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Our Rich History: The growth of Philosophy Department at Thomas More, pursuit of direction

By Tom Ward 
Thomas More University
Part 61 of Our Series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021” and it is part one of two parts on the Philosophy Department

Philosophy has always held a privileged place in Catholic higher education. It is of principal importance in the seminary education of Catholic priests as a necessary foundation for the further study of theology—hence, it has often been called the “handmaid of Theology.” Of course, philosophy as an academic discipline was far more than a subject taught to seminarians—it had always been central to the liberal arts in any college or university. In a Catholic institution like Villa Madonna College, philosophy went hand-in-hand with another keystone of the liberal arts, theology, though they were separate departments.

Sr. M. Camilla Cahill, CDP. (TMU Archives)

When the Benedictine Sisters first opened Villa Madonna College in 1921 for their own postulants, Bishop of Covington Ferdinand Brossart provided them with a priest, Fr. John E. Haldi, to teach philosophy (Sr. Irmina Saelinger, OSB, Retrospect and Vista , p. 2). He was followed in 1923 by Fr. Henry Hanses, a priest of the Diocese of Covington. Fr. Hanses was instrumental in bringing Fr. John Laux from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh to join the VMC faculty in 1924. Fr. Laux was described as “a versatile scholar, competent in Scripture and Church History, in Classical and Romance Languages as well as in Philosophy” (Saelinger. p. 4). In fact, Laux was a prolific author who wrote several series of textbooks that were used by many Catholic high schools around the country, including texts for religion and church history. Fr. Laux died on February 9, 1939.  Another diocesan priest, Fr. Edmund Corby, was added to the department in 1930. He was named the first chairman of the Philosophy Department, and later the dean (title of the head office at that time) of the college, though he only served in that capacity for less than one academic year, 1943-1944, when he died on March 26 following a brief illness (Saelinger, p. 20).

For much of its existence, the college’s Philosophy Department was dominated by priests, more than any other department, with the exception, perhaps, of theology. It must have seemed natural for philosophy to be taught by priests since they had been required to pursue rigorous philosophical studies as seminarians. That did not, however, preclude non-clergy from its study, and VMC would eventually have the services of a woman religious who was well-educated in philosophy—Irish-born (in 1905) Sr. Mary Camilla Cahill, CDP.

Fr. Charles Garvey. (TMU Archives)

Eileen Cahill and her sister Mary both joined the Sisters of Divine Providence (CDP) after coming to America; when Eileen entered the congregation in 1922, she was given the religious name Sr. Camilla. She graduated high school at the CDP’s Our Lady of Providence Academy in Newport, Kentucky, where she later taught. Sr. Camilla attended Villa Madonna College for a time, though she attained her AB from Xavier College (now University) in Cincinnati in 1931. She went on to earn a PhD in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC in 1939 (Faculty Biographical Sketches and 1992 Obituary, TMU Archives). She began her long tenure with the college in 1944 after being brought in to serve as chair of the department; she would have begun sooner had Fr. Corby not thought it inappropriate for a woman to teach philosophy (Recollection of Msgr. Gerald Twaddell, Aug. 31, 2022). Sr. Camilla remained as chair until 1965 when she was replaced by Fr. Charles Garvey. She also served as the first dean of women of VMC from 1953 to 1957. At the age of 65, Sr. Camilla left TMC in 1972 (Recollection of Msgr. Twaddell, Aug. 31, 2022), though she went on to teach philosophy and reside at the Diocese of Covington’s Seminary of St. Pius X in Erlanger. After the seminary program discontinued holding classes at its Erlanger cmpus in 1982, she taught at Northern Kentucky University. Sr. Camilla died on April 5, 1992, at St. Anne Convent, the CDP motherhouse in Melbourne, Kentucky.

