The Holmes Hundred
Dr. Arthur F. Holmes ’50, M.A. ’52 graduated from Wheaton in 1950 and returned to teach in 1951 while completing a doctorate at Northwestern University. Over his career spanning the next 43 years, Dr. Holmes inspired generations of Wheaton students to embrace the life of the mind. He also shared a grand vision with colleagues and students: that Wheaton would produce one hundred graduates who would go on to receive doctorates in philosophy.
Holmes retired in 1994 and passed away in 2011. What became of his vision?
In the fall of 2015, visiting professor of philosophy Dr. Cliff Williams ’64 decided to look into whether the “Holmes Hundred” had been achieved. By December 2015, Williams had found and verified 87 Wheaton alumni who had received doctorates in philosophy.
At this point, Cliff started writing to people on the list.
“I usually found email addresses, but in some cases wrote individual paper letters: ‘Do you remember anyone from your year, or a previous year?’ Most people replied.”
Philosophy at Wheaton
Cliff estimates that it was in February of 2016 that he passed the hundredth person on the list.
“When I got up over a hundred, I think I let out a little ‘whoop!’ here at home,” Cliff says.
Today, Cliff’s philosophy Ph.D. tally stands at 116.
Since the beginning of Dr. Holmes’ tenure at the College, graduates go on to receive philosophy doctorates at a rate of nearly two per year. Twenty-four graduates accomplished this between 1960 and 1969 alone. Five members of the classes of 1964, 1971, and 1995 went on to receive doctorates in the discipline, including analytic philosopher and theologian Dr. William Lane Craig ’71 and Wheaton’s current philosophy department chair, Dr. Sarah Borden ’95.
The achievement is all the more remarkable considering the humble origins of the department. When Dr. Holmes took up his teaching position in 1951, the philosophy major was still in the custody of the Biblical and Theological Studies Division. Dr. Holmes’ hope for an independent department was rooted in a comprehensive view of Christian education that he spent much of his life developing. The College would formally grant independent departmental status in the early 1970s.
A brilliant lecturer, Dr. Holmes drew many students into the major. Though in 1945 there were only three, by 1955—four years into Holmes’ teaching career—22 students were majoring in philosophy. By the 1980s and 90s, there were between 30 and 40 philosophy majors every year.
Dr. Holmes also had a hand in starting the Wheaton Philosophy Conference, which convened its first meeting in 1954 on the work of St. Augustine. Out of the philosophy conference came the idea for the Society of Christian Philosophers, which today is the largest sub-group under the umbrella organization of the American Philosophical Association.
While Dr. Holmes took the lead oar in establishing philosophy at Wheaton, Dr. William Lane Craig ’71 remembers being deeply indebted to the work of another Wheaton philosopher at the time: Dr. Stuart Hackett M.A. ’47. Dr. Hackett’s book, The Resurrection of Theism, employed a sophisticated cosmological argument that inspired Dr. Craig; he wrote on it for his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Birmingham. Dr. Craig’s restatement became known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism describes this argument as the most discussed argument among philosophers for the existence of God.
Kierkegaard scholar and Baylor philosophy professor Dr. C. Stephen Evans ’69 took an introductory course from Dr. Hackett, but decided to pursue a philosophy major after taking Dr. Holmes’ legendary, year-long History of Philosophy course.
“As a teacher, I really loved Dr. Holmes’ ability to empathetically look at things from the point of view of many different philosophers, including ones he disagreed with,” Dr. Evans says.
Dr. Holmes brought a strong historical grounding to his teaching and scholarly work, and that emphasis remains one of the signatures of Wheaton’s philosophy program to this day.
“He knew the history of philosophy like the back of his hand,” says Professor of Philosophy Jay Wood. “The History of Philosophy sequence is a kind of watershed moment for those who think they want to be philosophy majors. His model for approaching that class, more or less, and some of the assignments he required, are still required today.”
At present, two professors and four student teaching assistants are needed to complete its year-long cycle, but in the early days, Dr. Holmes did all the work himself.
“I’m astounded by how much work he did well and efficiently,” Philosophy Department Chair Dr. Sarah Borden ’95 says. “He graded every exam, all of the outlines, and he did it all within a class or two.”
The history of philosophy outline—an assignment requiring a student to condense a philosophical text into 500 words while capturing the exact contours of its argument—is a hallmark of Wheaton’s History of Philosophy course, with between six and eight outlines required each semester.
California Polytechnic State University philosophy professor Eleanor Helms ’02 still uses the outline approach she learned in History of Philosophy to tackle difficult new material: “I work through primary texts on my own, taking notes. The outline assignment really drew me to philosophy.”
By Cliff’s count, there are currently 13 Wheaton graduates in philosophy Ph.D. programs in the U.S. and Europe. Katholieke Universiteit Leuven Ph.D. student Jeremy Heuslein ’11 remains thankful that “the historical foundation was laid” at Wheaton, making it possible for him to make substantial use of historical figures in his own research. Helms adds, “Wheaton introduced us to philosophy itself. We had all the options, with a little extra foundation in history.”
For a thinker whose famous refrain was “All truth is God’s truth,” Dr. Holmes would likely be pleased to know that Wheaton continues to give its students an introduction to philosophy itself. Today, those students may be introduced to a field that their progenitors helped to form.