Doing Philosophy

It’s not hard to find philosophical discussions, not only on campus but also in popular sources. 

For the declaration of Independence, Jefferson was influenced by the ideas of John Locke, who argued for representative democracy based on natural rights. Of course the struggles to apply that vision continue. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” recounts a philosophical journey to the vision that he helped apply during the Civil Rights movement.

Indeed, philosophy raises central questions about the nature of thinking itself. Consider Damon Horowitz’ transition from a practicing technologist working on artificial intelligence to a philosopher:

“And, slowly, I realized that the questions I was asking were philosophical questions—about the nature of thought, the structure of language, the grounds of meaning. So if I really hoped to make major progress in AI, the best place to do this wouldn’t be another AI lab. If I really wanted to build a better thinker, I should go study philosophy.  Thus, about a decade ago, I quit my technology job to get a Ph.D. in philosophy. And that was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Our students and faculty continue this tradition, applying philosophical insights and approaches to both theoretical debates and practical problems.

What our faculty members are doing:

Daw-Nay Evans: I am primarily interested in Continental philosophy, Africana philosophy, and any issues that arise at their intersection. To that end, I am currently working on W. E. B. Du Bois’s philosophical legacy and Nietzsche’s relationship to Greek philosophy.

Lou Lombardi: My first efforts in philosophy, as an undergrad, focused on whether the Vietnam War was justified. Those reflections have led to a broad commitment to nonviolence, and I continue work on a long project seeking to develop a practical application of the pacifist ideal.

Janet McCracken: My current research focuses on Perry Mason and philosophy, Masculinity in films of the 1970s, and Plato on non-human animals.

Why our faculty members chose philosophy:

Daw-Nay Evans:  Having watched more than my fair share of Matlock and L.A. Law, I was sure I wanted to be a trial attorney. Initially, I majored in Government taking courses such as Constitutional Law and Research Methods and Analysis. Outside the classroom I was reading Scott Turow’s One L and watching Paper Chase repeatedly, interning at the Fairfax Public Law Library, and joining my university’s Pre-Law Club. All of these law-related activities came to a halt when I took Classical Western Political Theory. I found Aristotle’s virtue ethics and John Locke’s theory of reparations fascinating. From there I took courses in the philosophy department on Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics, the Presocratics, African Philosophy, and 19th-Century Philosophy. I quickly realized philosophy provided me with countless intellectual resources to critically and constructively engage the world around me.  As a consequence, philosophy grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and never let go!

Lou Lombardi: As a first year student, I barely knew what Philosophy was. I began my undergraduate career in an engineering program.  But that was also the era of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and struggles for women’s rights.  Those events impinged more and more on my studies, as I grappled with the inconsistencies of the United States’ vision of equality and the reality of life for those who were not white males, like me.  So I began taking courses in Political Science.  But faculty there (in the era of value-free social science) were not interested in the questions I was struggling with: What counts as justice, both for people within the United States and for relations between nations? How can one make an effective case against longstanding discriminatory policies?  Can the use of violence ever be justified?  I ultimately realized that the people dealing with these issues were doing philosophy, whether in the practical terms of Martin Luther King, Jr. or through the theoretical focus of John Rawls.  So I started studying Philosophy—and I haven’t stopped.

Janet McCracken: I’m the youngest of six kids. My parents and my older siblings all had philosophical tendencies. One of my older sisters, for instance, was very interested in Zen Buddhism and used to read and discuss a lot of koans with us when I was little. So when I started college I was eager to take courses in philosophy, which my high school, like most, didn’t offer.  I took three philosophy courses my first year: logic and two different kinds of intro courses. I liked them and wanted to continue, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year, when I took 19th-century philosophy with Mitch Miller and Ancient Greek philosophy with Michael McCarthy, that I decided to major. My father had always told me that I’d major in whatever my favorite teacher taught, and he was right. I adored these classes and hung on the professors’ every word. Then a surprising thing happened: I began to realize that I thought more clearly and wrote more powerfully after studying philosophy. I came to believe that studying philosophy bettered me as a person, in both senses, that it made me a better person and that it bested me all the time. Well, then I was pretty much bound to keep studying it, wasn’t I?

Remember, it was philosophy that inspired men like Martin Luther King and Booker T. Washington to fight against racial prejudice, and philosophy formed the basis of Jane Addams efforts to make a better life for the poor, at Hull House; and it was philosophy that fired up Simone de Beauvoir to demand equality for women.  Philosophy is the starting point for making society more just.

John Cleese (of Monte Python)


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The Philosophy Club meets regularly to discuss current events as well as old philosophical questions.
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