What is the A level about?
Many, or even most, students who study Philosophy do so without – initially – having a particularly clear idea of what the subject involves. This is, in a way, unsurprising, for Philosophy is a subject that resists any simple definition. But, as a rough guide, we can start to pin it down by reference to two features: its subject-matter, and its methodology.
One of the reasons why it is hard to ‘define’ Philosophy is that the scope of its subject-matter is so broad. Whereas Psychology is about the mind, History is about the past, Religious Studies is the study of religion(s), Politics is about… well, Politics, and so on, Philosophy has no single subject matter: rather, there are numerous areas or fields of Philosophy, some of which partially intersect with areas that you might think of as being the preserve of other subjects (such as Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Religion, Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Maths), and some of which do not (such as Ethics and Epistemology).
As a very broad generalisation, one might say that Philosophy tends to concern itself with questions that other subjects leave unanswered. For example, whereas a physicist can tell you about the nature of the constituent parts of an object like a teapot or a washing machine – the molecules and atoms and so on of which it is made – and an engineer could tell you about good and bad ways of manufacturing such objects, philosophers may ask deeper questions, such as what it takes for any collection of smaller parts to constitute a larger object.
(The question is far from easy: after all, it seems that you don’t always get a larger object when you join two smaller objects together: when you and I shake hands, for example, most people would agree that this does not create a new, two-headed being; nor would such a creature be created if we superglued ourselves together, nor even if we attached ourselves together surgically. But then what sort of ‘bonding’ between smaller parts is it that means that there are composite objects called frying pans and washing machines? Some philosophers, finding all proposed answers to this question deficient in some respect, have even doubted that frying pans and other ordinary composite objects really exist.)
Again, Politics concerns itself (in part) with just, or fair, distributions of goods in society; philosophers consider questions such as what it means to say that a distribution is fair, or just, and whether and why distributions ought to be fair or just in the first place – what’s so good about fairness?
One of the many achievements of biological science has been to create a useful and scientifically-informed taxonomy of biological species, detailing the relations between different types of plants and animals. It falls to philosophers to worry about the status of such taxonomy – asking, for example, whether there are any ‘real’ divisions between different biological kinds in nature, or whether the distinctions are merely human constructions.
Many philosophical questions, then, intersect with the sciences; but a distinctive feature of the subject is that, while philosophers often use the data of the sciences (and most have an enormous respect for science), they use no experimental tools other than their brains: the subject can be practised entirely ‘from the armchair’. And the questions that they consider are also distinctive – often seeking a deeper understanding of the fundamental assumptions that, in our ordinary lives, we tend not to question.
Equally, though, plenty of philosophical topics have no particular connection with science (or the social sciences) at all. In Aesthetics, for example, philosophers consider such matters as the nature of beauty and the value of artistic works. Moral Philosophy examines whether there are any moral truths, and the methods and nature of moral decision-making. In Epistemology, you may be asked how (if at all) you can tell that the world around you is the way it seems, and that you are not just a brain being stimulated to have the experiences that you are having. In studying Personal Identity, you may be asked what would happen to you if your brain were transplanted into another body, or whether you could survive being teletransported to another planet by radio waves.
Indeed, it is much easier to get a feeling for what Philosophy is by considering particular issues that have traditionally been of interest to philosophers than by trying to define the subject in the abstract. For example:
- Is there a God?
- What (if anything) really exists?
- Why does anything exist? And is it right to think that that question must have an answer?
- How (if at all) can we know that the world really is the way we think it is? How can we be sure that we are not victims of a massive illusion or Matrix-style deception as to the nature of the world we live in?
- What – precisely – is it to know that something is the case anyway (as opposed to merely thinking that it is the case and being right)?
- How do we even manage to think anything? How is it that a lump of organic matter – your brain – can have thoughts about its surroundings?
- What does it mean to say that we ought not to do something? Are any such claims about what we ought to do strictly and objectively true, and if so, what could make them true?
- What (exactly) are you anyway, and does life have any meaning or purpose?
Some, or all, of these are probably questions about which you have already wondered at some point in your life: for whilst most students do not study Philosophy formally before the Sixth Form or University, practically all of us (in an informal way) have, whether we realised it or not, been doing Philosophy almost since we first learned to speak.
As to methodology, the essential point to stress is that Philosophy is all about argument – in the sense of the development of a clearly-expressed, logically-ordered set of reasons for adopting one view rather than another.
One popular misconception of the subject (among many) has it that Philosophy is somehow all about constructing extraordinary, elaborate, and (to the layman) implausible-sounding hypotheses about the world. Various such world-views have indeed been proposed by philosophers at various times: they include, for example, the following:
- the view that there are no material objects at all;
- the view that there are no composite material objects – that nothing bigger than the tiniest fundamental particles is real;
- the view that there is another realm of reality that is wholly or largely invisible to us, and of which our world is some sort of pale shadow or image;
- the view that in additional to our ‘actual’ world there is a whole collection of millions and millions of other ‘possible worlds’ in which ‘counterparts’ of all the things in the actual world exist, and in which all the billions of possibilities that are not realised in the actual world are played out.
It is vital to realise that, while such views have historically been held by some philosophers, the adoption of such views is not of interest in itself – and there is no philosophical merit in any of them that is independent of the arguments for it.
The true situation is that such views have been adopted for reasons: because these have seemed (to the different philosophers at different times who have proposed them) to be the only, or best, ways of accounting for certain aspects of the world as we find it. And views like these – as well as alternative, more ordinary-sounding views that have been defended by other philosophers – stand or fall on the merits of the arguments that are advanced in support of them. Philosophers are not interested in wacky-sounding hypotheses for their own sake: they are interested in accounting for, explaining (and sometimes explaining away) the various aspects of the world as we find it which seem puzzling and in which they have, for that reason, traditionally been interested. And in assessment of these and other views, we are interested, as philosophers, in assessing the quality of the reasons or arguments that have been advanced for them.
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of argument, for virtually all assessment in Philosophy (including the assessment of your A-level work) is really assessment of the quality of argument advanced for or against a given view or position.
At A-level (and even at degree level), it would be unrealistic to expect you to solve any philosophical problem; nor can you even be expected to come up with an original proposal or brand-new argument in any given area. What you can and will be expected to do is to understand, and to be able to explain, the details of different positions that have been advanced; you can be expected to understand and explain the arguments that have been proposed for them and those that might be advanced against them; and you can be expected to evaluate those arguments and positions.
In all of these assessed tasks, you will be showing (if you are doing them well) your grasp of the structure of arguments, and your ability to deploy logical arguments to defend or attack a view or position:
- In explaining a position or an argument, you will be showing your understanding of what the reasons for adopting such a position are, and in doing so you will be showing your ability to explain, in clear logical order, the steps in reasoning that might lead to the adoption of a position.
- In evaluation of a given view, you will also be arguing: you are not free to adopt or reject a given view for no reason, or for an arbitrary one such as that you ‘don’t like the sound of it’. So what you will be doing, in defending or attacking a given view, is advancing – again, in logical order and with clarity, if you are doing it well – one or more arguments for or against the view in question.
What does the A level consist of?
At d’Overbroeck’s we follow the AQA Philosophy course. You will study four central areas in Philosophy: Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, and Philosophy of Mind.
Epistemology is the name given to the study of issues concerning the nature and basis of knowledge and the justification of belief. In this subject, you will study, among other issues, questions such as:
- How should knowledge be defined?
- What are the limits of our knowledge?
- What are the sources of our knowledge, and of our concepts?
- How, if at all, can perception give us knowledge of reality?
- What are the objects of perception?
In Ethics, the subject is broadly divided into two parts: in one part, you will study the merits and de-merits of versions of the three principal types of theory about moral decision-making (principles for deciding what it is right to do) – consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. In the other part, you will consider questions about the status of ethics and the nature and meaning of moral language. One issue here concerns the analysis of moral language – whether moral judgements are properly understood as making claims of a factual nature about mind-independent reality at all, or whether they are to be interpreted in some other way; a second issue is about reality as opposed to language: this is the question whether, and if so how, any factual claims made in moral language could be true.
In Philosophy of Religion, you will study a range of arguments for and against the existence of God, including Cosmological arguments, Design arguments, and Ontological arguments, as well as a range of problems concerning the various characteristics traditionally attributed to God (under the Western Christian/Philosophical conception). Arguments that you will study here include those historically advanced by philosophers such as Descartes, Anselm, and Hume, as well as the contributions of modern writers. In Philosophy of Religion you will also study arguments concerning the meaning and nature of religious language.
In Philosophy of Mind, you will study a range of positions and arguments about the nature of mental phenomena. The primary issue here is the ‘mind-body problem’ – the question what the relationship is between mental phenomena (thought, perception, emotions, and so on) and non-mental physical phenomena (especially the physical events occurring in our brains). Some philosophers have held that the certain aspects of mental activity, and especially the nature of consciousness, mean that the mind must be in some sense distinct from ordinary physical phenomena, and adopt some version of what is known as Dualism; others (‘Materialists’) have argued that mental phenomena can be explained (or explained away) without supposing that the mind is in any way ontologically distinct from the physical.
Further details of the sorts of issues that are covered in these areas can be found on pages 9 to 20 of the current course specification at
There is no coursework or controlled assessment, and grades are awarded on the basis of written examinations only. Students will sit one three-hour exam paper on Epistemology and Ethics, and one three-hour exam paper on Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of Mind, both papers being taken at the end of two years of study.
All questions on each paper are compulsory, and no choice between questions is offered. Exam questions are now of essentially three types:
- there is a very limited number of short questions for very few marks requiring a simple factual definition;
- the majority of the questions require clear logical explanation (and sometimes illustration by example) of some argument, distinction, position, or issue;
- under each topic that you study, there will be one question requiring you to develop a fully-argued evaluative essay in which you present and defend one answer or another to a philosophical issue among those that you will have studied.
Whom does the subject suit?
No previous experience of the subject is required. Nor does Philosophy particularly suit students with a preference for the arts as opposed to the sciences, or vice versa. Many good philosophers are also strong in mathematics and/or science; but equally many lean towards artistic or literary subjects, or the social sciences; many, too, are linguists. Philosophy can in fact be combined successfully with almost any other subject or subjects. The skills of analysis, careful, logical, methodical thought, and clear presentation are useful in all areas of study. At university, Philosophy is sometimes studied on its own; but it is much more frequently combined with other subjects, including Politics and Economics, as in the very popular PPE courses offered at various universities, Maths, Physics, Theology, Psychology, Modern Languages, and Classics.
Obviously, the first requirement is that you should be interested in finding out more about at least some of the sorts of questions with which philosophers concern themselves – and in particular about the four main areas on which the course is focused – see the section on ‘subjects’ above.
As emphasised in the preceding section, it is the quality of logical argument for or against a view, rather than the view itself, that is at the core of this subject. A consequence of this is that Philosophy is significantly less fact-based than many other subjects. Although certain views and positions have from time to time gained favour among philosophers, and other formerly popular views have become discredited, it is fair to say that there are no (or very few) established answers to the sorts of questions that you will be invited to consider when you study Philosophy.
Accordingly, there are relatively few marks for getting the ‘right’ answer in this subject – and you will not be able to succeed merely by memorising the content of any textbook. What we are interested in, as emphasised above, is the quality of what can be said for or against any answer that is offered – the reasons for adopting or rejecting it; and the quality of the way in which any such argument is presented.
That is not, however, to say that there are no facts to be learned; on the contrary, you will be expected to learn plenty of factual material: you will have to know and understand the details of many of the arguments that have in fact been advanced by philosophers (both ancient and modern) in the areas that you study. In doing so you will need to learn, and use, many new concepts and a good deal of new terminology (the level of jargon in Philosophy is initially quite daunting in itself).
But that is merely the beginning, for the real challenge is to deploy this factual and conceptual knowledge so as to be able to explain (with perfect clarity and in precise detail) and evaluate the arguments and positions that others have advanced, develop arguments of your own, to be able to show how one might modify positions so as to respond to relevant objections, and so on. In short, by the time you have completed your study of any given issue in Philosophy, you must have an informed opinion on the matter, which you can defend in a persuasive and knowledgeable manner. Doing this requires you to gain a clear understanding of the relevant concepts and terminology, of the arguments that have historically been deployed in the area that you are studying, and an informed appreciation of their relative power and importance. It requires you to sharpen your analytical sense so that you can identify flaws in arguments presented by others and anticipate possible objections to your own views and arguments. Above all, it requires that you be committed to developing your writing skills so as to be able to express yourself with clarity and great precision. Even the best writers are surprised, when they start studying Philosophy, by just how much they are required to improve the detail and clarity of their writing.
You need to be aware, therefore, that for the reasons given, Philosophy is intellectually very demanding. Much of the material that you are required to read and understand is complex, and the differences between views are often subtle and can be hard to express. Even when you have what you want to say clear in your own mind, it can be difficult to convey on paper with the required precision. By the end of your study of any one of the four main subjects that the course covers, you will need to have mastered an extremely complex intellectual terrain of competing positions, arguments and objections on a whole range of issues; and you will need to have worked out in your own mind, and to be able to explain, what you think is the best considered answer – and why – to each of the numerous questions that you will have considered in your study of the relevant area. It is not enough merely to be able to describe what others have thought and argued: you need to have an opinion for which you are willing to argue in your own voice. For a subject that you can do while sitting down and staring out of the window, it is surprisingly hard work; but it is also immensely rewarding.
As the examples above suggest, Philosophy meddles in quite a range of quite different areas. Indeed, there is no real limit to the scope of the subject, save only that it requires one to think clearly and logically about the topic under investigation. Above all, Philosophy is concerned with arguments rather than facts, and in studying Philosophy you will learn to sharpen your skills in presenting your own arguments and (especially) in criticising those of others.
What might the subject lead to?
Some students go on to study Philosophy at university, and the topics that they study at A level provide an excellent introduction to the subject for this purpose: the areas covered at A level are among those that are most often studied (though of course in greater depth) in undergraduate and postgraduate courses.
Even for students not intending to pursue Philosophy beyond school, the Philosophy A level is a valuable qualification, particularly because the skills that you will develop – especially those of oral and written expression – are transferable and are valued both by university admissions tutors in other academic disciplines and (beyond university) by employers in many areas. Good philosophers are widely respected as able critical thinkers, whose abilities to bring clarity of expression and precision in analysis, and to develop (and attack) arguments make them attractive to potential employers in many different areas of life. Accordingly, trained philosophers are to be found in a whole host of professions, including (but by no means limited to) the Law, the Civil Service, politics, IT companies, financial institutions, charities and media employers (as well as academic institutions). The ability to develop an argument, and to think and express yourself clearly, are invaluable tools whatever direction you eventually decide to take.
What books can I read?
Excellent introductions to Philosophy that you might want to look at, in order to help you to decide whether Philosophy might be for you, include the following:
- Simon Blackburn, Think: A compelling introduction to Philosophy (ISBN 978–0192854254)
- Thomas Nagel, What Does it all Mean? (ISBN 978–0195174373)
- Nigel Warburton, Philosophy: The Basics (ISBN 978–0415327732)
Which websites can I look at?
There are many internet sites from which you can also get a taste of the subject, including:
The Radio 4 In Our Time archive.
Podcasts on the Philosophy Bites site.
Philosophy Now, which as well as containing much interesting material of its own, also provides links to a number of interesting and useful video and other web resources.
I am always happy to answer any further questions that you may have, whether at an open day or in response to an informal approach.
David Mackie firstname.lastname@example.org