History of the Department

The Thinker

When Baptist minister Luther Rice founded Columbian College in 1821—the predecessor of The George Washington University—philosophy, broadly conceived, was destined to play a prominent part of the University's history. Among the first faculty members was Alva Woods, professor of mathematical and natural philosophy, who was later president of Transylvania University in Kentucky and then president of the University of Alabama. Romeo Elton, a distinguished professor of classics at Brown University and close friend of George Whitefield Samson, fifth president of GW, endowed the first professorship in the Department as well as a lectureship.

The Philosophy Department in its present form was organized in the late 1950s and 1960s by Charles Gauss, who is commemorated by a student award. From this period onward the department has made a strong contribution to higher education. Among its students were Jerrold Katz, BA '54, the distinguished philosopher of language and pioneer in semantic theory, and Jonathan Katz, BA '81, the first tenured professor of gay and lesbian studies in the United States.

In the 1970s the department inaugurated its MA Program in Philosophy and Social Policy, one of the first programs of this kind. Policy-related activities of the faculty have included service on the Presidential Commission on Biomedicine, a research fellowship at the National Institute for Health, and advisory roles at the Bureau of the Census.

In addition to the strong core of faculty presently in the department, many professors who began their careers at the University have distinguished themselves elsewhere. They include:

  • Andrew Altman, recipient of the Trachtenberg Award for teaching excellence, presently at Georgia State University.
  • Judith Butler, presently Maxine Elliot Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • Roderick French, subsequently Vice-President for Academic Affairs and now Chancellor Emeritus of the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.
  • Thelma Lavine, author and presenter of the widely acclaimed PBS-TV series "Socrates to Sartre" and past Distinguished Robinson Professor at George Mason University.
  • Jonathan Moreno, presently David and Lyn Silfer University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Kelly Oliver, presently Alton Jones Chair at Vanderbilt University, and
  • Kenneth Schaffner, presently University Professor at Pittsburgh.

Recipients of the BA or MA in recent years now pursue successful careers as activists, attorneys, entertainers, entrepreneurs and business executives, physicians, and public servants, as well as professors. Thomas Goutman, an attorney in Philadelphia, and Michael Thacher, a businessman in Los Angeles, generously support lectureships and the Thacher-Reynolds Fellowship for majors commemorates the work of Michael Thacher and Mathew Reynolds as former students.