The philosophy department of Bryn Mawr College has a long and distinguished history. Over the more than 120 years of its work, the department has contributed importantly to the intellectual education of countless students, graduate and undergraduate, majors and non-majors. The department has sent many B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. students onto a wide variety of professional careers including not a few in philosophy. Many prominent philosophers have called Bryn Mawr home. The department has hosted world-renowned thinkers such as Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, and Alfred North Whitehead. The first woman to serve as President of the Eastern American Philosophical Association was a faculty member at Bryn Mawr—Grace de Laguna, who was active in the department and College for over half a century. The first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in philosophy from an U.S. institution (Yale) received her A.B. from Bryn Mawr (1955)—Joyce Mitchell Cook. The department today actively continues this tradition of teaching and active engagement in the world-wide conversation in philosophy.
The department was established when the College was founded in 1885. Though in its first years no major was offered in philosophy, the College considered philosophy to be at the core of the curriculum. The College required a year long, 5 hours weekly, course in philosophy of all students. The requirement of a year-long philosophy course, in one form or another, was maintained until the 1960’s, when the College adopted a version of the current set of curricular requirements which include the “distribution” requirements under which philosophy can serve to satisfy the humanities requirement.
In his inaugural address in the fall of 1885 the first president of the College, James E. Rhoads, spoke to the importance of philosophy in the curriculum and in the academic life of the College:
"The too exclusive direction of modern research to the natural sciences, to that which can be seen, handled, measured and weighed, and the great increase of comfort and luxury arising from the practical applications of discoveries in them, has had a tendency to divert attention from metaphysics, and to produce results which would be amusing if they were not pitiful. It has seemed important, therefore, that Philosophy should have due recognition among the studies of the College. Based no less than the physical sciences upon observed facts, and appealing to consciousness no less confidently than they, Philosophy is necessary to that balanced culture which takes cognizance of all parts of our nature and fits us for the highest living. If it starts with the elementary facts of sensation and perception common to all animals, Philosophy rises to the consideration in man of an order of phenomena which transcend those in inferior beings, for to his actions there is added a moral character. This moral element includes reverence and implies religion, and it is only in religion, and especially in its highest form, Christianity, that the motives and the power of true morality are to be found.
"To fill up the study of man as a part of nature, to meet the requirements of the trust imposed upon us by the Founder of the College, to care for the most sacred interests of life, and to engage the faculties in their noblest use, instruction will be given in Philosophy and in the truths of the Bible…
Goethe has said, “Man is not born to solve the mystery of existence; but he must nevertheless attempt it, in order that he may learn how to keep within the limits of the knowable.” If in this attempt, crude guesses are sometimes offered in the name of science, we shall wait until the vapors of imagination have distilled and gather only the residuum of truth."
Rhoads is clearly pointing to philosophy as a counterweight to the natural sciences and the scientism and positivism that the success of science had elicited. Philosophy can provide this counterweight inasmuch as it can serve as a moral compass. For Rhoads, a devout Quaker, the culmination of philosophy was Christian ethics. Throughout his presidency Rhoads gave lectures in Christian ethics as part of the philosophy curriculum and of the required course. With the retirement of Rhoads in 1896 religion no longer found a place in the philosophy curriculum; it would find a place again in the 1940’s. This development in the 1890’s may be related to the fact that the College, according to the will of its founder, Joseph Taylor, was to educate Quaker women. In 1893 the Board of Trustees decided that the College’s mission was not solely for Quakers.
The philosophy department in its first years not only taught religion (Christian ethics) but also psychology. Psychology at Bryn Mawr and elsewhere had not yet established itself as an independent discipline. Courses in “physiological psychology” and “experimental psychology” were offered by the philosophy department until psychology became a department of its own.
In 1894 it became possible to major in philosophy. Years previously, in 1890, graduate work in philosophy was first offered under the auspices of Paul Shorey. Shorey, educated at Harvard, taught at Bryn Mawr from 1885 to 1892 when he left for the University of Chicago where he established himself as a leading Plato scholar. The staffing of the philosophy department in the first years was relatively unstable with a number of philosophers coming and going. A student from these years, who came to be well-known, was Edith Hamilton, who received her A.B. and M.A. in 1894 and then went off to study in Germany. She returned to the U.S. to lead the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore and to write her popular books on the Greeks and the Romans.
A notable philosophical event from this period was a visit from Bertrand Russell in 1896 during which he gave a set of lectures on the foundations of geometry. This work eventuated in the important and jointly authored (with Alfred North Whitehead) Principia Mathematica (1910-1913). His conversations here with mathematicians James Harkness (Bryn Mawr) and Frank Morley (Haverford) were very important for the development of his ideas about mathematics. His last lecture was on quite a different topic—socialism and individual liberty. In a letter to an uncle about his visit, Russell wrote:
"This College is a very nice place…especially in the greater freedom it allows to the girls. Also those girls that I have met seem to have more independence of mind, more spirit and more originality, than most of the girls at Cambridge." (cited in The Life of Bertrand Russell, by Ronald Clark)
Russell’s wife Alys, nee Pearsall Smith (Class of 1890), a Quaker from a Philadelphia family, also lectured. She spoke on behalf of suffrage for women and she talked with the students about free love. M. Carey Thomas, a relative of Alys and acquaintance of Russell’s, was upset by the latter and refused to allow Russell to lecture publically when he returned for a visit with his close friend, Lucy Donnelly, Professor of English, in 1914.