Faculty of Philosophy Undergraduate Prospectus 2017-2018
- Philosophy at Cambridge - An historical perspective
- The Philosophy Tripos
- Part IA ( first year)
- Part IB (second year)
- Part II (third year)
- Faculty Resources and Support for Students
- Disabled Students
- Life after the Tripos
- Admissions and applications
- What our students say
Philosophy studies human thought and the reality that we think about. Its topics include the basis of knowledge, the nature of reason, consciousness and cognition, as well as the foundations of value and the problems of political theory. Its questions intrigue all thoughtful people, but the methods that are needed in order to make progress with them are often intricate and difficult.
Cambridge has occupied a uniquely distinguished place in the history of philosophy in the last 100 years. It was here, in the early years of the 20th century, that Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Ramsey and others developed the analytic style of philosophy that is now prominent in much of the world. The Faculty of Philosophy today retains a strong commitment to this analytic tradition, combining it with study and teaching of the history of philosophy from Plato to the present day.
The Cambridge BA course is a single honours course that assumes no prior knowledge of the subject but which takes students to the frontiers of the modern subject. In part because of this – and in part because of the high standard of our entrants – it is one of the most demanding and far-reaching undergraduate philosophy courses available anywhere in the world.
We take seriously our procedures for assuring the quality of our programmes, an essential part of which is the close involvement of students in our major decision-making bodies. Above all, Cambridge is a place where an enthusiasm for philosophy pervades and informs all our activity, whether in teaching or in research.
Before you apply, we would encourage you to find out as much as you can about the subject and our approach to it (which is in itself similar to that in all major UK universities, although because we have a single honours degree we can take undergraduates further than many). Apart from this booklet, the most useful resource is our website. Then there are the Cambridge Open Days on 30 June and 1 July 2016 and we invite you to come and see for yourself.
Cambridge University also runs subject masterclasses for year 12 students. They are subject-specific events, which offer students a true flavour of undergraduate study and an introduction to the University of Cambridge. For details see: http://www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/events/masterclasses
We hope you find this booklet useful in helping you to make your choice of where and what to study.
An historical perspective
Any account of Philosophy in Cambridge must emphasise the work of at least three men, Russell, Moore and Wittgenstein. These three transformed the discipline during the first half of the 20th century and made Cambridge the subject's most important centre in the world.
Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) came to philosophy from mathematics and his early work led him to argue in Principia Mathematica that mathematics is nothing but logic, although his famous paradox also shows that the connection between logic and mathematics cannot be at all straightforward. In the course of this work Russell developed a new logical theory, which underpinned a method of logical analysis that he hoped would resolve many traditional problems of philosophy. His thought was that in a 'logically perfect language' it would be possible to transform the obscure tangles of traditional metaphysics into soluble scientific problems.
In Principia Ethica G.E. Moore (1873–1958) argued that because ethical disputes cannot be resolved by appeal to the natural and social sciences we should acknowledge that ethical values constitute an irreducible dimension of reality. Moore further held that friendship and beauty are pre-eminent among these values, and thus that the best of lives is a life successfully dedicated to their enhancement. This message was taken to heart by Cambridge 'Apostles' such as Clive Bell and John Maynard Keynes, and became characteristic of the Bloomsbury Group. In later years Moore, who became Professor of Philosophy in 1925, turned his attention to traditional issues of metaphysics and propounded a defence of 'common sense' against a variety of sceptical arguments.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) came to Cambridge from Vienna in 1911 to study with Russell. In the Tractatus he developed Russell's account of the role of logic and presented an account of the limits of language that implies that problems of philosophy are either such that they can be solved by logical analysis or else such that nothing can be said about them. Having, as he thought, finished philosophy, Wittgenstein left Cambridge; but he returned in 1929 and throughout the 1930s conducted his famous classes. He brought together many of his reflections from these classes in his Philosophical Investigations, in which he pursued much further the questions about the limits of language which he had raised earlier.
Later in the Twentieth century, the general approach to philosophy contained in the work of these figures was carried further by their students and successors, including G. E. M. Anscombe (1919–2001) and Bernard Williams (1929–2003), both of whom applied it to a wide variety of topics, from the philosophy of mind and language on the one hand to some of the most contested issues in morality and politics on the other.
The research interests of the Faculty's current staff span modern analytic philosophy and its history.
Dr Arif Ahmed (Gonville & Caius) works on rational choice, religion and Wittgenstein.
