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Undergraduate Prospectus

Faculty of Philosophy Undergraduate Prospectus 2014-2015

Introduction: what is philosophy and why study it?

Philosophy is the study of abstract and fundamental problems about the nature of knowledge and reality, and about our moral and political ideas. In universities it is studied in a way which lays considerable emphasis on very precise and careful argument.

Although undergraduates in Cambridge do read a wide range of philosophical writers, the main aim of the course is not to impart information about which writer said what. Rather, the aim is that students acquire the kind of skill in reasoning which will enable them to tackle problems of a philosophical character and to think intelligently about abstract questions generally.

 It is not required that students have formally studied any Philosophy before reading the subject at Cambridge, and the subject is taught in the first year without assuming that any students have studied it before.

So how do you know if you are suited to the subject, if you have not studied it at school? Ask yourself if you enjoy abstract speculation about reality and our place in it; if you enjoy marshalling arguments for and against general theories of the world; if you enjoy puzzle-solving of various kinds; if you enjoy subjects like maths and physics which emphasize rigorous thought; if you enjoy considering unusual views of reality – if you answer yes to some or all of these questions, then philosophy might be the right subject for you.

However, to get a real feel for the nature of the subject, you should read some philosophy. Here is a list of books which give a good introduction to the various aspects of the subject, and you are encouraged to look at some of them before deciding to apply for a philosophy degree. Philosophy may not be quite what you expected it to be!

All the practical information you need about applying to Cambridge can be found in the University’s Undergraduate Prospectus. Please note that all applications for undergraduate admissions are dealt with by the Colleges. Before applying you need to decide which College might suit you best. Your choice of College has a great impact on your time in Cambridge, so it is well worth visiting the Colleges. They will welcome enquiries.

The Philosophy Faculty is housed in Sidgwick Avenue, near to many colleges and the river. The Philosophy Faculty is a friendly, open place, with good relations between students and staff. We believe in the close involvement of students in our major decision-making bodies, and students play an important role in shaping the work of the Faculty. Above all, it is a place where an enthusiasm for philosophy pervades and informs all our activity, whether in teaching or in research.

Before you apply, I would strongly encourage you to find out as much as you can about the subject and our approach to it (which is similar to that in most major UK universities).

The Cambridge Open Days are on 2nd and 3rd July 2015. I invite you to come and see for yourself.

Professor Richard Holton
Chair, Faculty Board of Philosophy

Members of Staff


The Philosophy Degree ('Tripos')

The undergraduate philosophy degree at Cambridge is known as the ‘Philosophy Tripos’. The Tripos is a three-year programme. Each year of study is called a ‘part’ of the Tripos, and the three parts are known as Part IA, Part IB and Part II. The majority of our students study philosophy for all three years, taking one part of the Tripos each year.

Unlike many other universities Cambridge does not offer joint honours degrees in which philosophy can be studied concurrently with another subject such as Mathematics or English.

It is, however, possible to take each part of the Tripos separately, and thus to combine the study of philosophy at Cambridge consecutively with that of another subject. A student could, for example, study Part I English (which takes two years) and then do Part II Philosophy in the third year.

This is the content of each part of the Tripos:

Part IA

Part IA of the Tripos is an introduction to the study of Philosophy and is normally taken in the first year. The four compulsory subject areas studied by all students at Part IA are:

  • Metaphysics
  • Ethics and Political Philosophy
  • Logic
  • Set texts: Plato, Meno; Descartes, Meditations on first philosophy; J.S. Mill, On Liberty and The Subjection of Women

For more details, go here.

Part IB

Students normally take Part IB in their second year. Two subjects — Metaphysics & Epistemology, and Logic — are compulsory. In addition, students choose two other subjects from the following:

  • Ethics
  • Greek and Roman Philosophy
  • Early Modern Philosophy
  • Philosophy of Science
  • Political Philosophy
  • Experimental Psychology

For more details, go here.

Part II

This part of the Tripos is normally taken in a student's third year. There are no compulsory subject areas. Instead, students choose to study four areas from the following:

  • Metaphysics
  • Philosophy of Mind
  • Ethics
  • European Philosophy from Kant (Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche)
  • Philosophy in the Long Middle Ages (in the Latin, Arabic and Hebrew traditions, c.400 to c.1700).
  • Philosophy of Science
  • Mathematical Logic
  • Philosophical logic (logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics)
  • Special subject (currently the philosophy of Wittgenstein)
  • Political Philosophy
  • Aesthetics

Philosophy students may also chose among the following papers from the Classics Tripos:

  • Plato
  • Aristotle's moral and political thought
  • Reason and reasoning

Philosophy students may also take the Metaphysics paper from the Divinity Tripos, which deals with central questions in the philosophy of religion.

