Undergraduate Study Overview

Undergraduate Study Overview

East Quadrangle with students

Philosophy: What is it?

Many of the questions studied in Philosophy are ones that occur naturally to us, such as: Are morals simply matters of personal opinion? Do we have free will? What kinds of things can we know for certain? Why should I obey the law? Is there any rational basis for a belief in God? Is the mind just a machine (or: can machines think)? Is truth relative? Under what conditions, if any, is it right to take a human life? What is meaning? What is knowledge? Is there some way other than science of knowing reality?

As you can see, philosophical questions are very general, and cut across the other domains of human knowledge (Philosophy has traditionally been called the 'Queen of Sciences'). These include questions about how knowledge is achieved (Epistemology, the Theory of Knowledge), about the ultimate nature of the reality that particular sciences seek to know (Metaphysics), and about the ultimate basis of rational conduct (Ethics). The philosophical way of answering these questions is for the most part the use of reason, as opposed to observation or experiment as in natural science, and as opposed to revelation or direct insight as in religion. Because of this, Logic, the systematic study of valid argument (correct reasoning) is also a central philosophical subject. Furthermore, Philosophy is uniquely general: it seeks to understand how all the other domains of human knowledge and culture fit together, and how, in the most general terms, they connect to reality.

The study of philosophy is distinctively valuable in its own right, but is also of immense practical value in any career or academic discipline that demands skills of analysis, criticism, argumentation and clarity of thought and writing. Evidence suggests that students with first degrees in philosophy consistently outperform other students on standardized admissions tests for postgraduate study.

(For further discussion of this question, see David Bain's homepage)

The Pattern of Study


The Department subject area offers two semester-length courses at Level 1 (normally taken in first year): Philosophy 1A: How Should I Think? and Philosophy 1B: How Should I Live? Most students studying philosophy at level 1 take both of these (one in the first semester and one in the second). A grade of 'D' or better in any level 1 course qualifies you to take philosophy at Level 2. There are also two courses at Level 2, again with one each semester: Philosophy 2M: Self & Society and Philosophy 2K: Knowledge, Meaning and Inference. Most students take both, as honours entry requires it. See below for descriptions of these courses. Students in Honours, whether single or joint, choose from a wide variety of courses.

Entry requirements for undergraduate degrees can be found here.

Levels 1-2

Coursework and Assessment at Levels 1 and 2. In all courses at levels 1 and 2, you attend lectures three or four days per week and attend a seminar with an assigned tutor. Coursework includes seminar quizzes, an essay, and a final examination, worth 10%, 40% and 50%, respectively, of the final mark for the module.

Courses are described below.

Philosophy 1A: How Should I Think?

Philosophy 1A: How Should I Think?


Each of us possesses the ability to think. That is, we can formulate ideas, infer, and make judgments about ourselves and the world around us. Indeed, a recurring theme in the history of philosophy is that thinking is a defining characteristic of human beings.

Being good at thinking is very important. For instance, someone who thinks well will be more likely come to possess knowledge about the world. As a result, this will improve their chances of achieving their aims. By contrast, a bad thinker will tend to end up with false and distorted beliefs, and will consequently face greater obstacles in attaining their goals.

Despite its significance for us, we don’t always think as well as we could or should. It is widely known that when are thinking we are all prone to multiple kinds of bias and fallacy. As a result, we end up missing out on opportunities to gain knowledge about the world, which in turn, has significant implications for how our lives go.

Thus, it seems important to ask: how should I think? The general answer that we consider in this course – and of relevant to doing philosophy more generally – is that we should think critically. Roughly this involves making judgments only on the basis of good reasons. By doing this, we avoid bias and fallacy, and improve our chances of gaining knowledge about ourselves and the world we inhabit.

The Course

The course is split into four sections.

In the first part  we ask: how do I think critically? We approach this by focusing primarily on arguments, which are defined as attempts to establish a conclusion by providing reasons for it. Specifically, we work on improving your ability to identify and evaluate arguments, drawing on examples from philosophy and popular media. As a result, you will become better at judging on the basis of good reasons.

In the second part of the course we ask: how do I think critically about what matters? That is, we apply critical thinking skills to practical issues of profound significance for our lives. Specifically, we think critically about issues in contemporary moral philosophy. Possible topics covered include (but are not limited to): abortion, animal rights, euthanasia, and obligations to future generations.

In the third part we ask: how do I think formally? Here we approach the general question of how we should think from the perspective of formal logic. As in the first part of the course, we are interested in arguments, and distinguishing good ones from bad. It turns out that, in many cases, this is a matter of examining the structure of an argument; the aim of formal logic is to study this structure in isolation, thereby giving us some powerful tools for use in classifying arguments, and for aiding us in becoming better critical thinkers.

Finally, we ask: how do I get knowledge? Here we consider some basic issues in epistemology (the study of knowledge), focusing on competing accounts of how we acquire knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. This involves both applying and developing the critical thinking skills gained in the earlier parts of the course. Possible topics covered include (but are not limited to): scepticism, rationalism, and empiricism.

Philosophy 1B: How Should I Live?

Philosophy 1B: How Should I Live?


Our lives are filled with choices. We choose what to eat, what to buy, with whom to spend time, which career to pursue, and much more. Some of the choices we make don’t matter much, whereas others matter a great deal. Many of our life decisions apparently matter because they have moral significance; most of us think that there are some things that are morally wrong for us to do and others that we are morally required to do.