Dr Angela Breitenbach (King’s) works on Kant, philosophy of science and aesthetics.
Dr Tim Button (St John’s) works on metaphysics, philosophy of mathematics and philosophical logic.
Dr Clare Chambers (Jesus) works on political philosophy.
Prof Tim Crane (Peterhouse) works on philosophy of mind, metaphysics, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of language, epistemology and Leibniz.
Dr Tom Dougherty (Trinity Hall) works on ethics and political philosophy
Prof Richard Holton (Peterhouse) works on moral psychology, ethics, philosophy of language and the philosophy of law.
Prof Rae Langton (Newnham) works on moral and political philosophy, history of philosophy (especially Kant), metaphysics and feminist philosophy.
Prof John Marenbon (Trinity) specializes in medieval philosophy.
Prof Alex Oliver (Gonville & Caius) works on logic, metaphysics, and philosophy of mathematics.
Prof Michael Potter (Fitzwilliam) works on philosophy of mathematics, philosophical logic, and history of analytical philosophy.
Prof Huw Price (Trinity) works on pragmatism, philosophy of physics, metaphysics and philosophy of language.
The Papers currently on offer are as described later in this booklet but the Faculty regularly reviews the structure of the Tripos and the content of the papers. There may be some differences by the time you arrive.
The undergraduate course of study in philosophy at Cambridge is called the Philosophy Tripos. It is divided into three parts: Part IA, Part IB and Part II. The majority of our students study philosophy for all three years of their undergraduate course, taking one part of the Tripos each year.
Unlike many 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 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.
Additional course costs
Philosophy of its nature does not generate large additional course costs. But of course there are sundry expenses involved in collecting materials for study and preparing and backing up of students' own work.
This prospectus describes the course as it is at the time of printing.
For more up to date information consult the website: http://www.cam.phil.ac.uk
Be aware in any case that the course is revised annually and may be different by the time current applicants come to study it.
Part IA of the Tripos is an introduction to the study of Philosophy and is normally taken in the first year. It consists of metaphysics, ethics and political philosophy, logic, and some historically important texts in philosophy. The emphasis is on developing students' ability to articulate and defend their own treatment of philosophical issues.
Metaphysics is at the foundation of virtually the whole of philosophy. This course examines a wide range of metaphysical topics of perennial interest. The first part of the syllabus asks about God and causation. Many students will have encountered arguments for and against the existence of God. These arguments will be discussed in detail and also the problem of reconciling the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient benevolent God with the apparent existence of evil in the world. The primary question about causation is simply what it is for one thing to cause another. Your alarm clock may go off every morning just before sunrise; but it doesn’t cause the sun to rise. What is missing? The second part of the syllabus tackles the mind and minded beings, and includes questions about free will. Is anything we do ever up to us? Can we have any choice at all if everything we do is the inevitable result of things beyond our control, such as facts about the distant past and laws of nature? Then there is the mind-body problem: What is the relation between mental and physical phenomena? Finally, the question of personal identity asks about the metaphysical nature of minded beings: What does it take for us to persist through time? Can we swap bodies or brains or minds?
2. Ethics and political philosophy
This paper introduces a selection of the main problems in philosophical ethics and political philosophy. Can we know what is morally right and wrong, or is there nothing to be known because, in making pronouncements on moral matters, people are merely expressing their own emotions? Do people ever act completely altruistically, or is there a selfish element in all motivation? If we can act purely for others, why should we do so when it would be inconvenient for our own projects? One influential ethical theory, utilitarianism, prescribes that we should act so as to maximize the net balance of happiness over suffering. It faces a variety of objections, and has taken many forms, often in response to objections. The course aims to provide an understanding of the main variants, and to provide the necessary tools for evaluating them. The course also looks at the concept of Equality of Opportunity, and aims to get new students thinking about issues directly relevant to them, such as ‘who should get into Cambridge?’ Finally, it introduces a central topic in political philosophy, namely the question of political obligation and authority. With what right does the state rule over us? What are the conditions in which we are obliged to obey one political authority or another?
This paper introduces basic issues in the philosophy of logic and language as well as key ideas of formal logic. There is a complex interplay between these informal and formal elements of the course. The central notion is that of a valid argument (e.g. All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; so Socrates is mortal). Arguments can be constructed in English and in the various formal languages that the logician invents, and formalised arguments are supposed to tell us something about the corresponding English arguments. Hence we need to know what an argument is, what validity is, and why it is significant. Are all good arguments valid? Are all valid arguments good? Validity of English arguments is an imprecise and intuitive notion, but validity of arguments framed in a formal language can be, and in this course is, made precise. Students practice translating between English and various formal languages: this helps them understand modern philosophical writings, in which uses of this symbolism are common. They also study the notion of meaning, which is central to the philosophy of logic and to the philosophy of language; as well as the nature of the elements of which meaningful statements are made up, such as names, descriptions and quantifier phrases. An important topic, which bridges the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind, is the relation between the meanings of sentences and the beliefs, intentions and conventions of language users. Finally, there is the alleged distinction between analytic and synthetic truths. Analytic truths seem to be true solely in virtue of their meaning (e.g. All bachelors are unmarried) unlike synthetic truths, which require the world to be a certain way (e.g. Most people die before the age of 80). How is this distinction related to two others, that between necessary and contingent truths and that between a priori and a posteriori truths? And are there any analytic truths anyway?
4. Set texts
This paper offers an introduction to the study of the history of philosophy. You will be required to develop a detailed knowledge of the texts you study and of relevant aspects of their historical background. At the same time, you will be encouraged to exercise your own judgment on the interpretation of the texts and the arguments and other materials they contain. You may be asked to study texts such as Plato, Meno; or Descartes, Meditations on first philosophy; or Mill, On Liberty and The Subjection of Women. Currently students are asked to study two out of three set texts but remember that by the time you arrive in Cambridge these texts may have changed and they are only listed here as examples.
Students normally take Part IB in their second year. Two papers — metaphysics and epistemology, and logic — are compulsory: they develop themes and issues introduced in Part IA and introduce further concepts that are essential to the understanding of much current philosophy. In addition, students choose two other subjects from a range covering topics in ethics, Greek and Roman philosophy (from the Faculty of Classics Tripos), early modern philosophy, philosophy of science, political philosophy, and experimental psychology.
1. Metaphysics and epistemology
This paper covers a range of central questions in metaphysics and epistemology, including mind-dependence, the nature of possibility and necessity, the nature and sources of knowledge, and the challenge of scepticism.
This paper extends the study of both the formal and the philosophical components of logic that students began to study in the first year. Topics covered include theories of meaning, truth, logical form, names and descriptions, and theories of logic.
This paper covers a wide range of issues in contemporary and historical moral philosophy, including helping and harming, early modern moral philosophy, and moral psychology and motivation.
4. Greek and Roman philosophy
This paper aims to introduce the variety and scope of ancient philosophy within its historical and cultural context. Students are introduced to a wide range of ancient texts from the pre-Socratics, through Plato and Aristotle, to Hellenistic and Roman philosophy. This paper is offered from Part IB of the Classical Tripos.
5. Early modern philosophy
This paper aims to provide an opportunity to study some of the central problems of early modern philosophy, approached through the works of central authors such as Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. It examines the way these problems developed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and considers how some of the greatest philosophers of the period proposed to solve them. At the same time, it offers an opportunity to study key philosophical texts in depth. These aims are reflected in the examination, which includes both questions about individual philosophers and broader, comparative questions.
6. Philosophy of science
This paper examines the nature and confirmation of scientific method, the nature of explanation in the various sciences, the status and character of laws of nature, and philosophical problems generated by the theory of probability. It also introduces the students to some of the central issues in the philosophy of physics.
7. Political philosophy
This paper examines a set of central issues in contemporary political philosophy and can work as an introduction to the subject. It is focused on the analysis of central political values, such as equality and liberty; and on the nature and justification of democracy.
8. Experimental psychology
This paper covers human experimental psychology, human learning and memory, neuropsychology, intelligence, developmental psychology, reasoning, emotion, and abnormal psychology. It involves practical work in the Psychological Laboratory. A scientific GCE A level or equivalent is not a prerequisite but may be an advantage for some of the material taught in the course. This paper is offered from Part IB of the Natural Sciences Tripos.
This part of the Tripos is normally taken in a student’s third year at Cambridge. There are no compulsory subject papers. Instead there is a wide range of options, some providing a more extended and sophisticated treatment of themes introduced in Parts IA and IB, others (such as Aesthetics) covering new areas. The papers currently taught are as follows.
This paper continues the study of metaphysics and the nature of mind, including such topics as realism and idealism, the nature of properties, the abstract and the concrete, the nature and direction of time and of causation, and the nature of personhood.
