department overview

The Department of Philosophy at the University of Virginia began its existence in 1825 as the School of Moral Philosophy, one of several schools established by the University's founder, Thomas Jefferson. Graduate programs at the University were established in the late 19th century, and the Ph.D. in Philosophy was first offered in 1880. Throughout its history, the Department has offered courses in most of the major areas of philosophy: ethics, logic, metaphysics, theory of knowledge, political philosophy, and history of philosophy. Its traditional strengths have been in the fields of ethics and history of philosophy, but in recent years the Department has built up strengths in such areas as political philosophy, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and metaphysics.

The philosophical orientation of the Department is "analytic": in other words, the Department's interests and methods are in the mainstream of philosophy as practiced in North America and Britain during most of this century, and differs from departments oriented towards recent philosophical movements in France and Germany. The Department differs from many analytic departments, however, in the emphasis it gives to the history of philosophy. The works of major figures such as Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant are not treated simply as important documents in intellectual history; these philosophers' ideas are viewed as valuable sources of insight for work in contemporary philosophy. This emphasis is reflected in the fact that almost all faculty teach courses in the history of philosophy, and a majority have serious research interests in the area.

As in other research departments with graduate programs, faculty members in the Department of Philosophy are engaged in ongoing research and publication in all the major areas of philosophy. But the Department also has a well-deserved reputation as a "teaching department." Several members of the Department have received University-wide teaching awards, and it is common practice among faculty to spend hours each week meeting with students, both undergraduates and graduates, outside the classroom. The Department sponsors the Undergraduate Philosophy Club, which organizes lectures, colloquia, receptions and other events that provide opportunities for "talking philosophy." In cooperation with the University's Teaching Resource Center, the Department has also established a mentoring program for graduate instructors; the program provides training and other aids to enable graduate students to become effective teachers during their time in the program. The Department's undergraduate "Philosophy Honors Program" is yet another indication of its commitment to teaching. The centerpiece of the Program, which is similar to programs at Oxford and Cambridge, is the tutorial system. During their last two years of undergraduate work, Philosophy Honors students work one on one with professors in "tutorials," preparing for a set of comprehensive written exams at the end of the fourth year, and capped by an oral exam (conducted by experts from other universities) on a thesis written during the final semester. The amount of time and attention lavished on students in the Philosophy Honors Program is unusual if not unique in this day and age, and it is worth noting that faculty teach Honors tutorials over and above the University's standard teaching load.