skip to primary navigationskip to content

Undergraduate Prospectus

Faculty of Philosophy Undergraduate Prospectus 2016-2017

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 (2012 – 2013 survey).

First employment destinations of Cambridge philosophy graduates
(2012 – 2013 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 2016 are on 2 and 3 July 2015. Details are here

What our students say

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 Hall

Matthew van der Merwe, Gonville and Caius