In his 1962 dissertation on the History of VMC, Thomas Hanna stated that “The curriculum of the philosophy Department has changed little from the year when the College began in 1921.” The few changes Hanna noted (which would have all occurred during Sr. Camilla’s tenure as chair) were: the addition of Cosmology, Epistemology and History of Philosophy in 1946-1947, with the history being separated into the conventional divisions of Ancient, Medieval and Modern the following year (with more recent divisions including Contemporary Philosophy). Also, in 1953, “under the new Concentration Program the Philosophy Reading List and the Philosophy Seminar were added, and Epistemology was changed into Theories of Knowledge.” Even those who were not philosophy majors were required to take 18 semester hours of philosophy under the Concentration Program (Thomas H. Hanna, “The History and Status of Villa Madonna College 1921-1961,” dissertation, University of Cincinnati, 1962, pp. 250-251).

Two Philosophy Chairs, Fr. Garvey and Sr. Camilla. (TMU Archives)

The 1960s were a challenging decade for many departments, but for philosophy and theology especially, the faculties had to deal with inquiries from skeptical students who questioned traditional authority and wisdom—as one member voiced his view of the matter, “The difficulty is that some students appear to reject the answers to those questions that are given by theology” (Philosophy Department meeting minutes, Nov. 3, 1967, TMU Archives). As faculty at a Catholic college, they were naturally concerned whether they were effective in reaching students to make Catholic teachings relevant in answering their questions. Students in their classes seemed to evince some level of doubt regarding faith as explained by philosophy, though the skepticism they expressed “seems as though this is not the result of their philosophy courses so much as it is the reason why these students have come to pursue philosophy” (Philosophy Department Report, by Fr. Garvey, ca. 1969, p. 1, TMU Archives).  But because one aim of philosophy was to teach students to ask questions about life and experience, this was considered a natural step along their educational pathway.

Pride of place in Catholic philosophy has traditionally been given to “Scholasticism,” with the study of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (Thomism), and even though changes following the Second Vatican Council may have shortened his pedestal, the “Angelic Doctor” still retained his place atop it. Yet by the time Villa Madonna was preparing to move to its new campus (soon to be rechristened as Thomas More College), some members of the Philosophy Department began to question the emphasis on Aristotelian/Thomistic Philosophy.

The Philosophy Department at the time consisted of five full-time members: Fr. Garvey, Sr. Camilla, Fr. Charles Rooks (who also served as academic dean), Dr. George Blair, and Mr. James Ebben. Fr. Charles Garvey, a priest of the Diocese of Covington (ordained in 1947), took Sr. Camilla’s place as department chair in 1965. Fr. Garvey completed his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Toronto in 1951. That same year he joined the philosophy faculty at VMC and also served as a chaplain (Garvey Faculty Biographical Sketch, TMU Archives). During the brief existence of “Project Honduras” in the early 1960s, Fr. Garvey was its director and accompanied male students who went to that Central American country for experience in mission work (Murphy to Garvey, May 1, 1962, TMU Archives).

Fr. Charles Rooks. (TMU Archives)

For Dr. Blair, see also Our Rich History, renaissance man.

Fr. Charles Rooks, another diocesan priest (ordained in 1952), began at VMC in 1957. Fr. Rooks also attended the University of Toronto, where he received his MA in 1953, and remained there to earn an advanced Licentiate in Medieval Studies from the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies of the University of Toronto. In 1963 he was named acting academic dean, and academic dean two years later (Ackerman to Murphy, April 15, 1965; Rooks Faculty Biographical Sketch; TMU Archives).
James Ebben, a native of Wisconsin, joined the Philosophy Department a few years after Fr. Rooks and succeeded him as (acting) academic dean in August 1971, a position which he held until June 1976. He came to VMC with a MA in Scholastic Philosophy from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1961. He sought a PhD from Duke University, but after his dissertation was not accepted, he attained another MA (in Contemporary Philosophy) from Duke in 1967 at the end of a two-year leave from VMC (Recollection of Msgr. Twaddell, Aug. 31, 2022).

It was quite natural at this time in the 1960s that the faculty would ask if philosophy should have a new emphasis rather than the traditional Aristotelian/Thomistic approach. There were, of course, a plethora of contemporary philosophies that were at least presented in the History of Contemporary Philosophy course; two of particular interest to the Philosophy Department were pragmatism and existentialism, through which they wanted to give students “contact with more than one philosophical system from readings in the proponents of those systems” (Philosophy Department Report, by Fr. Garvey, ca. 1969, p. 3, TMU Archives). 

