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Philosophy Department Goals and Objectives

Philosophy studies the fundamental categories and principles through which we understand the world, including substance and cause, freedom and choice, and unity and chaos. Philosophy also raises fundamental questions about our ability to know what is true versus false and right versus wrong; and it explores strategies for securing different sorts of knowledge and living with different sorts of ignorance. 

The Philosophy Department at Vassar is unusually large and broad. We offer a variety of introductory courses. These focus on topics including contemporary ethical problems, traditional metaphysical problems, and Greek or Chinese philosophy. Middle-level courses address specific areas such as the nature of art or the nature of mind, or specific periods such as 19th century European thought or neo-Confucianism. Upper-level seminars permit students to specialize in the thought of a particular philosopher (e.g. Plato or Derrida) or a particular issue (e.g. terrorism, skepticism, or consciousness). Special interest courses (e.g. on psychoanalysis or the philosophy of music) are offered occasionally. 

In addition to offering a broad range of courses, the department cultivates a wide array of philosophical methods or orientations—interpretive, critical, analytic, speculative, existentialist, comparative—in an effort to expand the ways in which we think about the world and our place in it. Common to all of these methods, however, is an attempt to elucidate and question the conceptual distinctions and contexts that shape the ways we think and act, to explore radically different points of view, and to discover the power of fresh metaphors.All philosophy courses are designed to improve students' reasoning skills, expand their awareness of options, and familiarize them with central topics within the field. Philosophy cultivates the skills of integrative thinking, textual exegesis (both charitable and critical), open-spirited inquiry (especially into the presuppositions and implications of a position), discursive analysis and the formulation of complex arguments, and clear and articulate conceptualizations of difficult issues. Students develop these skills through the exploration of deep questions about the basic constituents of reality and principles of morality, about the nature and limits of our knowledge, about the possibility of foundational or universal truths, and about appropriate ways to live in the face of uncertainty.

When successful, philosophy deepens our awareness of our place in the world, enhances our ability to engage in constructive argument, encourages humility and responsibility, and enlarges our sense of possibility.Majors are required to become familiar with most areas of philosophy through a structured sequence of courses. These courses study Greek philosophy and modern or Enlightenment philosophy; formal logic; ethics or social/political thought; metaphysics, epistemology, mind, or language; and three upper-level seminars that focus on topics in the analytic tradition, historical figures, problems within value theory, or themes within contemporary continental philosophy. Majors must also write a senior thesis, under the guidance of a faculty member, in which they develop and defend an original interpretation, argument, or insight. Correlates are required to become knowledgeable within a particular branch of philosophy such as ethics, aesthetics, or the history of philosophy.

Both majors and correlates are expected to become adept at building and criticizing arguments, making connections between different claims and frameworks, and contributing to ongoing philosophical discussions. These abilities are exemplified in the texts and the teachers of our courses. Ultimately, however, their acquisition depends on the extended practice of joining discussions, scrutinizing texts, acknowledging mistakes, and writing (and rewriting) papers.