Philosophy – course

Course Structure – Philosophy @ Oxford: PPE

Work is divided between lectures (six to eight a week), tutorials and classes (typically two tutorials or one tutorial and one class a week), and private study mainly spent preparing essays for tutorials and classes.

The study of philosophy develops analytical rigour and the ability to criticise and reason logically, a skill set that is prized in almost any academic endeavour or subsequent employment.

1st year
Courses All three branches of PPE are studied equally;Philosophy:

  • General philosophy
  • Moral philosophy
  • Elementary logic


  • Theorising the democratic state
  • Analysis of democratic institutions in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the United States


  • Microeconomics: the functioning of the market economy
  • Macroeconomics: dealing with national output and employment, exchange rates and policy issues
  • Mathematical techniques used in economics
Assessment First University examinations: Three written papers.Politics – answer 4 questions with at least one from each of the 2 subsections.
2nd and 3rd years
Compulsory core subjects: Students choose to continue with all three branches or concentrate on any two, taking compulsory courses in the chosen branches along with optional courses:Compulsory core courses:

  • Philosophy: Ethics, and either Early modern philosophy; or Knowledge and reality; or Plato’s Republic; or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
  • Politics (any two of these):
    • Comparative government;
    • British politics and government since 1900;
    • Theory of politics;
    • International relations;
    • Political sociology
  • Economics: Macroeconomics; Microeconomics; Quantitative Economics

Optional courses:More than 50 choices, including:

    • Post-Kantian philosophy;
    • Later Wittgenstein
    • Later Wittgenstein;
    • Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa;
    • Political thought: Plato to Rousseau;
    • International economics;
    • Economics of developing countries ( for the full list of optional PPE papers);
    • Philosophy and economics of the environment
Assessment Final University examinations: Eight written papers, one of which can be replaced by a thesis


Philosophy Subjects Overview:

There are a number of philosophy papers available in the Final Honour Schools of PPE, Literae Humaniores (Classics), Philosophy and Modern Languages, Philosophy and Theology, Physics and Philosophy, Mathematics and Philosophy and PPP. Subjects are chosen from this list:

History of Philosophy from Descartes to Kant : This subject enables you to gain an 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.

  • Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, often collectively referred to as “the rationalists”, certified our God-given capacity to reason our way to the laws of nature and placed the new “corpuscularian” science within grand metaphysical systems.
  • Locke argued differently that, since our concepts all ultimately derive from experience, our knowledge is necessarily limited, in what is known as empiricist tradition.
  • 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.
  • Kant, whosought to arbitrate between the rationalists and the empiricists. He highlighted assumptions common to them and tried thereby to salvage and to reconcile some of their apparently irreconcilable insights.

The examination paper is divided into three sections and students are required to answer at least one question from Section A (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz) and at least one from Section B (Locke, Berkeley, Hume). Section C will contain questions on Kant; students taking paper 112 may not attempt questions from this section.

Knowledge and Reality : This subject will enable you to examine some central questions about the nature of the world and the extent to which we can have knowledge of it. You will examine whether it is possible to attain knowledge of what the world is really like.

  • Is knowledge limited to what we can observe ? And are 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?
  • Careful Consideration of “reality” : This considers some of the critical links between philosophy and reality or science.  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? 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?’

Ethics : This subject is to enable you to come to grips with some questions which people face today and have faced for centuries. 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? By considering tehse relevant and timeless questions you will examine a variety of ethical concepts that are widely used in moral and political argument.

  • justice
  • rights
  • equality
  • virtue
  • happiness

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 in the examination.

Philosophy of Mind: 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 understand the brain brain, would we understand everything about consciousness and rational thought? If not, why not?

These issues focus on the relation between our every day understanding of ourselves and others, and bridges the view of the mind developed in scientific psychology and neuroscience. 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.

Philosophy of Science and Social Science:

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. Therefore his field follows distinctive traits of science: testability, objectivity, scientific explanation, and the nature of scientific theories.

Whether economics, sociology, and political science are “really” sciences has been much debated. Human behaviour is 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. Social scientists appear to dela less in absolutes and philosophers 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.

