Philosophy is the study of the most fundamental aspects of reality and value. Every area of inquiry and endeavour – from art and history through politics and economics to biology and mathematics – generates philosophical issues about our world and our place in it.
Philosophers debate the meaning of life and the meaning of adverbs, the analysis of Divine foreknowledge and the analysis of colour, the nature of mathematics and the nature of terrorism.
Work in philosophy involves the creative, critical task of constructing, clarifying and comparing ideas. We dig into the fundamental assumptions beneath our everyday views, to see how they hang together, how they can be improved, or how we might have reason to prefer one over another. We learn to take conflicting views seriously, to clarify imprecise concepts and to synthesise new positions.
You will learn both traditional and contemporary approaches to individual topics in Philosophy. In tutorials and written work you practise the important skill of advancing cogent and informed arguments of your own.
- Analysis and research
- Education and training
- Policy development
Subjects you could take in this major
This subject provides a general introduction to philosophy through an examination of big questions in three areas of philosophy: (1) Ethics. Does the moral rightness of an action depend solely on its consequences? Or are there some actions, like torture, which are morally wrong no matter how desirable the consequences? What is the moral status of animals? What is the responsibility of members of developed countries for global poverty? Is it morally permissible to spend money on non-essentials while children die of preventable poverty-related causes? (2) Knowledge and scepticism. What is knowledge and do we actually know what we take ourselves to know? Do we know that there is an external world or might we be subject to a massive illusion created by an evil demon? How is it possible for scientific knowledge of laws of nature to be based on limited observation of empirical facts? (3) Personal identity. What makes you the same person as you were ten years ago? Can you survive the loss of parts of your body? Can you survive with half of your brain? Is it important that I empathize with my past and future selves? What is death? Is death bad? How do Buddhist philosophers argue for the claim that there is no self?
"This subject introduces some of the central themes of pre 20th-century Western philosophy. Topics to be covered include some or all of the following: Plato on moral ideas and knowledge; Machiavelli and Hobbes on the nature of the State, the rights of individuals, and maintaining political power; Descartes on knowledge, the self, God, freedom, and the relation between mind and body; critical responses to Descartes’s theory of the mind by Princess Elisabeth, Locke and Leibniz."
This subject critically studies the three classical approaches to moral philosophy: Aristotle 'virtue ethics, Immanuel Kant' deontology, and John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism. As well as examining works by these great thinkers, we look at debates among the contemporary heirs to the traditions they started.
Recent popular debates over the relationship between science and religion have too often denegrated into shouted polemics between religious fundamentalists and new atheists. Yet many of the really important historical, philosophical and theological questions call for more careful scholarly attention. This subject examines the complex relationship between religion and the natural sciences. Historically, religious concerns guided the science of Kepler, Newton and many other pioneers of the Scientific Revolution. For them, studying the universe demonstrated the attributes of God. This view was eventually replaced by radically different ones: to some science and religion are necessarily antagonistic, to others they belong to separate realms, while others still see a mutually illuminating consonance between the two. We examine this shift, the reasoning (good and bad) behind it and its residues, and the way these views have shaped contemporary debates over God and the natural sciences. In the second half of the subject, we explore some of the metaphysical, theological and existential questions arising from Darwinian evolutionary and modern cosmology, before offering some final reflections on the relationship between the 'personal God' of religious experience and the 'philosophers God' posited to explain facts about the natural world.
This subject examines the ideas of pre-Socratic philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. We focus specifically on the philosophical innovations of the Ancient Greeks, both in their contributions of radically new ideas and radically new methodologies. Specific questions to be discussed will include: What makes philosophy different from mythology? What is knowledge and how is it possible? What is the epistemological value of a definition? What is the nature of the soul and mind? What is virtue and what is its relation to happiness? What is the good life for a human being? These questions grew out of one another for the Greeks, and we will trace that development. We will also think about the relevance of Ancient Greek philosophical positions to our own lives and our own understanding of the world. In doing so, we will test the staying power of Plato and Aristotle’s thought and, more importantly, put into action the Socratic sentiment that the unexamined life is not worth living.
This subject offers an introduction to philosophical debates in early modern philosophy from Descartes to Kant. Questions that were controversially debated during the period inlcude the following: How can we acquire knowledge that is absolutely certain? How can I know that an external world exists outside my own mind? Is my mind an immaterial substance that is distinct from material bodies? What is the relation between mind and body? Can I know that my experiences inhere in an immaterial rather than a material substance? What is a substance? What are the limitations of human understanding? What is a self or person? How do persons continue to exist over time? What role do questions of moral responsibility play in theories of personal identity? In this subject you will enter into a dialogue with early modern thinkers and search for your own answers to their questions. We will trace the historical development of theories concerning knwowledge and skepticism, the mind-body relation, substance, causation, and personal identity through the study of texts in the period from Descartes to Kant.
