Philosophy is notoriously hard to characterize concisely, but many philosophical questions focus on the most general or fundamental features of the world, of human life, and of the ways we think about them. The scope and limits of human knowledge; the nature of the mind and its relationship to the physical world; whether or not we have freedom of the will; what it is for something to be beautiful; the nature of morality; what it is for one thing to cause another; whether or not there is a scientific method; how words come to have meanings; whether or not mathematical objects exist; what it is to explain something; the nature of truth; what is to be a person; what sorts of political institutions we ought to adopt; the nature of time and space; what makes something a work of art… all of these are central philosophical topics, and there are many more.
In studying philosophy, you will have the opportunity to grapple with these questions yourself, and to think about what others have thought about them—both the philosophers who are working on these questions today, and those who have shaped the history of philosophy. You will learn to think carefully, critically, and with clarity; to take a methodical approach to answering philosophical questions; to develop reasoned arguments of your own, and to evaluate the arguments of others. Study in philosophy is thus an essential component of a liberal arts education, as it develops skills essential to all intellectual pursuits.
A major in philosophy is appropriate for the student who
- likes to consider the “big questions”;
- enjoys thinking abstractly;
- appreciates careful and rigorous argumentation;
- plans graduate study and teaching in the field;
- intends to go to law school;
- seeks preparation for work in government, business, social service, journalism, or any other field in which critical thinking is valued; or
- wants to approach a liberal arts education through concentrated study of philosophy.
The philosophy major combines easily with other majors. Philosophy courses fulfill requirements for the law and society major, the classics major, and the cognitive sciences concentration. Indeed, there are significant intellectual connections between philosophy and a wide range of other disciplines, as a perusal of our course descriptions makes clear—art history, physics, cinema studies, politics, neuroscience, and many more besides.
Oberlin has a long history of producing some of the finest academic philosophers in the country. Graduates of our program enter some of the country’s best graduate schools, including MIT, Cornell, Stanford, Yale, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Michigan. Others have pursued graduate study in such fields as environmental studies, computer science, religious studies, and law.
The philosophy department has a major, minor, and an Honors Program. We offer a full curriculum with introductory courses, intermediate and advanced courses (with emphasis on particular subfields of philosophy), and topical and historical seminars.
The Honors Program, which is open to qualified senior philosophy majors, involves intensive study and writing under faculty supervision for an academic year. It culminates with a written thesis and a defense of the thesis before departmental faculty and, typically, an external examiner from another college or university. In addition, the department sponsors the Christopher P. Dahl Essay Contest for the best undergraduate essay in philosophy, and the Nancy K. Rhoden Essay Contest, awarded for an excellent essay in ethics, medical ethics, or jurisprudence. Winners in both contests receive a monetary prize.
Students benefit from the research endeavors of faculty members whose scholarly activities receive support from the Robert K. France ’74 Fund. Established in 2002 through a gift from his wife, Ruth Doan, this fund maintains the research activities of new and tenured faculty by helping with such expenses as the cost of conference travel and software purchases.
A steady stream of visiting philosophers also enriches the academic experience on campus. Every other spring the Oberlin Colloquium in Philosophy offers a full weekend of symposia, with guest speakers and commentators from both U.S. and international colleges and universities. Established in 1960, the colloquium brings the best of the world’s academic philosophers to campus to share their research. In the intervening years, the department mounts a speaker series, which, like the Colloquium, regularly hosts the finest scholars working in the field today. In addition, the Nancy K. Rhoden ’74 Memorial Fund supports an annual Rhoden Lecture, which provides an opportunity to hear leading researchers in medical ethics and the philosophy of law.