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Philosophy

Visiting Students who do not have an academic background in Philosophy are recommended to select at least one of the introductory courses. Visiting Students who have covered much of the introductory material already are welcome, in consultation with tutors at their home institutions, to select any courses from the list below. Availability of courses may vary according to term of study.

Visiting Students should note that work on the great dead philosophers is based on a close study of particular texts and issues arising from them: there are no general-overview options. Also, in options under the heading of a specific subject-area in philosophy, work is based on the study of particular issues, not the study of particular philosophers (living or dead).

Michaelmas Term runs from October to December, Hilary Term usually runs from January to March and Trinity is usually from April to June.

Introductory Courses

Logic [Part A for 4 weeks in Michaelmas, Part B for 4 weeks in Hilary]This course introduces students to formal work in propositional and predicate logic, through study of a dedicated text: The Logic Manual, by Volker Halbach (OUP). Students investigate the patterns of valid inference by means of the formal system set out in the text, and learn about the relationship between elements of the system and the types of argument and inference used in ordinary language. The course is intended both for those with an interest in logic who will undertake further work in it or related topics at finals, and for those who will not study it further but who will find the ability to understand formal expressions useful in their later study of philosophy.
General Philosophy [Hilary]General Philosophy introduces students to key topics in epistemology and metaphysics, including knowledge and scepticism, induction, mind and body, personal identity, free will, and God and Evil.  Students approach these topics in one of two ways: either using relevant sections from Descartes, Hume and Locke as a starting point, or by studying key contemporary writings on the topics.
Moral Philosophy [Michaelmas]Moral Philosophy is studied in conjunction with J. S. Mill’s Utilitarianism and, by means of the study of Mill’s and contemporary versions of utilitarianism, introduces students to discussion of subjects such as happiness and pleasure, the criterion of right action, the role and foundation of moral principles, and justice.  

Topic-Based Courses

Ethics The purpose of this subject is to enable you to come to grips with some questions which exercise many people, philosophers and non-philosophers alike. How should we decide what is best to do, and how best to lead our lives? Are our value judgments on these and other matters objective or do they merely reflect our subjective preferences and viewpoints? Are we in fact free to make these choices, or have our decisions already been determined by antecedent features of our environment and genetic endowment? In considering these issues you will examine a variety of ethical concepts, such as those of justice, rights, equality, virtue, and happiness, which are widely used in moral and political argument. There is also opportunity to discuss some applied ethical issues. Knowledge of major historical thinkers, e.g. Aristotle and Hume and Kant, will be encouraged, but not required. 

John Mackie, Ethics (Penguin), chs. 1-2.
Knowledge and RealityThe purpose of this subject is to enable you to examine some central questions about the nature of the world and the extent to which we can have knowledge of it.

In considering knowledge you will examine whether it is possible to attain knowledge of what the world is really like. Is our knowledge of the world necessarily limited to what we can observe to be the case? Indeed, are even our observational beliefs about the world around us justified? Can we have knowledge of what will happen based on what has happened? Is our understanding of the world necessarily limited to what we can prove to be the case? Or can we understand claims about the remote past or distant future which we cannot in principle prove to be true?

In considering reality you will focus on questions such as the following. Does the world really contain the three-dimensional objects and their properties - such as red buses or black horses - which we appear to encounter in everyday life? Or is it made up rather of the somewhat different entities studied by science, such as colourless atoms or four-dimensional space-time worms? What is the relation between the common sense picture of the world and that provided by contemporary science? Is it correct to think of the objects and their properties that make up the world as being what they are independently of our preferred ways of dividing up reality? These issues are discussed with reference to a variety of specific questions such as 'What is time?', 'What is the nature of causation?', and 'What are substances?' There is an opportunity in this subject to study such topics as reference, truth and definition.

Jonathan Dancy, Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology ( Oxford), chs. 1-3; Michael J. Loux, Metaphysics (Routledge)
Philosophy of Mind [You must first do/have done Knowledge and Reality or Early Modern Philosophy] 

The purpose of this subject is to enable you to examine a variety of questions about the nature of persons and their psychological states, including such general questions as: what is the relation between persons and their minds? Could robots or automata be persons? What is the relation between our minds and our brains? If we understood everything about the brain, would we understand everything about consciousness and rational thought? If not, why not? Several of these issues focus on the relation between our common sense understanding of ourselves and others, and the view of the mind developed in scientific psychology and neuroscience. Are the two accounts compatible? Should one be regarded as better than the other? Should our common sense understanding of the mind be jettisoned in favour of the scientific picture? Or does the latter leave out something essential to a proper understanding of ourselves and others? Other more specific questions concern memory, thought, belief, emotion, perception, and action.

