Overview of the Discipline
Philosophy can be humanistic or technical, historical or contemporary, theoretical or practical. The Department of Philosophy 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 consideration of 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. Hence, philosophy includes formal logic, as well as the application of formal methods and tools to specific areas of philosophy, most notably today in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of science.
In philosophy as a field, and especially as practiced here at the University of Chicago, there is a particularly strong tradition of studying the interaction between the study of the history of philosophy and its contemporary practice. We work in both directions, drawing on philosophy’s history for insights into current debates, and bringing the tools and the insights of contemporary philosophy to bear on the study of the classics of the history of philosophy.
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: aesthetics, philosophy of action, philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of religion.
Philosophy at the University of Chicago
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 that the university recruits and the philosophical interests they develop in their freshman Common Core courses. Some of our most intellectually serious and academically motivated students end up gravitating toward the major in philosophy at UChicago, and our program has gained a reputation among undergraduates as being especially challenging and rewarding. The University is also unique because of the remarkable number of philosophers on its faculty, many of whom have primary appointments in other departments, and they contribute to the philosophy curriculum an unusual amount of team-taught, richly interdisciplinary courses.
Members of the faculty of the Department of Philosophy are actively involved in teaching and mentoring three different groups of undergraduates at all times: (1) a large number who first encounter philosophy in one of the sequences of the Core Curriculum, such as Philosophical Perspectives on the Humanities or Human Being and Citizen; (2) students who go on to take a few more philosophy courses; (3) 150-200 majors who decide to make philosophy the focus of their undergraduate studies each year (we have one of the largest undergraduate philosophy programs of any major U.S. university).
Levels of Courses
The Department of Philosophy 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 course that is crosslisted at the 30000-level course. Such courses are genuinely "mixed" courses in which our more advanced undergraduates are encouraged to exchange ideas, often in a discussion format, with graduate students and the faculty instructor. It is a tremendous testament to the philosophical caliber of our advanced majors that they are often more than able to hold their own in these classes.
Under special circumstances and with instructor permission, college students who have demonstrated the ability to succeed in 30000-level courses are allowed to take courses offered at a higher (40000- and 50000-) level. Taking these courses can especially make sense for undergraduates planning on applying to graduate school in philosophy.
Overview of the Major
Philosophy majors can expect to acquire some familiarity with formal logic, to engage with several of the major figures in the history of philosophy, and to be exposed to the current state of play in some core areas of contemporary philosophy. These specialized forms of expertise afford our majors the opportunity to engage in a sustained fashion with the debates that have animated philosophy up through the present day. Not only will majors master the views and arguments set forth in difficult philosophical texts, but they will also learn to probe such philosophical views--to argue for and against them. Most importantly, they will learn to develop and defend their own views on important philosophical topics, both orally and in writing.
Achieving these broader objectives requires 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 conversations inside and outside of classes.
Upon graduation, our philosophy majors go 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. Our students have enjoyed a consistently excellent acceptance rate at the top law programs in the country. The second most popular career choice among our graduating seniors is to go on to graduate school in philosophy. Here too, we also have a very strong record sending students to major PhD and MA programs. Our majors also pursue fulfilling careers in many other fields: everything from consulting and programming to non-profit work and teaching.
If you are wondering about how to put the skills you have acquired as a philosophy major to work after you graduate, you should be in touch with Career Advancement.
Departmental Resources for Majors and Minors
Undergraduates majoring, or thinking about majoring, in philosophy should be aware of a number of resources available to our majors.
First, there is a Department of Philosophy wiki that current undergraduates can access. The wiki containts a wide range of information--note in particular the FAQ page. We also have a bulletin board outside the departmental office in Stuart Hall.
Second, there is the Planning Resources and Involvement for Students in the Majors program, or for short: PRISM. PRISM organizes a number of activities for undergraduates.
Third, the department sponsors outreach efforts to women and undergraduate minority students interested in or already studying philosophy. Philosophy PhD student Maggie Sandholm is currently the Department of Philosophy Outreach Coordinator. As part of this job, Maggie is available to meet with anyone--especially women and minority students--who would like to talk their experiences in the department and/or program, or who would like to talk about pursuing philosophy further. One of the reasons our department created this position is that studies continue to find that philosophy is one of the least proportionate fields in the humanities with respect to diversity, and we want to work on this as much as possible.
Fourth, undergraduate majors in the department are also welcome to attend any of the events hosted by the department or any of the student organizations listed below. Department-sponsored events include workshop meetings, invited lectures, and conference presentations. For a current schedule of such events, see our events page on this website (under construction)!
And fifth, ALL questions about the undergraduate major--or departmental courses in general--should first be directed to Tyler Zimmer, the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies (ADUS) for 2020-21. Tyler is available to advise all undergraduate philosophers about anything related to the major, minor, allied fields, and related questions. Tyler's office hours: Autumn Quarter, Mondays and Wednesdays: 11:00 am - 2:00 pm. Schedule a Session: https://square.site/book/89T22J6W8X24G/asst-director-of-undergraduate-studies. Tyler's office is in Stuart Hall, Room 202-B. The Department of Philosophy's Faculty Director of Undergraduate Studies for 2020-21 is Professor Agnes Callard.
Student-Run Organizations for Undergraduate Philosophers
Undergraduate Philosophy Club is a Registered Student Organization that 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.
Undergraduate Women in Philosophy (UWIP) provides a space for students to discuss philosophy with a special emphasis on women thinkers and their works, to prepare for graduate school, and to manage gender-driven issues they might face in the field.
University of Chicago Undergraduate Philosophy Review is a Registered Student Organization that publishes philosophical content online to their weekly blog and in print for their yearly Spring Review. The group consists of a board of editors, but submission to the journal is open to anyone. On their website you can find an archive of their published content, a philosophy newsletter, and application materials to join the board. Once a quarter, UCPR also hosts a major event on campus, such as a film screening, public talk, roundtable, or debate.