Dr. Eugene C. Holmes, 74, a retired chairman of the philosophy department at Howard University and a member of its faculty for 40 years, died Saturday at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass. He had cancer.

Dr. Holmes was born in Patterson, N.J. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees at New York University and his doctorate at Columbia University.

He moved to Washington in 1930 and began his teaching career in the philosophy department in the same year. He headed the department for several years before his retirement in 1970.

Beginning in 1950, he maintained a home in West Hyannisport, Mass., in addition to his Washington residence. After his retirement, he moved to Massachusetts permanently.

Dr. Holmes was a member of the American Association of Philosophers.

In West Hyannisport, which is on Cape Cod, he was active in numerous civic groups. He was a member of the executive board of the Cape Cod Branch of the NAACP, a founder and vice president of the Cape Cod Council of Doers, a founder and trustee of the Minorities Economic Development and Cultural Center of Cape Cod and a member of the Cape Cod Planning and Economic Commission.

Survivors include his wife, Margaret C., of West Hyannispot, a brother, Lawrence, of Belleville, N.J., and a sister, Gladys H. Johnson of Detroit, Mich.