Philosophy of Religion: In this module students will examine the existence of God and God’s relationship to the world. What, if anything, is meant by these claims? Could they be true? What proof would we need, if any? The paper is concerned primarily with the claims of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that there is a God. God is said to be omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good etc. But what does this means, and are they consistent with each other? 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 people’s religious experiences and from the fact that the Universe is governed by scientific laws. Other issues are whether the fact of pain and suffering counts strongly, or even conclusively, against the existence of God, could there be life after death, and what philosophical problems are raised by the existence of different religions? You will be encouraged to use the knowledge and techniques which you have acquired in other areas of philosophy to answer questions on this topic. Among the major philosophers whose contributions to the philosophy of religion you will need to study are Aquinas, Hume and Kant.

The Philosophy of Logic and Language: This subject examines some fundamental questions relating to reasoning and language. The philosophy of logic is not itself a mathematical or symbolic 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. Philosophy of language is closely relate concerning how ow whether 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)?

Aesthetics : Here you will study and question the nature and value of beauty and of the arts. 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?  As well these general questions the subject also addresses questions raised by particular art forms. For example, what is the difference between a picture and a description in words? All of these questions are explored 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.

Medieval Philosophy:

Aquinas: The purpose of this subject is to introduce you to many of Aquinas’s central ideas and arguments on a wide variety of theological and philosophical topics. These include the proofs of the existence of God (the famous “five ways”), the concept of the simplicity of God (including the controversial issue of the identity of being and essence in God), the concept of the soul in general and of the human soul in particular, the proof of the immortality of the human soul, the nature of perception and of intellectual knowledge, the notion of free will and of happiness, the theory of human actions.

Duns Scotus and Ockham : Duns Scotus and Ockham are, together with Aquinas, the most significant and influential thinkers of the Middle Ages. The purpose of this subject is to make you familiar with some fundamental aspects of their theological and philosophical thought. Scotus’ work includes the proof of the existence and of the unicity of God in the Middle ages and the issues about causality that it raises, the theory of the existence of concepts common to God and creatures (the univocity theory of religious language), the discussion about the immateriality and the immortality of the human soul, and the reply to scepticism. Ockham postulated nominalism about universals and the refutation of realism (including the realism of Duns Scotus), some issues in logic and especially the theory of “suppositio” and its application in the debate about universals,Texts: Duns Scotus, Philosophical Writings (transl. A. Wolter); Ockham, Philosophical Writings (transl. P. Boehner).

The Philosophy of Kant : Kant is one of the greatest of all philosophers and this module allows students to explore and critique his ideas.

Immanuel Kant lived from 1724 to 1804. Works include 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. Kant combines in the highest measure the cautious qualities of care, rigour and tenacity with philosophical imagination. It aimed to give an account of human knowledge that will steer a path between the dogmatism of traditional metaphysics and the scepticism that –  Kant believed –  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 and the argument for morality based on reason – people should act in a way that is purely rational is to act in accordance with the famous ‘categorical imperative.’

Post-Kantian Philosophy : Kant’s metaphysics, epistemology and ethics influenced many of the questions raised by German and French philosophers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The purpose of this topic 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 ethics and political life. Nietzsche’s are less obviosu and systematic 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; The study of his work also leads nicely as an introduction 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.

Theory of Politics :  This subject enables 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? To develop an understanding 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.What happens when a concept such as freedom has different meanings? 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.

Plato, Republic : Plato’s republic is one of the most important works in the history of philosophy. 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.  Philosophy is presented through debates, through analogies and images, including the famous simile of the Cave, as well as rigorous argument, and you will discover Plato’s important contributions to ethics, political theory, metaphysics, philosophy of mind and aesthetics.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics : Aristotle is concerned with the question, what is the best possible sort of life? Whereas in the Republic 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.

Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein  : Here you will study the philosophy of language and the classic texts from which emerged modern logic. Frege invented and explained the logic of multiple generality (quantification theory) and applied this apparatus to the analysis of arithmetic. Russell added some refinements (the theory of types, the theory of descriptions), and he applied logic to many traditional problems in epistemology. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus outlined an ambitious project for giving a logical account of truths of logic (as tautologies).

The Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein : Wittgenstein’s texts Philosophical Investigations and The Blue and Brown Books where you will encounter the most influential ideas of the 20th century. Wittgenstein’s texts are known not just for their content but also for their distinctive style and conception of philosophy and the relation between those aspects of Wittgenstein’s work. Wittgenstein covers 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; is language systematic; the relation between linguistic meaning and non-linguistic activities. 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?

Formal Logic : This subject draws on the symbolic logic covered in the Prelims/Mods logic course. It is an academically challenging subject, even for those who have Mathematics A Level. Its purpose is to introduce you to some of the deepest and most beautiful results in logic, which impact on other areas of philosophy. There are three sections. Propositional and Predicate Logic,  Set Theory- which includes the rudimentary arithmetic of infinite numbers; and Metamathematics, which includes some computability theory and various results concerning the limitations of formalization, such as Gödel’s theorem.

Intermediate Philosophy of Physics AND Advanced Philosophy of Physics I : The purpose of this subject is to enable you to come to grips with conceptual problems in special relativity and quantum mechanics. Only those  reading Physics and Philosophy should seek to study this subject. Topics in space-time physics and quantum mechanics are pursued with a new focus on some central questions in philosophy, in metaphysics, philosophical logic, and in the philosophy of probability. There will also be the study of foundational questions in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. The fundamental questions concern the existence and significance of certain symmetries; in the case of thermodynamics, they concern the emergence of a directedness to time from a formal framework which is manifestly time symmetric .

Philosophy of Mathematics : It is useful to have studied mathematics at A-level, and to have done Logic in Prelims/ Mods. Here you will study 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? 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.

Philosophy of Cognitive Science

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. It is therefore underpinned by the distinctive traits of science: testability, objectivity, the nature of scientific theories and scientific explanation.

This paper covers some of key questions about the nature of the mind as derived from its study in the cognitive scientific disciplines: experimental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, linguistics and computational modelling of the mind.  Key questions you will ask relate to topics in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, such as representation, computation, tacit knowledge, implicit rules and modularity. 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 paper is a crucial bridge to philosophy for those studying psychology, neuroscience, linguistics or computation. But you do not need to be studying a scientific subject to take this paper. 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. The lectures will also cover philosophical issues raised by some areas of the ever changing research landscape, 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); s
  • patial representation;
  • theory of mind / mindreading;
  • unity of consciousness

Recommended pathways: Although there are no absolute prerequisites, it would be beneficial to study FHS 102 Knowledge and Reality and/or FHS 104 Philosophy of Mind in conjunction with this paper. For those doing so it would be useful to have begun work on one or both of those papers first.

The Philosophy and Economics of the Environment

Having studied this module students are equipped with (i) an understanding of the philosophy and economics of the environment, and (ii) the ability to analyse critically key conceptual and applied issues in this field using both a philosophical approach and the theoretical and empirical tools of economics. Students will explore justice and goodness, theories of value, decision-making under uncertainty, market failures, international environmental agreements and the politics of the environment, intergenerational ethics and discounting, the choice of instruments, how human life and how nature may be valued, and the foundations of cost-benefit analysis (including methods for valuing non-market goods). You may also study contemporary applications to environmental problems such as climate change, acid rain, and local water and air pollution. The course will be taught and examined in an interdisciplinary way. This paper is available to all PPE students taking economics in the second and third year.

Jurisprudence: This subject is only available in the Final Honour School of PPE. The subject can be taken either as one of the PPE candidate’s (three to five) Philosophy papers, or as the one Philosophy subject which Politics/Economics students can elect to take. Candidates choosing to study Jurisprudence cannot also study the Theory of Politics module. Tutorial provision will be subject to the availability of Law tutors and will be organised on the normal college basis; Tutorials will be given at the same time as they are normally given to Law students (in either Hilary or Trinity terms); and PPE students will normally be included in tutorial groups of 2 or 3 with Law students.