Department Overview

Thinking, Writing, Speaking

Philosophy is the critical examination of our most fundamental ideas about ourselves and the world. It asks questions such as the following: What is the nature and purpose of human life? How should we treat each other? What kind of society is best? What is our relation to nature? As individuals and as a culture, we have beliefs about these questions even if we do not always talk about them. Our beliefs influence the way we live, personally and socially. Philosophy tries to make these beliefs evident and open to examination, hoping thereby to improve ourselves and our community.

Philosophy is a basic part of the liberal arts program at Lewis & Clark College. The study of philosophy seeks to cultivate the students’ sensibilities toward values, responsibility, and what it means to be human and humane. In addition, it imparts a critical understanding of the intellectual traditions of philosophy. At the same time, emphasis is placed on the technical aspects of philosophy. Through a variety of courses, students develop the ability to conceptualize, understand, and analyze philosophical problems. At Lewis & Clark College, the study of philosophy is inseparable from the history and development of philosophical ideas.

In teaching philosophy, we have two sets of goals which we hope to see our students achieve.

First, students are expected to understand the views, as well as the arguments given to support those views, of the various philosophers studied. Students also are expected to understand the significance and development of the various problems which have been addressed by philosophers, and to be able to offer reasonable criticisms and alternatives to formulations and proposed solutions to those problems.

Second, we intend to help our students to cultivate intellectual abilities which will have general application. Such abilities enable students to succeed in subsequent courses and in endeavors outside of the classroom. They also contribute to their development as educated citizens in a democratic society. We want our students to discover what has been written and said concerning, in the words of Socrates, “the most important things” - questions about human character and the conduct of life. This is accomplished by having our students meditate on books imaginatively, drawing connections between the material studied in the classroom and concerns arising from their involvement with jobs, families, and community. We hope that our students develop and demonstrate moral and ethical commitments to neighbor, society and the natural world.

This second set of goals complements the first. Neither set can be realized without the other being achieved as well. Thus, courses in philosophy aim to provide students with the resources which will enable them to develop what might be referred to as “intellectual survival skills.” This involves students developing the ability to question what passes as common knowledge and accepted wisdom, to evaluate their own and others’ positions critically, and to formulate new ideas.

Intellectual survival skills include the ability to summarize the assigned material, accurately and concisely, and to write papers and essays in which ideas and arguments are articulated, criticized, defended. Such skills require that students develop the ability to think critically about their views and those of others. Critical thinking, in turn, consists in understanding several sides of a debate, and seeing both the advantages and limitations of an opinion. That students learn to question their opinions is as crucial as learning how to argue effectively for them. If students only learn to give reasons for opinions already held, they risk merely developing rationalizations for prejudices. Hence, they need to learn to think for themselves, defending and criticizing their beliefs as they develop, change, or deepen.

In this connection, we are especially concerned that students develop the ability to discuss issues cogently and to write intelligent, reflective essays in clear, grammatical English. The skills required include the ability to analyze, evaluate, and formulate arguments. This involves knowing how to identify basic assumptions, develop a line of reasoning, recognize the steps that lead to a conclusion, and determine whether an argument is sound. In these ways, we hope, students will develop intellectual curiosity and the competencies to reason logically, evaluate critically, communicate effectively, imagine creatively, and appreciate the aesthetic and creative expressions of humanity.

Although we principally intend that our students be able to express themselves in writing - as the German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, observes, “speech conquers thought, but writing commands it” - it nevertheless is crucial that students learn to articulate their views orally, and develop the confidence to speak effectively. Thus, we encourage students to share their questions and observations with the rest of the class. Students are expected to engage critically with the material, the teachers, and each other. By participating in class discussions, they directly encounter differing interpretations of the material, become aware of the history of these views, and are encouraged to develop their own critical perspectives. In interacting with the material and each other, they acquire a knowledge and appreciation of self, society, human cultures, and the natural world.

