Three sources outline almost everything our undergraduates need to plan their program of study in the Philosophy Department: (1) the philosophy page of the College Catalog, (2) the philosophy undergraduate wiki, and (3) the following information. The information about our undergraduate philosophy program provided below is organized into seven sections as follows:
If you are primarily interested at the moment in a particular topic, then you may want to skip to the relevant section below.
If you are a U of C undergrad and are considering a major in philosophy, we strongly encourage you to read through all seven of the sections below. If you are already a philosophy major, and already know your way around the Department and thus do not require much orientation in the major, then you might want to just skip down to Section 5 below and begin reading there.
If you are a high school student trying to decide where to go to college, then you might want to skip to Section 2 and begin reading from there.
Philosophy can be humanistic or technical, historical or contemporary, theoretical or practical. The Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago is committed to offering a curriculum which allows its undergraduates to engage all of these facets of the subject.
Philosophy's humanistic dimension involves the cultivation of the skills of close reading and careful interpretation of texts, as well as reflection on the largest of questions about who we are and what our place is in the world. Yet it equally involves reflection on the very intellectual capacities which we bring to bear in such reflection; and this means that philosophy has also always been concerned with the refinement of our exercise of such capacities. This leads to the roots of the more technical aspects of the discipline in formal logic, as well as in the application of such formal methods and tools to specific areas of philosophy, most notably today in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of science.
Philosophy is perhaps unique in its relation to its own history. Its interest in its history is not simply an interest in its own sources, but is part of an ever-ongoing inquiry to discover what philosophy is and how it should be done. This means that the central historical texts in the tradition are often treated as equal partners in current discussions and that contemporary practitioners continue to return to classical works as sources of inspiration and understanding. Here, in the Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago, there is a particularly strong local tradition of interaction between the study of the history of philosophy and its contemporary practice -- a local tradition, on the one hand, of approaching and intervening in the debates of the philosophical present by drawing on the insights of the great philosophers of the past, and, on the other hand, of approaching the study of the classics of the history of philosophy with the tools and the insights of the present in order to see how well their ideas are able to stand up to the test of time.
Philosophy is equally concerned with both the true and the good: with what thought is and what it is to think well, as well as with what human life is and how one goes about living well. This means that philosophy has both a theoretical aspect and a practical one. Its theoretical dimension comes most to the fore in the contemporary philosophical landscape in the areas of epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science; its practical aspect in areas such as ethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of law. And there are also a number of interesting areas that straddle or problematize the division between theoretical and practical philosophy. each in a very different way, such as aesthetics, philosophy of action, philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of religion.
Philosophy therefore is a discipline that defies any simple definition. The study of philosophy involves reflection upon the character and validity of the fundamental principles that guide our thought and action, our search for knowledge and our desire to live well. Yet it also deals with other sorts of problems such as the relation between mind and body and the nature and existence of God. Perhaps one should just say with Wilfrid Sellars, an American philosopher of the mid-20th century, that "the aim of philosophy is to understand how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term."
The truth is, philosophy is a complex and multifaceted subject, and the undergraduate curriculum offered by the Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago seeks to initiate students into the wealth and depth of this area of inquiry. Whether College students choose the occasional course from the Department's offerings or decide to pursue a major or minor in the discipline, they will learn how to read some of the classic texts of philosophy, come to appreciate the various problems with which philosophers have been concerned, and receive a training in rigorous methods of argument.
The most general aim of the study of philosophy within the mission of a liberal arts institution such as the University of Chicago is to help foster and nurture fundamental intellectual skills, both theoretical and practical, that are important to the conduct of life, such as the ability to think critically about abstract issues and to consider carefully the ethical implications of one's actions. It is often these very general benefits of the study of philosophy that attract a great many students to take at least one or two courses in the subject. Various areas of philosophy border closely on other subjects and the skills acquired in philosophy courses are central to success in a great many other academic areas. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that professors in the Philosophy Department per capita teach more undergraduates outside their own major than any other professors in the Humanities Division.
Philosophy occupies a special place in the undergraduate curriculum at the University of Chicago. There are a variety of reasons for this, beginning with the sorts of undergraduates which the U of C tends to select for in the first place, compounded by the sorts of interests which those students tend to develop in their freshman core courses which explore fundamental and timeless questions, and further reinforced by the emphasis throughout the University on interdisciplinary dialogue and innovation. The undergraduate philosophy major has a reputation among students for being especially challenging and difficult. The net effect is that the major tends to attract some of the most intellectually serious and academically motivated students in the University. This reputation, in turn, for having a remarkable cohort of undergraduate philosophy majors has helped the Department recruit and retain faculty who flourish in such a teaching environment.
These facts about the role of philosophy within the overall life of the University has numerous palpable secondary effects on the intellectual environment, ranging from the remarkable number of philosophers on the faculty of the University, many of whom have their primary appointments in other departments, to the enormous scope and quality of the book offerings available in the philosophy-related sections of the Seminary Coop Bookstore. The interest in fundamental philosophical issues on the part of faculty throughout the university, in turn, also leads to there being a large number of philosophy courses which are team-taught by a pair of faculty members at least one of whom has a primary appointment in another department.