2. Philosophy of mind
This paper focuses on a range of questions in the contemporary philosophy of mind. Topics studied include what the mind is and how it works; how one knows about the mind (either one’s own or others’); the nature of consciousness and intentionality, and the nature of the will, emotion and imagination.
This paper provides an opportunity to study a wide range of issues in contemporary and historical moral philosophy, including questions of ethical realism, irrealism, expressivism and constructivism; the nature of well-being; Kant’s Ethics and Kantian Ethics; and topics in moral psychology such as trust, the ethics of knowing and responsibility.
4. European philosophy from Kant
This paper covers the central movements of nineteenth century European philosophy, beginning with Kant and currently continuing through Hegel to Nietzsche. The course is a background to any engagement with later movements in European thought.
5. Philosophy in the Long Middle Ages
This paper covers philosophy in the period from c.400 to c. 1700, in the Latin, Arabic and Hebrew traditions. The texts of some of the most significant philosophers in this period are studied in translation, focusing on core topics in epistemology and metaphysics (in 2015-16: Universals, and Scientific Truth and Revelation).
6. Philosophy of Science
This paper offers targeted study of the philosophies of the various sciences, including physics, biology and the social sciences. There is also the opportunity to study one general topic in the philosophy of science (in 2015-16: Philosophy of Cognitive Science).
7. Mathematical logic
The modern philosophy of mathematics has been shaped by technical results in mathematical logic, such as Gödel's incompleteness theorems and the Church-Turing undecidability theorem, which demonstrate the limitations of certain sorts of formal treatment of mathematics. This paper gives students a chance to study these technical results in detail and reflect on their philosophical significance. Some background in mathematics (e.g. A-level mathematics or equivalent) is advisable.
8. Philosophical logic
This paper includes advanced topics in logic and the philosophy of language such as truth and meaning; conditionals; and plurals. The paper also includes advanced topics in the philosophy of mathematics, including theories about the nature of logic and mathematics.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was unquestionably one of the most important intellectual figures of the twentieth century. The paper enables candidates to study his two masterpieces, the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations, as well as On Certainty, which he was working on just before his death. Although his historical importance can hardly be questioned, the interpretation of Wittgenstein's works has proved controversial, and the course provides an introduction to exegetical cruces in all the texts specified, as well as experience in relating those issues to ones in contemporary philosophy of mind and language.
10. Political philosophy
This paper examines a range of advanced topics in political philosophy, including global political issues such as immigration and international justice; multiculturalism and community; feminism; and radical political theory.
This paper deals with central questions that arise in connection with the study of art and beauty, such as the nature of artistic representation and expression, the nature and value of art and aesthetic experience; the connection between art and morality; and the nature of aesthetic interpretation.
PAPERS FROM PART II OF THE CLASSICAL TRIPOS
THAT MAY BE TAKEN IN PART II
A candidate for Part II of the Philosophy Tripos may take one or two of the following papers:
Group B (Ancient Philosophy)
B1. Plato (2015–2016)
These lectures will address issues in Plato’s logic, epistemology and metaphysics by exploring various dialogues including the Parmenides, the Euthydemus, the Cratylus, the Theaeteus, and the Sophist. Central themes will include the nature of language and dialectic, the possibility of falsehood, and the existence of Forms. Use the OCT for the Greek text; good translations of all the dialogues are available in the one volume edition of J. Cooper, Plato, Complete Works (Hackett 1997).
B2. Aristotle’s world, from turtles to tragedies (2015–2016)
Aristotle is invoked by thinkers as diverse as political theorists seeking communitarian alternatives to liberal individualism, and moral philosophers seeking to replace legalistic Kantianism with anything from moral particularism to virtue ethics. For Aristotle, however, his moral and political thought formed one continuous series of reflections. This course examines the whole of that thought, as presented in the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics.
The lectures for this course are intended to be accessible to all students, classicists and others, regardless of their knowledge of Greek.
B3. A prescribed subject or period in Greek and Roman philosophy
In 2015–2016: ‘Reason and reasoning’
Greeks loved reasoning, for advancing practical ends (like doing down a rival in a lawcourt), for achieving theoretical enlightenment (like demonstrating a geometrical theorem beyond all cavil), and sometimes for sheer entertainment (like the agons in tragedy, or contests between rival sophists). Greeks also liked to theorise about reasoning: by no means the strangest example is Plato’s doctrine of the Philosopher Kings, that people are qualified to share in government only if they have extremely well-developed powers of abstract reasoning.
