One of the major goals of a liberal arts education is to help students initiate reflection on the meaning and significance of their own experience as individuals and as members of communities. This reflection emerges out of a readiness to follow one’s intellectual curiosity beyond our commonsense acquaintance with the world by posing questions that one may not yet have the means to answer. Such questioning is the attitude of the philosopher. In fact, the work of philosophy is not so much to produce definitive answers to specific questions as it is to question given answers themselves, that is, to interrogate our basic assumptions and habits of thought. Philosophy, in other words, endeavors to critically consider what most people take for granted. The philosophy program at Goucher College cultivates this critical standpoint by emphasizing both the history of philosophy and the practice of philosophizing.
By studying the history of philosophy, students discover that, over the centuries, philosophy has changed dramatically with respect to both its content and its character. Over the years, and in diverse settings, philosophy has assumed very different forms. By engaging in close readings of primary texts, students come to see not only how philosophical thought has continually put its own truths into question, but how many of our most familiar academic disciplines began as philosophic questions.
As students begin to familiarize themselves with the primary texts of the philosophical tradition it is equally important that they learn to read these texts with a keen awareness of both the contexts in which they were written and the context in which they are now being read. By developing a critical hermeneutic awareness of their own practice as scholars, students gain a deeper appreciation for how these texts and the ideas they contain have been put to use, both positively and negatively, throughout history.
Ideally, students eventually come to see themselves as inseparable from this history and it is at this moment that the theoretical work of close textual analysis and theoretical reflection becomes pragmatic. That is to say, it is at this moment that one assumes responsibility for what one has learned. While the works of philosophy, both historical and contemporary, are worthy of study in themselves, the benefit of such study ultimately has as much to do with what one learns from these texts as it does from the uses to which one puts what one has learned. By practicing philosophy students slowly develop skills of analysis and methodological self-awareness that provide them the conceptual tools necessary to make good judgments and to begin solving contemporary problems.
There is, then, a pragmatic aspect to the mission of philosophy, geared not only to analysis and problem solving, but to opening new modes of thinking and alternative ways of seeing that run against the obviousness of thought. To quote William James, “philosophy is the habit of always seeing an alternative.” By creating alternatives, philosophy holds out the promise of shaping a better world. It is, final, this realization that lies at the heart of our mission.