Our primary goal as a department is to help students think more and more deeply about philosophical issues. For most students philosophical thinking is utterly novel, unlike anything they have encountered in their prior education. Thus, our task is not simply to teach students a range of standard issues from past and contemporary philosophical works, but to help them understand what makes a question a philosophical—as opposed to psychological, scientific, historical or sociological—question. Concomitantly, we help them understand what would be an appropriately philosophical response to these questions—what sorts of considerations are appropriately brought to bear on the issue. In short, we strive to teach students to think philosophically. Of course, such thinking can be done with more or less sophistication. Therefore, understanding what would count as an acceptable response to a given problem is only the first stage in a long process of philosophical maturation. Continued development requires confrontation with a wide range of disparate thinkers and philosophical methodologies. For this we place high value on the history of philosophy and on a pluralistic approach to the texts.
In support of our principal goal, we strive to help students develop into critical readers of complex texts. Philosophical texts are often highly abstract and imposing works. As such, they cannot be understood except through painstaking analysis of every assertion, every concept, indeed every word. Thus, a student’s first task—already a considerable one—is to learn to extract and reconstruct a thesis or supporting argument from a given text. Additionally, students must learn the skill of constructively engaging with an author. The point here is not primarily to pronounce judgment for or against a given position. Rather, the student must develop the ability to enter into the point of view of the author, to appreciate the philosophical pressures that led to the author’s adopting a certain position even when, as is commonly the case, the final position raises more questions than it answers.
Finally, throughout all of our courses we strive to help students learn to communicate clearly and effectively in both written and oral expression. The medium of philosophy is conversation and the written word. A good philosopher must be able to express even the most abstract ideas with care and precision. To this end, all of our courses could be fairly described as writing intensive, and we ensure that students receive ample feedback on their written work. Moreover, in many advanced courses students are required to make oral presentations, in which they might summarize and critically discuss a set of readings or present original philosophical work. In this latter connection, each year the department organizes a senior philosophy conference as its capstone exercise. During the conference each senior major presents an original philosophical paper and responds to questions from faculty and fellow students. In this way, students show their achievement in the two principal activities of professional philosophers: writing conference papers and defending one’s thesis in open discussion. The conference has been enormously successful, and deeply appreciated by our students, and therefore we envision it being our capstone exercise for the foreseeable future.