For the most part, however, discussion centered less around focusing upon another philosopher and his system, than on the desire of some in the department to make the first course they offered a “student-oriented” course (rather than discipline-oriented) that “would be directed by the interest of the students and by questions which were considered relevant by the students.” Fr. Rooks and Mr. Ebben favored this idea instead of the conventional Thomistic approach, which its proponents argued would provide students with a “foundation”—the first course should be “a content course with information problems and solutions according to the Thornistic [sic] system” (Philosophy Department meeting minutes, Dec. 18, 1967, TMU Archives). Interestingly, there were several places in the meeting minutes for 1967-1968 in which a word spelled as “Thornistic” was used in a context in which “Thomistic” was to be expected, yet “Thornistic” occurred too many times to be regarded merely as a “typo”—whether it was meant to be sarcastic is not known.

Dr. George Blair. (TMU Archives)

The question carried into the following year. Fr. Rooks and Mr. Ebben “questioned whether there should be any vantage point given to the students.” They proposed to let students sample various authors, while faculty would try “to show the students how to handle the problems that arise. What is important is to give the student a technique rather than information.” But Dr. Blair “denied the possibility of giving a method without giving some type of privileged information.” Giving them a “super-market” philosophy would only create confusion that would lead to “despairing indifference” (Philosophy Department meeting minutes, Feb. 7, 1968, TMU Archives).

The department finally voted at their February 21, 1968 meeting on the question of retaining the emphasis on Thomism; the result of the vote was three to one in favor of Thomism (Philosophy Department meeting minutes, Feb. 21, 1968, TMU Archives). The minutes do not name the member who voted against it, but it is a safe bet that it was not the dedicated Thomist, Sr. Camilla. (Her dissertation at Catholic University was entitled “The Relative and the Absolute in St. Thomas and in Modern Philosophy”). Dr. Blair, who became chair in June 1968, wrote in his evaluation of Sr. Camilla, “Sister seems to be regarded by some students as rather old-fashioned” though this may be “due to the fact that she is old, and that she is a Thomist, and therefore not much weight should be given to it” (Evaluation of Sr. Camilla, May 1969, TMU Archives).

It seems that matters in the department were in a state of flux for a time as the 1960s ended, without a definite guiding principle. As Dr. Blair recorded, the program here “is so diversified that no professor can presuppose anything by way of content” (Report of Philosophy Department, 1970-1971, p.1, TMU Archives). Dr. Blair apparently meant that there was little consistency in what was being taught so that faculty were not sure in subsequent courses how to build upon what students had already learned.

Matters were to some extent taken out of the department’s hands with the introduction of the Venture Program that began in 1972-1973. The Philosophy Department endeavored to revamp its curriculum to accord with the Venture Program’s “clusters” concept that was intended to give students an interdisciplinary experience tied to a particular theme that they chose. Among the aims announced by the department was that the new courses would connect “more obviously with courses in other fields to facilitate clusters.”Rather than titling courses by traditional philosophical fields, such as metaphysics, epistemology, etc., they created new descriptive titles, usually prefaced by “Man as…”, including Man as a Living Being, Man as a Thinking Being, Man as a Communicating Being, or by “Man and…”, such as Man and His Values, Man and His Development. The list of new courses also paired them with other disciplines with which they could be related in a cluster (Proposal for a New Set of Courses for the Philosophy Department, ca. 1972, TMU Archives). The Venture Program, however, did not last long, and philosophy courses eventually reverted to more familiar titles.   

As the 1970s progressed, new faculty were introduced; most were priests of the Diocese of Covington. Fr. John Cahill, with a MA from the Catholic University of America, began at TMC in 1976 and also served as chaplain for a time. Both Fr. Gerald Twaddell and Fr. William Cleves did extensive post-graduate studies in Europe. Fr. Twaddell completed his PhD at the Catholic University of Paris and came to TMC in 1977 after teaching for a time at the Seminary of St. Pius X. Fr. Cleves officially joined the department in 1983 a couple years after returning from Rome. Of course, Fr. Cleves later became president of the college, 1992-2001, and much more about him has already been written in this series. These three priests, along with Dr. Blair, would form the core of the department into the 1990s. 

