Honours Courses: An Overview
Honours Courses: An Overview
The 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 JH module is assessed by an essay (30%) and final exam (70%); SH assessment patterns vary from course to course. 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.
Descriptions of courses available can be found below. All Junior Honours courses are available every year; not all Senior Honours courses will be offered in every year.
Further details of individual courses, including information about which courses are running in the current academic session, can be found by using the list of Honours course pages.
Course ILOs can be found in the Specification Documents available through the Course Catalogue.
For further information, please contact Philosophy at the address below.
Junior Honours courses
JH1 History of Modern Philosophy
We consider the seminal 17th century philosophies of Locke and Berkeley. Both were strongly influenced by Descartes and by the emerging natural sciences. Along with David Hume (see SH2), they are the principal figures of classical British Empiricism, according to which all knowledge comes from experience. Within that constraint, Locke attempts to assess the limits of possible human knowledge on the assumption of Realism, i.e., that the material world is real and independent of our experience of it. This led to his celebrated attempt to distinguish those aspects of experience that correspond to real features of the world from those which do not, or which do so only in an indirect way. Berkeley famously argued that the whole idea of realism is incoherent, and that knowledge and indeed reality itself is confined to mind or 'spirit' as he called it. This module is recommended background for further modules in the history of philosophy such as Kant or Mind and Knowledge in the Scottish Enlightenment.
JH2 Philosophy of Language
In this course we start from the classic works in philosophy of language by Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, each of which investigates of the nature of language, meaning, reference and related topics. We look next at some contemporary challenges to those views, especially due to Saul Kripke, then to the speech-act theory of Austin, the pragmatics of Grice, and some modern developments including the phenomenon of slurs. We conclude with a brief look at Donald Davidson - author of a theory connecting meaning with linguistic behaviour - or those of W. V. Quine or Ludwig Wittgenstein, each of which had their distinctive doubts about the idea of a theory of meaning.
Epistemology is, broadly construed, the theory of knowledge, its scope and its nature. This course aims to get students up to speed in a range of key contemporary debates in mainstream epistemology. In particular, the course will introduce students to the following eight key topics, with two lectures dedicated to each: (i) the regress problem; (ii) the a priori, (iii) the nature of knowledge; (iv) memory, (v) testimony; (vi) kinds of knowledge; (vii) internalism versus externalism; (viii) scepticism. The course is designed to facilitate competence in all of these areas, and also, to empower students to critically engage with some of the key debates that feature in each of them.
JH4 Political Philosophy
This course addresses some core questions in analytic political philosophy, and the practical as well as theoretical implications for political life and social organisation which follow from different answers to those questions. In particular, the course focusses on 1) different accounts of equality in political philosophy; 2) what is meant by liberty or freedom, and how (if it all) it can be measured; 3) how we should conceive of autonomy and its value; and 4) the nature and justification of democratic organisation.
Continues the study of logic started in the second year, proceeding in a somewhat more rigorous and formal manner. Rather than producing proofs in a formal system (e.g. tableaux) the emphasis is rather on proving results about such a system, for example soundness and completeness.
JH6 History of Moral Philosophy
The history of moral philosophy can be understood as a sustained attempt to provide a unified theory of the basis, content, and normativity of morality. That is, a theory which can answer the following questions: Is morality dependent upon human responses, or is it in some way independent of the human perspective? What actions are right/wrong, and why are they right/wrong? Why should we do what morality requires of us?
In this course we will look in detail at two historically and philosophically important attempts to answer these questions.
Firstly, we’ll look at the Sentimentalist moral philosophy of David Hume as presented in his Treatise of Human Nature and his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Hume famously thinks that morality is dependent upon human sentiments (roughly: emotional dispositions) and that plausible sentimentalist answers can be given to questions about the content and normativity of morality.
Second, we’ll look at the Rationalist moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant as presented in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and Critique of Practical Reason. Kant famously thinks that morality is dependent upon practical rationality (roughly: the capacity to act for reasons) and that the content and normativity of morality can (only) be explained by reference to this feature.
