The Big Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy

This information is for the 2017/18 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Jonathan Birch and Dr Bryan W Roberts (co-teaching both MT and LT)


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 BSc in International Relations, BSc in Politics and International Relations 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

Philosophers formulate sharp ways of thinking about some of the world's big questions. In this course, we explore 10 of the biggest such questions:

(1) What do I know? (2) What is consciousness? (3) Who am I, and do I exist? (4) Do I have free will? (5) Does God exist? (6) What are space and time? (7) What are numbers? (8) What should I do? (9) What is justice? (10) What is the meaning of life?

You will be getting to the bottom of these questions, and to do so, we will be training you in the essential skills of a philosopher. There will be three main components. First, you will hone 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 practise creative, critical thinking and discussion on the fly, by participating in philosophical discussion with your peers. Finally, you will develop your ability to write philosophical arguments of your own in essay-form.

The questions of this course are some of the hardest that have ever been asked. Our plight as philosophers is that we still find them irresistible. Don't let this worry you; we need not settle the answers once and for all. (The joke among philosophers is that, "At least we have all the questions!") This course will nevertheless prepare you to make clear progress on big questions, and to think about them in a 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) in the LT.
Essay (50%, 1500 words) in the ST.

Student performance results

(2014/15 - 2016/17 combined)

Classification % of students
First 12.6
2:1 68.8
2:2 16.1
Third 0.9
Fail 1.6

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2016/17: 147

Average class size 2016/17: 12

Capped 2016/17: No

Lecture capture used 2016/17: Yes (MT & LT)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

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