For Fr. Cleves, see Our Rich History, scholar president.


Our Rich History, Msgr. Cleves makes Thomas More better known.

Mr. James Ebben. (TMU Archives)

Beginning in the fall of 1982, the TMC Philosophy Department became responsible for the education of seminarians at the diocesan Seminary of St. Pius X, when they began to attend classes at Thomas More. Seminarians were still required to major in Philosophy with an 18-hour requirement (Philosophy Department meeting minutes, Sept. 17, 1982, TMU Archives). Upper-level seminarians did not find the TMC philosophy faculty a drastic change because some of them—Dr. Blair, Fr. Twaddell and Fr. Cleves—had also taught at the seminary prior to the change of location. For the benefit primarily of the seminarians, the department introduced two new courses, “God and Reason” and “Knowing and Speaking,” to begin the following academic year, though the courses were open to all students (Philosophy Department Report, 1982-1983, p. 2, TMU Archives). As reported the following year, these courses also proved popular with students other than seminarians (Annual Report of the Philosophy Department for 1983-1984, p. 2, TMU Archives).

For the move of the seminary to Thomas More, see Our Rich History, St. Pius moves to TM campus.

In 1981, the Philosophy Department was concerned that the six-hour general requirement for philosophy was inadequate. Dr. Blair, chair at the time, viewed it as a missed opportunity “to acquaint the students about life and living so that they can better cope with today’s problems and make sense out of their lives.” He thought that the requirement of a mere six-hours was “almost worse than none at all, because students cannot get enough familiarity with philosophy to see the point of it, let alone its application” (Self-Evaluation of the Philosophy Department, 1981, p. 4, TMU Archives). The department also strategized about “increasing the number of required hours in philosophy for coming years” (Philosophy Department Report, 1982-1983, p. 2, TMU Archives).

Perhaps President Thomas Coffey was also thinking along such lines when he called for a college-wide core curriculum revision in the mid-1980s. The plan first approved at the Faculty General Assembly on August 27, 1985, had only a six-hour requirement for philosophy. The faculty was upset when Dr. Coffey, without consulting them, changed the requirement to nine hours (along with making other changes). This provoked a faculty protest after the board of trustees approved the curriculum with Dr. Coffey’s changes on September 19 (Memo of the Faculty General Assembly, ca. Oct. 1985, TMU Archives). Because this story has been told earlier in this series, all that needs to be said here is that the board of trustees agreed in the end to change the philosophy core back to six hours.

See also part 25 of Our Rich History series the Coffey years.

At any rate, the department made a decision on the two courses that would meet the six-hour core requirement for the new curriculum to be introduced in fall 1986. Beginning in 1983-1984, the department had offered Ethics as the introductory course, rather than the usual “Introduction to Philosophy” (Annual Report of the Philosophy Department for 1983-1984, p. 2, TMU Archives). But for the new curriculum, they decided to title the introductory course “Philosophy of Human Nature,” which “will be the basis for other courses.” The second course for the six-hour requirement would “allow students some limited choices”; those choices were among three options for Ethics: Social, Medical or Business (Philosophy Department meeting minutes, Sept. 9, 1985, TMU Archives).

The department met with Academic Dean Bryant Card on September 10, 1985, to answer questions he posed and to finalize the core. Dean Card reported to them that the board of trustees insisted “on a common content for those courses that all students must take, especially in connection to the three courses that would be offered in Ethics.” He seemed to be satisfied with their explanation that each of the courses in Ethics would “include a common core of issues in general ethics and that each of the three courses be specified by the type of application that would be made” (Philosophy Department meeting minutes, Sept. 10, 1985, TMU Archives).

Fr. Twaddell took Dr. Blair’s place as chair in 1985-1986. Fr. Cahill left following the fall 1985 semester, though he would return later. More developments would arise with the coming of the 1990s.

Tom Ward is the Archivist of Thomas More University. He holds an MA in History from Xavier University, Cincinnati. He can be contacted at wardt@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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