For more details, go here.


Responsibility for the teaching of philosophy at Cambridge is divided between the Faculty of Philosophy and the colleges.

The Faculty organises lectures, logic classes, discussion groups and seminars, and examinations

The Director of Studies at each college organises tutorials (which in Cambridge are known as ‘supervisions’) for its students. This division of responsibility contributes greatly to the diversity of philosophy teaching at Cambridge.


In the first two years of the course the philosophy lectures introduce students to the concepts and arguments characteristic of philosophical debates. In Part II, some lectures are more advanced, and lecturers may take the opportunity to develop new positions rather than just explore the existing state of the debate.

It is a general principle of the University of Cambridge that its lectures are open to all members of the University. This is especially useful for philosophy students because philosophical arguments have an important place in several academic disciplines, and so there may be lectures relevant to philosophers in various departments of the University other than the Faculty of Philosophy: for example, in Classics, History, Divinity, Human, Social and Political Sciences, and History and Philosophy of Science. It is common, therefore, for philosophy students to attend lectures organised by these departments.

Discussion groups and classes

The Faculty organises logic classes for first year students, and discussion groups for first and second year students. The latter provide an opportunity for students from different colleges to meet each other and compare their initial responses to philosophical issues. The teaching for advanced Part II courses sometimes takes the form of seminar discussions rather than lectures, and can in some cases be open to both graduates and undergraduate students


Each student has a Director of Studies (often abbreviated to ‘DOS’) appointed by their college to oversee their work, give advice on the choice of papers and arrange supervisions. Many Directors of Studies will do some supervisions themselves; but philosophy students should expect to have several different supervisors during their Cambridge careers.

Philosophy students normally have one supervision each week. Probably the most distinctive feature of reading philosophy at Cambridge is that supervisions are usually one-to-one. The supervisor will set an essay on a topic covered by the syllabus and recommend relevant reading. The student will then hand in the essay prior to the supervision so that the supervisor can read and comment on it in advance. The supervision itself is then devoted to a critical discussion of the student’s essay and its topic.


The Moral Sciences Club is the University's main philosophical society. (Its name reflects the fact that until 1973 the Cambridge philosophy degree was called the ‘Moral Sciences Tripos’.) It meets every Tuesday at 2pm during term to hear and discuss talks normally given by visiting philosophers. All students in the Faculty are welcome to join.

The Amoral Sciences Club is run by undergraduates and puts on an alternative series of philosophy talks.


Students take their exams in late May/early June in the latter half of the Easter (third) term. They take one three-hour examination for each of their four subjects, in which they normally have to answer three essay-type questions. In addition students sit a fifth paper in which they write one longer essay over three hours; this is designed to give them an opportunity to write in greater depth on one of the topics they have studied and demonstrate their ability to sustain a more extended argument.

Part IA is assessed entirely by three-hour exams.

At Part IB and Part II, it is possible to replace exams with coursework. Part IB students may choose to replace one of their written exam papers with two extended essays written in their own time earlier in the year on appropriate topics. Part II students also have this option, and they may also submit one longer dissertation on a subject of their choice in place of another written exam paper.

A distinctive feature of Cambridge is that each part of the Tripos is marked separately and independently. There is no overall mark or degree class for all 3 years.

Faculty Resources and Support for Students

The Casimir Lewy Library is the primary source of printed and electronic material needed for the study and teaching of philosophy and related subjects in Cambridge. It covers all the areas taught in the Philosophy Tripos as well as most of the areas researched by graduates and teaching staff. For more details, go here.

The University Library (known as the ‘UL’), is one of the UK’s great libraries. As one of the nation’s five copyright libraries, it holds every academically important book published in Britain since the early eighteenth century as well as extensive stocks from overseas, and from earlier times.

The Classics, Divinity, History, and History and Philosophy of Science libraries also contain much material useful to philosophy students, as do college libraries.

Language Learning

Various courses in languages useful to philosophers are available to students and the University Language Centre is open to all students.


All students may use the University’s Public Workstation Facilities (PWF) which are located in many sites around the University, including in the Casimir Lewy Library. This service gives access to a number of electronic resources.