In practice, what this means is that the members of the faculty of the Philosophy Department are actively involved in teaching four different sorts of undergraduates at all times: (1) a very large number who first encounter philosophy in the context of enrolling in one of the sequences of the Core Curriculum, such as Human Being and Citizen, Greek Thought and Literature, or Philosophical Perspectives on the Humanities; (2) a somewhat smaller but still substantial number of students who wish to be exposed to a bit more philosophy, beyond their first taste of it in the Core, and who go on to take a few more courses in the subject; (3) a hundred and forty or so majors who decide to make philosophy the focus of their undergraduate studies; and (4) an additional two dozen or so dual majors who are pursuing a joint degree which allows them to explore the field of intersection beyond philosophy and another academic subject, such as Art History, Classics, Economics, German Literature, Linguistics, Mathematics, Political Science, or Physics. Especially the latter sorts of students tend often to be drawn to some of our team-taught courses.
The Department's course offerings are structured so as to service the needs of all four of these constituencies, with most faculty in a given year teaching one Core course and at least two and occasionally three other courses open to undergraduates at either the introductory, the intermediate, or the advanced level; and with several departmental faculty each year team-teaching courses with colleagues from other departments.
In recent years, our team-taught courses have tended especially to be with colleagues from one of the following entities: Art History, Classics, the Committee on Social Thought, the Divinity School, Germanic Studies, the Law School, Linguistics, or the Medical School. These courses tend to be open to both advanced undergraduates and graduate students.
The Philosophy Department course offerings are extremely varied, not only in their content but in their intended constituencies. If you have never taken a Philosophy course before, we strongly recommend that you begin with a 20000-level course. Those courses are normally restricted to College students and are taught at a level that presupposes no prior familiarity with the subject. If you have already taken one or two such courses and remain interested in pursuing the subject more deeply, then you should try a 30000-level course. These courses are open to both advanced undergraduates and graduate students. They vary, however, considerably in their character. You may want to shop carefully and select one that suits your needs and level. Some are designed particularly to serve the needs of advanced undergraduates and those of only very beginning graduate students. Others are more challenging and, if the student is sufficiently prepared, can provide a rare opportunity for intellectual growth: They are genuinely "mixed" courses in which our most advanced undergraduates are encouraged to exchange ideas, often in a discussion format, with advanced graduate students, as well as with the faculty instructor. It is a tremendous testament to the philosophical calibre of our advanced majors that they are often more than able to hold their own in these classes.
Under special circumstances, College students are allowed to take courses offered at a higher (40000- and 50000-) level. This, however, requires special permission from the instructor. We encourage such a practice only in the case of students who have already repeatedly demonstrated their ability to succeed in 30000-level courses. 40000- and 50000-level courses can sometimes make good sense for certain advanced undergraduates, especially if they are planning on applying to graduate school in philosophy.
Similarly, under the appropriate special circumstances, a College student may be allowed to enroll in one of our departmental philosophy workshops for credit, if the student in question has already demonstrated an appropriate aptittude for philosophy, has done prior work in the area of philosophy in question, and has been able to secure special permission from the faculty sponsor of the workshop to enroll in it for credit. In order to receive a normal course worth of credit for a workshop, the student must attend the workshop for an entire academic year. The graduate student coordinator of the workshop is responsible for meeting with the College student in question and for grading their work. The precise requirements for credit are to be worked out in consultation with the graduate student coordinator and the faculty sponsor of the workshop.
Please click here for more information about course offerings in the Philosophy Department.
Please click here for more information about workshops in the Philosophy Department.
Beyond those mentioned above, the Department of Philosophy expects those undergraduates who decide to go on to major in the subject to acquire a number of further considerably more specialized forms of expertise -- forms of expertise designed to enable them to engage in a sustained fashion with the central issues in contemporary academic philosophy, as well as with the historical tradition out which contemporary philosophy has emerged and by which it is still informed. Not only are our undergraduate majors expected to acquire the ability to grapple with and master the views and arguments set forth in difficult philosophical texts, but they are also expected to learn how to probe such philosophical views and arguments through the development and deployment of constructive objections to them. Most importantly, they are expected to learn to develop and defend their own views on important philosophical topics, and to be able to do so both in writing and in oral discussion with other students and with instructors.
Achieving these broader objectives requires specifically that students acquire the following five forms of competence: (1) a broad general understanding of the work of a number of major figures in the history of philosophy, (2) familiarity with some of the central topics across several different areas of philosophy, (3) some familiarity with formal logic, including especially the ability to understand the logical symbolism used in many contemporary philosophical texts, (4) the capacity to faithfully reconstruct and analyze the central arguments in a philosophical text and to challenge them in an intellectually creative and fruitful fashion, and finally (5) the ability to bring the four aforementioned skills simultaneously to bear on the activity of philosophizing, both in writing and in conversation. Most of the Department's courses are restricted in size and otherwise structured so as to allow considerable time for discussion, so that students have ample opportunity to develop their skills in the oral discussion of philosophical questions. With its emphasis on discussion and dialogue, the cultivation of the skill of constructive philosophical oral intervention is a special focus of the intensive track tutorials for majors. With its emphasis on the process of writing and especially re-writing, the cultivation of the skill of composing carefully honed philosophical prose is a special focus of the exercise of the senior essay.
