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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Greg Oakes
Greg Oakes
6 years ago

Thanks, Justin, for responding to my question about the Philosophy major!

There are so many aspects to this question, I cannot try to address them all. As I teach at a regional comprehensive, I will focus on this: workplace value and its significance for the major.

Whether because of today’s student (the “millennial”) or the general trend toward greater emphasis on wage-earning after college, it’s a key question in my institution: how to serve the student’s post-graduation needs. I certainly believe in the general, high career value of the liberal breadth and critical depth of the philosophy baccalaureate education. But I also see the need to make more clear and to develop more specifically just how this education might serve the student newly facing our job markets.

One direction that I would like to see my own department go in is towards the portfolio method of student competency evaluation. Instead of course grades and long-forgotten essays or exams, I think that a developing store of artifacts demonstrating key philosophy-student attributes would provide our graduating students more tangible evidence of their abilities than they currently walk away with. Internet resources make such portfolios portable and potentially more interesting than an education line or two in a resume.

I believe that other resources would also better prepare our students for their after-college lives. I am now in the process of developing a service learning component in my ancient Greek philosophy course. A theme of my course is the rational cosmos and its opposite, chaos; students will develop a portfolio of materials in support of a thesis on the question, and included will be their discussion with members of our community on the extent to which our universe is a rational order. I think that any practice we can give our students in applying our abstractions to the “real world” is a step in the right direction. More specifically, this exercise is designed to construct a two-way bridge: (a) the philosophy student develops his/her ability to explain an abstract concept (logical order) to non-philosophers; (b) non-philosophers share their experience of the world as described. This has value in several respects: non-philosophers, ideally, will appreciate the ability of philosophers to call our attention to fundamental features of our experience; the philosophy student gains experience explaining philosophy in non-technical terms and also receives some real-world grounding of philosophical ideas in common life and belief.

This course is also wholly online, by the way, which is a further service to today’s students. Some of these students are traditional 18-22 year-olds. But increasingly many are the post-traditional students that our institution increasingly serves. They, too, are looking for clearer relevance and applicability in my course materials.

In general, I believe that the philosophy major should join the current higher education trend that places academics more in the context of life-outside-of-academia. To me, this means as above more attention to competencies specifically as they impact our students beyond college. It means more outreach, more engagement with the community and with industry. More attention to career and life-skills — not simply as thought about by philosophers, but also as engaged in by philosophers or the philosophically-trained. I don’t see that this must entail a cost to our canon, though that canon surely could develop, as Justin mentions. I think of it more as a development in venue, in application, than in content.

Aeon Skoble
Aeon Skoble
Reply to  Greg Oakes
6 years ago

“This course is also wholly online, by the way, which is a further service to today’s students.” I’m going to have to disagree there. I think it does students a disservice to disconnect philosophy from conversation, and online discussion threads really aren’t the same thing.

Reply to  Aeon Skoble
6 years ago

I don’t take you to be saying that face-to-face philosophy courses are intrinsically better. That seems to be a fairly common view. I happen, having taught many philosophy courses, both online and in-person, to think, on the basis of my experiences, to think that online courses can be and often are as good when it comes to students’ experiences as traditional classes. You’re right that something is lost in online courses when it comes to conversation, but, my experience with online forum discussions is that students are often more thoughtful in offering comments and questions in online forums than they would be in face-to-face classes. Perhaps I’ve been lucky.

Greg Gauthier
6 years ago

Question, re: “…problems regarding mind, reality, and knowledge…” is it some sort of conscious choice on the part of the profession to stop using terms like “metaphysics” and “epistemology”, or are they just falling out of fashion? If the former, is there a post-card sized reason? Just curious…

6 years ago

Especially given the tendency towards philosophy as a discovery major and thus the benefits to fewer prerequisites, I am curious how having an introductory course compares to just diving right into courses focused on a problem, period, or area. (Of course, certain focused courses could be de facto introductory courses. There may be an extra payoff as some topics may draw in more non-majors than “Introduction to Philosophy” does.)