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Point of View - Professor 1 (large) Dr. Robert Roberts
Philosophy Faculty Member

A Professor's Point of View

Why study philosophy at Baylor?

Let's divide this question in two: Why study philosophy at all? and, Why study philosophy at Baylor rather than at Harvard or McLennan Community College?

We can distinguish two kinds of reasons for studying philosophy: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic ones are reasons that stem closely from the nature of philosophy itself in combination with the nature of the animals who study it (namely, you and me). Extrinsic reasons are instrumental, stemming from the usefulness of philosophy for increasing one's success on standardized tests, employability, career goals, and the like.

"Why is philosophy so much fun? Why do so many students who take an introductory philosophy class yearn to do more..."

First, then, intrinsic reasons. To investigate the intrinsic reasons for studying philosophy, might start by asking, Why is philosophy so much fun? Why do so many students who take an introductory philosophy class yearn to do more, even if they think that, for practical reasons, they ought to be majoring in accounting or engineering? The answer seems to be that philosophy addresses perennial questions that are deep in human beings: How should I live? What is the meaning of human existence? How do we fit into the rest of the universe, both the order of nature and, if there is an order higher than nature, how do we fit in with that? What is the nature of things? What is real, if anything? Do we really know anything? And if we can know things, which ones can we know, how do we do it?

Why is philosophy so much fun? Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder: We wonder about all those matters that I just mentioned, and we like to mull over and test various answers to them because these answers - or at least the activity of trying to find some answers - are a kind of food for our souls. As far as we know, human beings are the only animals in the universe that do philosophy, and the reason we do it is that it's in our nature to ask and try to answer these questions. We can't help it.

We're all like this, at least to some extent, but a few people in the history of our race have been extraordinarily talented at thinking about these questions. Some of the big names are Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, David Hume, Thomas Reid, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Because we are naturally hungry for philosophical ideas, and thinkers like these are super-capable of forming them, their ideas are a kind of feast for us rational animals. We have an appetite for their writings, and so we experience extreme joy as we sit around a seminar table chewing with our friends on a text of Aquinas or Plato.

The ancients thought that philosophical activity was so essential to living a properly human life that a person who doesn't learn to think philosophically is necessarily a stunted person. Such a person is doomed to live a second-rate life - so central is the intellect to human nature, and so crucial to the intellect is the distinctively philosophical way of using it. To use one's intellect for nothing more important than making money and haggling with the grocer is like devoting a fine Steinway piano to playing Chopsticks. It's to fall short of the mind's potential.

So the first kind of answer is that we should study philosophy because it's required for the life of a fully formed human being. Socrates may have exaggerated when he said that a human life without [philosophical] inquiry is not worth living, but such a life certainly lacks one of the essential nutrients.

The second kind of reason for studying philosophy at all is extrinsic or instrumental. The thinking skills that a person learns by studying philosophy pretty intensively - say, as a college philosophy major - are useful in a variety of contexts other than that of the search for wisdom. Diane Cole reports that David Schrader of the American Philosophical Association sees ‘a growth in the number of students majoring in philosophy.' The reason, he speculates, is that ‘in a world where people change careers many times, the skills that philosophy teaches you are wonderfully transferable.' Those tools include critical thinking, logic, and analytical writing, which have practical applications in a range of careers - such as law, teaching, medicine, business, and management - and are valuable to have in times of economic (and employment) uncertainty (U.S. News online, December 18, 2008).

In other words, the ability to think and write clearly, to make sense of ideas that others present unclearly, to find the essential in a mass of information, and to solve knotty problems, is very useful for making money, gaining power, and becoming famous, as well as for doing good in the world. And these are skills that the rigors of a philosophy major tend to teach a student.

A bit closer to the instrumental concerns of the present moment for many students is the skill to do well on such standardized tests as the LSAT, the MCAT, the GMAT, and the GRE. Philosophy majors are among the top score-getters on such tests (top for GRE verbal, third behind mathematics and economics for LSAT, second behind mathematics for GMAT).

OK, so philosophy is good for becoming a deep human being as well as a "success" in life. But why study it at Baylor?

"The Christian tradition is remarkably broad and diverse, and the philosophy faculty at Baylor is likewise diversified in orientation, emphasis, and competence..."

At Baylor the philosophy courses tend to be oriented by a Christian outlook on life, and thus on those perennial questions that I mentioned at the beginning. People do not become wise by being torn among outlooks and endlessly undecided as to what they think, nor is wisdom best fostered by being nurtured intellectually in a "community" that is really no community, but instead a battlefield of intellectual factions. Whereas at a secular school the orientations of the various professors will tend to be either miscellaneous or perhaps consistently naturalistic, the orientation of the Baylor professors is theistic and Christian.

One might think that such consistency would be detrimental to one's openmindedness and thus not the best option, even for a Christian student. But the Christian tradition is remarkably broad and diverse, and the philosophy faculty at Baylor is likewise diversified in orientation, emphasis, and competence. Besides this, there is no limitation on the texts we study or the positions we consider. We study the work of virulently anti-theistic and anti-Christian writers in many courses. Christian ethics itself enjoins fairness in the reading of texts and thus prohibits ideological misreading. The larger community of scholars provides a further check on biased reading. Baylor faculty publish some of their best thoughts in professional peer-reviewed journals and other venues.

So if wisdom is the far-away aim of philosophy, Christian wisdom is the far-away aim of Baylor philosophy. It is a wisdom in which we understand ourselves as creatures of God as he is understood in the broad, deep tradition of Christian orthodoxy that stretches from the time of the prophets of Israel, through the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, through the early Church Fathers and the great thinkers of the Middle Ages, to Christian thinkers of the Modern period and down the present day. And the Baylor philosophers may add a few small new twists of our own to this noble inheritance. Perhaps another reason for studying philosophy at Baylor is the joy of participating in this exciting and ongoing venture.