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American Philosophical Association Statement on the Philosophy Major

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American Philosophical Association Statement on the Philosophy Major The Following is extracted from Proceedings and Addresses of the APA 80:5 (May 2007), pages 76-89. STATEMENT ON THE MAJOR An earlier version of this statement was prepared by an ad hoc committee appointed by the APA Board of Officers, under the chairmanship of Robert Audi of the University of Nebraska, and was published as the committee’s report in the Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Volume 64, Number 5. The present version was subsequently prepared at the Board’s request by Richard Schacht of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, then Chair of the APA Committee on the Status and Future of the Profession, and was approved for publication and distribution under the Board’s auspices at its 1992 Annual Meeting. “Philosophy”? Dictionary definitions of “philosophy” are of little help when it comes to considering what the “major” in philosophy does or should involve. Philosophy has meant and means many different things, even among philosophers themselves; and the philosophical community in our country embraces a number of quite diverse traditions. This rich and enriching diversity precludes the imposition of any orthodoxy or rigidly uniform structure upon “philosophy major” programs. Institutions as well as individual faculty and students further have differing characters and interests, for which allowance must also be made. Yet some meaningful generalizations can be made with respect to the study of philosophy and the philosophy major that should be broadly reconcilable with disparate institutional missions and circumstances, as well as with differing student interests. This statement addresses these matters for the information and guidance of students, faculty, administrators and others who must for various reasons arrive at decisions regarding philosophy major programs. In our colleges and universities, philosophy is one discipline—and one undergraduate major—among many. Its place among the disciplines and majors is not easily specifiable. In its concerns and ways of pursuing those concerns, it differs not only from the natural and social sciences but also from the humanities disciplines with which it is commonly grouped. Yet it is related in significant ways to all of them. What it is today is intimately related to its long and rich history. The discipline philosophy has become has been shaped by an intellectual and historical tradition that began some 2500 years ago in the Greek culture of the eastern Mediterranean region, although similar developments also occurred independently elsewhere in other cultures, both earlier and subsequently. In the language of the ancient Greeks, “philosophy” literally meant “love of wisdom.” Certain pioneering thinkers among them sought to put this “love of wisdom” into practice in a form of disciplined reflection about ourselves, our world, the good life, our dealings with one another, and an expanding range of other matters of interest and importance to them. The earliest Greek philosophers experimented with comprehensive interpretations andexplanations of the world in which we find ourselves, replacing myths with theoretical reasoning about its nature. Socrates, mindful of the Delphic injunction “know thyself,” then drew attention to the importance of reflection upon human life and conduct. Contending that the unexamined life is not worth living, he set an example of inquiry that has inspired countless others ever since. Philosophy has developed and changed in many ways, but it fundamentally continues these kinds of thinking. Its problems and materials are drawn from every aspect of our lives and experience, and its deliberations extend to every subject admitting of disciplined reflection. It once embraced nearly all forms of inquiry, as can still be seen in the title of the degree granted in most scholarly and scientific disciplines—“Doctor of Philosophy.” The emergence of the various sciences and humanities disciplines as autonomous fields of study has removed many particular sorts of inquiry from its immediate concern. Yet philosophy retains a larger interest both in the nature of these other forms of inquiry and in their subjects. It further continues to deal with many issues of fundamental human importance which other disciplines may raise but do not themselves resolve, ranging from the mind-body relation and the idea of God to the nature of truth and knowledge and the status and content of morality and value. The study of philosophy serves to develop intellectual abilities important for life as a whole, beyond the knowledge and skills required for any particular profession. Properly pursued, it enhances analytical, critical and communicative capacities that are applicable to any subject matter, and in any human context. It cultivates the capacity and appetite for self-expression and reflection, for exchange and debate of ideas, for life-long learning, and for dealing with problems for which there are no easy answers. In doing this, a good philosophical education also strengthens the ability to participate responsibly and intelligently in public life and the tasks of citizenship. The Major in Philosophy: Four Models The purpose of many undergraduate major programs is to prepare students for specific professions involving the practice or application of the disciplines with which the majors are associated, either upon graduation or after further graduate-level study in these disciplines. Philosophy is in part a profession, consisting chiefly of academic employment in philosophy departments at colleges and universities, as teachers of philosophy and contributors to inquiry in the various fields of philosophy. The major in philosophy should serve, among other things, to provide those who may wish to enter this profession with a good start in that direction. At most colleges and universities, however, 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. 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.


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