Intellectual Maintenance: The Case for Philosophy Requirements

By Gutting, Gary | Commonweal, February 12, 2016 | Go to article overview

Intellectual Maintenance: The Case for Philosophy Requirements


Gutting, Gary, Commonweal


When I was an undergraduate at St. Louis University, the philosophy requirement was five courses. Our professors told us stories from a not-too-distant heroic past when the requirement was as much as twelve or eighteen courses. Today most Catholic colleges require two philosophy courses. A few require three, and an increasing number require one or none. The University of Notre Dame, where I teach, is now considering a proposal from its curriculum committee to move from its current two-course requirement to a requirement for one philosophy course plus another in either philosophy or a new category called "Catholicism and the disciplines" (i.e., disciplines other than philosophy).

I think the move to less philosophy is a serious mistake for Catholic higher education. Philosophy is utterly essential for an educated Catholic, and, pedagogically, anything less than two courses is inadequate.

The pedagogical point is straightforward. Philosophy is a highly technical discipline, more like the sciences than the humanities in its complex concepts and rigorous reasoning, but one that also requires knowledge about its historical development. Further, unlike other college requirements, philosophy is hardly ever taught in high schools. We would never expect students who had no previous chemistry or history to achieve a college-level grasp of those disciplines in one course. The same is true of philosophy. There might well be, in principle, a good case for a three- or four-course requirement in philosophy. But given current trends to reduce requirements, two courses is an acceptable minimum. That will allow for a general introduction to the history and major topics of the discipline, followed by a deeper exploration of a particular topic such as ethics, philosophy of religion, or philosophy of science.

But do Catholic college students really need to study philosophy? Even the best secular schools do not require it, making philosophy at most one way of satisfying general requirements in critical thinking or ethics. There was, of course, a time when Catholic colleges taught a version of philosophy intimately tied to Catholic thought: Scholasticism, particularly the Thomism that had for centuries been the de facto and (at least since Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris) official philosophy of the church. The concepts and arguments of Thomism were so integrated into official interpretations of church teachings that it seemed impossible to understand them at a college level without a solid grounding in that philosophy.

Over the next fifty years, however, almost all Catholic philosophy departments moved away from Thomism, with the most successful (like Notre Dame) making their name in the American mainstream, which is dominated by "analytic philosophy," an approach at best neutral toward religion and often opposed to it (about two-thirds of analytic philosophers identify as atheists). It might then seem that today any philosophy requirement at Catholic colleges is a mistake, since philosophy is now a thoroughly secular discipline that even secular schools don't see as essential in their core curriculum.

But this line of thought misreads both the role of philosophy in the Catholic tradition and the resources that current philosophy offers thinking Catholics. Unlike some other Christian traditions, Catholicism has from the beginning insisted on formulating and defending its doctrines in terms of the best available philosophical thinking, secular or otherwise. Here, of course, the paradigmatic examples are Augustine, who adapted the pagan philosophy of the neo-Platonists, and Thomas Aquinas, who employed the newly available philosophy of Aristotle (and also made considerable use of the work of medieval Jewish and Islamic Aristotelians). Eventually, the church found Aquinas's synthesis of Christian thought and Aristotelianism the best available philosophical thinking for its purposes.

In the modern age, the church found none of the newly dominant philosophies congenial and maintained its allegiance to Thomism, although this mode of thought was becoming gradually less significant in the greater philosophical world and eventually survived almost entirely because of its connection to the church. …

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