Language allows us to communicate with others, and it helps to scaffold our own thoughts. This subject provides an overview of some central debates in the philosophy of language about the role of language in thought and in social coordination. We’ll consider key philosophical questions about language such as: How is linguistic communication possible? How do symbols acquire their meanings? How can social and physical context affect what someone’s words mean? And what’s the nature of metaphorical meaning? Major authors to be discussed include: Locke, Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Strawson, Austin, Grice, Searle, Kripke, Kaplan, Lewis, Davidson, and Chomsky.
This subject will examine a range of some of the most morally controversial issues that confront contemporary society. Are there limits we ought to respect with regard to the creation and destruction of human life? How should a society punish its criminals? What are our moral obligations to animals, and future generations? This subject will attempt to better understand and make sense of these controversies and many others.
Meaning is central to many issues in philosophy. The idea that the meaning of complex representation depends on the meanings of its parts is fundamental to the way we understand the mind, language, and logic. In this subject, we look at the different ways that this idea has been understood and applied throughout the 20th Century and into the present day.
In the first part of the subject, our focus is on the concepts of necessity and possibility, and the way that ‘possible worlds semantics’ has been used in theories of meaning. We will focus on the logic of necessity and possibility (modal logic), times (temporal logic), conditionality and dependence (counterfactuals), and the notions of analyticity and a priority, which are central to much philosophy.
In the second part of the subject, we will examine closely the assumption that every statement we make is either true or false but not both. We will examine the paradoxes of truth (like the so-called ‘liar paradox’) and vagueness (the ‘sorites paradox’), and we will investigate different ways attempts at resolving these paradoxes by going beyond our traditional views of truth (using ‘many valued logics’) or by defending the traditional perspective.
The subject serves as an introduction to ways that logic is applied in the study of language, epistemology and metaphysics, so it is useful to those who already know some philosophy and would like to see how logic relates to those issues. It is also useful to those who already know some logic and would like to learn new logical techniques and see how these techniques can be applied.
Nietzsche’s bold and original challenges to traditional morality and the primacy of reason have made him one of the best known and most influential of modern thinkers. This course provides a broad introduction to Nietzsche as a philosopher by addressing his views on a range of themes such as tragedy, history, morality, knowledge, the eternal recurrence and the will to power. We also consider some of Nietzsche’s more prominent critics and the wide range of interpretations to which his rich but controversial work have given rise.
This subject is a study of classic texts and major themes in phenomenology and existentialism, a tradition that shaped continental European philosophy throughout much of the 20th century. This subject focuses on central figures in that tradition, such as Sartre, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. Themes to be discussed include the aims and methods of phenomenology, consciousness and perception, being-in-the world, our relation to others, authenticity, freedom and embodiment. On completion of the subject students should be able to engage in detailed exegesis of philosophical texts and to examine critically the philosophical arguments and views they contain.
This subject addresses some of the central issues in the philosophy of science. It will raise questions such as: What is the difference between science and non-science? Is there a universal scientific method? Or do the methods employed by scientists vary historically? Is scientific theory change a rational process? Is science objective? Do scientific theories inform us of the truth about the world? Students who take this class will have knowledge of the major themes of recent and contemporary philosophical thinking about science. They will also have experience of the methods of critical analysis and argument employed in the philosophy of science and a background on which to base further study in the area.
Capitalism is now the dominant way of organizing economic production and other aspects of social life in most countries. But there are many who feel that capitalism is morally troubling, or even evil. This subject aims to develop a moral evaluation of capitalism in its various forms, and to address specific moral concerns about it. Possible questions include: In what way is capitalism related to such things as exploitation, overconsumption, and excessive competition? Are these inevitable problems or can they be addressed through regulation? What sort of limits should be placed on individual property rights, the activities of corporations, and flows of inherited wealth? Should some services never be privatized? This subject will address these questions with the help of classic and contemporary readings in the egalitarian, utilitarian, and classical liberal traditions.
Our central question in this subject will be the extent to which our everyday experiences are determined by the nature of the world itself versus the extent to which they're determined by the structure of our own minds. Our approach to this question will be multi-faceted, drawing on philosophical texts, films and literary works, as well as our personal experiences. In topic 1, the nature of the world, we'll discuss Realism, Idealism, and Skepticism. Is the world really as it seems intuitively to be to us (Realism) or is it just a projection of our minds (Idealism). In topic 2, the nature of the self, we'll examine (i) what changes you can undergo and still remain yourself, (ii) the extent to which your personality and mind are constructed by you vs. being given to you by nature or upbringing, and (iii) whether genuine relationships exist between you and others or whether it's mostly a projection on your part. In topic 3, the nature of time, we'll examine time. Does only the present moment exist or does reality consist of many moments of time - some past, some present, and some future? Is there really any such thing as time or is it, as Kant says, just a feature of our minds? Does contemporary physics show there's no such thing as time, or is there a way to reconcile the findings of physics with our intuitive view that time exists?
