By: Benjamin Koslowe  | 

Philosophy Department Restructures to Familiar Format as Professor Segal Departs

With Professor Aaron Segal’s upcoming departure from Yeshiva University at the end of the semester, students may be wondering what YU’s philosophy department will look like in the future. Segal, who is finishing up his third year as Assistant Professor of Philosophy on Wilf campus, is making Aliyah this summer with his family.

In his three years he has taught 15 classes, including Metaphysics, Theory of Knowledge, Ancient & Medieval Philosophy, and First Year Seminar Honors (“Philosophy and Science Fiction”). After he leaves to Israel, where he will teach philosophy at Hebrew University, the only full-time Yeshiva College philosophy professor will be Professor David Johnson.

Segal, after graduating YU, went on to pursue Rabbanut Semikhah, studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion for several years. He also studied in Notre Dame under Drs. Peter van Inwagen and Alvin Plantinga, earning his Ph.D. in philosophy in 2013.

Johnson, co-chair of the philosophy department, described Segal’s move to Hebrew University as “a great honor for him and the enormous loss for us. He is quite brilliant and I’m sorry to see him go, though it’s good for him to be at Hebrew University.”

In a similar vein, Professor Daniel Rynhold, Associate Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Revel, noted that “having such a talented young philosopher as Professor Segal at YC was a real coup for the university, so it’s obviously a real blow to be losing him so soon. But even were YU in the best of health, I’m not sure we could compete with the pull of Aliyah.”

Professor Johnson mentioned that he doesn’t imagine YU is currently looking for a replacement for Professor Segal. “You’re aware of the financial difficulties of the college,” Johnson said, “so I don’t think we’re in a hiring mode. I don’t foresee a search to replace Professor Segal’s position, though I haven’t heard anything one way or the other.”

Karen Bacon, Dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences at YU, confirmed that “at the current time we are not initiating a search for a full time appointment to replace Dr. Segal. We are currently focused on the Compute Science and Biology Departments and, unexpectedly, the Math Department. Up ahead we will look at all our other departments to review staffing and plan for the future.”

The philosophy department has fluctuated in size over the years, at times having as many as four philosophers on staff at YC. These included Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, Rabbi Dr. Sol Roth, Drs. Michael and Edith Wyschogrod, Dr. Peter Achinstein, Dr. Linda Brown, and Dr. James Otteson, among others. Rabbi Wurzburger and the Wyschogrods have passed away, and several others have all left YU recently. Achinstein left in 2011, Brown and Otteson both left in 2013, and Roth retired just this past semester. Professor Segal joined the staff as Brown and Otteson left, but with Roth having retired this year and Segal’s impending parting, the department will be on the historically small side.

Current and recent philosophy majors will indeed notice that the course lineup for the upcoming semester is thinner than in the past few years. Since 2012 the philosophy department has been relatively large, and there have always been at least seven philosophy courses offered each semester in YC. Some semesters offered as many as ten philosophy courses. Next semester there will be only five. While this is small compared to the previous few years, it is actually not so unusual compared to the philosophy department’s longer history.

“When I first came here in 1996,” related Johnson, “the department consisted of myself and two adjunct professors. The department was able to offer six courses. It looks as if [going forward] probably each semester there’ll be five or six or so [courses], something in the general ballpark of where we were in terms of the offerings. So there’ll be enough courses offered so there’s no trouble for people majoring in philosophy.”

The philosophy major requires 30 credits, or ten courses. “You need a seminar,” explained Johnson, “Ancient & Medieval [Philosophy], Modern [Philosophy], a Value Theory, three of the ‘Big Six,’ meaning roughly Logic, Metaphysics, and Epistemology. And then there are three electives.” Johnson figures that being a philosophy major or minor in YC “should not be a problem. With regard to requirements for the philosophy major, Ancient & Medieval will be taught every fall, and Modern Philosophy, meaning roughly Descartes through Hume, is offered every spring. There’ll be at least one, maybe more than one, seminar each term, that’s another requirement course. And there’ll be lots of things available for Value Theory, which roughly means ethics, legal philosophy, or things in that ballpark, though they’ll be mostly done either by [Rabbi] Shalom Carmy or by political science cross-listed courses.”

Cross-listed philosophy courses feature professors such as Rabbi Carmy, Dr. Ruth Bevan, and Dr. Jamie Aroosi from the Jewish philosophy and political science departments. Johnson suggested that he may look to get the economics course “Game Theory” cross-listed as well at some point in the future. In addition to cross-listings, Professor Daniel Rynhold from Revel regularly offers one philosophy course a semester. Next semester he is offering a seminar on Kant’s First Critique.

Additionally, professors from YU’s Straus Center sometimes teach courses at YC. This semester features a cross-listed political science/philosophy course by Dr. Neil Rogachevsky, the Tikvah Postdoctoral Fellow at the Straus Center. Next semester Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveitchik, the Director of the Straus Center, will be teaching an honors philosophy course on “Judaism and Democracy.” He previously taught a Jewish Philosophy course in fall 2014 on Yehudah HaLevi. In spring 2014 he offered his “Judaism and Democracy” course, lecturing jointly with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks has been YU’s Kressel and Efrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at Yeshiva since he stepped down from his role as Chief Rabbi of Great Britain in 2013.

