By Paul Kidder, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Seattle University
I was not required to take philosophy as an undergraduate student. I stumbled upon it, signing up for an introductory ethics class because it sounded vaguely relevant to current affairs. Once in the class, I was bowled over by how different the discussions were from typical discourse on public issues. We were considering very polarized topics, like war, euthanasia and abortion in a remarkably non-polarizing way. Every position on the questions was given its due, but each was rigorously challenged to make a coherent case and to address reasoned objections. The approach seemed to grant an extraordinary kind of respect for the difficulty of grappling with moral problems, while at the same time celebrating the liberating quality of thought-enlivened dialogue.
So smitten was I with this new form of inquiry that I registered the next term for an upper-division moral theory class. Though perhaps unwise from a G.P.A. perspective, this leap to advanced theory granted me another invigorating kind of intellectual revelation, for here, fundamental theories were brought into confrontation with one another at a far deeper level than I had seen before. I had experienced so many classes where students studied problems or readings through the lens of the professor’s theoretical orientation, but here a whole range of theories were made to stand and make their case in light of alternatives. Working at this level of comparative analysis felt like being at the very heart of the educational enterprise.
What had captured my imagination, it turns out, was something quite ancient. It was a curious habit of the Greek philosopher, Zeno, to approach philosophical questions not through a single argument but by lining up arguments on multiple sides. The approach is enshrined in Plato’s Parmenides dialogue, where the old philosopher of the dialogue’s title confuses everyone by addressing the conundrum for which he was most famous—whether being is ultimately one or many—with a catalog of competing answers. This practice of meeting every argument with attempted refutations and responses to them is at the core of what we call the Socratic method, characterized by that philosopher as a kind of serious play. It is serious, for it tackles ultimate questions and matters of life and death, but it puts off decision-making so as to play with ideas, the conviction being that only in a kind of playful spirit are we capable of being open to forms of reasoning that challenge our prejudices and assumptions.
The Socratic style was formalized in the practice of Scholastic disputation in the Middle Ages. This was the form of pedagogy that shaped early Jesuit education and inspired the quaestio structure of the great Medieval Summas. Though the Medieval period generally was a time of religious conflict, in the world of philosophy, Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars were learning from one another how to interpret the wisdom of the past and use it to better understand and defend their faith traditions.
Given my strong undergraduate experience of philosophy’s value, it is natural that I would gravitate toward universities that put the discipline at the heart of their liberal arts education. Philosophy has always been part of what makes Jesuit institutions different, playing a key role in their identity. Philosophy is part of how we show students the possibility of being in the world but not of it, of questioning what others take for granted, of taking the role of a gadfly out of a sense of duty to truth-seeking. Philosophy contributes to the Jesuit strategy of cultivating students who are not mere ideologues, but impassioned thinkers.
In recent decades, philosophy in Jesuit higher education has been changing, both from without and within—from without, because fewer faculty and administrators have experienced it in their own educational backgrounds; from within, because of the inclusion of an ever-greater range of types of philosophy, expanding to under-recognized regions of the world and bringing in voices of those that the discipline has too long excluded. The watchword today is diversity, mirroring the growing diversity among students and faculty, but born also of an inherently ravenous philosophical appetite for views.
In the face of this dramatic shift, there is justified concern that an ever-greater diversity of orientations—including many that are atheist and anti-clerical—will drown out the arguments for rational faith that have grounded the very justification of a religiously-affiliated university. This is a very real risk, and yet I might argue that in the world of Catholic higher education, the situation was ever thus. Medieval universities were wracked with the controversy of pagan philosophies taking up residence in the core curriculum. Scholastic Christian thinkers seemed to lend as much credence to Muslim and Jewish thinkers as to Church fathers. Within the university walls, battles raged among realists, nominalists, determinists and a host of other mutually incompatible views. From the parallax view of our own time, we lump all of this under the heading of “scholasticism,” but from within the debates, the alternatives seemed very far apart indeed.
Our own range of discourse is broader, to be sure, and yet there is something very characteristic of the Jesuit spirit in seeking an ever-wider and more daunting range of ideas and points of view. In fact, it has seemed to me, at times, that there was no philosophy so radical or anti-religious but that some Jesuit father was specializing in its study. It has been a hallmark of the Jesuit intellectual tradition that its confidence in the truth of its faith is demonstrated in a willingness to be challenged by the worldliest perspectives and the greatest minds of every stripe. By virtue of the inherent openness of the philosophical project, identity is found in the very welcoming of diversity, seeing in that diversity not merely the many paths of human experience and thought, but the endless richness of divine creation.