THE PHILOSOPHY CURRICULUM
What a Philosophy Course is Like
Philosophy courses differ greatly from one another, depending on the instructor, the topics and several other factors. Some generalizations are possible, however. Typically, philosophy teachers encourage students to be critical, to develop their own ideas, and to appreciate both differences between things that appear alike and similarities between things that seem utterly different. Commonly, then, philosophy instructors emphasize not only what is said in the readings, but why it is said; whether or not the reasons given for believing it are good; and what the students themselves think about the matter. One might thus be asked not only what Kant said about capital punishment and why, but whether his case was sound. One might also be encouraged to formulate, and give reasons for, one's own view on the problem. Students might compare and contrast two philosophers, noting where the two agree or disagree and perhaps indicating and justifying a preference for one of the views. One could be asked to study non-philosophers, say, legal theorists, to bring out and assess their philosophical assumptions; and one might be asked to view several philosophers in historical perspective. Characteristically, there is much room for creativity and for choice of approach; philosophy is unique in the way it nurtures this creativity and freedom within broad but definite standards of clarity, reasoning and evaluation.
One might begin in philosophy either with a general introduction or with an introduction to a subfield, such as ethics, logic, philosophy of religion, or philosophy of art. For students whose main aim is to get to know the field rather than, say, advance their thinking on ethical matters, a general introduction is often the best starting point. These introductions are most often built around important philosophical problems. A typical one-semester introduction might cover readings in several major areas, such as the theory of knowledge, with emphasis on the nature and sources of knowledge; the mind-body problem, with a focus on the nature of our mental life in relation to the brain; the nature of moral obligation, with stress on alternative ways of determining what one ought to do. And the philosophy of religion, with emphasis on how belief in God might be understood and justified. General introductions to philosophy may also be built around major texts, especially writings by great philosophers. A one-semester course might cover parts of, say, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, and Mill. Through their writings, all the problems just mentioned (and many others) might be discussed.
Regarding introductory courses in subfields of philosophy, such as ethics, logic, or philosophy of religion, these typically introduce students not only to the designated subfield, but to some general philosophical methods. Courses in subfields vary greatly in their methods and in breadth of topic, however, and students proceeding directly from such courses to those at the next level should first assess how much general philosophical background they have obtained. Logic courses in particular vary greatly in how much general introduction to philosophy they provide.
Intermediate and Advanced Courses in Philosophy
At these levels philosophy courses differ considerably in scope, method and prerequisites. Intermediate and advanced courses are obviously needed for students to get the full benefits, described above, of philosophical education, but what constitutes a good selection at these levels varies greatly from one person to another. It should not be thought, however, that advanced courses in philosophy are generally designed just for majors or that they interest only them. For instance, advanced philosophy of science courses are often meant to interest science majors (and may have, for them, few if any prerequisites); and advanced courses in the philosophy of art (aesthetics ) are designed partly for students in art, music, and other artistic fields. Similar points hold for philosophy of religion, philosophy of law, medical ethics and many others.
A normal course of study for a thirty-two hour major would include some work in each of the traditional core areas: epistemology, ethics, history of philosophy, logic and metaphysics. In many institutions a student might meet this requirement by taking, say, two introductory courses the first year; in the second year, history of ancient and history of modern philosophy, together with at least one course in a subfield, such as ethics or philosophy of religion. In the last two years, intermediate and advanced courses that cover the remaining areas, with extra depth where one's interests are strongest. Such broad areas as metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics need not be covered in courses by those names. They might be treated in studies of major philosophers, in seminars on special problems, or in related subfields, such as philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and social or political philosophy. For students intending to pursue post-graduate study, many variants of the pattern just suggested may be desirable. Those continuing in philosopohy should seek a good combination of depth and breadth, which can be achieved in many ways. For others, particularly but not exclusively those planning post-graduate study, here are some examples of valuable courses beyond general introductions:
Journalism and Communication
Introductory to intermediate courses in logic and ethics are highly relevant. Philosophy of language should enhance understanding of communication, and philosophy of science should cast light on some of the technical subjects with which many people in journalism and communication must deal. Beyond this, political and social philosophy can deepen one's understanding of society and social institutions. Other courses, such as aesthetics, philosophy of law, and philosophy of religion, are highly desirable for those with related special interests.
Intermediate to advanced courses in logic and in the general area of ethics, for instance political or social philosophy, philosophy of law, medical ethics, and business ethics, are very useful. Epistemology, which examines standards of evidence, philosophy of mind, which bears on moral and legal responsibility, and philosophy of language, which is important in analyzing language, may also be of special benefit. Philosophy of science is particularly valuable for those intending to practice in the technologoical or scientific sectors.
Pre-medicine and Other Health Professions
Extra work in the general area of ethics should be useful. Philosophy of mind, with its emphasis on understanding the human person, is valuable. Philosophy of science may yield a better understanding of and even a greater capacity for the integration of medical research with medical practice. Philosophy of religion can lead to a better understanding of many patients and numerous others with whom physicians work closely. Aesthetics and the history of philosophy may enhance the common ground practitioners can find with patients or colleagues who are from other cultures or have unusual orientations or views. Philosophy of medicine and medical eithics are obviously of direct relevance.
Courses in the general area of political or social philosophy are valuable background for executives and managers, particularly in understanding social institutions such as corporations, unions and political parties. Classes in logic and decision theory may contribute greatly to the capacity to analyze data and select plans of action. both ethics (particularly business ethics) and philosopohy of mind may benefit business people in conducting many of their day-today activities.
Logic and philosophy of science are highly relevant to engineering. Ethics, including political or social philosophy, is also valuable for careers in this field. Epistemology should interest engineering students who want to enhance their understanding ofhuman knowledge in general and of the growth of scientific knowledge in particular.
Philosophy of religion has the most obvious relevance for pre-seminary students, but they should also find a number of other courses, including ethics, philosophy of mind, and history of philosophy, of special value. Historically, philosophy has influenced religion, just as religion has influenced philosophy. Philosophy of art, philosophy of literature and philosophy of history can also play a unique role in creating the breadth of perspective needed for the clergy.
______________________________________________________________________________________________ *Adapted from a publication by the American Philosophical Association, "Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates."