Aristotle opens his book ‘The Metaphysics’ with the claim that ‘All men by nature desire to know’. With this pithy phrase Aristotle answers precisely why one should study Philosophy. The reason is very simple indeed: the course of our life is such that we naturally will and must confront the fundamental questions of existence. What can I hope to know? Is there a God? How should I live? And what is the nature of mind and life? These four questions are the core of the A level course. The first two questions are covered in the first year: they include the study of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and the philosophy of religion. The second year considers moral philosophy, and the philosophy of mind.
This A level is very academic, it will equip you with the skills of logical analysis and the critical evaluation of arguments and ideas from both the contemporary and ancient world. The A level can be used as a platform for study of Philosophy at university, but also can lead towards careers in law, journalism, politics, media, and many other areas. It also combines particularly well with other subjects in the arts and humanities more generally.
What will I learn?
In the first year you will consider the questions of whether we can know that the external world exists, what we mean by the concept of knowledge, and whether we are born with innate knowledge or whether knowledge needs experience (this being the debate between the ’empiricists’ and the ‘rationalists’). You then learn about the arguments for and against the existence of God, and whether we can meaningfully speak of God at all.
In the second year you will learn about Aristotle, Kant, and Utilitarian views of morality. We consider the ethics of animal testing and whether a war can ever be a just war. In the second half of the year we also consider whether the mind is simply a physical organism that is basically chemical and biological, or whether consciousness is something that science cannot define. We also consider questions around artificial intelligence, and whether computers could one day have minds also.
There are two exams at the end of the two years that cover all four topics. These exams are worth 50% each of the A level. Both exams are three hours long. There is no coursework.
Department Success and trips
Students in the past have been offered places at the University of Cambridge, King’s College London, UCL, and the New School of the Humanities.
Students also attend the prestigious Royal Institute of Philosophy for lectures, and conferences offered by Michael Lacewing.
How should I prepare myself?
Philosophy is often the theme of films and TV shows: examples are ‘The Matrix’, ‘Minority Report’, and ‘CSI’. These are good to watch in preparation for the first year.
The best introductory reading/s for the course is either:
Bertrand Russell’s ‘The Problems of Philosophy’. (Oxford University Press)
Rene Descartes’ ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ (Cambridge University Press).
Examination board: AQA