Phenomenologically Speaking

Studying philosophy isn’t seen as being a great preparation for the job market. A new academic journal at Franciscan University of Steubenville seeks to change that perception. Dec. 4 issue feature.

(photo: Franciscan University Facebook)

With the high unemployment rate for new college graduates, it may not seem like the best time to launch a philosophy journal with a quaint Latin title and rarified references to Thomism, Neo-Platonism and phenomenology.

Yet Quaestiones Disputatae, the new journal at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, may represent just what some students need today to become competitive in a difficult job market, suggests editor Paul Symington.

After all, he points out, philosophy seeks answers to life’s most important questions and teaches a student to think in a disciplined, problem-solving manner. In a rapidly changing global market driven by technology and the latest innovation, the ability to frame an issue and think it through to a logical conclusion is a highly rated skill, said Symington, who is an associate professor of philosophy at the university. There is even evidence, he added, that philosophy majors score better on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) for entrance into graduate school and that some employers — from technology companies to financial firms — look for students who can think “outside the box.”

Jonathan Sanford, chairman of the philosophy department, concurs.

“Our graduates report that they are extremely well prepared for graduate and professional programs,” he said. “They undergo rigorous training in close reading of texts, logical analysis, writing and discussion, and we emphasize throughout their course of studies the relationship between faith and reason. They also leave with a passionate hunger to learn more.”

He added, “We have a very large number of majors for a school of our size, with well over 150 undergraduate majors and over 20 M.A. students every year. Our department is lively, our students are very capable and hungry for the truth, and are very well prepared for whatever walk of life they are called into.”

The master’s program requires 30 credits of graduate work, mastery of a language and a thesis, which can sometimes be replaced with two professional academic papers that are successfully presented and defended before a faculty board. “We expect our students to have achieved a sufficient mastery of philosophy to be able to teach a college-level course,” Sanford said. 

Way of Life

Of course, beyond plans for employment, there is also the “meaning of life” aspect of philosophy that attracts students.

“In philosophy, we are trained to think,” Symington noted. “It is part of the liberal arts tradition that is an end to itself, enriches the person and gives depth and meaning to his life.”

Not to disappoint, the first issue of Quaestiones Disputatae (a title taken from the “disputed questions” dialectic of St. Thomas Aquinas and other medieval thinkers) was released this fall with an opening essay on “The Phenomenological Origins of the Concept of Givenness” and a closing one on “Releasing the Idol-Icon Dichotomy.” Despite the somewhat opaque titles (try running “givenness” through spell check), the journal is not only for head-scratchers and chin-pullers.

Catherine Nolan, who worked on the first issue as a graduate assistant last year and is now pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Buffalo, explained her devotion to the subject.

“I suppose the real question is what one’s priorities are,” she said. “If making money is the top priority, then pursuing philosophy is not a way to accomplish that goal. If, on the other hand, one is more interested in pursuing truth and understanding the world around us in a deep way, then pursuing philosophy can be very satisfying. I’m interested in teaching philosophy to college students, possibly at a seminary, because I think it provides a grounding and framework that allows us to put everything else in perspective. Learning how to think rationally and communicate one’s thought can be a very useful side effect of studying philosophy.”

Sanford explained, “Philosophy, as it was understood by the ancient Greeks and is still understood today by those with an appreciation for a wide understanding of philosophy, is a way of life. That is, philosophy is a life devoted to discovering the truth in conversation with others and to allowing the truth to shape one’s entire life. … QD is one of our projects designed as an effort to discover the truth in conversation with others. It is a wonderful means to widen the scope of our conversation beyond the borders of our university so that we and those who join us in the conversation the journal facilitates might all be enriched.”

Broad Appeal

The first issue was devoted to the thought of contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, who was the keynote speaker at a conference at Franciscan a few years ago. One of the few self-identified Catholic philosophers whose work is studied in the secular academy (he is professor of Catholic studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School and has received national awards in France), Marion’s keynote is reprinted as the journal’s lead article. Other articles in the first issue are taken from the academic papers submitted for the Marion conference.

Future issues are being prepared on the topics of other Franciscan University conferences, with guest editors who specialize in the topic: Neo-Platonism, Dietrich von Hildebrand and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein).

Nolan thinks that the Catholic identity of the journal allows it to address issues that are often neglected in modern philosophical circles. “Quaestiones Disputatae, as its name suggests, is especially focused on questions of perennial importance. This opens it to studies of historical approach, as well as traditions of philosophy, such as phenomenology — which aren’t always dealt with in other journals. While it remains a journal of philosophy and not of theology, QD can afford to be unabashed in presenting Catholic traditions within philosophy.”

Symington, the editor, said the impetus for the journal grew out of the university’s master of arts in philosophy program. “Due to the unique mission of the M.A. program at Franciscan, we thought that this would be a fine forum to address issues that are often not given appropriate attention. I think that each of the issues coming out bears a mark of that uniqueness. For example, in our Neo-Platonism issue there is a facet of it that brings out the particular interests of Christian Neo-Platonic philosophers.”

He added, “Given Franciscan’s commitment to a dynamic, orthodox Catholic identity as an institution of higher learning and to the support of the liberal arts, we desired to develop a platform to serve the intellectual and philosophical components of that mission. We seek to do this by offering focused discussions that address philosophical problems and approaches that have defined the perennial tradition of philosophy.

“Certainly, we are interested in topics that bear on issues important to Catholics, but in the journal’s broad interest in addressing those deep and recurring questions of philosophy, it will appeal to anyone interested in these fundamental questions of philosophy.”

Brian Caulfield writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.