Students are expected to read the assigned material carefully. It is impossible to do well without reading and studying the books. We suggest that students read the assigned material at least twice and that they take notes on what they read. Naturally, students are expected to attend all class sessions, to come to class having read thoroughly the assigned material, and to contribute to the discussions.

In philosophy, there are few clearly right or wrong answers. There are better and worse arguments and ideas, however, usually in direct proportion to thoughtfulness and care. Students are strongly encouraged to discuss the class material, their ideas, their puzzles and difficulties with each other. It would be an excellent idea if students write drafts or outlines of their assessments and have a friend read them to check on spelling, grammar, development of arguments, and so forth. However, when it comes to finally writing their thoughts down, students must do their own writing. This is the only way they will get the full benefit of their own efforts. We are happy to discuss ideas with students, read outlines and sometimes even preliminary drafts, and so forth. That is partly why we keep office hours.

We do not give true/false or multiple choice tests in any course in philosophy at Lewis & Clark College. Nor is there any computer grading. All grading is done by philosophy professors.

In philosophy, students typically write: brief summaries of the reading material, short answers in which the students define philosophical terms and concepts, essays in which the students respond to questions submitted to them by their teachers, and argumentative papers in which the students formulate their own questions and then critically respond to them in light of what has been said in the primary and secondary literature. In many courses, students have the option of rewriting their papers. Students regularly give informal or formal oral class presentations.

Such assignments are evaluated by asking the following questions of them: Is the student’s case supported with arguments? Has the student presented the ideas clearly? Has the student fairly and accurately presented the views of others? Are the student’s ideas well organized? Is there evidence that the student has tried to think independently? Students, then, are evaluated by the following criteria:

Conceptual coherence. Student work, either in writing or speech, is expected to meet high standards of clarity in their use of terms and concepts. Their arguments should reflect coherence in their logical progression.

Originality. Superior work must not only be clear and coherent, but also its approach to its subject must be novel and interesting. The ability to develop relevant examples and to grasp the significance of a philosophical problem to issues of everyday life are signs of originality.

Factual competence. The statements of students, whether verbal or written, should be free of erroneous claims. Their statements should correctly state the claims and arguments of the philosophers to whom they refer, and provide evidence of any controversial or contested factual claims.

Spelling and grammar. We expect that student writing be grammatically flawless and without spelling errors. Correct grammar is essential to successful verbal expression, and both spelling and grammar are crucial in philosophical writing. Philosophical arguments depend upon precision and clarity to draw their conclusions effectively. It is impossible for a reader to determine whether their arguments really are coherent if they employ ungrammatical sentence structure, of if they use words incorrectly or ambiguously.

Every philosophy course at Lewis & Clark College has a significant writing component. Why? Because writing can create knowledge, and reasons often are found by writing. We write about what we already know, but we also produce knowledge as we write. Not only do we write down our thoughts, we also discover what we think as we write. Flannery O’Connor observes, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I have to say.” The more students write, the more they will know, and the more they will discover what they think. As Rebecca West notes, “I really write to find out what I know about something and what is to be known about something.”

Students who are interested in graduating with honors in philosophy work closely with a member of the department. These students spend a major portion of their senior year researching and writing a thesis on a basic issue in philosophy. Recent topics have included: Strawson and Allison on Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, “The Racist and the Existentialist: A Testimonial Account of the Basing Relation,” “Epistemic Norms in Light of Doxastic Voluntarism,” and “When Things Fall Apart: On The Insufficiency Of Virtue For Happiness.”

Students who major in philosophy find that their degree can take them in any number of directions. Philosophy majors are one of the three highest scoring groups on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), second on the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), and sixth out of fifty on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Together with the relevant science courses, philosophy provides a unique preparation for medical school. Public agencies and businesses seek individuals who possess the skills of writing, critical thinking, and analysis that are fostered by philosophy. Moreover, a background in philosophy is an excellent preparation for careers in social work, the ministry, management, government, education, computer science, or communication.