In 1909, John MacEachran came to teach philosophy in the newly established University of Alberta. A Canadian from Southern Ontario, he had taken a Master’s and PhD at Queen’s under John Watson, followed by studies in philosophy and psychology in Berlin and Paris. He became University provost in 1911, a position he used to help develop student government. For many years he also served as chairman of the Alberta Eugenics Board which oversaw compulsory sterilizations in the province – a position that seems to have been uncontroversial at the time, but that became a source of controversy when the workings of the Board became public knowledge through lawsuits launched by its victims in the 1990s (for details see the 1998 MacEachran Report).
Beginning in 1933, the Department was known as the Department of Philosophy, Psychology, and Education, until Education became independent in 1935. The Department of Philosophy and Psychology divided in 1960. At that time it housed the beginnings of Sociology, which in turn became independent in 1963.
Anthony Mardiros, an Australian who had studied with Wittgenstein at Cambridge during the Second World War, joined the Department in 1947 and became Head in 1957, succeeding John MacDonald and Douglas E. Smith. Terence Penelhum and Joseph Lambert joined the Department in the 1950s. Penelhum eventually moved to Calgary. (Until 1966, what is now the University of Calgary was a branch of the University of Alberta.)
Mardiros was head until 1968, adding eleven members to staff during his tenure. Herman Tennessen and Richard Bosley were among the Mardiros additions. Peter Schouls took over as Chair from 1970, succeeded by Cameron MacKenzie, David Sharp, Catherine Wilson, and Bernard Linsky. Bruce Hunter began his first five-year term as Chair in July 2003 and his second five-year term in July 2009.
The weekly departmental colloquium was instituted in 1961, with Arne Næss as its first speaker. Among the past visiting speakers were Roderick Chisholm, Ted Cohen, Donald Davidson, Philippa Foot, W.V.O. Quine, Paul Ricœur, Richard Rorty, Gilbert Ryle, Wesley Salmon, Naomi Scheman, and Bas van Fraasen (the Department's most distinguished undergraduate student). Speakers of the last few years have included Michael Detlefsen, Emmanuel Eze, Moira Gatens, Sally Haslanger, Karen Jones, Rebecca Kukla, Béatrice Longuenesse, Ladelle McWhorter, Jan Narveson, Calvin Normore, Jonathan Schaffer, Scott Soames, Ernest Sosa, and Stephen Yablo, among many others.
The Department also has a long history of organizing and hosting national and international conferences. In recent decades, these have included international conferences on Locke; Parmenides and Zeno; environmental aesthetics; Hobbes; and Justice and Repair. The Department has also hosted annual meetings of the Society for Exact Philosophy, the Western Canadian Philosophy Association, the Conference for the Study of Political Thought, the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, the Canadian Philosophical Association, the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy, and the Foucault Circle.