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Department History

Early Years

Philosophy has been taught continuously in the University of Pennsylvania and its predecessors since 1755, when the Bachelor of Arts degree was first offered. The first teacher of philosophy was William Smith, first Provost of the newly founded Academy of Philadelphia. The various branches of philosophy, which included logic, metaphysics, moral philosophy, and natural philosophy, formed the core of the College curriculum. A professor of Ethics was named in 1755, a joint appointment in Classics and Metaphysics was made in 1756, and the first professor of Natural Philosophy was named in 1762. Throughout the nineteenth century there was a professor of Moral Philosophy, who was typically a clergyman and often the Provost (chief academic officer) of the University. The professor of Natural Philosophy was a chemist or physicist. The arts faculty in general was known as the faculty in philosophy.

During the nineteenth century the chair in philosophy came to be called "Intellectual and Moral Philosophy," to indicate that it covered more than ethics and theology. The first instruction in psychology at the University was given by a philosophy professor, George S. Fullerton. Fullerton was appointed as the first Adam Seybert Professor in Moral and Intellectual Philosophy in 1883, a position he held until 1904. The Professorship is named for Adam Seybert, Penn M.D. (1793), member of the faculty, and subsequently congressman from Philadelphia. In accordance with the wishes of Henry Seybert (Adam's son, who funded the Chair), his duties required that he take part in an investigation of the grounds for belief in a spirit world. The Seybert Commission met from 1883 to 1887, and was in correspondence with William James, who was later Vice President and President of the American Society for Psychical Research in Boston. Its report in 1887 failed to find any positive evidence for a spirit world, and subsequent holders of the Chair were released from further investigation of spiritualism.


First Graduate Studies

When the graduate faculty of the University was formed in 1882, it was known (until 1907) as the Department of Philosophy (listed here as in 1903). The first (non-medical) Ph.D. was granted in 1889, in physics. The first Ph.D. in philosophy was conferred in 1890 on Robert Shallcross De Bow for a dissertation on "The Idealism of Berkeley." The second was granted to William Romaine Newbold in 1891, for "A Prolegomena to a Theory of Belief." Newbold subsequently was appointed to the faculty, as was E. A. Singer (Ph.D. 1894, "On the Composite Nature of Consciousness"). Early dissertation topics pertained to the history of philosophy (ancient and early modern), ethics, metaphysics and epistemology, and psychology. (See complete list of dissertations, ordered by date--click on "submit" when the page comes up.)


Early and Mid Twentieth Century

In the early twentieth century, the Philosophy Department consisted essentially of Newbold, Singer, and Isaac Husik (Penn Ph.D. 1906), all trained by Fullerton. (Singer also had two years at Harvard as James' assistant.) Newbold, who was also Dean of the Graduate Faculty, began as a classicist and was known as a specialist in the history of ancient philosophy; but he also worked on the theory of belief, hypnotism, and spiritualism. He published little. E. A. Singer, by contrast, was a philosopher of science with an historical bent, who published widely on many different aspects of philosophy. His special field was described as "methodology and theory of evidence"; he regularly taught a course entitled "Philosophy of Science" from 1896-97, and one entitled "Development of Scientific Thought" from 1898-99. His books included Mind as Behavior, In Search of a Way of Life, and Experience and Reflection. Husik was a distinguished historical scholar, who made an important contribution to Aristotelian scholarship and composed a classic History of Medieval Jewish Philosophy (1916; bibliography updated by Harry Wolfson in 1941); he also taught jurisprudence and social philosophy. Newbold was Seybert Professor from 1907-26, and Singer from 1929-44.

In 1940 the department had a faculty of nine, including Glenn Morrow, who came from Illinois in 1939 as a professor (and was Seybert Professor, 1947-65). Morrow initially worked on Adam Smith, and continued to publish in political philosophy. He is best known as a scholar of ancient philosophy, and for his book on Plato's Laws, entitled Plato's Cretan City (1960). Nelson Goodman joined the department in 1945, where he remained for twenty years, publishing The Structure of Appearance (1951), Fact, Fiction & Forecast (1954). Other notable figures included Elizabeth Flower (ethics and philosophy in America), the first woman to receive a tenured appointment in the department, Francis Clarke (medieval philosophy), Marvin Farber (phenomenology), Richard Martin (logic and philosophy of language), Paul Ziff (aesthetics and semantics), and William Fontaine (social philosophy), the first African-American to be tenured in the department.


Recent History

James Ross joined the department as Assistant Professor in 1962 (moving from the same rank at Michigan) and was promoted to tenure in 1965. Charles Kahn  was recruited from Columbia and appointed with tenure in 1965. Farber, Goodman, and Ziff left in 1964, Morrow retired in 1965, Clarke in 1966, and Fontaine died in 1968. Richard Jeffrey and Jim Cornman were appointed in 1967, and Zoltan Domotor in 1968. Jeffrey left for Princeton in 1974, and Cornman was killed in an automobile accident in 1978. Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe were Adjunct Professors from 1968 to 1980; Mihailo Markovic was a frequent Visiting Professor from 1972-80, and Adjunct Professor from 1981-93. Michael Friedman joined the faculty as Assistant Professor in 1975, was promoted to tenure in 1978, and moved to the University of Illinois--Chicago in 1982. Scott Weinstein joined the faculty in 1976 and was tenured in 1982. Thomas Ricketts was appointed Assistant Professor in 1979.