PAPER FROM PART IIB OF THE THEOLOGICAL
AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES TRIPOS THAT MAY BE TAKEN IN PART II
A candidate for Part II of the Philosophy Tripos may also take Paper C11, Metaphysics, from Part IIB of the Theological and Religious Studies Tripos. This paper is designed to provide third year undergraduates with a systematic understanding of the contemporary problems of religious metaphysics, and to enable them to argue rationally and convincingly between alternative positions, both religious and anti-religious.
Students will be asked to contact the Faculty of Divinity for further details
Responsibility for the teaching of philosophy at Cambridge is divided between the Faculty of Philosophy and the individual colleges. The Faculty organizes lectures, logic classes, discussion groups and seminars. The Director of Studies at each individual college organizes tutorials (known in Cambridge as supervisions) for its students. This division of responsibility contributes to the diversity of philosophy teaching at Cambridge, since it allows the Director of Studies to tailor each student's teaching to his or her own abilities and needs.
In the first two years of the course the lectures organised by the Faculty introduce students to the concepts and arguments characteristic of philosophical debates. At Part II level, 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.
Although the lectures are designed to provide adequate coverage of the content of each part of the course, they do not define the content of the course or any part of it. Students are free to approach the topics they study in their own way; equally, lecturers are not constrained by the need to cover all the topics of a paper in their lectures.
It is a general principle of Cambridge University 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 – Classics, History, Divinity, Human, Social and Political Science, and History and Philosophy of Science. It is normal practice, 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 and develop their 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 both to graduates and undergraduate students.
All students have a Director of Studies appointed by their college to oversee their work, give advice on the choice of papers and arrange supervisions. Most Directors of Studies will do some supervisions themselves; but philosophy students will have several different supervisors during their Cambridge careers, possibly including other Faculty teaching officers and advanced postgraduate students.
Philosophy students can expect to 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 essay topic.
The Moral Sciences Club is the University's main philosophical society. (Its name reflects the fact that until 1973 the Cambridge philosophy course was called the Moral Sciences Tripos.) It meets every Tuesday at 2 p.m. during term to hear and discuss talks normally given by visiting philosophers. All members of the Faculty, from first year undergraduates to professors, are welcome to join.
The Amoral Sciences Club is run by undergraduates and puts on an alternative series of philosophy talks.
Once a year the Faculty invites an eminent philosopher to give an Open Lecture, currently sponsored by Routledge Publishers. Recent lecturers include Amartya Sen, the late Sir Michael Dummett, the late Sir Bernard Williams, Professor Jerry Fodor, Professor Ronald Dworkin, Professor Thomas Pogge, Professor Richard Moran, Professor Philip Pettit, Professor David Luban, Professor Susan Wolf, Professor Michael Bratman and Professor Judith Jarvis Thomson.
Professor Judith Jarvis Thomson, who
gave the Routledge Lecture in 2015
There are examinations for each part of the philosophy course in late May/early June, in the second half of the Easter (third) term. Part IA students sit one three-hour examination for each of their four subjects, in which they normally have to answer three essay-type questions. In addition they sit a fifth paper in which they write one longer essay over three hours. The aim of this General Paper is to encourage students to reflect on broader issues than arise in the context of the subject papers, and to reward originality and flexibility as much as knowledge of specific areas of the subject.
Part IB students may if they wish 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 also may submit one longer dissertation in place of another written exam paper: this can be on any philosophical topic of the student's choosing that the Faculty is able to teach and examine.
Each part of the Tripos is marked separately and independently. There is no overall mark/class for all 3 years of study.
The Faculty aims to detach undergraduate teaching, and especially supervisions, from the examination process. We encourage students to work through difficult points throughout the year with no fear that any misunderstandings will be counted against their final marks.
The Casimir Lewy Library is the primary source of printed and electronic material needed for the study and teaching of philosophy 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. The library stock, therefore, extends well beyond philosophy itself to cover the interdisciplinary subjects related to philosophy taught and researched in the University.
The Casimir Lewy Library
Various courses in languages useful to philosophers are open to students and the University Language Centre is open to all students.
All students are encouraged to use University Public Workstation Facilities (PWF) which are located in many sites around the University. Most of the computers in the Faculty Library are part of the Raised Faculty Building PWF. This service gives access to a number of electronic resources and word processing. Wireless networking is available in most areas of the Faculty.