This subject will cover central issues in the philosophy of mind, such as the relationship between minds and brains (e.g., dualism, behaviourism, physicalism, functionalism and eliminativism), the nature of mental states such as beliefs, desires and sensations, how mental states represent features of the world, and the relationship between the first-person perspective on oneself and the third-person scientific perspective on the mind.
This subject introduces students to the rich heritage of ethical traditions in Islamic thought. Students will study and critically evaluate the key features and contributions of Muslim theologians, philosophers and Sufis, who attempted to deal with revelation and rationalistic discourse in exploring the meaning of ethical life for Muslims and discussing whether philosophy and religious wisdoms were equals and allies in the pursuit of happiness. The origin and development of these traditions will be introduced with an emphasis on the relevance and application of some ethical issues, such as free will, predestination, human responsibility, and bioethics, to contemporary Muslim societies.
This subject investigates central topics in political philosophy. These can be divided into two areas of focus - political legitimacy and distributive justice. The study of legitimacy aims to establish the moral authority of the coercive state. This involves finding ways to answer the anarchist contention that no state can be justified, by developing a moral foundation for the state's authority. The study of distributive justice aims to answer questions about how the state should actually use its coercive powers to regulate the way in which its citizens interact. The focus here is on interpreting various (often competing) political values, such as equality, individual freedom and community.
This subject will make extensive use of historical and contemporary writings. Authors who feature predominantly in this subject include Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and John Rawls. This will be followed by time spent on contemporary authors.
This subject deals with central questions of epistemology and some aspects of the relation between epistemology and metaphysics. The primary focus will be epistemological questions about the nature of knowledge and justified belief. In addition, we will explore questions of a metaphysical nature that have a bearing on epistemological concerns, such as the nature of truth and reality, and the relationship between knowledge, truth and reality. We will also consider meta-epistemological questions about the nature of epistemological inquiry, including recent work in experimental philosophy on the role of intuition in epistemology, as well as naturalistic challenges to conceptual analysis.
This subject explores the nature of value in human life. The kinds of value explored may include all or some of moral and ethical value, aesthetic value, religious value, political value, and epistemic value. Are such values capable of being objectively true or real, or are they essentially 'subjective', having no ground or warrant outside the individual, or perhaps the society or culture, who affirms them? And just how helpful, anyway, is the objective/subjective contrast for thinking about the nature of value?
This subject surveys recent developments in our philosophical understanding and critiques of the social categories of race and gender. The subject will first explore issues in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language that arise for biological vs social constructivist accounts of race and gender. Special attention will be paid to the similarities and differences between race and gender and the ways in which they interact. If race and gender are biological categories, they may involve erroneous assumptions. If they are socially constructed categories, it follows that our current categories can be reshaped. This raises a number of moral and political questions regarding the best means to bring about change, including whether limiting freedom of speech can be justified. Philosophers studied include Anthony Appiah, Elizabeth Anderson, Sally Haslanger, Tommie Shelby, and Rae Langton.
This subject explores the theories of meaning and interpretation developed in contemporary European thought. We will examine questions such as: Is the meaning of a text determined by the author's intentions? Does what we write or say have a single determinate meaning or can conflicting interpretations be equally valid? Is there a robust distinction between fiction and non-fiction? Can philosophy of art help clarify how a text should be interpreted? Major thinkers discussed will include Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Sassure, Barthes, Derrida and Butler. We will also consider whether radical interpretation – the interpretation of language as a totally foreign culture – is possible, and if so by which methods (Quine, Davidson).
This subject examines the nature of philosophy itself. Students will read what many great philosophers have said about the methods, aims, and ambitions of philosophy. And they will examine how these views are grounded in, or intertwined with committments about metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics. The subject provides the opportunity to reflect on different strands in the philosophical tradition, which inspire conflicting projects in contemporary philosophy. It should also encourage students to reflect on the nature and methods of the philosophy they have studied to date. The subject is intended for students nearing completion of a philosophy major, but may also be taken by others.
This subject deals with the power and limits of logic. We will cover some of the great conceptual advances in logic in the 20th Century, which have revolutionised our understanding of logic and language, of models and meaning, and of concepts and computation. We will examine the conceptual foundations of logic and the way it can be applied, not only to develop theories in other domains, but how we can learn the limits of logic when we attempt to apply its power to logic itself. In the course we will examine fundamental results such as (1) the soundness and completeness of different proof systems of first-order predicate logic, (2) the boundary between the countably infinite and the uncountably infinite (3) the boundary between the computable and the uncomputable, and (4) Gödel's incompleteness theorem and its consequences. Concepts and results will be approached via both practical exposure to formal techniques and proofs and theoretical and philosophical reflection on those techniques. Students will be able to appreciate the philosophical importance of the major logical results and equipping them for further work in logic in philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, computer science and related fields.