Paul Churchland, Matter and Consciousness ( Cambridge) chs. 1-3.
Philosophy of Science and Social Science [You must first do/have done Knowledge and Reality or Early Modern Philosophy]

The purpose of this subject is to enable you to study topics in the philosophy of science in general, and topics in the philosophy of social science in particular.
In the broadest sense the philosophy of science is concerned with the theory of knowledge and with associated questions in metaphysics. What is distinctive about the field is the focus on "scientific" knowledge, and metaphysical questions - concerning space, time, causation, probability, possibility, necessity, realism and idealism - that follow in their train. As such it is concerned with distinctive traits of science: testability, objectivity, scientific explanation, and the nature of scientific theories. Whether economics, sociology, and political science are "really" sciences is a question that lay people as well as philosophers have often asked. The technology spawned by the physical sciences is more impressive than that based on the social sciences: bridges do not collapse and aeroplanes do not fall from the sky, but no government can reliably control crime, divorce, or unemployment, or make its citizens happy at will. Human behaviour often seems less predictable, and less explicable than that of inanimate nature and non-human animals, even though most of us believe that we know what we are doing and why. So philosophers of social science have asked whether human action is to be explained causally or non-causally, whether predictions are self-refuting, whether we can only explain behaviour that is in some sense rational - and if so, what that sense is. Other central issues include social relativism, the role of ideology, value-neutrality, and the relationship between the particular social sciences, in particular whether economics provides a model for other social science. Finally, some critics have asked whether a technological view of 'social control' does not threaten democratic politics as usually understood.

Martin Hollis, The Philosophy of Social Science ( Cambridge); Alexander Rosenberg, Philosophy of Social Science (Westview).
Philosophy of Logic and Language[You must first do a Logic course] 

The purpose of this subject is to enable you to examine some fundamental questions relating to reasoning and language. The philosophy of logic is not itself a symbolic or mathematical subject, but examines concepts of interest to the logician. If you want to know the answer to the question 'What is truth?', this is a subject for you. Central also are questions about the status of basic logical laws and the nature of logical necessity. What, if anything, makes it true that nothing can be at the same time both green and not green all over? Is that necessity the result of our conventions or stipulations, or the reflection of how things have to be independently of us? Philosophy of language is closely related. It covers the very general question how language can describe reality at all: what makes our sentences meaningful and, on occasion, true? How do parts of our language refer to objects in the world? What is involved in understanding speech (or the written word)? You may also investigate more specific issues concerning the correct analysis of particular linguistic expressions such as names, descriptions, pronouns, or adverbs, and aspects of linguistics and grammatical theory.

Mark Sainsbury, 'Philosophical Logic', in Philosophy, a Guide through the Subject, edited by A. C. Grayling ( Oxford).
Aesthetics[You must first do some other non-introductory Philosophy]

The purpose of this subject is to enable you to study a number of questions about the nature and value of beauty and of the arts. For example, do we enjoy sights and sounds because they are beautiful, or are they beautiful because we enjoy them? Does the enjoyment of beauty involve a particular sort of experience, and if so, how should we define it and what psychological capacities does it presuppose? Is a work of art a physical object, an abstract object, or what? Does the value of a work of art depend only upon its long- or short-term effects on our minds or characters? If not, what sorts of reasons can we give for admiring a work of art? Do reasons for admiring paintings, pieces of music and poems have enough in common with one another, and little enough in common with reasons for admiring other kinds of things, to support the idea that there is a distinctive sort of value which good art of every sort, and only art, possesses? As well as general questions such as these ones, the subject also addresses questions raised by particular art forms. For example, what is the difference between a picture and a description in words? Can fiction embody truths about its subject-matter? How does music express emotions? All of these questions, and others, are addressed directly, and also by examining classic texts, including Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Poetics, Hume's Essay on the Standard of Taste and Kant's Critique of Aesthetic Judgement.

Malcolm Budd, Values of Art (Penguin)
Theory of Politics
In order to understand the world of politics, we also need to know which views of politics and society people have when they make political decisions, and why we recommend certain courses of action rather than others. This purpose of this subject is to enable you to look at the main ideas we use when we think about politics: why do we have competing views of social justice and what makes a particular view persuasive, possibly even right? What happens when a concept such as freedom has different meanings, so that those who argue that we must maximise freedom of choice are confronted with those who claim that some choices will actually restrict your freedom? Is power desirable or harmful? Would feminists or nationalists give a different answer to that question? Political theory is concerned with developing good responses to problems such as: when should we obey, and when should we disobey, the state? But it is also concerned with mapping the ways in which we approach questions such as: how does one argue in favour of human rights? In addition, you will explore the main ideologies, such as liberalism, conservatism and socialism, in order to understand their main arguments and why each of them will direct us to different political solutions and arrangements.

Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction (Oxford University Press)
Philosophical Logic[You must have done some introductory logic]

This paper is a second course in logic. It follows on from the first logic course provided by The Logic Manual in Prelims.

This course exposes you to logical systems that extend and enrich—or challenge and deviate from—classical logic, the standard propositional and predicate logic familiar from Prelims.Why depart from classical logic? Here’s one example: classical logic has exactly two truth-values, true and false. How, then, are we to deal with sentences like ‘Hamlet has blood type O’ which appear to defy classification with either? One systematic answer is provided by three-valued logics which deviate from classical logic by permitting their sentences to be neither truth nor false. Another example: classical logic only has truth-functional connectives. How, then, are we to deal with connectives like ‘It must be the case that…’ whose semantics cannot be captured with a truth-table? One systematic answer is provided by modal logic, which extends classical logic by allowing its connectives to be non-truth-functional.

The course has two principal aims. The first is to give you the technical competence to work with, and prove things about, a number of logical systems which have come to play a central role across philosophy. These include non-classical propositional logics, such as three-valued and intuitionistic systems, and extensions of classical logic, such as propositional and predicate modal logic, as well as systems for counterfactual conditionals and ‘two-dimensional’ logic. The second principal aim is for you to come to appreciate the diverse philosophical applications of these systems. The logic studied in this paper has important connections to the metaphysics of time and existence, a priori knowledge, obligation, vagueness, and conditionals, amongst many other issues, and is often presupposed in the contemporary literature on these topics. Competence with the logic in this paper unlocks a wide range of fascinating work across philosophy.

The paper is studied in conjunction with a set textbook: Theodore Sider, Logic for Philosophy (Oxford University Press).
Philosophy of Cognitive Science[You must have first done Philosophy of Mind and/or Knowledge and Reality]

This paper covers some of key questions about the nature of the mind dealt with by a variety of cognitive scientific disciplines: experimental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, linguistics and computational modelling of the mind. Studying this paper will provide insight into the ways that contemporary scientific advances have improved our understanding of aspects of the mind that have long been the focus of philosophical reflection. It will also introduce you to a range of theoretical issues generated by current research in the behavioural and brain sciences.

The core topics are:
  • Levels of description and explanation (e.g. personal vs. subpersonal, functional vs. mechanistic, mind vs. brain)
  • Cognitive architecture, modularity, homuncular functionalism
  • Conceptual foundations of information processing: rules and algorithms, tacit knowledge (e.g. of grammar), competence vs. performance
  • Nature and format of representations: representationalism vs. behaviourism, the computational theory of mind and language of thought, connectionist alternatives
  • The scientific study of consciousness, including the role of subjects’ reports, non-verbal and direct measures; neural and computational correlates of consciousness; and the problem of distinguishing phenomenal and access consciousness empirically

The lectures will also cover philosophical issues raised by some areas of cutting-edge research, such as: agency and its phenomenology; attention and neglect; cognitive neuropsychology; concepts; delusions; dual-process theories; dynamical systems, embodied and embedded cognition; evolutionary psychology and massive modularity; forward models and predictive coding; imagery; implicit processing (e.g. blindsight, prosopagnosia); innateness (e.g. concept nativism); language processing and knowledge of language; perception and action (e.g. dorsal vs. ventral visual systems); spatial representation; theory of mind / mindreading; unity of consciousness. Lectures may also cover some historical background (e.g. the cognitive revolution).

For those studying psychology, neuroscience, linguistics or computation, the paper is a crucial bridge to philosophy. But you do not need to be studying a scientific subject to take this paper, as long as you enjoy reading about scientific discoveries about the mind and brain. The paper will be of great interest to philosophers without a scientific background who want to understand the benefits and limitations of bringing scientific data to bear on deep issues in the philosophy of mind.

Background reading: Bermúdez, J. L. 2010. Cognitive Science: An Introduction to the Science of the Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Davies, M. ‘An approach to philosophy of cognitive science’, in F. Jackson & M. Smith (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy (Oxford: O.U.P., 2005). (Also available on Weblearn.) Clark, A. (2001), Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science (Oxford, OUP).

