COLLEGE STATION, TEX. -- The Philosophy Department at Texas A&M used to be the ultimate Aggie joke. No one worried about why Socrates died because no one seemed to care that he lived. Not that the professors were bad. There were no professors. There was no department. Tradition has it that the void persisted until the mid-1960s when then-President Earl Rudder read an article in a national magazine ridiculing his school's lack of philosophers and told his academic deans, "I don't know what they are, but get me some."

Today, there are 15 Aggie philosophers, and the term is not an oxymoron. Their department, though modest compared with Harvard or Berkeley, symbolizes a remarkable academic transformation, the awakening of humanities at this historically agrarian and pragmatic institution. The Renaissance has reached a school renowned until now mostly for farming and drilling -- oil, football and military.

Even as the state struggles with a multibillion-dollar deficit and the most severe energy recession in a half century, A&M's enrollment, which more than doubled in the last 20 years to 36,000, is up 30 percent for next year. Leading the surge is the college of liberal arts and its nascent Philosophy Department, after a decade in which business and practical sciences dominated higher education here and across the country.

"We are busting at the seams," said Chuck Stout, budget officer for A&M's College of Liberal Arts. "Philosophy, Greek, Latin, oriental languages, Russian, psychology, the modern languages -- they've all taken off. We're just frightened to death over how we will handle it for the next year or two, with the state cutting back the budgets. We seemed to have the poor taste to experience this dramatic growth at exactly the wrong time."

"What's happening here is incredible, astonishing," said Dr. John McDermott, a distinguished philosopher not known for overstatement. "In the last year or so, I've noticed a palpable shift in what students want for their education. Before they were too literal. They lacked what I call a symbolic bank. Now they seem about fed up with narrowness."

In 1984, liberal arts majors here increased by 14 percent. The next year, the number of freshmen enrolling in liberal arts jumped 31 percent. In 1986, the increase was 36 percent. And for 1987 the number of liberal arts freshmen has rocketed 60 percent, pushing the total enrollment in that college to about 4,500 students. It is now the largest college on campus.

As at most schools, philosophy majors at A&M remain modest in number (they increased from 31 in 1984 to 53 last year), but no field is growing faster.

"Our classes are packed. And each semester we have to turn away hundreds of students who want to get in," said Herman Saatkamp, a Santayana scholar who arrived here from Tampa University in 1985 to head the department. "We're all trying to figure out what's going on."

"This is not a return to the idealism of the 1960s," said Stephen Daniel, assistant department head who teaches many of the introductory courses. "There are some idealists on campus, but not a whole lot of them. This phenomenon actually seems to have pragmatic roots.

"The students are becoming aware that their specific training in engineering or computers will be out of date in five years. So they have to be trained as problem solvers, learn how to ask the right questions, how to be flexible. The word is getting out that CEOs {chief executive officers} most often come from liberal arts backgrounds."

Michelle Mobley, 21, a philosophy major who graduated last spring and has been accepted at Duke University's law school, represents the trend. Her father, William Mobley, is a former dean of A&M's business school, and Michelle said she rejected her father's urgings that she study business because she found analytical philosophy more interesting and liberal arts more practical. "I think very few of us here went into liberal arts just to follow some pipe dream," Mobley said. "We did it to get a good base, a well-rounded education. I'm very conservative -- my hair is a normal length, when I wear eye shadow, it's only one color at a time. I'm not what you might think of when you think of a philosophy major. But I certainly enjoyed it, and it made a lot of sense."

Part of philosophy's sudden emergence here is attributable to the pragmatic focus of the courses and the quality of the teachers. The Aggie philosophers have developed a strong applied philosophy program, in which their discipline is applied to ethical problems of technology, the military, medicine, law, journalism and agriculture. "These students want to make sure that whatever they are studying, they see a reason for it," Daniel said.

"If you discuss the relationship between mind and body, they want to know why. It is no longer good enough to just say it is one of the major philosophical topics. We say, well . . . you might be better able to address the issue of euthenasia. When do you pull the plug? Or what if you're a member of a jury and the defendant claims he had no choice but to commit murder because he was raised in a ghetto environment? For that you can consider the question: Are we totally physical bodies or does the mind somehow transcend? What we do here is make the connections."

Manuel Davenport has been an Aggie philosopher almost since the creation. He remembers how difficult it was to get a class discussion going 20 years ago, when College Station was a place the '60s never reached. It was rural and regimented, dominated by military cadets, who now make up only about 6 percent of the student body.

"The cadets would sit in the room with their uniforms on, and you'd toss out an existential question like 'How can man prove his own existence?' or 'Does God exist?' and you'd get back a lot of yes sirs and no sirs," Davenport recalled. " . . . They were accustomed to putting down what the professor said."

But as the semesters rolled by, the cadets showed a growing appreciation for esthetics and ethics. And Davenport became increasingly interested in militarism and pacifism. He created a course in military ethics, a field that has brought him national standing as the only civilian member of a group that advises the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- the Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics -- on such issues as women in combat. This year, he has spent much time considering the Iran-contra scandal, drawing heavily on the Just War doctrines of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

One of the three essential principles of the Catholic justification for war is that it must be declared by a legitimate authority, and he believes that the covert National Security Council operations foundered on that ground.

