The Big Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Marius Backmann

This course is also taught by Dr Jonathan Birch, Dr Bryan W. Roberts, Dr Liam Kofi Bright, Dr Marius Backmann, and Professor Jason MacKenzie Alexander.


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 International Social and Public Policy, BSc in Politics, BSc in Politics and International Relations, BSc in Psychological and Behavioural Science, 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, some of the big questions we may address include:


(1) Do I know anything?

(2) Who am I?

(3) What is consciousness?

(4) What is truth?

(5) What are space and time?

(6) Do I have free will?

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

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

(9) 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 Michaelmas Term. This seminar, called "Philosophy and Argumentative Writing" ("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 MT) and do all assignments. Other students are invited to do so.

This course is delivered through a combination of classes and lectures totalling a minimum of 40 hours across Michaelmas Term and Lent Term. This year, some or all of this teaching may be delivered through a combination of virtual classes and flipped-lectures delivered as short online videos. This course includes a reading week in Week 6 of Michaelmas Term.

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 (40%, 1500 words) and essay (40%, 1500 words) in the ST.
In-class assessment (10%) in the MT and LT.
Exercise (10%) in the LT.

You will be assessed in class throughout the year using short-answer questions.

You will revise one of your three formative essays according to the feedback from your class teacher and, if available, your peers. This revised formative 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 this summative assignment will depend only on the quality of the reflective commentary.


Student performance results

(2017/18 - 2019/20 combined)

Classification % of students
First 27.5
2:1 66.3
2:2 4.1
Third 0
Fail 2.1

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2019/20: 155

Average class size 2019/20: 12

Capped 2019/20: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

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