The tools of thinking: Stanford's philosophy program explores fundamental questions.
BY CORRIE GOLDMAN AND CLIFTON B. PARKER
At Stanford, the Philosophy Department is a place where great ideas are changing the world.
The university’s philosophy program teaches people how to ask and answer difficult questions, how to strengthen their analytical thinking skills, and how to contribute to world-class scholarship that makes a practical difference in today’s world. Philosophy has ancient roots, but it also has powerful currency in our Information Age.
Most philosophers agree that among the great benefits of philosophy is that it challenges us to examine our views and justify them with sound arguments – which helps in both our personal and professional lives. Stanford philosophy alums teach as faculty, run investment firms, work as attorneys, launch startups, lead nonprofit organizations, and work on issues of public importance for government agencies.
"Almost every contested issue in the contemporary world involves questions that philosophy is important in answering. ... But more than contributing specific branches of knowledge, philosophy is just as critical in appealing to the importance of reasons, of mutual dialogue and respect, and of understanding the limits of what we can know."
Senior Associate Dean of Humanities and Arts, Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society, Professor of Philosophy and, by courtesy, of Political Science
An intellectually vibrant part of Stanford since the university's founding 125 years ago, the Philosophy Department produces high-caliber scholarship on meaningful topics. Consider, for example, some recent faculty accomplishments:
Philosophy Professor Michael Friedman’s scholarship shows how Isaac Newtons scientific writings influenced the great philosopher Immanuel Kant; philosophy Professor Helen Longino suggests that simple isnt better when talking about science; philosophy Professor Debra Satz explores the moral limits of free markets in a democratic society; Stanford Humanities Center fellow Amanda Greene found that claims to political legitimacy lie at the heart of many political debates.
Then there’s also philosophy Professor Michael Bratman, who created a framework for understanding human sociality that has implications in fields ranging from psychology to artificial intelligence. And also philosophy Professor Thomas Ryckman, who shows how physics is ultimately indebted to philosophy.
At Stanford, philosophy is engaged and applied, promoting disciplined thinking about how to live better as part of a larger society. For example, Stanford scholar Sara Mrsny found that philosophy can help American lawmakers develop policies that will make it easier for someone to both hold a job and perform caregiving functions.
And in her book, The Moral Limits of the Market, Stanford philosophy Professor Debra Satz explores what makes particular markets morally objectionable. Her research is just one example of how Stanford philosophers are addressing biggest questions in society.
That is just the tip of the “philosophical iceberg” – more about the department’s scholarship is available here.
"From ethics to logic to political theory, the philosophy courses I took helped me develop answers to big questions about what and how I should be. The conversations I had with my philosophy professors and peers have driven my decisions about what I eat, where I work, and how I spend my time."
ALEXANDER BERGER, '11
Research Analyst at GiveWell, an independent, nonprofit charity evaluator
Generating talk, discussion
Stanford philosophy is making a big impact by engaging with the wider public.
Listeners from around the globe tune in regularly to Philosophy Talk, a nationally syndicated radio show that celebrates the value of the examined life. Each week, the two host philosophers – Stanford Professors Ken Taylor and John Perry – invite listeners to join them in discussion on issues ranging from popular culture to science, morality and the human condition.
As part of the show's “crack research team,” Stanford students help make philosophy accessible to the broader public. Philosophy Talk is about to produce its 400th episode.
On another front, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy organizes scholars from around the world in philosophy and related disciplines to create and maintain an up-to-date reference work. Launched two decades ago, years before Wikipedia existed, the site led the way in academic information sharing and is updated almost daily. It averages more than a million Internet hits per week.
Finally, the collaborative spirit of Stanford philosophy is reflected in its many connections with other programs and efforts on campus, including the Center for Ethics in Society, Symbolic Systems, History and Philosophy of Science, the Center for the Study of Language and Information, and the Philosophy and Literature initiative. At Stanford, no topic is too large or complex for philosophical inquiry.
"Many of the ethical problems that I encounter in neonatology are the same ones I first considered as an undergraduate philosophy major. Theory has been translated into practice. The questions are no less difficult to answer now than they were when I first considered them, but at least I have an intellectual background and framework for addressing them."
DR. DAVID STEVENSON, '71
Professor in Pediatrics and Vice Dean at Stanford School of Medicine