All colleges also provide computing facilities for their students, either through a cabled Ethernet connection or through a local wireless network

Disabled Students

Colleges judge applications from students with physical disabilities on the same academic terms as those from other candidates. However, they find it helpful to know in advance about the degree of a candidate's disability or impairment, so that they can offer advice on the suitability of their facilities. Prospective candidates with questions about the Faculty's own facilities should contact the Faculty Office.

Information on the University's Disability Resource Centre can be found at

Life after Your Degree

Deciding to read philosophy at Cambridge does not commit you to a narrow choice of career. Our recent graduates include an RAF test pilot as well as IT consultants, management consultants, fund-raisers, civil servants, lawyers, arts administrators and teachers.

Many of our students choose to carry on with further study towards graduate degrees such as the M.Phil. and Ph.D. in philosophy. For some of them philosophy will become their career: there are many people holding posts in philosophy departments around the world who started their philosophical careers by reading for a degree in the Cambridge Philosophy Faculty.

First employment destinations of Cambridge philosophy graduates (2010 – 2011 survey).

Pie Chart of first Employment Destinations of Cambridge Philosophy Graduates
First employment destinations of Cambridge philosophy graduates
(2010 – 2011 survey)

Admissions and applications

Undergraduate admissions are handled by individual colleges and not by the Faculty of Philosophy. Prospective candidates should obtain a copy of the Cambridge Undergraduate Prospectus either online or by getting a paper copy from the Admissions Office of any college or from the Cambridge Admissions Office, Fitzwilliam House, 32 Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 lQY (telephone 01223 333308)

Details of financial arrangements can be obtained from colleges. Some helpful information about costs is included in the Cambridge Undergraduate Prospectus.

The Faculty tends to admit about fifty students each year. Some of our applicants have been studying either Philosophy or Religious Studies at A-level, but this is by no means universal and the Faculty has no formal restrictions on the school subjects applicants should have studied.

As mentioned above, the one thing that is vital is for prospective applicants to read some books on the subject first, to give them an idea of what philosophy is like. These recent books (all of them by Cambridge philosophers) are recommended for the purpose:

  • Simon Blackburn, Think (OUP, 2001) and Being Good (OUP, 2002)
  • Edward Craig, Philosophy: A very short introduction (OUP, 2002)
  • Bernard Williams, Morality (CUP, 1993)

The following classic texts are also well worth reading to gain some idea of the flavour of the subject:

  • Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge
  • Descartes, Meditations
  • Hume, Enquiries
  • Mill, Utilitarianism
  • Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy

Other suggestions are listed here.

Some frequently asked questions about admissions are listed here.

Cambridge Open Days for students planning to attend in 2015 are on 3 and 4 July 2014. Details are here

What our students say

'Seriously engaging with philosophy is not for the faint of heart. For one thing, it involves considering some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of the world and our place in it — from mind to morality, from anarchism to aesthetics. For another, many of the arguments that address these topics are as frustrating as they are perplexing.'

'However, for those who remain undeterred, Cambridge is a wonderful place to study philosophy. Right from the start, the emphasis is on doing philosophy rather than merely learning about it. The weekly supervisions are a great — if challenging — opportunity to experiment with ideas and arguments in real depth. Each week, students study a topic in detail and write an essay about it. The essay provides a starting point for discussion, with the supervisor helping to correct any misunderstandings while developing the student's own ideas. This one-to-one attention gives students the chance to practice talking as well as writing about philosophy. No less important, however, are the opportunities to argue and explore with other undergrads, whether in formal discussion groups, college bars or coffee shops.'

'The syllabus puts a heavy emphasis on logic in the first two years. Whether or not you are interested in the philosophical questions surrounding logic, this emphasis is a good way to develop the analytical skills that come in useful for all areas of philosophy. It's not necessary to have a background or interest in maths — a critical mind is all that is needed.'

'Being in Cambridge is also a great place to witness first-hand developments in the world of philosophy. Whether through talking to the distinguished members of our own Faculty or the many philosophers who pass through Cambridge, for instance at the Moral Sciences Club, studying here gives you a ring side seat for many of the cutting edge developments in contemporary philosophy.'

'All in all, studying philosophy at Cambridge will enable you to analyse the positions of leading philosophers past and present, to uncover and challenge your own and other people's presumptions, and to develop good arguments about fascinating ideas.'

Christina Cameron (Sidney Sussex) and Sebastian Nye (King's)