Problems of Analytic Philosophy

This information is for the 2013/14 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Anna Mahtani


This course is available on the BSc in Philosophy and Economics, BSc in Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method and BSc in Politics and Philosophy. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.


Pre-requisites: PH103 Reason, Knowledge and Values.

Course content

Short description: Some central topics in metaphysics, epistemology, the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of logic and language. Topics may vary by year.

More detailed description: This course covers some of the philosophical questions that have occupied the greatest minds of 20th century analytic philosophy. 

We start by exploring three problems in epistemology and metaphysics:  (i) Scepticism.  Does the external world exist? Might we be no more than brains in vat (or computer programmes), and our apparent experiences illusory? Do we have the cognitive means to confidently reject this hypothesis?  (ii) Causation.   Can we give an analysis of what it is for one event to cause another event?  Causation is clearly more than mere correlation, but it is notoriously difficult to spell out what else is required.  (iii) Time.  We may think of time as a separate dimension of reality: just like we are at the here locus in space, we are at the now locus in time.  Or alternatively, we may think of the future as non-existent and reality as constantly unfolding or becoming.  And how do philosophical theories of time affect the possibility of time travel?    

We then move on to the philosophy of language and logic:  (i) Meaning. We consider how something (such as a string of squiggles on a piece of paper) comes to have meaning. (ii) Definite Descriptions and Names. What are logicians doing when they give ‘formalizations’ of bits of natural language? We reflect on the difficulty of this project, taking as our example the task of formalizing definite descriptions and proper names.  (iii) Paradoxes.  We grapple with some puzzles and paradoxes such as the ancient paradox of the liar (involving the nature of truth and reference) and the paradox of the heap (involving vague predicates).   

Finally we address some contemporary questions in the philosophy of mind: (i)  Externalism. Are mental states fully located in one’s brain or could it be the case that two persons are in precisely the same brain state yet in different mental states?  (ii) Consciousness.  What constitutes consciousness?  Do lower animals have consciousness?  Can inanimate objects (such as robots), whose behaviour may be indistinguishable from human behaviour in some respects, have consciousness?  (iii) Personal identity.  Are you the same person as you were when you were six years old?  What does it mean for objects and, more specifically persons, to be the same across time? And does this matter? Do you care whether you exist tomorrow, or would a perfect replica of you do just as well? (iv) Free Will.  To what extent is our behaviour determined by outside forces?  Is an action ever freely chosen?  How does this affect our views about moral responsibility?


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the LT.

Lectures are taught alongside PH501 postgraduate students.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to participate actively in their classes and to write two essays per term. One of these essays may be a draft for the assessed essay.

Indicative reading

We will read one or two papers or extracts each week, which will be available via Moodle. Some of the papers that we will read are written by early or mid 20th Century authors, such as Bertrand Russell (a chapter from The Problems of Philosophy), George Edward Moore (‘Proof of an External World’), and Elizabeth Anscombe (‘Causality and Determination’). Other readings are more recent, including papers and extracts from Derek Parfit (extract from Reasons and Persons), Timothy Williamson (extract from Vagueness), Thomas Nagel (‘What is it Like to be a Bat?’), Frank Jackson (‘What Mary Didn’t Know’) and Peter van Inwagen (‘The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism’).

Specific readings will be announced in a detailed syllabus.


Exam (67%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (33%, 2000 words) in the ST.

Student performance results

(2010/11 - 2012/13 combined)

Classification % of students
First 17.3
2:1 48.1
2:2 26.9
Third 5.8
Fail 1.9

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2012/13: 17

Average class size 2012/13: 8

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

  • Problem solving
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills