Philosophy

What makes the Cambridge Philosophy course so special?

Philosophy is the study of problems which are ultimate and very general, and which are concerned with the nature of knowledge, reality, human purpose and morality. In universities it is studied in a manner which lays considerable emphasis on precise and careful argument. Although undergraduates in Cambridge read a wide range of philosophical authors the main aim of the course is not to impart information about which author said what: rather, the aim is that the student should acquire the kind of skill in reasoning which will enable her to solve problems of a philosophical character and to think intelligently about abstract questions generally.

Since Philosophy is not taught in all schools it is not always easy for students to tell whether they are suited to the subject and whether it is suited to them. It is a good idea, of course, to read some Philosophy books before making a decision about the subject; on the Faculty website is a list of books which give a good introduction to the subject. More generally, if you enjoy marshalling arguments pro and con, or doing maths, or solving puzzles, or doing comprehension exercises (e.g. in English), or trying to define things, or arguing about rather abstract questions, you may find that Philosophy is the right subject for you.

Why choose Newnham for Philosophy?

Newnham has a lively community of philosophers and people with an active interest in philosophy and allied disciplines. The college is conveniently situated just across the road from the Philosophy Faculty.

How many students take Philosophy at Newnham and what options do they choose?

We aim to have two or three students in each year reading Philosophy at Newnham.

Undergraduates are normally expected to write one essay each week, and some idea of the philosophical topics studied can be ascertained from a list of typical essay titles: Are there any objective values? Must every event have a cause? How would you define the word “definition”? Is knowledge justified true belief? Can you exist in a different body? Either it’s true or not true that you will answer this question: either way it is out of your hands.

How will I be taught at Newnham?

Lectures take place in the Philosophy Faculty, together with Philosophy students from all other colleges. Supervisions (small group teaching) will be arranged by your Director of Studies, and, depending upon the particular topic, may take place at Newnham or at another college.

Can you tell me more about the Philosophy Fellows?

Among the Fellows are: Professor Rae Langton (Political Philosophy, Feminism), the former Principal, Professor Onora O’Neill (Ethics; Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Immanuel Kant); Professor Liba Taub (History and Philosophy of Science) and Professor Katarzyna Jaszczolt (Philosophy of Language).

What jobs do Newnham Philosophy students go on to do?

Newnham Philosophy students have gone into a great variety of fields after graduating: for example law, management consultancy, environmental conservation, banking, secondary school teaching, advertising, business, the civil service, working for NGOs and charities, European Union.

Are there any A-level subjects that are particularly useful?

Some applicants will have taken Arts A-levels, some Sciences and some a combination. Logical disciplines such as foreign and ancient languages, maths and sciences are highly recommended as a preparation for studying philosophy at University. It is not necessary for students to have studied any Philosophy before reading the subject at Cambridge, and Part IA of the Tripos is taught on the assumption that they have not done so. Applicants will have to have done some reading on their own, especially because this is necessary for them to decide whether Philosophy is the right subject for them.

Can I take a gap year?

Yes. We have no preference about this. However, if you do take a gap year we would like it to be a well-structured and constructive use of your time.

How should I prepare for interview at Newnham?

A good way to prepare, if you are called for interview, is to have a look at some philosophical debates. Decide what the right answer is and try to defend it from a series of systematic attacks. This is the sort of discussion that is likely to take place. You should also engage in independent reading of philosophy articles or books. Do not depend only on podcasts. If you have mentioned any philosophers or philosophical works in your personal statement be prepared to discuss them.

Applicants will also be required to take a written assessment consisting of multiple choice logic questions, and an essay.

Where can I find out more?

Further details can be found on the Philosophy webpage.

Recommended reading

Some suggestions for those intending to read philosophy and/or beginning a philosophy course.

General introductions (in approximate order of difficulty)

  • Thomas Nagel, What Does it All Mean? (OUP). Short, readable.
  • Simon Blackburn, Think (OUP). Readable and engaging.
  • Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (OUP). A classic, nearly 100 years old but still readable.

Other books and articles

  • Tim Crane, The Mechanical Mind (Penguin). The philosophy of mind has been a particularly hot topic in recent years: these last two are very good introductions
  • A. F. Chalmers. What is This Thing Called Science? (Open University). Excellent introduction to philosophy of science.
  • Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (CUP). Vigorous – this book will challenge a lot of your ethical ideas.
  • Philippa Foot, ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect’, in her Virtues and Vices (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), pp. 19-32. A classic article in modern ethics. Also available online at: http://doi.org/10.1093/0199252866.003.0002
  • Jonathan Glover, Causing Death and Saving Lives (Penguin). Another book on practical moral issues like abortion, euthanasia, etc.
  • Bernard Williams, Morality (Penguin). A very short introduction to some questions about the status of morality (e.g. can moral claims be objective? are they merely subjective?).
  • Nafsika Athanassoulis, Virtue Ethics (2012) Bloomsbury. A very nice little introduction to modern virtue theory.
  • Jonathan Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (OUP). Accessible, based around various issues.
  • Alison Stone, An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy (Polity Press, 2007). Does what it says on the tin.
  • Michael J. Loux, Metaphysics (Routledge). A good recent introduction.
  • Susan Wolf, ‘Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility’ in F. Schoeman (ed.), Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions: New Essays in Moral Psychology (1987) pp. 46-62. An important refinement of the ‘deep self view’. Easy to read. Also available online at: http://www.rationalites-contemporaines.paris-sorbonne.fr/IMG/pdf/Wolf2.pdf
  • Margaret Boden, The Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence, Oxford 1990. From one of the pioneers of the field (and also a Newnham alumna).
  • Susan Haack, Philosophy of Logics (1978). A good introduction. Also available online at:  http://doi.org/10.1017/CB9780511812866
  • Ian Hacking, Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy? (CUP). Difficult but worthwhile.
  • Samuel Guttenplan, The Languages of Logic (Blackwell). A smattering of formal logic is part of every philosopher’s tool kit. This is similar in level and content to the first term Formal Logic course.
  • Rae Langton, ‘Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts‘ (1993), Philosophy and Public Affairs 22 No. 4, 305-330. Groundbreaking article about pornography and free speech by one of our own here at Newnham. http://web.mit.edu/langton/www/pubs/SpeechActs.pdf

Great Dead Philosophers

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