Philosophy of Mathematics
What is the relation of mathematical knowledge to other kinds of knowledge? Is it of a special kind, concerning objects of a special kind? If so, what is the nature of those objects and how do we come to know anything about them? If not, how do we explain the seeming difference between proving a theorem in mathematics and establishing something about the physical world? The purpose of this subject is to enable you to examine questions such as these. Understanding the nature of mathematics has been important to many philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, as a test or as an exemplar of their overall position, and has also played a role in the development of mathematics at certain points. While no specific knowledge of mathematics is required for study of this subject, it will be helpful to have studied mathematics at A-level, or similar, and to have done some Logic.

Stephen F. Barker, Philosophy of Mathematics (Prentice-Hall).
Philosophy of Religion[You must first do/have done Knowledge and Reality or Early Modern Philosophy]

The purpose of this subject is to enable you to examine claims about the existence of God and God's relationship to the world. What, if anything, is meant by them? Could they be true? What justification, if any, can or needs to be provided for them? The paper is concerned primarily with the claims of Western religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), and with the central claim of those religions, that there is a God. God is said to be omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, a source of moral obligation and so on. But what does it mean to say that God has these properties, and are they consistent with each other? Could God change the past, or choose to do evil? Does it make sense to say that God is outside time? You will have the opportunity to study arguments for the existence of God - for example, the teleological argument from the fact that the Universe is governed by scientific laws, and the argument from people's religious experiences. Other issues are whether the fact of pain and suffering counts strongly, or even conclusively, against the existence of God, whether there could be evidence for miracles, whether it could be shown that prayer "works", whether there could be life after death, and what philosophical problems are raised by the existence of different religions. There may also be an optional question in the exam paper about some specifically Christian doctrine - does it make sense to say that the life and death of Jesus atoned for the sins of the world, and could one know this? There is abundant scope for deploying all the knowledge and techniques which you have acquired in other areas of philosophy. Among the major philosophers whose contributions to the philosophy of religion you will need to study are Aquinas, Hume and Kant.

M. Peterson and other authors, Reason and Religious Belief, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press)

Text-Based Courses

Early Modern Philosophy
The purpose of this subject is to enable you to gain a critical understanding of some of the metaphysical and epistemological ideas of some of the most important philosophers of the early modern period, between the 1630s to the 1780s. This period saw a great flowering of philosophy in Europe. Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, often collectively referred to as "the rationalists", placed the new "corpuscularian" science within grand metaphysical systems which certified our God-given capacity to reason our way to the laws of nature (as well as to many other, often astonishing conclusions about the world). Locke wrote in a different, empiricist tradition. He argued that, since our concepts all ultimately derive from experience, our knowledge is necessarily limited. Berkeley and Hume developed this empiricism in the direction of a kind of idealism, according to which the world studied by science is in some sense mind-dependent and mind-constructed.

R.S.Woolhouse, The Empiricists

J.Cottingham, The Rationalists (both O.U.P. Opus series).
Plato, Republic
Plato’s influence on the history of philosophy is enormous. The purpose of this subject is to enable you to make a critical study of The Republic, which is perhaps his most important and most influential work. Written as a dialogue between Socrates and others including the outspoken immoralist Thrasymachus, it is primarily concerned with questions of the nature of justice and of what is the best kind of life to lead. These questions prompt discussions of the ideal city -which Karl Popper criticised as totalitarian -, of education and art, of the nature of knowledge, the Theory of Forms and the immortality of the soul. In studying it you will encounter a work of philosophy of unusual literary merit, one in which philosophy is presented through debates, through analogies and images, including the famous simile of the Cave, as well as rigorous argument, and you will encounter some of Plato’s important contributions to ethics, political theory, metaphysics, philosophy of mind and aesthetics.

You are expected to study the work in detail.

Julia Annas, An Introduction to Plato's Republic, Introduction and ch. 1.

Set translation: Plato: Republic, tr Grube, revised Reeve (Hackett).
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics

The purpose of this subject is to give you the opportunity to make a critical study of one of the most important works in the history of philosophy. Like Plato in the Republic, Aristotle is concerned with the question, what is the best possible sort of life? Whereas this leads Plato to pose grand questions in metaphysics and political theory, it leads Aristotle to offer close analyses of the structure of human action, responsibility, the virtues, the nature of moral knowledge, weakness of will, pleasure, friendship, and other related issues. Much of what Aristotle has to say on these is ground-breaking, highly perceptive, and still of importance in contemporary debate in ethics and moral psychology.

You are expected to study the work in detail.

