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Core problems of Western Philosophy

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Why is there something rather than nothing? Did the world have a beginning in time or is it infinite?

Can an artificial intelligence ever be self-aware? How do we remain the ‘same’ person when most cells in our body are replaced naturally over time?

These are some of the core problems of philosophy addressed in this course, the solutions to which help to expand and enrich our understanding of ourselves and of the world we inhabit. No previous knowledge of philosophy will be assumed.

Learning and teaching

This module is taught in 10, two-hour sessions, delivered on a weekly basis.

Classes will be taught through a variety of lectures, workshops, discussion exercises and group work. Students will be issued with handouts and a reading list, allowing them to read up on relevant topics, as well as allowing them to develop their own interests and identify the key questions which they need to answer in their assessments.

Indicative content

  • Week 1: Introduction – Three core problematics: Being, Knowing and Agency.
  • Week 2: Problem 1 - Why something rather than nothing? Text: Derek Parfit – ‘Why anything? Why this?’
  • Week 3: Problem 2 - Is the world infinite? Text: Immanuel Kant – ‘The antinomy of pure reason’.
  • Week 4: Problem 3 - How do we know that we know? Text: Edmund Gettier – ‘Is Justified True Belief knowledge?’
  • Week 5: Problem 4 - Can an artificial intelligence attain consciousness? Text: John Searle – ‘Minds, Brains, and Programs’.
  • Week 6: Problem 5 - Is the mind physical? Text: Thomas Nagel – ‘What is it like to be a bat?’
  • Week 7: Problem 6 - Am I the same person now as I was yesterday? Text: Theodore Sider – ‘Four Dimensionalism’.
  • Week 8: Problem 7 - Are moral ‘facts’ equivalent to natural facts? Text: Oliver Curry – ‘Who’s Afraid of the Naturalistic Fallacy?’
  • Week 9: Problem 8 - Is ‘moral character’ a matter more of luck than judgment? Text: Bernard Williams – ‘Moral Luck’.
  • Week 10: Problem 9 - Does a ‘real’ world exist independently of our conception of it? Text: Curtis Brown – ‘Internal Realism: Transcendental Idealism?

Coursework and assessment

Assignments will take the form of a written portfolio of three 500-word pieces or a longer assignment of around 1500 words.

Reading suggestions

  • Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1959)
  • Nagel, Thomas. Mortal Questions (Cambridge University Press, 1979)
  • Mackie, J.L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Penguin Books, 1990)
  • Hamlyn, D.W. Metaphysics (Cambridge University Press, 1984)
  • Scruton, Roger. Kant: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Norris, Christopher. Philosophy of Language and the Challenge to Scientific Realism (Routledge, 2004)

Library and computing facilities

As a student on this course you are entitled to join and use the University’s library and computing facilities. Find out more about using these facilities.


Our aim is access for all. We aim to provide a confidential advice and support service for any student with a long term medical condition, disability or specific learning difficulty. We are able to offer one-to-one advice about disability, pre-enrolment visits, liaison with tutors and co-ordinating lecturers, material in alternative formats, arrangements for accessible courses, assessment arrangements, loan equipment and dyslexia screening.