Along the way we’ll consider Hume and Kant’s views and arguments concerning the origin of moral concepts, the relationship between rationality and our desires/goals, motivation and action, and free will.
In considering these texts, one task will be to make sure that you understand what Hume and Kant are saying. But equally, your job is to consider whether their arguments are any good, and to begin forming your own reasoned conclusions about the deep and important philosophical questions they are attempting to grapple with.
JH7 Philosophy of Mind
Charts the attempts in philosophy, psychology and cognitive science since the beginning the of 20th century to develop an alternative conception of the mind to Cartesian Dualism: one that is naturalistic, scientifically tractable and philosophically satisfactory. After a brief introduction to Dualism, discussion proceeds with Behaviourism, early physicalist Identity Theories, forms of Functionalism, and consciousness. Along the way, such topics are explored as thought, perception, subjectivity, qualia, mental causation, the analogy between mind and computer, and the dependence of mental content on the environment.
This module covers selected topics in contemporary metaphysics, thereby illustrating its range of questions and its methods: (1) material objects; (2) universals and particulars; (3) modality; and (4) social metaphysics. Sample questions to be discussed are, respectively: Should we accept that there are such things as properties? If so, are material objects anything over and above their properties? What is the difference between an essential and an accidental property?
JH9 Moral Philosophy
Ethics can be thought of as divided into two areas. First, there is normative ethics, which is concerned with articulating and justifying moral principles governing how we should live, and (hopefully!) providing agents with moral guidance. Second, there is metaethics, which is concerned with understanding the psychological, semantic, metaphysical, and epistemological presuppositions and commitments of moral discourse and thought. Although these areas are connected in many interesting ways, in this course we will be focused exclusively on core issues in metaethics. Specifically, we will engage with the following questions: What are moral judgments? What is the meaning of moral judgments? Are there moral facts? If so, are they mind-independent? Is there moral knowledge? If so, how do we get it?
Senior Honours Courses
Please note that not all courses run every year.
Please consult the list of course pages for details of course availability.
SH2 Mind and Knowledge in the Scottish Enlightenment
This course will compare the works of the two major Scottish philosophers of the Enlightenment period, David Hume (1711-1776) and Thomas Reid (1710-1796).
We will begin by studying David Hume's influential views on central philosophical issues such as knowledge, causation, personal identity and free will, as found in his first great work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739). In the Treatise, we find the core epistemological method of the British Empiricist tradition developing into a position that appears to combine serious sceptical challenges to our core pre-philosophical beliefs about the self, causal relations and our knowledge the external world with the development of a new, naturalist approach to epistemology that grants a central place to human nature.
Thomas Reid's common sense philosophy - a direct response to Hume and the empiricist tradition as a whole - seeks to develop an alternative metaphysical and epistemological framework that undermines the sceptical challenges found in Hume's writings by providing a notion of justification grounded in first principles based in human nature. In doing so, he gives us a theory that, while sharing an emphasis on human nature with Hume, involves a radically different account of the self and its epistemological relationship with the external world.
We will also explore the respective methodologies of the two philosophers and look at the influence of Enlightenment science, specifically Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, on them.
Modern societies are characterized by profound and ineliminable disagreement about questions of religion, culture, value, and the good life. This course explores the attempts made by liberal political philosophers to discern what this diversity demands, and how we can construct a legitimate political order in its presence. We will explore foundational questions such as the nature of neutrality and its role in the foundations of liberal thinking; debates over how far it is permissible to base political policy on judgements about what is good or valuable; and questions concerning liberal theory's conception of the person. We will also bring this theoretical apparatus to bear on some applied questions concerning multiculturalism, community, and education.