Professor Segal, like Johnson, feels that students majoring in philosophy shouldn’t be concerned. “A department in which Professors Johnson, Rynhold, and Carmy teach is without question one that can provide a stellar and well-rounded philosophical education,” offered Segal. “When I was an undergraduate the department was roughly identically constituted, and I was and still am delighted with the experience I had in the department. And we shouldn't forget that the political science department, the Jewish studies department, and the Straus Center offer courses and resources that expand and supplement the offerings in the philosophy department.”

Certain courses that Professor Segal has taught a few times will be still be offered, albeit less frequently for the time being. “Professor Segal has been teaching regularly for a couple of years Metaphysics in the fall and Theory of Knowledge in the spring,” said Professor Johnson. “I may hold off for a year, but probably the year after this coming one I’ll start teaching Metaphysics once in a while, and Theory of Knowledge once in a while.” Professor Johnson also regularly offers different types of philosophy seminars. “When I do seminars, they’re very often on Advanced Logic or Axiomatic Set Theory. But if I’m not doing that, I’ll once in a while do a seminar on miracles or something like that.”

In terms of other courses, Johnson imagines that “I’ll be more or less teaching Logic every fall, and then Advanced Logic when people are interested in that sort of thing. Otherwise I’ll teach Philosophy of Language or Metaphysics or Theory of Knowledge or a seminar. Historically, we’ve had a lot of double-majors, in math and philosophy, physics and philosophy, things like that, and we’ll make available what people need. I don’t think it should be a problem.”

Dr. David Shatz, co-chair of the philosophy department and professor on Beren campus, expressed that “no philosophy department, no matter how good, can lose someone like Dr. Segal without the departure having an impact. He is an extraordinary philosopher and teacher who stands at the cutting edge of analytic philosophy and who cares deeply about his students and the university. He has already received two highly competitive international awards in metaphysics while publishing rapidly in both general and Jewish philosophy. He created imaginative courses such as ‘Philosophy and Science Fiction’ and ‘Mortality and Meaning.’ His humility, I must add, is remarkable. When you combine his philosophical achievements with his prowess in ‘learning,’ honed during many years at Gush, and add his refined character, his menschlichkeit, he is a wonderful model of Torah u-Madda. We will miss him.”

“Still,” added Professor Shatz, “with Professors Johnson, Carmy, and Rynhold, and with Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik teaching as well, sponsored by the Straus Center, we’ll have a very good curriculum that nicely combines historically structured courses with courses focused on topics. Our professors are versatile, which isn’t always the case in universities, and I think we’ll get good coverage for a small department as well as first rate pedagogy.”

Students who have had the opportunity to learn from Professor Segal will miss him as well. Shua Katz remarked that “with the departure of Professor Segal, the philosophy department loses a core component, a person who exudes Yirat Shamayim while teaching a lucid and thought-provoking brand of philosophy.” Doron Levine said that “Professor Segal’s ability to explain complicated and potentially confusing topics in the most clear and precise terms is unparalleled by any teacher I’ve ever had. The fact that someone with such clarity of thought and intellectual integrity is a committed Orthodox Jew is inspiring. His methodology has had a profound impact on me and on all of his students.” Isaac Shulman related that “Professor Segal has been one of the most enjoyable and educational teachers I’ve had the pleasure of studying with. I will surely miss his clear presentation, rigorous analysis of arguments, and commitment to each of his students.” Katz, Levine, and Shulman are all current philosophy majors at YU.

Professor Johnson described Segal as “one of the most brilliant philosophers I know. I was very happy when he came. He was my student long ago here, and he was a double-major in philosophy and mathematics. I wish Aaron were staying, for the good of the college, but I’m happy for him that he can be at Hebrew University and living in [Israel]. He’s one of the most brilliant philosophers I’ve ever known, and I’ll miss him.”

“My three years here were really wonderful,” remarked Professor Segal. “My colleagues were very supportive, and my students were curious, dedicated, bright, fun, and menschlich. I had the privilege of discussing philosophy, Torah, and more, both inside the classroom and out, with others who share my intellectual passions and religious commitments. I am going to miss YU a good deal, and I hope to remain connected in one way or another.”

Pondering the future and philosophy in general, Johnson assessed that “philosophy’s great virtue, which I hope will still attract students, is, you learn logic, you learn how to reason, and that changes you in a profound way. Most of our students learn that and like it. Logic is wonderfully useful, and you learn to be rigorous; that is, you learn to be precise and explicit and meticulously correct about matters of logic. Philosophy departments are never, in their nature, big. There are larger different universities, but philosophy attracts some people, but it’s never gonna attract masses of people. But it attracts those who need it and want it and it is valuable in many ways. So I assume that tradition will continue.”