J. L. Ackrill, Aristotle the Philosopher, ch. 10.
Set translation: Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics translated and with notes by T.H. Irwin (Hackett).
The Philosophy of Kant[You must have done Early Modern Philosophy]

The purpose of this paper is to enable you to make a critical study of some of the ideas of one of the greatest of all philosophers. Immanuel Kant lived from 1724 to 1804. He published the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, and the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals in 1785. The 'Critique' is his greatest work and, without question, the most influential work of modern philosophy. It is a difficult but enormously rewarding work. This is largely because Kant, perhaps uniquely, combines in the highest measure the cautious qualities of care, rigour and tenacity with the bolder quality of philosophical imagination. Its concern is to give an account of human knowledge that will steer a path between the dogmatism of traditional metaphysics and the scepticism that, Kant believes, is the inevitable result of the empiricist criticism of metaphysics. Kant's approach, he claims in a famous metaphor, amounts to a "Copernican revolution" in philosophy. Instead of looking at human knowledge by starting from what is known, we should start from ourselves as knowing subjects and ask how the world must be for us to have the kind of knowledge and experience that we have. Kant thinks that his Copernican revolution also enables him to reconcile traditional Christian morality and modern science, in the face of their apparently irreconcilable demands (in the one case, that we should be free agents, and in the other case, that the world should be governed by inexorable mechanical laws). In the ‘Groundwork’ Kant develops his very distinctive and highly influential moral philosophy. He argues that morality is grounded in reason. What we ought to do is what we would do if we acted in a way that was purely rational. To act in a way that is purely rational is to act in accordance with the famous ‘categorical imperative’, which Kant expresses as follows: ‘Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’.

Critique of Pure Reason , trans. Norman Kemp Smith (Macmillan);
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans, H.J. Paton ( Hutchinson).
Roger Scruton, Kant.
The Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein[You must first do/have done Knowledge and Reality or Early Modern Philosophy or Philosophy of Language and Logic]
The purpose of this subject is to enable you to study some of the most influential ideas of the 20th century. The main texts are Wittgenstein’s posthumously-published Philosophical Investigations and The Blue and Brown Books. These writings are famous not just for their content but also for their distinctive style and conception of philosophy. There is much critical discussion about the relation between those aspects of Wittgenstein's work.

Wittgenstein covers a great range of issues, principally in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. In philosophy of language, one key topic is the nature of rules and rule-following. What is involved in grasping a rule; and how can I tell, in a new case, what I have to do to apply the rule correctly? Indeed, what makes it the case that a particular move at this stage is the correct way of applying the rule; is there any standard of correctness other than the agreement of our fellows? Other topics include: whether language is systematic; the relation between linguistic meaning and non-linguistic activities; whether concepts can be illuminatingly analysed. In the philosophy of mind, Wittgenstein is especially famous for the so-called ‘private language argument’, which tries to show that words for sensations cannot get their meanings by being attached to purely internal, introspective, ‘private objects’. Other, equally important, topics include the nature of the self, of introspection and of visual experience, and the intentionality (the representative quality) of mental states. Most generally, can we (as Wittgenstein thought) avoid Cartesianism without lapsing into behaviourism?

The texts: try Philosophical Investigations paras 1-80; Blue Book pp. 1-17; Saul Kripke: Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (Blackwell); Marie McGinn: Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations (Routledge, 1997, in the Routledge Philosophy Guidebooks series)
Post-Kantian Continental Philosophy[You must first do/have done Knowledge and Reality or Early Modern Philosophy or Ethics or Philosophy of Kant]

Many of the questions raised by German and French philosophers of the 19th and early 20th centuries were thought to arise directly out of Kant's metaphysics, epistemology and ethics: Hence the title of this subject, the purpose of which is to enable you to explore some of the developments of (and departures from) Kantian themes in the work of Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Students typically focus their study on only two chosen authors.

Hegel and Schopenhauer delineate global, metaphysical systems out of which each develops his own distinctive vision of ethical and (especially in the case of Hegel) political life. Nietzsche's writings less obviously constitute a ‘system’, but they too develop certain ethical and existential implications of our epistemological and metaphysical commitments. Husserl will interest those pupils attracted to problems in ontology and epistemology such as feature in the Cartesian tradition; his work also serves to introduce one to phenomenology, the philosophical method later developed and refined by Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.

In Heidegger and Sartre, that method is brought to bear on such fundamental aspects of human existence as authenticity, social understanding, bad faith, art and freedom. Merleau-Ponty (who trained as a psychologist) presents a novel and important account of the genesis of perception, cognition and feeling, and relates these to themes in aesthetics and political philosophy. While this is very much a text-based paper, many of the questions addressed are directly relevant to contemporary treatments of problems in epistemology and metaphysics, in aesthetics, political theory and the philosophy of mind.

Robert C. Solomon, Continental Philosophy since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self (O.U.P.).