SH4 Distributive Justice
The foundational problem of distributive justice is, essentially, that of deciding who gets what, and why. This problem generates questions which continue to have pressing political relevance as well as philosophical interest: should we aim for strict equality, or is some measure of inequality permissible (or, indeed, desirable) within society? Come to that, what are the distribuenda of justice, and what is its scope – what, if anything, should we seek to distribute, and to whom? And who is to take responsibility for past injustice and the prevention of future harms?
This course addresses some of the key problems in the topic of distributive justice – the topic of what a just distribution of goods, or of benefits and burdens, looks like (and, indeed, what we mean by “just”). By the end of the course, you should be able to explain and criticise influential theories of distributive patterns, including what as well as how we are to distribute; to explain what the scope of distribution should be; and to give an account of whether we should really be concerned with distribution – either primarily, or at all.
Some regard Wittgenstein as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. His early work - the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus - is fascinating and brilliant in many ways, but his later work - the Philosophical Investigations - involves a completely new and radical approach to philosophical questions. There will be a brief exposition of his earlier work, but only to set the context for a study of the most famous parts of the Investigations; these include Wittgenstein's way with questions in the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and the question of what philosophy is, what it achieves. Despite his fame, the impact of the later Wittgenstein on contemporary philosophy is at best moot, and students will be invited to ponder the question of why this is; are the messages too radical, or too vague, or too hard to map on to more conventional philosophy, or ultimately confused, or what?
SH6 Moral Epistemology
Moral epistemology is the philosophical study of the existence and nature of moral knowledge. Questions in this area include: Do we have moral knowledge? What are the sources of moral knowledge? Is there anything distinctive about moral as opposed to non-moral knowledge? What might this tell us about the nature of morality? In this course we will consider some central topics in moral epistemology: reflective equilibrium, the epistemic role of moral intuitions, empirical challenges to intuitions, defeaters for moral knowledge, moral testimony, moral expertise, and moral forgetting.
SH7 Philosophy of Pain and Pleasure
Many experiences feel bad or good, unpleasant or pleasant. Pain often feels bad. Tasting chocolate is often pleasant. Our course concerns this “affective” dimension of experience—experience’s “valence”, as it’s also put—focusing particularly but not exclusively on pain and unpleasantness. A topic of increasing philosophical and scientific interest, affect raises numerous questions across disparate areas of philosophy and beyond, including philosophy of mind and psychology, epistemology, philosophy of science, and value theory. Questions include: What is the nature of unpleasantness and pleasantness? What is the relationship between pain and perception? In what senses is it really bad or good to be in states that feel bad or feel good? Is the folk concept of pain coherent? Does the concept of pain pick out a scientific kind?
SH8 Philosophy of Art
This course is an introduction to philosophical aesthetics. What is Art? How, if at all, can Art be defined? What kinds of things are Artworks? What is beauty? What is aesthetic experience? What is artistic and especially pictorial representation or depiction? What is expression, and how important is it? Historical and contemporary sources will be used to investigate these questions
SH9 Philosophy of Psychology
Despite intense study of the mind in recent decades in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, the nature of consciousness still remains little understood. This course aims to introduce students to cutting edge analytical philosophical research on the nature of the mind, via the examination of conscious experiences that (i) arise from interpersonal difference or deficit, such as synaesthesia aphantasia, and blindsight (ii) involve illusion and hallucination, such as novel colours, (iii) arise from the use of technology, such as sensory substitution and augmentation, and virtual reality, (iv) involve the senses other than vision, and (v) potentially involve the interaction of visual experiences with cognition. The course will draw on an understanding of theses phenomena provided by contemporary psychology. We will look at these experiences with a view to (i) understanding the nature and variety of conscious experience, (ii) challenging extant theories of consciousness, and (iii) challenging theories of the functional organisation of the mind.