We do not live our lives in isolation: we live together in society. The societies we live in have a major impact on which life choices are available and to which individuals. Many of the choices we have to make about how to live together are apparently morally significant; most of think that some ways of arranging society are morally better than others. 

The many choices we make as individuals and together in society work together to shape our lives—but we may not have done much critical thinking about how we should be living. What’s the best life to live? Is it the moral life? The happy life? Something else? And what’s the best way for us to arrange our lives together? One reason to think that answers to these questions are important is because our lives matter. But why do we think that? What makes life meaningful or significant? 

In this course, we’ll begin to think critically about how we should live and why our lives matter. This will not only help us figure out what our values should be, but it can help us live our lives and arrange our societies in ways that reflect those values.  

The Course

The course is split into four sections. 

In the first part, we ask: why be good? We might think it’s obvious that we should at least try to live a morally good life. But being moral might seem to sometimes get in the way of our pursuing other things we want or value. If that happens, should we prioritise morality? Why not just live however we want, as long as we can get away with it? In this section of the course, we’ll begin to consider why and whether we should be good.  

In the second part, we ask: what is good? When thinking about whether to be good, we’ll have taken it as obvious that some things are good and bad. We also probably think it’s obvious that some things are right and wrong. But what makes things right and wrong or good and bad? And if we don´t know, how can we be sure about which things are which? In this section of the course, we’ll begin to consider the nature of these values. 

In the third part, we ask: how should we live together? As individuals, we are likely to disagree about the best kind of life to lead, which things are valuable, and what makes things valuable. But, if we disagree: who gets to decide how we should live together? Typically, we at least partially settle this question by appealing to a state which sets limits on some of the thing we can do and ensures that at least some things are available to everyone. In this section of the course, we’ll consider what, if anything, we owe to the state and what it owes to us. 

In the fourth part, we ask: what is the meaning of life? Answers to questions about how we should live as individuals and together in society may only seem to matter if we assume that our lives matter. And we usually do; we generally assume that our lives are meaningful and significant. But what makes a life valuable? In this final section of the course we’ll look directly at this broad question. In particular, we’ll consider when a life is a good life and the related question of when, if ever, a death is a good death.

Philosophy 2M: Self & Society

Philosophy 2M: Self & Society

Self & Society is mainly focused on the nature of the self, the nature of society and the relationships that hold between them. It has four components.

The first part of the course engages with the nature and value of democracy. For example, it will seek to determine (1) whether democracy is to be valued for its own sake or for the good consequences it brings about (2) whether freedom, equality, utility explain the value of democracy and (3) whether democracy is the best system of government for Britain, or indeed for every country. The course will combine historical perspectives from Rousseau and Mill with contemporary analysis.

In the second section, contemporary issues in social ethics are investigated. The nature of the self is the subject of the third component, which is concerned with issues such as personal identity and the possibility of free will. The fourth part explores central issues in the philosophy of religion through a key text of the Scottish Enlightenment: David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. We consider some classic philosophical arguments for the existence of God, and show how religious belief is integrated into our broader moral and epistemological commitments.

Philosophy 2K: Knowledge, Meaning and Inference

Philosophy 2K: Knowledge, Meaning and Inference

What is it to know something? Are there limits to knowledge, due to the limits of our own physical or psychological make-up? Can we know things they are in themselves, or are we limited to knowing how things appear to us? Does all knowledge depend on the senses, or can some things be known a priori, that is, by pure thought? This course centres around a close study of one the definitive books on these subjects of the past 100 years, Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy. As well as providing an incisive and famously readable account of these issues, it introduces the student to ways of conceptualising the issues characteristic of philosophy in the Anglo-American world since it was written. It provides an excellent background to the more contemporary works studied at Honours. In addition, the course provides an introduction to Logic, which is essential to a systematic understanding of the structure of knowledge, and of the way in which questions of language and meaning enter into philosophy. In the third component of the course, concepts and methods from both the Theory of Knowledge and from Logic are used in examining a cultural phenomenon with an unparalleled influence on modern life – science. What is the methodology of scientific inference? Can science give us knowledge of things that are beyond our powers of observation? Does science deserve its reputation of being fully objective and rational?

Entry into Honours

Entry into honours, either single or joint with another subject, is guaranteed to students who:

  • have completed at least one Level 1 Philosophy course with grade D or better at the first sitting, and have completed both Level 2 Philosophy course with at least a B and a C at the first sitting, and have answered one question on logic in the Philosophy 2K examination.

Entry may be granted to students not meeting these requirements; it is decided on a case-by-case basis.

Details of honours options can be found here.

The University chapelThe Philosophy Honours programme is a two-year programme of studies, comprising the Junior Honours and Senior Honours years, and is part of our four-year MA (Honours) degree. Junior and Senior Honours have separate curricula, and the final exam for each course takes place at the end of the second semester ('split finals'). Each course last one term and is worth 20 credits. Single Honours students take six per year (120 credits), three per term; Joint Honours students take three per year (60 credits), distributed as convenient. Each module is assessed by an essay (30%) and final exam (70%). Fortnightly tutorials in groups of around six are held for Junior Honours modules; Senior Honours modules have larger group seminars. The dissertation is a fourth-year module that is compulsory for single honours students and for joint honours students not doing a dissertation in their other subject.

Honours students have the option to spend their third year studying abroad. See the Study Philosophy Abroad section for more information.

Prospective Honours students might wish to consult the Honours courses overview page for a more detailed description of the courses on offer.

Details of the application procedure are available here.

For more information, contact the Junior Honours Convenor, Dr Chris Lindsay.