Curt John Ducasse, "The Place of Philosophy in a University Education," Brown Alumni Monthly, Jan. 1930: 1-6.

The Place of Philosophy in a University Education

C. J. Ducasse

Any attempt to define the place of philosophy in a university education best begins with the removal of certain very common misconceptions concerning what philosophy is, and the purposes which a study of it can serve. These misconceptions have to do principally with the relations which philosophy bears to religion, to theology, and to science. A brief statement concerning each of these follows:

Philosophy and Religion. The function of philosophy is not edification or exhortation to righteousness and worship, but enlightenment. The task of its professors is to teach, not to preach. The philosopher, like the scientist, is not a pastor, but an investigator.

This is not to say that worship is not an enriching experience, nor that the guiding of human beings along righteous paths by exhortation is not a proper and much needed thing. But agencies adequately working to these ends already exist. They are the churches. Their doors are open to university students no less wide than to others; and their message is one which is in no need of being smuggled into the classroom under a philosophical or scientific alias.

When faith is living, it permeates, indeed, all of life's activities, -- that of teaching among others. But this is true of the teaching of philosophy neither more, nor less, nor otherwise, than of the teaching of algebra or chemistry.

A philosophical lecture, then, is not to be thought of as a sermon incognito, but, like a lecture on physics or biology, as simply an attempt to impart information, to open up new avenues of thought, to stimulate the student to reflection, or to formulate definite problems for investigation. For instance, the function of the teacher of the branch of philosophy called Ethics is not to induce his students to perform acts which are right and refrain from acts which are wrong, but to make clear to them what exactly it means, to say that an act is "right," or "wrong;" and why therefore it is that certain acts are right and others wrong. The study of ethics will thus affect conduct only in the way in which the replacing of ignorance or vagueness by clear knowledge does this. It is here as with the physiologist, whose task is not to induce people to take thyroxin or to deter them from taking strychnin, but only to enlighten them as to just what will happen if they do take the one or the other. Knowledge makes action intelligent and men free. To make them good of intent is another task, which the agencies of religion attempt.

Philosophy and Theology. The relation of philosophy to theology is of exactly the same sort as that of science to theology. Theology takes as its starting point a revelation as embodied in some sacred book. Science and philosophy, on the other hand, regard themselves as bound by no book or set of dogmas. They insist that, for their purposes, the only relevant authorities are facts verifiable by man, and the inferences which can be drawn from those facts by strict processes of deductive or inductive reasoning.

The scientist and the philosopher as such are therefore not concerned either to undermine or to uphold the Scriptures or the theology of any religion. Being fully convinced that the truths contained in these will shine the more clearly, the greater the intellectual honesty and the range of verified knowledge possessed by man, philosophy and science desire only to pursue their own proper task, which is the promotion of clear, impartial, and fearless thinking, and the winning of new knowledge.

Philosophy and Science. If philosophy, like science, is essentially a determined attempt to obtain knowledge properly so called, as distinguished from mere opinions, prejudices, impressions, hearsay, guesses, or popular beliefs, it may then be asked in what way philosophy differs from science.

The answer is that while the two are, or should be, alike in method, the subject matter of each is different.

That of which science seeks knowledge is Nature. It attempts to describe and measure the facts of Nature, to discover the causal and statistical laws according to which these facts are related, and to explain and infer other natural facts by means of those laws. And, for science, man himself is only one bit of Nature among others, whose physical and psychical constitution is to be described and measured, and the laws of whose behavior are to be discovered and stated.

But each man, to himself, is no mere part of Nature. He is rather an evaluator and critic of Nature, the course of which he can come to know, and can more or less change or avoid, if he judges it hostile to his interests. For him, the whole of science is but an efficient tool, wherewith to transform what is into that which he decides ought to be. Science knows nothing of values. It puts into the hands of man, means; but never any ends. And therefore it ever remains for man to judge of values and to decide on ends.

What Philosophy is. There are, then, not only judgments of description and explanation, but also judgments of evaluation, that is, judgments pronouncing in some way good, or bad, the facts of Nature and the various activities through which man attempts to adjust Nature, institutions, and himself, to the ends of his own physical and spiritual welfare.

For instance, the merits of the many statements which man formulates as results of his search for knowledge are evaluated by him in such terms as true and false, clear and obscure, probable and precarious, misleading, irrelevant, consistent, etc. Some given procedure he will criticize as practical or unpractical, just or unjust, honorable or the reverse, and so on. Other adjectives of criticism in terms of which are evaluated various sorts of natural or man-made facts are valid and fallacious, logical and illogical, real and illusory, right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, sublime and sordid, virtuous and sinful, sacred and profane, etc.

Every one knows in a vague way what these words mean, and this vague knowledge is sufficient to apply them correctly in familiar, habit-covered situations. But exact knowledge of the meaning and presuppositions of these adjectives of criticism becomes indispensable as soon as, in some doubtful case, a dispute arises as to the validity of an evaluative judgment, employing one of them. For instance, if the assertion that a given painting is good art is disputed, the question at once arises, what exactly it means, to be "good art."