SH10 Philosophy of Perception
A philosophical theory of perception should explain the nature of the mental states that occur during perception, what it is that we perceive, and account for perception's role in knowledge or justified belief. This course will look at philosophical theories of perception such as sense-datum, doxastic, representationalist, causal and disjunctivist theories. Emphasis will often be placed on perceptual experience (/conscious perception). Various phenomena that make fashioning a philosophy of perception challenging will be studied, including illusions and hallucinations, different forms of perceptual variation, perceptual constancy, the role of particulars in perception, and attention, Modern philosophy of mind is also informed by scientific studies of the brain and behaviour, and therefore this course will introduce students to relevant empirical results and ideas.
SH11 Externalism and Reference
Until the 1970s, it was accepted that your thoughts are in your head—or, more precisely, that what you are thinking is entirely a matter of what intrinsic properties you or your brain is in. On the neural version of this view, your thoughts are determined by your brain states: any brain in the states yours is now in would be thinking the thoughts you are now thinking, even if the world beyond that brain were very different from the world beyond yours, indeed even if there were no world beyond it, and the brain were floating in an otherwise empty universe. This idea is one route to the sceptical worry that there could be a complete mismatch between thought and the world. Recently, however, many philosophers have begun to resist this “internalist” view, arguing that our thoughts are not merely caused by the world out there, but essentially depend on it. This course exams the debate between internalists and externalists, and its fascinating ramifications: for what it is to be a thinking subject, for the nature of action, and for our knowledge of the world and our own minds.
SH12 Gender and Race
Gender and race occupy an important role in our social lives, and are increasingly the object of philosophical attention. In this course we will consider questions concerning the nature of gender and race, gender and race concepts and the ethics of employing such concepts, as well as the ways in which gender and race affect us in our capacity as knowers. This course aims to offer students an overview of the main contemporary debates in the philosophy of gender and race, together with drawing the implications for society of the relevant research results.
The course will be looking at discussions about gender and race in four sub-disciplines of philosophy:
- The Epistemology of Gender and Race
- The Metaphysics of Gender and Race
- The Philosophy of Race and Gender Concepts
- The Ethics of Gender and Race
SH13 Philosophy of Mathematics
Mathematics is a fascinating subject to contemplate philosophically. On the face of it, mathematics seems rife with philosophically contentious commitments. Statements like ‘There is an even number between 2 and 6’ seem to commit is to the existence of abstract mathematical objects like the number 4. Not only that, but mathematics seems to commit us to an infinity of such objects. Infinity, and the existence of abstract objects, have, throughout the history of philosophy, been topics of great controversy. Matters are all the more difficult because of the apparent centrality of mathematics to most of the ways we have of finding out about the world, especially science. So, it would seem, if mathematics is committed to an infinity of abstract objects, we are too.
Mathematics also seems to have a special epistemic status. Statements like ‘2+2 = 4’ seem not just to be true, but certain. This might be thought to stem from the special methodology of mathematics: proof. These issues give rise to a number of problems studied by philosophers of mathematics: what is the subject matter of mathematics? If that subject matter is a realm of abstract objects, existing outside of space and time, how is it that we obtain mathematical knowledge? What is mathematical truth? Can all mathematical truths be known? What logic should we use to reason about mathematics? What is a proof? Do proofs provide absolute certainty?
SH15 Virtue Ethics
One approach to answering the question, ‘How should we live?’ focuses on the traits of character that contribute to a well-lived life, including qualities like courage, wisdom, generosity and perseverance. Theories that take this approach are known as virtue theories. This course will look at important examples of virtue theory.
The three central topics will be:
- What is virtue?
- How might one construct an ethical theory in which virtue has a central role?
- What challenges would such a theory face and how might it attempt to meet them?
SH16 Contemporary Ethics
Applied ethics addresses the moral permissibility of specific actions and practices. In this class, we will focus on contemporary issues in bioethics—a specific subdiscipline of applied ethics. We will explore how new and emerging developments in technology and medicine challenge our ideas of what it is to be human, to live well, and to fulfil our potential. In particular, we will consider the ethical ramifications of using biotechnology to enhance three dimensions of our lives: cognitive, moral and emotional.
