What you will study
This module teaches the basics of philosophy via the six module books described below. These will guide you carefully through selected classic readings from the set book, Western Philosophy: An Anthology, 2nd edition, edited by John Cottingham (Blackwell). The discussion in the module books is supported by extensive audio interviews with prominent present day philosophers.
The skills and topics taught have a value and resonance not limited to academic study, though the module does give a sound basis for advanced study in philosophy and other subjects.
Book 1: The self
It is hard to think of anything more basic to our understanding of life than the assumptions we make about the true nature of ourselves, in particular that we in some sense carry on being the same person despite physical and psychological change over time. Could it be a mistake to think like this? Is this notion of a continuous self just an illusion, as Hume suggested? What, if anything, is it that makes Rembrandt, the ageing painter depicted in a late self-portrait, the same person as the young apprentice in early drawings? This isn't a trivial issue. Some real moral differences hinge on the answer we give, as for example, whether war criminals should be punished for crimes committed half a century or more ago. Questions about the nature of the self matter too when considering the possibility of life after death. If something were to survive death, what would it be? It is no longer far-fetched to imagine transferring memories from a dying person to an artificially-created brain, or perhaps to a donor brain. Would the brain with the now-dead person's memories house a person and, if so, would it be the same person as the one whose body died?
This opening book of the module explores a range of questions about the self and personal identity through classic readings by John Locke and David Hume and more recent writing by Derek Parfit.
Book 2: Philosophy of religion
In this book we turn from the self to God: from questions about personal identity, and what it is to be who one is, to questions about the existence of a supreme being. The book begins by asking what the words ’God‘ and ’religion‘ mean, and what it is to ask philosophical questions and offer philosophical arguments, about religion in general and about God in particular. This is followed by an examination of the claim that there can be no arguments when it comes to matters of faith. A variety of arguments for God’s existence is examined, including Thomas Aquinas’ ’Second way’, and classic and contemporary versions of the argument from design. Detailed discussion of design arguments leads to the question why – if there is a good and all-powerful God – there is so much evil in the world. The book concludes by raising some questions about miracles and religious experience.
Book 3: Ethics
Judgements about what we ought or ought not to do permeate and shape our lives. But what grounds do we have for these judgements? When I am unsure about the moral acceptability of a possible course of action, where should I look to settle the matter? As a moral being, should I be aiming to do whatever brings about the greatest possible amount of happiness in the world? If not, then what? And why should I do the right thing if I would benefit more from doing the wrong thing? This third book will look at answers to these and related questions given by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (as recounted by his pupil Plato), the British utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The discussion is kept down to earth by applying it to familiar moral questions.
As with the other books in the module, you will be asked to do more than familiarise yourself with what these philosophers said. You will also be expected to engage with them by assessing their arguments and considering potential objections to their positions.
Book 4: Knowledge
Every day we use expressions such as ‘That’s true!’ or, perhaps irritated by a news report, we exclaim ‘This is just false!’ Sometimes we can’t make up our minds about the truthfulness of a claim because we don’t have good enough reasons either way. When can we say that a claim is true? What reasons do we have to believe which claims are good, and which are not? If I have witnessed something with my own eyes, can I rely on that information to form my beliefs, or should I take account of the fact that my senses are not always reliable? What is the difference between knowledge and mere opinion? We expect nature to show in the future the same regularities that we have observed in the past. But is this expectation rational? Science is widely regarded as the model of knowledge, and yet scientific theories long held as true have turned out to be false. Can we still be certain that current scientific theories are true? Is there one particular method that makes an inquiry scientific?
You will engage with these and other questions about knowledge in general and about scientific knowledge in particular, through some of the most important texts in the history of philosophy. These include extracts from such classics as René Descartes’ Meditations and Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, as well as work by two more recent philosophers, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.
Book 5: Philosophy of mind
One important difference between us and inanimate objects is that we have minds while inanimate objects do not. But what are these minds? Are they non-material substances, like souls? Or could it be that having a mind is just a matter of having a brain, a physical object? In this book you will examine Descartes’ view that each of us is a composite of both a non-material mind and a material body. You will also look at the opposing view that we are, in essence, just bodies, and that falling in love or being moved by music is just a matter of certain things happening in one's brain. In addition, you will look at two topics that shape current research into the mind, where philosophy, psychology and neuroscience start to overlap. Are our mental lives confined to our brains or do they instead partly reside in the world around us – on the hard drives of our computers, for example? And what should we make of the seemingly intractable nature of consciousness?
Book 6: Political philosophy
This last book considers the relation between ourselves and the states and societies in which we live. It’s commonly thought that we ought to obey the law, vote in elections, or fight for our country if it is under threat. But do we really have such political obligations? What is their source, and when do those obligations cease? Can I just opt out? For that matter, when did I opt in? One answer is that we have obligations only to a just state. But this raises other questions: justice has to do with people getting what they are due, but what, exactly, are people due? Is everyone of equal worth, or do some deserve much more than others? Certainly, some get much more than others. What sort of economic arrangements are fair?
In attempting to answer these questions, you will consider the classical writings of Plato, Locke and Hume, as well as more contemporary work by John Rawls and Robert Nozick.
You will learn
In addition to exploring the philosophical topics listed above, you will develop the reasoning and other skills necessary to engage in the debates yourself. You will learn to question core assumptions and consider the world, and our relationship with it, in unaccustomed ways. These are skills highly valued by employers looking for staff able to approach complex and often perplexing situations and to offer clear and sound arguments in response.