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Philosophy is a particular way, or ways, of thinking. It emphasizes clarity in expression (both written and verbal expression) and rigor in argument. Philosophical questions are intriguing and hard questions and so philosophical method stresses thoroughness and intellectual generosity - the willingness and ability to grasp another's arguments and respond to them. And, philosophy is as much a matter of writing and speaking as it is a matter of thinking per se. To this end, the department requires of all Majors, Honours, and Joint Honours students beginning our program that they take a three credit course entitled "Philosophical Fundamentals". This class is a seminar devoted to the close study of several texts (these differ from year to year). The main aim of the course is to equip students with the distinctly philosophical skills that are required for advanced work in the field.
The BA in philosophy is not a professional qualification. Beyond its intrinsic interest, the study of philosophy may prepare students from graduate work in Philosophy or for work in a variety of other fields -- law and business, for example. As the interdisciplinary discipline par excellence, philosophy also maintains and encourages ties with other fields, e.g., Psychology, Linguistics, History, Political Science, Mathematics, Physics, Biology. Philosophical reflection on the nature of explanation, for example, often offers a new perspective on the study of psychology or physics. Hence many students will find that certain classes in philosophy are directly relevant to another area of study.
The McGill Department of Philosophy has a continuing commitment to providing an intensive yet broad-based philosophical education. The interests and work of members of the Department are wide ranging both in subject matter and historical era and are supplemented by Associated faculty from English, Jewish Studies, Religious Studies, and Psychiatry. These interests are reflected in the wide range of courses which we offer.
What is philosophy?
There is no easy answer to the question "What is the subject matter of philosophy?" Indeed, this is itself a philosophical question. However, broadly speaking, the principal aim of philosophy is to better understand ourselves, our world, and our place in it. While philosophy differs from the empirical and social sciences in important respects this does not mean that philosophical questions are disconnected from everyday life. What we think about the nature of knowledge and of persons, for example, will have ramifications for how we act and how we treat others.
One way to characterize philosophy is by the sorts of questions it seeks to answer and the ways in which it seeks to answer them. As an academic discipline, philosophy admits of several subdivisions, each of which is itself characterized in terms of the questions addressed. Of course there is substantial overlap between areas, but here is a rough guide.
- Epistemology is the inquiry into the nature of knowledge. Philosophers ask: What is knowledge? How is it possible to have knowledge of various subject matters, e.g., the external world, other minds? How are our beliefs justified? Can we know anything with certainty?
- Metaphysics is concerned with the fundamental nature of our world. Typical questions in this field are: What are persons? What are free actions? What are concepts? What is matter? How do we individuate things? What kinds of things exist? What is the nature of time?
- Ethics is the investigation into the nature of moral judgement and moral reasoning. We want to know what actions are right actions. What ends are worth striving for? Are there moral truths? What is the nature of the Good?
- Logic is broadly the analysis of the structure of correct reasoning. At issue here are rules of inference and properties of various logical systems. Logic is of intrinsic interest to philosophers as well as serving as a necessary tool in philosophical, mathematical, and scientific inquiry of all kinds.
In addition to the above there are various "Philosophies of..." The Philosophy of Science, for instance, is concerned with the nature of the scientific method and the structure of scientific explanations. The Philosophy of Language is concerned with issues like meaning, truth and reference as well as with the explanation of human linguistic understanding. The Philosophy of Mind asks, among other things, whether the mind is the brain and whether reasons can be causes. The Philosophy of Religion investigates the meaning and justification of religious statements, and the Philosophy of Mathematics is concerned with whether numbers or sets are objects and with the nature of mathematical proof.
All these questions have a distinguished history, dating (in the Western world) from approximately the beginning of the sixth century BCE The study of philosophy, then, crucially involves the study of history of philosophy from the Ancient period throughout the medieval and Modern periods, to what can be loosely described as the Contemporary period. So, for example, the question "What is knowledge?" has exercised thinkers from Plato to Aquinas, from Locke to Russell. And from Aristotle to Maimonides, from Hume to Moore, philosophers have been trying to articulate the nature of the good and the right. In examining how individuals of different times and cultures have thought about problems much like those that concern us, and in studying the sometimes rather special problems that were of concern to them, students of philosophy at the latter end of the twentieth century can discover their place in intellectual history.