We will discuss philosophical responses to questions such as the following:
- Is it wrong to use "smart drugs" to improve cognitive performance? If so, why?
- What is the relationship between enhancement and authenticity?
- Are we obligated to pursue the development of moral enhancement?
- How should we approach the use of biotechnology that aims to influence our interpersonal relationships?
SH17 - The Philosophy of Susan Stebbing
“If I were teaching ethics in a university I should make my students close all their textbooks and read and discuss Professor Stebbing's new book.” C. D Broad, “Review of Ideals and Illusions”, 1941.
L. Susan Stebbing (1885-1943) was a member of the first generation of analytic philosophers after Russell, Moore, and Wittgenstein. She was the first woman to be a professor of philosophy in the UK. She played a prominent role in setting the direction of analytic philosophy. Recent interest in her work has revealed the extent to which she anticipated subsequent developments in philosophy of language, metaphysics, epistemology, and political philosophy. This course will cover four interrelated aspects of Stebbing’s philosophy and their relationship to more recent philosophy.
The first topic is Stebbing’s epistemology. According to Stebbing, thinking is purposive. We think to solve problems. Successful thinking must be relevant to solving the problem that initiated the thinking. Rather than offering advice to an idealized rational inquirer, Stebbing aims at identifying and correcting obstacles to clear thinking such as biases due to our social position, strong emotions, or oversimplified language.
The second topic is Stebbing’s notion of logical analysis, the replacement of apparently simple sentences by complex replacements that reveal their true logical structure. Stebbing shows that the notion of analysis she inherited from Russell, Moore, and Wittgenstein is unclear. In its place, she offered a strikingly modern conception of logical analysis and put it to work in metaphysics.
The third topic is Stebbing’s philosophy of science. Stebbing uses her notion of logical analysis to criticize popular accounts of science that downplay the importance of human beings in the universe, deny the reality of ordinary objects, or undermine our responsibility for our actions.
The fourth topic is Stebbing’s political philosophy. During the 1930s, Stebbing became increasingly alarmed at the rise of Fascism. She argues that the appeal of Fascism is due—in part—to our failure to think clearly about the aims of democracy. Stebbing applied the tools she developed to contrast the aims of democracy and fascism.
SH18 - Senior Reading Seminar 1: The Unity of Science
There are many sciences and each appears to study different things and discover distinct laws. Sociology is concerned with societies, psychology with minds, biology with life, chemistry with elements, and physics with matter. But what, if anything, unifies the sciences? In this course we will consider this question and cover central topics in the philosophy of science and psychology. Including: do any sciences, or their domains, ‘reduce’ to any other? Are some sciences, such as psychology, especially resistant to reduction? Does the phenomenon of multiple realization entail that some sciences are ‘autonomous’ and so can proceed largely independently of the others? Most generally, is reality simply a collection of fundamental physical particles or forces in certain arrangements, or does anything exist ‘over and above’ this?
This option enables the student to study some philosophical topic of his or her choosing, and to engage in an individual research project under the guidance of a supervisor. Further details here.
SH20 Philosophy of Religion
Philosophy of Religion is concerned with questions and issues that have been of perennial interest throughout the global history of philosophy. This course probes some of the big religious ideas - such as the existence of God, the nature of the self and its post-mortem fate - that occupy a central place within traditional religions.
One of the great remaining mysteries, and maybe the most intractable, is consciousness: that intimately known but often indescribable qualitative character of experience: what it’s like to see red, or feel pain, etc. The cognitive sciences have done an impressive job of explaining other features of our mental lives: how and why certain brain states register information about the world around us, how memories are coded, the mechanisms of sleep/wake cycles, and so on. But it is not clear that they have made any progress in explaining why we have inner lives at all, why there’s something rather than nothing in our experience, and why those experiences have the felt qualities they do. Why this failure? Some think it’s because consciousness is the product of something immaterial and thus beyond scientific purview. Some think it’s because consciousness pervades everything in nature, at the fundamental level, and scientists are looking in the wrong place: in the emergent properties of complex systems. Some think it’s simply because we’re not smart enough. Others think that we can, in fact, explain consciousness, or are on the verge of being able to do so.
