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Our introduction to ‘philosophy’

Christopher Damian | Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Last semester, I helped a friend with her Introduction to Philosophy course. Like many Introduction to Philosophy courses at Notre Dame, it functioned primarily as an introduction to intellectual history and as an introduction to certain mind games. Such courses have instilled a general sense that philosophy is largely a waste of time. This sense is confirmed by students whose only exposure to philosophy is: “How do you really know that you exist?” For many, philosophy progresses in a series of pointless questions. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it really make a sound?

Untrained introductions to these kinds of questions are largely opposed to what has driven me to philosophy. I will always carry with me one high school teacher’s definition of history: “A record of man’s interactions revealing God’s plan for the universe.” I am largely ignorant of the academic study of history, but this definition has enabled me to see history as part of the order of things. History has a place in the meaning of the universe. Such placement and order is the highest pursuit of the philosopher. As Pope John Paul II suggests in “Fides et Ratio,” philosophy seeks “to ask radical questions about the meaning and ultimate foundation of human, personal and social existence.”

The search for meaning and order in the world further enables meaning and order in the pursuit of knowledge and in our personal and communal lives. It leads to wonder, and it dispels confusion. Though limited, it seeks to overcome obscurity. It may cause uneasiness, but it rejects despair. It ignites the desire to know what is.

Yet, my friends often complete their Introduction to Philosophy courses with more confusion and less wonder. Their assignments are completed with frustration. Students assume that what they have studied in their philosophy courses have nothing to do with anything. This is largely at odds with at least one stated goal of the philosophy requirement at Notre Dame, which is “to learn to think in depth about the problems posed by a life of faith.”

In Nieuwland Hall, a science professor completes his lecture and accepts questions from the class. A freshman raises her hand and asks, “What are the implications of this theory on how we view free will?” The professor chuckles and responds simply, “That is a question for your philosophy class.”

This situation illustrates a great paradox in the Notre Dame education: The expectation that Notre Dame students graduate more educated than their professors. Students have a variety of general requirements because Notre Dame believes that it is important that educated human beings have a basic knowledge of the various kinds of thought and how they are related. Such knowledge partly constitutes what it is to be an educated and free human being.

If this is so, my friend’s professor can hardly be said to be educated and free. He has failed to make connections that a basic introduction to philosophy course should be intended to make. We now have a generation of scholars with few answers, except, “That is a question for your philosophy class.” While they have progressed immensely in their specialized fields, they possess no more of a basic understanding of the world than their students. As John Paul II writes, “With a false modesty, people rest content with partial and provisional truths.”

Thus, the formation of students in the philosophical discipline becomes increasingly important in the modern world. Our scientists, accountants and academics must be reminded of the highest pursuits of humanity. Pope Benedict XVI once said, “Men and women are free to interpret, to give a meaning to reality, and it is in this freedom itself that the great dignity of the human being exists.” It is important that our philosophy professors and courses seek to promote this great dignity.

An additional task comes, then, with the introduction of graduate students who teach many of the introductory courses, including those of philosophy and theology. Should the task of intellectually forming the student body be placed on these graduate students, the University has a grave responsibility to ensure that these graduate students embody and promote its unique mission. I will not further expound upon this line of thought here. This is a question for your philosophy class.

Christopher Damian is a senior studying philosophy. He can be contacted at cdamian1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.