The Paradox of an Education in Philosophy

When one thinks about the constitution of an education in philosophy, one often begins by considering the curricula of philosophy departments in contemporary American universities. When asking, “What is an education in philosophy,” we begin by asking, “What is an education in a philosophy department?”

This answer would say something about critical thinking, about exposure to particular authors, and perhaps about exposure to particular questions. It would probably be something analytic, something logical, and something in 8-10 pages. This is partly what makes a “philosophy major” a good preparation for law school. One learns to think clearly, critically, and concisely. One learns to pursue, identify, and defeat flaws in argument and to make logical statements.

Such a vision of an education in philosophy may compete with more classical pursuits of philosophy. At its root, philosophy is “philos-sophia,” “love of wisdom.” In the classical tradition, philosophy is concerned with what is. Such philosophy seeks to understand and to know the world. It pursues questions relating to the meaning of human existence, the origins of the universe, the mind of God, and all things good, true, and beautiful.

The end of philosophical pursuit in the classical tradition is paideia, a certain kind of thoughtfulness, and an integrated understanding of things. Paideia is the goal of John Henry Newman’s imaginary school in The Idea of a University. In such a school, one studies the various branches of knowledge and seeks to understand how they are related, gaining a general knowledge of the universe and man’s place in it. These branches have changed over time. At one point they were grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic. At another point they were philosophy, theology, literature, music, psychology, science, and mathematics.

I have sometimes found it odd that philosophy is placed among the disciplines. There are certainly people who have been designated as philosophers, and a particular attention is to be paid to the things they have written and said. Because of this, I suspect that the particular discipline of philosophy arose and was distinguished from the other disciplines.

Yet, if the goal of philosophy is a love of wisdom, a paideia, one might notice the paradoxical nature of a philosophy department. The paradox is that, if philosophy is concerned with integration and a knowledge of the whole, an education in philosophy will necessarily be concerned with things not contained in philosophy departments today. If one is seeking the connection between the various modes of thought, one must study these modes. So an education in philosophy will necessarily include such things as literature, psychology, theology, science, etc.

One might realize, then, that philosophy departments in today’s universities do not teach philosophy per se, but certain kinds of thought that aid in philosophy. Academic philosophy is not philosophy itself, but just one kind of reasoning that can contribute to philosophy, to the love of wisdom, to the pursuit of paideia, to the knowledge of what is.

Indeed, philosophy departments can be quite bad at teaching students integration. Being concerned with only the latest fads in contemporary “academic philosophy,” they may forget the task of integration altogether. A philosophy department has failed if it does not make sure that its students study all of the major disciplines, subjects, and modes of thought.

In the case of such a failure, a student seeking an education in philosophy should perhaps consider majoring in history, or sociology, or English, or classics, or political theory, or Catholic Studies, where some kind of integration and general knowledge are still considered necessary. One might even find that the worst place to get an education in philosophy is a philosophy department. Or one might find that any true education is an education in philosophy, regardless of the major.


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