In this course, we will examine the problem of consciousness and various contemporary scientific and philosophical theories of consciousness. These will include: panpsychism, integrated information theory, global neuronal workspace theory, and various higher order representational theories. We will look at how (and whether) consciousness relates to quantum physics, the “free energy principle,” and neuroscience. We will end by asking about consciousness in animals and machines, and about the evolution of consciousness.
This course explores one of the central topics of metaphysics: causation. It takes the historical, recent, and state-of-the-art developments in theorising about causation, and relates it to a range of other topics in philosophy, and in the wider world (such as safety engineering, artificial intelligence, and the law). Students will learn to critically engage with up-to-date professional texts, and to apply their understanding on this topic to their other courses, and, for some, to their future work.
SH25 The Philosophy of David Lewis
The work of David Lewis (1941-2001) has set the agenda for many current philosophical debates. In his elegant writings, Lewis offered sophisticated contributions to topics in a number of subdisciplines, while taking care to make his theories on various subject-matters consistent with each other, and also with his materialist world-view. In its ambition, rigour, and detail, his system has few rivals in contemporary philosophy.
In this course, we will critically examine that system. Is it coherent, comprehensive, and plausible? Moreover, we will also assess his theories on various subject-matters in their own right, independently of their systematic embedding.
The course consists of three parts. Part 1 is devoted to Lewis' defence of his reductionist version of materialism, which he labelled “Humean Supervenience” (in honour of a certain Scottish philosopher). We will examine how Lewis proposes to analyse various features of our world in terms of the distribution of microphysical properties in space-time (laws of nature, counterfactuals, dispositions). In part 2, we will study Lewis’ account of language – about what makes certain sound patterns meaningful. Finally, in part 3, we will discuss Lewis’ most famous (or most notorious) thesis: that there infinitely many concrete worlds that are spatiotemporally isolated from ours.
SH26 Virtue Epistemology
This course will survey and critically engage with a range of topics in contemporary virtue epistemology. Virtue epistemology is an approach to epistemology (roughly: the theory of knowledge) that gives intellectual virtues an important theoretical role. But what is an intellectual virtue? The question is itself controversial within virtue epistemology.
Emotions occupy a central place in our lives, and are increasingly the object of philosophical attention. But what are emotions? What role do emotions play in our lives? Are emotions irrational responses, or might they be essential to theoretical and practical reasoning? In this course we will consider these and other questions of central importance in the philosophy of emotion.
SH29 Philosophy of Law
This course introduces students to the Philosophy of Law. In the first part, it focusses on major general theories of the nature of law. In the second part, it discusses one or two more specialised topics, the selection of which may vary from year to year.
Law has a pervasive presence in our lives, and has often been thought, even by non-philosophers, to be in need of a philosophical analysis or even justification – more so than other cultural phenomena of similar importance, such as science, art, religion, and the media. A number of general theories about the nature of law have been proposed to satisfy this theoretical need. Beyond the general question about its nature, law also raises a host of more specific philosophical questions, about causation, intention, responsibility, evidence, defeasible reasoning, obligation, and the semantics and pragmatics of language, to mention just a few.
SH31 Marxism & Anarchism
Both Marxists and anarchists argue for a radical overturning of the prevailing liberal order to produce a fairer and freer society, and there is often common philosophical and political ground between them. But there has been a great deal of disagreement and animosity between Marxist and anarchist thinkers more or less since the word go: indeed, one of Marx’s earliest political texts is essentially an attack on the anarchist Proudhon. This course traces the development of Marxist and anarchist thought, and the similarities and the differences between them, with particular focus on the related but distinct concepts of freedom and justice at play in the theories; how they analyse the problems of capitalism and liberalism; and what they have to say about non-capitalist and non-statist social organisation.