What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is a historically evolving, self-reflective inquiry into the fundamental questions that humans confront in making sense of their lives. It examines essential features of the human condition—e.g., morality, knowledge, nature, society, happiness, justice, beauty, selfhood, and friendship – all in the search for knowledge that both preserves and transforms enduring dimensions of human self-understanding. Philosophy emerges in the Western tradition as a rational, systematic, and self-critical inquiry committed to grounding its own claim to knowledge. Contemporary philosophy continues to examine the fundamental principles that guide our thought and action, our pursuit of knowledge, and our desire to live well. Because philosophy adopts a radically self-critical orientation to its own historical formation, philosophers often disagree profoundly about what philosophy is and how it differs from other disciplines. Such disagreements – openly, critically, and vigorously deliberated – are vital to the type of radical questioning that characterizes philosophy.

Philosophy challenges students to (1) reflect upon naively lived patterns of thought, action, speech, and perception; (2) identify how practices, institutions, and perceptions are shaped by philosophical traditions; (3) critically examine and assess the fundamental assumptions that inform such human enterprises; and (4) conduct this inquiry in the spirit of open critical communication committed to mutual understanding and respect for difference. Students learn the basic skills of identifying and analyzing arguments, and the department actively fosters an environment committed to the vigorous, respectful exchange of ideas to protect both commonalities and differences. Philosophy also cultivates ethical responsibility by balancing (1) the articulation, justification, and application of normative principles with (2) the deepening of moral imagination and sensibility.


The department offers eight “History and Traditions” courses that represent important periods and traditions of Western philosophy:

  • History and Traditions Courses
    • Ancient Philosophy
    • Early Modern Philosophy
    • 18th-Century Philosophy
    • 19th-Century Philosophy
    • Existentialism and Film
    • Analytic Philosophy and Science
    • Critical Social Theory: The Dialectic of Enlightenment
    • Postmodern Critical Theory: The Critique of Modernity.

These historical courses reconstruct the debates, issues, concerns, questions, and concepts that define a historical period from within. They also offer linkages among historical periods, allowing students to appreciate the larger, “paradigmatic” shifts in Western philosophy. Students gain an awareness of how canonical philosophers characteristically address their own historical precedents and shape their views in critical dialogue with predecessors. Students are required to engage in close textual interpretation and careful critical evaluation of original texts. Instructors identify contemporary advocates for, or illustrations of, traditional schools of thought and, in this way, underscore the real historical effects of philosophical creativity. Students write detailed, textually supported expository and argumentative essays that are graded for their balance between interpretive charity and critical acuity. Emphasis is placed upon cultivating a student’s ability to first reconstruct the historical debates among canonical philosophers and to then critically evaluate their bearing upon contemporary concerns. Many of the Philosophy Department’s history courses have interdisciplinary units of instruction that link historical debates to contemporary research programs within the natural and social sciences and to interpretive approaches in the Humanities.

The department also offers courses in the classic subfields of philosophy: logic, ethics, metaphysics, and aesthetics. These courses explicate the fundamental conceptual tools we need to systematically address particular types of contemporary issues:

How do we know? (Theories of Knowledge)
What ought we to do? (Ethics)
What is beauty? (Philosophy of Art)
What is good reasoning? (Logic and Reasoning)
What is being and what is it to be human? (Metaphysics and Mind)

In these courses, students are asked to identify, reflect upon, and exercise the key concepts, theories, and viewpoints that allow us to competently address ethical, epistemological, logical, metaphysical, and aesthetic issues. Subfield courses cultivate a student’s ability to systematically, self-consciously, and flexibly manage a repertoire of conceptual tools to discern, analyze, and deliberate about contemporary problems. By gaining a sensitivity for different ways of perceiving and thinking about a single issue, students develop an appreciation for the complexity of actual problem solving.

The department also offers specialized subfield courses under the following three categories:

  • Applied Ethics (Ecological Philosophy, Biomedical Ethics, Philosophy of Law)
  • Applied Epistemology (Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of the Social Sciences)
  • Linguistics (Philosophy of Language)
  • Political Theory (Classical and Contemporary Social Contract Theory, Human Rights and International Law, Theorizing Citizenship and Immigration)

In these courses, emphasis is placed upon genuine problem solving in contemporary circumstances. The applied ethics courses introduce students to the systematic analysis of contemporary problems encountered in jurisprudence, political legitimation, healthcare practices, and environmental stewardship. Students learn to unravel the factual, conceptual, and normative threads interwoven in current crises. They also develop the ability to reflectively manage different theoretical perspectives upon a single, multifaceted problem. The applied epistemology courses examine fundamental questions concerning the logic and practices of the natural and social sciences. The philosophical linguistics courses analyze language competencies (semantics and pragmatics) and literary discourse (narratology).


The philosophy program is committed to five overarching outcomes for students in our classes and in our major:

  1. Knowledge: Gain appropriate breadth and depth of knowledge of the major traditions, figures, issues, and theories studied.
  2. Skills:
    1. Write in a style appropriate to scholarly philosophy;
    2. Think clearly, rigorously, and logically about conflicting philosophical points of view;
    3. Engage in open, critical, cooperative discussion and interrogation;
    4. Cultivate philosophical impulses and insights and reflectively employ philosophical techniques;
    5. Comprehend, accurately represent, and originally construct arguments in the philosophical style;
    6. Conduct independent philosophical research;
    7. Present independent research in a professional setting.
  3. Integration:
    1. Connect philosophical learning to other learning abilities, career goals, daily life, and roles in the world;
    2. Deepen a shared commitment to critical self-reflection as a fundamental dimension of living well.
  4. Preparation:
    1. Thrive in selected post-graduate studies;
    2. Address vocational challenges by mobilizing critical thinking, writing, and verbal skills;
    3. Confront personal challenges with an awareness of philosophical resources.
  5. Attitude: Gain a “philosophical sense” of curiosity, a willingness to engage in “meta-level” thinking, a determination to understand complex issues, and a cooperative and constructive spirit in critical deliberation with others.


Max G. Cherem, Associate Professor of Philosophy. BA Kalamazoo College PhD Northwestern University

Christopher Latiolais (Chair), Associate Professor of Philosophy. BA University of California-Berkeley MA, PhD University of California-San Diego


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