A major in philosophy can take any of three forms. First, there is The Standard Major. This is designed for students who want to major in philosophy but who would like to have some flexibility in how they devise their program of study. Second, there is The Intensive Major. This track through the major is less flexible and is designed to enable students to become aquainted with the problems and methods of philosophy in more depth than is generally possible in the standard major. For students who have a strong interest in philosophy but wish to combine this with a strong interest in another subject, there is The Major in Philosophy and Allied Fields, designed to allow students to create an interdisciplinary program involving philosophy and some other field of study. Intensive majors must apply to write the senior essay; majors from our other two tracks may be eligible to do so (and we strongly recommend this for any student who is considering applying to graduate school in philosophy). Finally, there is also the option of The Minor in Philosophy. It provides a basic introduction to the subject, but in a less demanding form than any of the tracks in the major. For more information on each of these options, please use the subnavigation to the left. Prospective majors and minors in philosophy should also look over the relevant wiki page here.
The exact size of the undergraduate program varies from year to year, with its steadily increasing in size over the past several years. During this past year, 148 juniors and seniors in the College majored and an additional 10 minored in Philosophy. The cohort of majors included 11 students in the special Philosophy and Allied Fields interdisciplinary track. 38 of our majors during this past year were in the intensive track. Of these, 7 were graduating seniors, 14 rising seniors, and 17 rising third-years admitted into the program just this past spring. 24 seniors were admitted into the Philosophy Department's Senior Essay Honors Track and 17 of them completed their senior essays and graduated with honors. Out of a total cohort of 51 majors, 7 of them graduated with special honors ( which is a proportion of 14%). This is the highest distinction our department confers on graduating seniors.
Upon graduation, our philosophy majors have gone on to do many things. By a narrow margin, the single most popular choice among them about what to do next after college is to apply to law schools. They have enjoyed a consistently excellent acceptance rate at the top programs in Law throughout the country. The second most popular career choice among our graduating seniors is to go on to graduate school in Philosophy. Last year ten current and former majors applied to graduate programs in Philosophy: Seven of them were accepted into major PhD programs with full financial aid, one more was accepted without funding, and the remaining two were admitted to MA programs. Over the past few years, of our majors who have gone on to graduate school in philosophy, an increasing number of them have waited until the autumn following their graduation before applying to graduate school.
Undergraduates majoring, or thinking about majoring, in philosophy should be aware of a number of resources available to our majors. First, there is the Planning Resources and Involvement for Students in the Majors program, or for short: PRISM. PRISM for Philosophy Majors organizes a number of activities especially for philosophy majors, including brown-bag lunches with philosophy professors and special workshops for philosophy majors, including workshops targeted at undergraduates interested in applying to graduate programs in philosophy. The PRISM for Philosophy Majors webpage is the central clearinghouse for information about all undergraduate philosophy events at the University of Chicago.
The Undergraduate Philosophy Club meets throughout the academic year and sponsors a variety of activities, including an annual Undergraduate Philosophy Conference. Their webpage also provides information about the activities of the Undergraduate Philosophy Reading Group which meets regularly to discuss a preassigned philosophical text.
For access to online course materials for philosophy classes, you should consult Blackboard Academic Suite - Chalk.
Undergraduate philosophy majors are eligible for any one of a number of different summer research awards designed to provide targeted funding to permit a student to pursue a philosophy-related summer research project either in the United States or in Europe. For more information on these opportunities, please click here.
You should also be aware that, as an undergraduate major in the Philosophy Department, you are welcome to attend any of the events hosted by the Department. These include workshop meetings, invited lectures, and conference presentations. (For a current schedule of such events, click here). Feel free to attend as many of these events as you like. Doing so is a great way to deepen and diversify your philosophical education.
Transfer students may be able to count philosophy courses taken at other institutions toward their Philosophy major, pending approval of the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Philosophy. Typically up to two philosophy courses may be counted toward the minor, and up to three toward the major. Transfer credits are not standardly counted toward specific distribution requirements.
The subnavigation links provided to the left at the very top of this page will provide you with more information about all of the following: our course offerings in philosophy, our categorization of courses into fields, the required components of the Philosophy Department undergraduate program for both the major and the minor in philosophy, the prerequisites and requirements for the senior essay in philosophy, our honors and awards for undergraduates, the various opportunities our major affords, and some concluding advice to majors considering graduate school in philosophy.
A wide range of further information about a great many other topics of possible interest to our undergraduate majors is to be found on our Undergraduate Philosophy Wiki. (Note in particular the FAQ page.) Questions about the undergraduate major for which no answer is provided in any of the aforementioned places should be directed to Jennifer Johnson, the Assistant to the Director of Undergraduate Studies, or to the Philosophy Department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, Professor Kevin Davey.