The Big Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy

This information is for the 2018/19 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Jonathan Birch

This course is taught by Dr Jonathan Birch, Dr Liam Kofi Bright, Dr Susanne Burri, Professor Christian List and Dr Anna Mahtani.


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



Course content

At some point in our lives, we are all gripped by deep and fundamental questions. Questions about life, the universe and everything. Philosophers aim to make progress on these questions with clear and precise arguments. In this course, we confront 10 of the big questions:

(1) Do I know anything?

(2) Who am I?

(3) Do I have free will?

(4) What is consciousness?

(5) Does God exist?

(6) What is truth?

(7) What's the right thing to do?

(8) What's the best form of government?

(9) Should I fear death?

(10) How can I live a meaningful life?

No one has definitive answers to these questions. But understanding the possible answers, and the arguments for and against them, is what philosophy is all about.

By grappling with these questions, you will learn the essential skills of a philosopher. First, you will develop your ability to read philosophical texts, focusing on how to extract and present a philosophical thesis and argument in a clear, logical way. Second, you will develop your thinking skills and analytical abilities by participating in philosophical discussions with your peers. Finally, you will develop your ability to construct philosophical arguments of your own by writing philosophy essays.

The questions of this course are some of the hardest that have ever been asked. We can't promise that you'll feel any closer to knowing the answers at the end of the course than you did at the beginning. But this course will help you understand the big questions, and to think about them in a reflective, philosophical way.


10 hours of lectures, 5 hours of seminars and 10 hours of classes in the MT. 10 hours of lectures, 5 hours of seminars and 10 hours of classes in the LT.

Parallel to this course, students will take a 5-week writing "Seminar" in EITHER Michaelmas Term OR Lent Term, but not both. This seminar, called ‘Philosophy and Argumentative Writing’ (or "PAW"), will provide you with practical advice and exercises to improve your writing style. Students in the BSc in Philosophy and Economics, the BSc in Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, and the BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics are required to attend (5 hours of workshops in either MT or LT) and do all assignments. Other students are invited to do so.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to write one formative essay in MT and two formative essays in LT.

Indicative reading

The readings will be articles and excerpts from books and will be made available via Moodle.


Essay (50%, 1500 words) and essay (50%, 1500 words) in the ST.

Your two summative essays will be revised versions of two of your formative essays. Each summative essay will be accompanied by a 750 word reflective commentary explaining how feedback and participation in learning activities enabled you to improve your essay. The mark for each summative assignment will depend on both the quality of the essay and the quality of the reflective commentary.

Student performance results

(2015/16 - 2017/18 combined)

Classification % of students
First 15.1
2:1 71.5
2:2 11.7
Third 0.4
Fail 1.3

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2017/18: 157

Average class size 2017/18: 15

Capped 2017/18: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills