A Philosophy Department Is Born


The University of California, Merced now has a Philosophy Department.

The proposal to create a Philosophy Department made it through the last of its various levels of official institutional approval in February.

The news is a welcome change from the various cuts to and eliminations of philosophy programs often reported on here.

In a letter to the UC System’s Chancellor, Juan Sánchez Muñoz, Vice Chancellor and Provost Gregg Camfield writes:

The formation of this department represents the ongoing evolution and maturation of our campus. Long part of the Cognitive Sciences department, the proposed Department of Philosophy has made a strong, evidence-based case for its shift to a standalone unit. This case includes its direct contributions, extant and planned, to the continued development of UC Merced’s education and research priorities as outlined in the strategic plan as well to education as measured through student credit hour generation. Examples of the department’s alignment to campus priorities include contributions to applied ethics education in the areas of data and technology ethics, medical ethics, and environmental ethics. Looking forward they intend to grow expertise in Latin American philosophy, philosophy ofrace,. medical ethics, and philosophy of law. Collectively, these foci resonate with long standing campus strengths and priorities and leave the proposed department well positioned to contribute to undergraduate and graduate education programs across the campus, in addition to the delivery of their own major.

An important thread in the proposal is the faculty’s intention to contribute significantly to the campus’s commitments to grow its education and research contributions in ways that support our objectives for diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence. For instance, the proportion of Hispanic, women, and first-generation students in the Philosophy major matches that of the campus more generally, reflecting intentional changes to the program initiated in 2014. This is unusual for a philosophy program, and I think speaks volumes about the likely future impacts of their ongoing commitment, which I hope will include ongoing diversification of their faculty as their department grows…

I support the formation of a Department of Philosophy. The faculty are pursuing a strongly campus-­aligned teaching and research agenda that will add great value to our students’ educations and in tum the impact of our campus on the region, California, and the world.

The proposal to create a Philosophy Department was initiated in 2021 by members of UC Merced’s existing Cognitive Sciences Department. UC Merced itself opened its doors to students in 2005. Associate professor Carolyn Dicey Jennings provides some of the relevant history:

Jeff Yoshimi joined the new UC Merced campus at its founding as Assistant Professor, in 2004. Jeff joined others in developing the Cognitive and Information Sciences department, with philosophy playing a key role (thanks in part to an advisory committee that included Alva Noë and Pat Churchland). He next worked to bring in Peter Vanderschraaf as Associate Professor and Rolf Johansson as Lecturer, all of whom helped to create the Philosophy Minor in 2011. Three new faculty joined as Assistant Professors around this time: Nigel Hatton, Carolyn Jennings, and David Jennings (Assistant Teaching Professor). David Jennings and Jeff Yoshimi worked to create the Philosophy Major, which was approved in 2019. That same year Hanna Gunn and Dan Hicks both joined as Assistant Professors, and Toby Napoletano joined as Lecturer, while Peter Vanderschraaf took a new position at University of Arizona. These 8 faculty members (6 Senate, 2 non-Senate) will be joining the new Philosophy Department in 2023.

Over this nearly 20 year period, this faculty offered undergraduates at UC Merced courses across a variety of philosophical areas, hosted dozens of guest speakers, and put on philosophy conference and other events.

Now established as a Department, the faculty will be working to plan and get approval for a graduate program in philosophy, with an emphasis on non-academic careers.

To help celebrate the creation of the department, some of the university’s first philosophy majors (who graduated in 2022), answered some questions about their philosophy education. The students were asked, “What do you think a philosophy department will bring to the campus?” Below are their answers:

“A philosophy department will bring another sector of research to expand the explorative ideas. Having this department will establish thought-provoking and question-driven conversations. I, like others, experience daily problems and either create or face questions. Philosophy is a space to search and search with those in proximity to us. A final note on what this philosophy department will bring to UC Merced: another perspective on the contemporary events going on now.” 

“A philosophy department will greatly expand the resources that will be available to students, not just in the program, but for the campus as a whole. The professors I had did already do fantastic work, and I cannot wait to see what more there is to come with the resources and backing of a formal department. I am thrilled at the idea of UC Merced having a thriving philosophy program with even more resources to serve students. The professors that helped me along the way into a graduate program have worked very hard to provide a top-notch philosophy education that not only aims to meet general expectations of philosophy students, but inspires further pursuit and engagement of the whole student. I see now on occasion small updates of speakers and events being put on for students by the philosophy faculty and I am elated to see students receiving such wonderful opportunities and I am very grateful to have been perhaps some part of setting the stage for those to come after.”

“I firmly believe that the department—and being instituted as such—will attract more students to the field, ideally fostering critical, self-reflective minds in this epoch of placidity and desensitization. There is a serious need to consider the implications of being in the age of technology and post-coloniality we have inherited. What institution is better situated to do such a thing than UC Merced, a predominantly minority serving institution?”

“I think a philosophy department will allow philosophy at UCM to branch out further from Western philosophical traditions and Cognitive Science while still keeping a close relationship to both, of course! Hopefully we will see historical traditions like Indian, Native American, and Middle Eastern philosophy and also bring aesthetics, political philosophy, and other branches into the program.”

They were also asked, “What has your philosophy experience meant to you?” They replied:

“My philosophy experience and in particular my experience with this program has been vital to lead me to where I am now in a PhD program with the intent to further pursue teaching and research afterwards. Were it not for the help of these wonderful professors, my trajectory with academia would likely look very different, perhaps even being in a different field. My experience with my professors and in the classroom solidified for me that philosophy is something I intend to further pursue and that it was possible for me to succeed in doing so. I will always be grateful for the experience I’ve had here. Thank you.”

“My philosophy experience broadened my reading and writing skills, and I want to emphasize that my experience was not only in-class. The curiosity that philosophy students have about their reading extends outside of class and becomes a part of their personalities. I think I’m always going to miss those discussions myself, my peers, and my professors had in-class and outside of class.”

“My philosophy experience has meant liberation. Visceral liberation. It has forcefully pulled me up from the muck of the prescribed, into the airs of self-aware agency, responsibility, and freedom, imbued with the confidence to doubt.”

“My philosophy experience meant a lot to me. Through this field of study, I found a desire to learn more from it. Having come into UC Merced undeclared, I got to explore and expand my academic journey with topics that provoked questions and critical thinking. Philosophy equipped with diverse ways to start understanding the world, life, and existence. Frankly, I do not think I would have grown as a student and an individual in at the point of life I was at without philosophy.” 

(Here’s some information from the department about the students who answered these questions: Sukhpal Bhullar was a dual major in Philosophy and Psychology. His current philosophical position places emphases on postcolonial theory, existentialism, non-dual/diunital metaphysics and cognition, and non-western/Sikh philosophy. His favorite classes at UC Merced were African Philosophy, Existentialism, Philosophy of Mind, and Nietzsche and Mill. He plans to apply for graduate programs in philosophy in 2023, with his first prospect being a PhD in Sikh Philosophy at UMichigan. Kaeda Sabrewing was a dual major in Philosophy and Sociology with interests in Indigenous ontology, applied ethics, decolonial philosophy, social philosophy, and epistemic justice. Her favorite courses were Philosophy of Science, Consciousness, Technology Ethics, and Metaphysics. She is now enrolled in the philosophy PhD program at University of Minnesota. Kim Ta was a dual major in Philosophy and Cognitive Science with interests in personal identity, existentialism, phenomenology, metaphysics, and logic. Her favorite course was Metaphysics and she hopes to work for a non-profit education organization. Bee Yeffet majored in Philosophy with interests in philosophy of religion and applied ethics. Her favorite course was Bioethics and she is now in the Master’s in Library and Information Sciences program at San Jose State University.)

Discussing the department and its plans for the future, Professor Jennings writes:

As is visible in the above, our brand of philosophy is interdisciplinary and applied. We aim to be both socially relevant and socially engaged. Current faculty have projects on “cognitive science and the common good,” data ethics, the epistemic crisis, environmental ethics, philosophy in prisons, and other topics of relevance to our geographic region. We hope that future hires will continue to contribute to this aim. In the medium to long-term our goal is to develop a graduate program. We envision a mid-size master’s or PhD program, admitting between 2 and 4 students a year, with a focus on nonacademic careers. As part of this focus we would aim for a shorter than usual time to degree (i.e. 5 years for a PhD) and opportunities for internships. We think our specialization in applied philosophy and in particular applied ethics puts us in a good position to develop this type of program and over the next year we intend to form an advisory committee to get it started. 

We are grateful to the philosophy community for supporting us over the past 20 years, and we look forward to many more years of philosophy at UC Merced to come with the approval of this new department. Fiat Lux!

You can learn more about the UC Merced Philosophy Department here.


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Paul Wilson
1 year ago

That’s great news. What caught my eye: “the proportion of Hispanic, women, and first-generation students in the Philosophy major matches that of the campus”. Other departments might benefit from a follow-up report on how that welcome outcome was achieved.

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  Paul Wilson
1 year ago

Some changes we made in 2013/2014 (with this intention) that appear to have made an impact: changing the language on the introduction to logic description to remove “predicate calculus” (math anxiety higher in some underserved groups), changing the prerequisites for all upper division courses to allow any lower division course to count (with a few exceptions, such as mathematical logic), making all courses qualify for general education, and inviting external speakers who provide a broader range of topics and perspectives on philosophy. You can see the impact of these changes in the data, but I am not sure which was the most effective. In general, we were focused on bringing people in and not scaring them off. For the latter, we also implemented a voluntary syllabus review in later years (with the goal of the readings we use in our courses approximating the demographic makeup of the discipline), but I can’t say whether this has had an impact. Some of our faculty have recently pushed for us to consider anti racist pedagogy more broadly , and we have begun discussions of how to do that.

Grad Student UK
Grad Student UK
Reply to  Carolyn Dicey Jennings
1 year ago

Sorry, it may be silly on my part, but I don’t understand the following: did you replace the words “predicate calculus” in the course description with something else (e.g. “predicate logic”), or did you remove predicate calculus from the Intro to logic syllabus altogether?

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  Grad Student UK
1 year ago

This is the current description:

Introduction to the techniques of deductive reasoning. Topics include the translation between English and symbolic language, rules of inference, deductive vs. inductive reasoning, validity and soundness, truth tables, and proof techniques in statement and predicate logic.

Another change we made that I just remembered that is perhaps less relevant to other programs (but probably made a difference to ours): we added new lower division courses, like applied ethics (now “contemporary moral problems”) and introduction to ethics.

Paul Wilson
Reply to  Carolyn Dicey Jennings
1 year ago

Thank you, Carolyn.

Any philosophy department’s lower division courses are critical for engagement. My prejudice is critical reasoning as a gateway, a course that should be required for all freshman, every campus, together with English composition, but ethics may also suffice.

Do you have any insight into which specific offerings (below) are most popular and most predictive of minoring or majoring in philosophy at UC Merced? Thank you.

Merced offers:

PHIL 001: Introduction to Philosophy

PHIL 002: Introduction to Ethics

PHIL 003: Contemporary Moral Problems

PHIL 008: Love, Sex, and Gender

PHIL 009: Phenomenology and Existentialism

PHIL 004: Critical Reasoning

PHIL 005: Introduction to Logic

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  Paul Wilson
1 year ago

I would have said 003, based on what students told me when I informally asked last year (and when I asked 2022 graduates in a survey), but I just checked and it is 003 and then 005. However, 008 is new and 009 is rarely offered, and I just looked at it in terms of courses most taken by majors (not relative to how often offered).

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
1 year ago

Fantastic news! I can’t wait to see some of our promising Fresno City College philosophy students end up there.

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  Wes McMichael
1 year ago

Agreed!

Erick Ramirez
1 year ago

I really like the idea of a well-respected, research productive, department with a distinct strengths in interdisciplinary and applied philosophy. I think that makes this department unique in a great way and I wish you all much luck growing the major. One thing I really appreciated while reading this post is how willing the faculty at Merced are about experimenting with what it means to be a major in philosophy, what requirements a good philosophy BA should have, and how to prepare students to do something with that degree above and beyond going to graduate school in Philosophy.

Good work everyone!

Last edited 1 year ago by Erick Ramirez
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  Erick Ramirez
1 year ago

Thank you, Erick. These are kind comments; much appreciated.

Michael Lynch
1 year ago

Great news! Congrats to the new department — which is helping us show the way to a different kind of philosophy department. And congrats to UC Merced for supporting this.

Leonel Alvarez Ceja
1 year ago

Great news! UC Merced is a beautiful campus with equally brilliant students! I am excited about their future, especially as a Hispanic-serving institution!

Manuel Vargas
1 year ago

Congratulations! This is great news!

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
1 year ago

Excellent language by whoever said ‘the muck of the prescibed’; less profound, perhaps, than than myth of the given, but earthier… chapeau. I shall borrow