Paul Guyer was recruited to Penn in 1983 (from Illinois--Chicago), Alexander Nehamas in 1986 (from Pitt), and Gary Hatfield in 1987 (from Hopkins), all with tenure. Elizabeth Flower retired in 1985, Samuel Freeman was appointed Assistant Professor, and Ricketts was promoted to tenure. Nehemas left for Princeton in 1990, Freeman was promoted to tenure in 1992, and Susan Meyer was recruited with tenure in 1994 (from Harvard). R. Jay Wallace was appointed Assistant Professor in 1988, promoted to tenure in 1995, and left for a position in Berlin in 1996. Hatfield was named Seybert Professor in 1999. Karen Detlefsen was appointed Assistant Professor in 2001, and K. C. Tan and Michael Weisberg in 2003. Ricketts moved to Northwestern in 2003, and Cristina Bicchieri was recruited with tenure in 2004 (from Carnegie Mellon). In 2006, Tan was promoted to tenure, and Elisabeth Camp, Adrienne Martin, and Susan Schneider were appointed Assistant Professors, increasing the size of the faculty to fifteen. Rolf Horstmann has been a periodic visitor to the department since 1993, and now teaches every Fall semester. In 2008, Detlefsen and Weisberg were promoted to tenure, and Susan Meyer named new chair of the department.

In 1994 the department instituted the Seybert Lectures, using funds from the Seybert Chair. The Seybert lecturers have been Michael Friedman (1994), Stanley Cavell (1995), Barbara Hermann (1997), Michael Frede (1999), Tyler Burge (2001), Philip Kitcher (2004), Tim Scanlon (2006), and Tim Crane (2008).

The department has always combined work in core areas of philosophy, including history of philosophy, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, and social and political philosophy, with an outward looking attitude that engages other disciplines. This aspect of the department is formally recognized in the Graduate Rules, which permit course work outside the department when academically appropriate. Members of the department have long participated in the cognitive science program, and were involved in the formation of the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science. Departmental members enjoy appointment in or cooperative relationships with a number of other schools, departments, and graduate groups, including Classical Studies, Comparative Literature, Computer and Information Science, German, the Graduate School of Education, History of Art, History and Sociology of Science, Mathematics, Psychology, Religious Studies, the School of Medicine, and the Wharton School of Business. Beginning in 1994, the department entered an agreement with the Law School to institute a JD/PhD program for study in Law and Philosophy; graduates of this program who have entered academic careers include John Oberdiek (Rutgers) and Paul Litton (NIH). Members of the Law School hold secondary appointments in the philosophy department; their number presently includes Anita Allen-Castellitto, William Ewald, Claire Finkelstein, and Stephen Perry (Heidi Hurd and Michael Moore held such appointments 1989-2000). Other faculty holding secondary appointments in philosophy from other Schools are Art Caplan (Medicine) and Tom Donaldson (Wharton).

Beyond the JD/PhD program, other recent doctoral candidates have shared this outward looking perspective by participating in the MD/PhD program, combining philosophy of science with formal study of medicine (Claire Pouncey, Peter Schwartz), or by taking significant work in a science, at Penn or elsewhere (Anya Plutynsky, Larry Shapiro, Alison Simmons). The department has more generally attracted PhD students in a wide variety of areas and has succeeded well at placing them.

The Philosophy Department has participated in the undergraduate major in cognitive science (COGS) from its inception in the 1980s. In the 1990s and early 2000s, members of the department played key roles in initiating several new interdisciplinary undergraduate majors. The first of these, which has the largest enrollment, is the PPE program (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics). The others are Visual Studies (VLST) and Logic, Information, and Computation (LGIC).


Penn Philosophy Today

The Penn Philosophy Department delivers a world-class educational experience through a supportive intellectual climate for faculty and students, strong undergraduate and graduate curricula, major interdisciplinary endeavors within the University, and top scholars in the leading areas of philosophical inquiry and excellence.

What sets Penn Philosophy apart?

  • A broad, interdisciplinary approach to the field: Penn Philosophy supports a rich and challenging curriculum that provides the interdisciplinary research and training needed to address the complex problems our world is facing with particular strengths in philosophy of science, moral and political philosophy, epistemology, and the history of these disciplines.
  • A diverse community of scholars: Penn Philosophy recognizes the unique challenges facing women and minorities in the field of Philosophy including underrepresentation. To build diversity, equity, and access in the field, Penn Philosophy strives to attract and recruit talented faculty and students from diverse backgrounds while building an inclusive curriculum that promotes the voices of underrepresented scholars.
  • Impactful work in public engagement and social justice: Penn philosophers tackle local and global issues, leading the charge in public and socially engaged philosophy. From addressing educational inequity and access in Philadelphia public schools and prisons to leveraging innovative research in communities impacted by the climate crisis, Penn Philosophy stands at the forefront of community justice.
  • Our vibrant and active graduate community: Penn Philosophy faculty are not the only leaders in their field. Penn’s doctoral program supports several active graduate organizations including Minorities and Philosophy, Philosophy in the Wild, and a graduate colloquium committee. These graduate student organizations organize and host several conferences and workshops annually, connecting and engaging with scholars across the globe in active research and collaboration.
  • Our challenging and enriching undergraduate program: Penn Philosophy’s undergraduate program is uniquely interdisciplinary, connecting classic topics in the liberal arts with the pressing social problems of our time. Within the traditional Philosophy major, students can expect a range of classes that challenge and build their philosophical expertise and skills from introductory courses to highly specialized advanced seminars. Penn undergraduates may choose from four areas of concentration within the philosophy major to suit their interests and goals: general philosophy, humanistic philosophy, philosophy and science, and moral and political philosophy.

Source for 18th century curriculum: J. L. Chamberlain, University of Pennsylvania (Boston, 1902), 1:202.