areas of interest to the students.

Third and fourth years: further intermediate courses and a number of advanced courses, including several in central areas of philosophical inquiry as well as others of interest to the student.

Fourth year: Several advanced courses in which the student has close contact with faculty members, possibly including a senior seminar, independent study course, or honors thesis.

There’s quite a bit more to the statement—read it all here. And then we can take up Professor Oakes’ questions about whether changes to philosophy, academia, the economy, and society in general, should prompt changes to our understanding of how to structure a philosophy major.

Kenneth Snelson, “Needle Tower”

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