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Exploring philosophy

This introduction to philosophy considers fundamental questions from six core areas: the self; philosophy of religion; ethics; knowledge and science; the mind; and political philosophy. What makes me ‘Me’? Does God exist? Why should I act morally? Can I trust science? How can I, a physical being, have thoughts and emotions? Should I obey laws I disagree with? Philosophers – both past and present – have offered radically diverging answers to these and the other questions asked in this module. Guided engagement with this philosophical tradition will provide the platform for you to tackle the big questions of philosophy for yourself.

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Module code
Study level
2 8 5
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
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Entry requirements
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and who will mark and comment on your written work. Your tutor will use a blend of methods that will include face-to-face tutorials, some online virtual classroom experiences and moderated online discussion forums. The use of a blend of this kind is designed to help students benefit from tuition whatever their circumstances.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in October 2015. We expect it to be available once a year.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

6 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.


This is an OU level 2 module and builds on the OU level 1 modules The arts past and present (AA100) and Voices, texts and material culture (A105). These OU level 1 modules develop skills such as logical thinking, clear expression, essay writing and the ability to select and interpret relevant materials. They also offer an introduction to a range of subjects in the arts and humanities. An alternative is Introducing the social sciences (DD102), which provides a good introduction to skills particularly relevant to Exploring philosophy.

If you have not studied at university level before, you are strongly advised to study at OU level 1 before progressing to OU level 2 study.

Your regional or national centre can advise you on where you can see reference copies of OU level 1 study materials. Some are also available from Open University Worldwide Ltd. We particularly recommend looking at these materials if you have not successfully completed OU level 1 study or studied at an equivalent level elsewhere.

You do not require any prior knowledge of philosophy to study this module.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

No preparatory work is necessary but, if you would like to do some reading in advance, two accessible introductory books are N.Warburton Philosophy: the Basics (Routledge, 2004) and T.Nagel What Does it All Mean? (Oxford University Press, 2004). The author of the first of these has also written a part of the module.


Start End England fee Register
03 Oct 2015 Jun 2016 £2700.00

Registration closes 10/09/15 (places subject to availability)


You may need to apply for some payment or funding options earlier. Please check the Fees and Funding information or contact us for information.

This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2022.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

If you're on a low income you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after you register.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or book a call back at a time that is convenient to you.

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2016. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

This information was provided on 28/07/2015.

What's included

Six core books, audio CDs, and a website containing a study planner, a module guide, online exercises, audio recordings and electronic versions of all the printed study materials.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available.

We recommend either of the following:

  • Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system
  • Macintosh desktop or laptop computer running OS X 10.7 or later operating system.

A netbook, tablet, smartphone or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities on your mobile device.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers:

  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Cottingham, J.G. Western Philosophy: An Anthology (2nd edn) Wiley-Blackwell £24.99 - ISBN 9781405124782

If you have a disability

Written transcripts of any audio components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader. Other alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future.

Elements of this module are delivered through a website and include the use of interactive online exercises. If you use specialist hardware or software to assist you in operating a computer or the internet and have any concerns about accessing this type of material you are advised to contact us about support which can be given to meet your needs.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.