"From watching the hearings, it seems to me that {Lt.} Col. {Oliver L.} North was following the orders of CIA Director William Casey and that Casey had been ordered by President Reagan to increase covert activities in Central America. If North was following orders, I think he was wrong, morally wrong. The president here is not the legitimate authority, according to our laws. Military people will sometimes tell me that they take an oath to obey their commander in chief, but they also take an oath to uphold the Constitution. There's a clear understanding in the Code of Military Conduct since Nuremberg that you have to decide whether an order is lawful or unlawful. I think North knew that what he was doing was unlawful."

John J. McDermott, a philosopher who also chairs the department of Humanities in Medicine at Texas A&M's new medical school, has spent his career studying contemporary American culture. Much of his work focuses on an individual's feelings of loneliness and abandonment in the face of large and complex institutions and modern technology.

Ten years ago, he left Queens College in New York, where he had worked for two decades, after the city laid off 20,000 workers and forced nationally renowned professionals such as himself to take two-week furloughs. He was profoundly affected to realize that "the people in charge of my life didn't give a damn about me or the university."

As an Aggie philosopher, McDermott has devoted himself to the applied philosophy of medicine, which he considers the touchstone for understanding contemporary society. With a rich blend of scientific knowledge and poetic symbolism, he teaches A&M medical students the literature of medicine and such concepts as authenticity. One of his favorite stories is about the cigar man.

In 1948, McDermott was a volunteer at Bellevue Hospital in New York, where he ran errands for patients in the death ward. One Sunday, a quadruple amputee from Puerto Rico asked him to buy some special cigars from his home country. McDermott said found himself irritated at such a specific demand and said he would buy some American cigars if he could not find the Puerto Rican ones. Infuriated, the man said Puerto Rican cigars or none.

In a recent lecture on medical technology and loneliness, McDermott said it was decades later that he began to comprehend the lessons of that episode.

"I was teaching the philosophy of Albert Camus, and the theme was personal authenticity. In a flashback, my Puerto Rican patient taught me of authenticity, of the esthetic moment and of the quality of life in a pre-technological medical setting. His message came to me as a revelation . . . .Surely, only those special cigars would do, for only they, smell and taste, would bring back the rich memories of Puerto Rico, the cocoa-brown skin of the women, the mist hanging over the coast between the Condado of San Juan and the city of Mayaguez. Only those cigars were authentic, existential, freighted with experienced relations. Only they sang . . . his song, his personal song.

"I missed the meaning in 1948. Now I have it. No medicine is worth its salt if it does not know the difference between one cigar and another, between the literal and the symbolical."

In the last two years, McDermott has found himself and his students obsessed with the ethical implications of AIDS.

"First of all, it is changing the whole way we look at death," he said. "When you say you have AIDS, you are announcing that you are dying. It is the first time since the plague that we've had something like that. It's sort of like being on death row, with a cloture to it that is staggeringly obvious. Nobody has lived with it. And there are all kinds of civil liberties questions: The guy who couldn't get a funeral parlor to take him, the whole notion of quarantining. AIDS presents all the questions of philosophy."

The stereotype of a philosopher is someone who ponders questions in the ivory tower. Stephen Daniel, an Aggie philosopher fascinated by the metaphysical questions of mind and body, pursued life's meaning paddling his kayak down wild rivers.

Late last December, in his sixth season as a kayaker, Daniel and 10 companions began a trip 162 miles down the Rio Mesquital, a canyon-lined river that had rarely if ever been run before, deep in the backcountry of Mexico's state of Durango. On the second day of the trip, the last day of 1986, Daniel's kayak flipped and pinned him against the rocks in a position from which his mates could not extricate him for two days. His legs were hyperextended and lost the flow of blood. The river was so remote and medical care so limited that he finally had to be picked up by Hermann Hospital's Life Flight jet and flown to Houston.

It was too late to save his legs. They were amputated at the thigh.

Six months later, Daniel is planning a philosophy graduate program here in applied ethics and looking forward to the day -- with the help of prostheses -- when he returns to the rivers. His office walls are covered with pictures of him in action. If anything can prepare a person for life without legs, Daniel's callings have.

"One thing I've got going for me is that . . . I'm able to do very much what I was doing before. I can read, teach, think and ask questions without much hindrance. If I were a roofer, then I would have lost my livelihood and, thus, my sense of what I was. And on another level, kayaking represents a whole attitude and philosophy -- about the outdoors, about meeting challenges. Kayakers, like philosophers, are very flexible people. If you give them a problem -- what do you do if this happens? -- they tend to figure out a solution. There are no huge walls, no barriers that are insurmountable for these people.

"And, too, look at me here. I'm sitting. I move around in this wheelchair very much like I would in the water. I've spent innumerable hours over the last six years in this position. Now I'm like the permanent kayaker. In a certain strange way life is a river, and this is just another challenge."

Daniel hopes to be in the classroom next fall, when his department will teach more students than ever. On his first day back, Daniel hopes to wheel his way to the front of the class and ask the first question he always asks: "What does it mean to say that something exists?"

It is one of the oldest philosophical questions, but for Stephen Daniel, for his students, for his department and his school, there now are so many new ways of looking at it.