E-mail is the normal method of communication between students and the Faculty's staff.
All colleges also provide computing facilities for their students. Many give access to electronic resources via wifi or ethernet sockets installed in students' study bedrooms.
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 the Tripos
Deciding to read philosophy at Cambridge does not commit you to a narrow range of careers. Our recent graduates include an RAF test pilot as well as IT consultants, management consultants, fund-raisers, civil servants, lawyers, arts administrators and teachers. In addition, 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: the last time we tried to count, there were 58 people holding senior posts in philosophy departments around the world who started their philosophical careers by reading for a degree in the Cambridge Philosophy Faculty.
– most recent data held by the University Careers Service)
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 from the Admissions Office of any college or from the:
Cambridge Admissions Office
32 Trumpington Street
Cambridge CB2 lQY (tel. 01223 333308)
Details of financial arrangements must be obtained from colleges. Some helpful information about costs is included in the Cambridge Undergraduate Prospectus.
There is no formal quota for the annual intake of philosophy undergraduates, but in practice we admit about fifty students each year. A number of our applicants have been doing 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. Although a mixture of arts and science subjects can be useful, many different combinations provide a suitable basis for studying philosophy. 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 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:
A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic
G. Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge
R. Descartes, Meditations
D. Hume, Enquiries
J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism
B. Russell, The Problems of Philosophy
Other suggestions are listed on the following web page:
The most frequently asked questions about admissions are listed on:
Cambridge Open Days 30 June and 1 July 2016
A literature student will tell you that truth is beauty. A philosopher will ask you what the nature of truth is, what you think beauty is, and even what it means to say that one thing is identical to another. As a student of philosophy you’ll often be asked by the uninitiated, ‘what IS philosophy?’; and even after three years you may struggle to answer. Philosophy is defined more by its methods than by the topics which it covers, taking an in-depth and critical view on fundamental questions about the universe and our functioning within it. The questions may be about time, morality, justice, possibility, even the nature of philosophy itself.
Philosophy is hard work. There are always more books to get through, and philosophers are not renowned for their reader-friendly prose! But when you do get through your weekly reading or finally understand that argument you never really got before, it can be hugely rewarding. And Cambridge is a great place to study this exciting and challenging discipline. Even in first year, your lecturers will rarely just talk through the reading list. Instead they will use lectures as an opportunity to investigate genuinely original ideas and discuss new ways of looking at old problems.
There are usually around 50 students in each year. Most people will not have had the chance to study Philosophy at school, and students come to Philosophy from all possible combinations of A-levels.
Supervisions are a big part of what makes philosophy at Cambridge unique. Each week you will receive feedback on an essay you have prepared, and engage in real, in-depth, philosophical discussion. While this may seem daunting at first, you soon realise how valuable it is. Getting the chance to discuss your ideas one on one with your supervisor (who may well have written the foremost book on your topic) allows you not only to develop your ideas but also to gain experience in defending your point of view and learning to anticipate objections.
Logic is central to the course at Cambridge, and is a compulsory paper for the first two years. This will be different from anything you’ll have studied at school, but is one of the most rewarding parts of the syllabus, providing you with a critical eye which will help you grapple with any area in philosophy. Despite what you might think, having done Maths A-Level is by no means a prerequisite for finding this part of the course fulfilling.
In your second and third years you have the option to take papers from other faculties, such as Divinity, Classics and Psychology, which gives you a chance to gain a new perspective and learn a different way of thinking about and tackling problems. Philosophy in Cambridge also extends beyond the lecture room and the library, with philosophical societies from the prestigious Moral Sciences Club to the more casual Amoral Sciences Club or Women in Philosophy Society. More often than not, a fascinating supervision discussion or a really great lecture will feed conversations with other students. Many a philosophical epiphany is had over coffee in the Sidgwick Site cafe.
Studying philosophy at Cambridge, you will learn how to argue, think critically and examine ideas, and gain skills that will be useful in any future career. The course is for anyone who loves to analyse in rigorous detail how arguments fit together or fail, who questions everything, and who wants to learn more about the field.
Ellen Judson, Trinity HallMatthew van der Merwe, Gonville and Caius
The University reserves the right in every case, at its discretion and for any reason, to make changes in regulations, syllabuses and fees without prior notice, and to alter or not to offer degree programmes or parts of degree programmes. This publication does not form any part of a contract between any person and the University.