Philosophy in the Liberal Arts

Roland Garrett, in his paper, ‘Philosophy: A Special Place in the Liberal Arts’ explains clearly what the title conveys. He draws distinctions between the modern day subject of philosophy as is taught in current educational institutions and the age old dialogue during the times of Socrates and Plato. He observes how philosophy which was a subject dealing with quest for knowledge with no clear distinction or focus of study has now branched into concise and succinct disciplines which have a clear foundation and base. Therefore, philosophy in those times encompassed all the current divided disciplines like Economics, Mathematics, Astronomy, Sciences, etc. However, today, it is a completely different form.

In current times, it stands as a mere realm for questioning the ‘established’ knowledge of other disciplines. Elaborating on the vital role it plays in the liberal arts curriculum today, he emphasizes on how it is distinguished by its generality. He argues that it is this very generality that refines the mind in the liberal arts education as it gives birth to ideas, questions and reasoning as we engage ourselves in interpreting what we perceive and know. Even though people question its legitimacy, since it goes on questioning the realities of the world, it still serves as a vital subject to illuminate the entirety of the liberal arts with its binding chemistry of all knowledge.

To a certain degree, this paper speaks the truth, but there also arises an important question. Is Philosophy the essence of not only liberal arts but life in general, enabling us to delve into the deeper knowledge that lies outside the purview of facts? The latter may be true, but the idea that it itself engages in questions about our own existence and still serves as the foundation of liberal arts education system becomes problematic. It was this skepticism that gave rise to two schools of thought– rationalism and empiricism.

René Descartes, a prominent rationalist elaborated on the innate nature of ideas and advocated for reason being sole source of all knowledge. Caught in a sudden doubt about his own existence and the existence of the entire world around him, he began doubting if there was an “evil genius” responsible for the illusion of the world around him. While Descartes resolved this dilemma with an assured existence of himself through his famous statement, “Cogito Ergo Sum”, Roland Garrett rather brought in Philosophy as the Cogito to Liberal Arts.

Such questions lead to further questions and ultimately, a second school of thought emerges in the 17th Century. The English philosopher, John Locke, then gave rise to the empiricist view of Tabula Rasa (the mind begins as a blank slate which feeds on sensory experiences to formulate an understanding and grasp of knowledge). He drew a distinction between primary and secondary qualities of matter, which gave rise to an objective and a subjective perception of reality.

How then, in the midst of all this questioning of appearances, reality, perception and ideas which are all stemming from the mind and its thoughts, is the liberal arts education illuminated? There is no doubt that Philosophy provides an essential tool to train the mind to think, question and critique as has never been done before and to deviate from the rigid notions of what is perceived as ‘established facts’ in established disciplines. However, it is also true that in this process of exploration, there is certainly a high probability of getting lost among multiple perceptions and questions of reality, with not being able to reach at a concrete conclusion. This never ending quest for finding answers can therefore, break apart the liberal arts education rather than bind it. But, then, the entire quest is to perceive strongly enough to make it happen.

Picture Courtesy- Inside Philanthropy


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