Philosophy is the btanch of human inquiry which has for its peculiar task the investigation of questions of this sort in the careful and systematic manner which, here as in the fields of the sciences, will alone yield genuine knowledge as distinguished from mere guesses, extemporized theories, or dogmatic opinions. Questions of the sort mentioned do not fall within the scope of any of the sciences. Philosophy alone studies them methodically and it is to philosophy only that we can turn for considered answers to them.

Philosophy may thus briefly be described as the theory of evaluation or theory of criticism. Or conversely, when criticism is explicitly conscious of its grounds and fully prepared to defend its verdicts, one may describe such criticism as applied philosophy. The "theory of" evaluation consists of the body of knowledge upon which one has to fall back when one is called upon to make clear the meaning and prove the relevance of any disputed judgment of evaluation. That body of knowledge is philosophy.

Inasmuch as it is in the light of judgments of value that man at every moment steers his course through life, a man who lives without philosophy is like a navigator who sets his course by a beacon, but has not troubled to inquire which beacon it is, nor whether it marks a reef, a channel between reefs, or a harbor. Almost every man, as a matter of fact, has some sort of theory of values. But in most cases it is vague, uncritical, haphazard, partial, and implicit. Philosophy endeavors to make it clear, critical, systematic, well-rounded and explicit. To the beacons it tries to add a map, and thereby to make life intelligent not merely as to its means, -- which is what science does, -- but also as to its ends. And if it should be remarked that philosophers have not all lived more wisely than other men, the answer is that an expert map-maker may yet happen to be a poor navigator.

Why study Philosophy? In the light of the foregoing statement of what philosophy is, the various reasons which give to the study of philosophy a place both highly important and unique in a university curriculum become apparent:

Considered from the standpoint of its share in the training of men for life, the study of philosophy tends to widen and to keep open the thought horizon of those who engage in it, in a manner and to an extent not equally resulting from any other study. The intellectual and critical equipment which philosophical training provides constitutes insurance alike against easy skepticism and easy credulity. It makes against narrowness of outlook and sympathies; against the fanaticism or the indifference that such narrowness often breeds; and against the faddism in opinions, and worship of false but temporarily fashionable values, invited by modern intensive specialization and undiscriminating rush for "success." Philosophy tends to make its earnest student immune to seductive rhetoric, empty phrases, catchwords, slogans and other instruments of merely psychological contagion.

From the standpoint of general culture, it is obvious that some knowledge of the thoughts of such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, is at least as important as knowledge of the deeds of such statesmen and kings as Pericles, Alexander, or Frederick the Great. The history of philosophical thought is an intrinsic part of the history of nations.

Moreover, the thoughts of the great philosophers have often profoundly influenced the history of nations; and no study of political history, of the history of social institutions, of economic history, or of the history of literature, art, or science, is adequate, which does not consider the philosophies from which statesmen, reformers, writers, artists, scientists, and leaders in the economic life have in many cases derived the ideals which they strove to realize. The history of philosophy is thus not only itself an intrinsic part of history, but it is also an indispensable background for the thorough study of every other part of history.

Work in certain branches of systematic philosophy is equally important, as equipment for criticism of the basic assumptions and methods of the sciences. Whenever the scientist, or the historian, or the jurist, or the critic of art or literature, or indeed the devotee of any other branch of learning, becomes curious about the validity and the significance of the assumptions usually regarded as basic in his field, he at once enters some branch of philosophy. Thus, the mathematician who reflects upon the foundations and methods of mathematics enters the field of modern logic; the physicist who reflects upon the nature of the tests by which he tries to determine the truth of the propositions of physics enters the branch of philosophy called Theory of Knowledge; and so on. The Philosophy of Law, the Philosophy of History, the Philosophy of Art, the Philosophy of Religion, Political and Social Philosophy, are other specialized branches of philosophy, vitally connected in the same way with the foundations of the respective subjects.

Training in philosophy, again, constitutes the best possible equipment for another task which is an urgent one at the present time, namely, that of interpreting and evaluating in terms of human life the results of modem science. Man and the world today, as at the time of the Renaissance, may be spoken of as a new man in a new universe. In the last fifty years, science has thrown upon the old familiar world a light which reveals it as very different in some respects from what we used to think; and invention has placed in the hands of man all sorts of new powers which have destroyed many of the old barriers between peoples and individuals, and given them new freedoms. But human institutions, customs, and codes, are today still for the most part those which our ancestors had devised to deal with the world as they knew it, by means of such powers as they had. How far readjustments in human institutions, ideas, and practices are needed for the welfare of the new man in his universe is at the present time a vitally important problem. The scientists often attempt to interpret for us in terms of human values the new world which their expert investigations disclose; but, not being experts at this sort of task, they commonly succeed only in demonstrating how queer life would become if some specialist's necessarily limited outlook upon it were to be universally adopted. A thorough training in philosophy provides the most adequate sort of preparation for the evaluative interpretation of the results of scientific research.

Finally, considered merely as a means of discipline and development of the thinking powers, courses in systematic philosophy are superior to most other studies. The abstractness and difficulty of some of the more technical problems of philosophy make upon the intellect that attempts to deal with them in a clear and accurate manner demands that are far more exacting than those made by almost any other subject.