Philosophy is more appropriately and accurately defined in terms of method than content: it engages in enquiry purely on the basis of argument, without relying on authorities of any kind. Yet certain fundamental issues - the nature of reality and of mind, and the character and scope of ethics, amongst others - continue to dominate philosophical investigations. At the same time, since Philosophy is identified by its method, a particularly significant problem for philosophers is, obviously, what should count as an argument, so that students will find themselves reasoning about what it is to reason. The only prerequisites for this Tripos are the essentials: taste and talent for the construction and analysis of rigorous argument. There is no such thing as studying Philosophy, as opposed to doing it; this Tripos thus presents the exhilarating challenge of engaging on their own terms with a host of brilliantly provocative thinkers, past and present.
What is the course?
We have all, at least half-jokingly, entertained the question whether the world around us really exists; and if it does, how we can know that it does. This course allows you to take such questions more seriously, not necessarily because we should be genuinely worried that our deeply entrenched belief that the world does exist is false, but more because asking such questions shows quite generally what needs to be in place for our beliefs to be warranted, and whether this can be had. Thus the question of the existence of the external world is only one example of a whole host of questions tackled in the course, but one which nicely illustrates two general questions which are fundamental to most philosophical enquiry: the first is an ontological question (what exists?), the second is an epistemological question (how do we know?).
Daily life also raises issues concerning the way we ought to live that life, and how we ought to treat others and the environment around us. Many areas of enquiry have this ethical dimension and even create new ethical problems themselves, especially in light of great leaps in science, such as biotechnology. So not only is it important to investigate the status of our obligations to others and our environment, and the foundations of our moral judgments in general, but we also need to address the more immediate question: what should we do?
But not all good problems concern taking the weight of the world on one's shoulders! Which question, for instance, are we to pose to one of two infamous guards, one a perpetual liar, the other an impeccable truth-teller - but we don't know which is which - each guarding doors, one leading to freedom, the other to a torture chamber, and who only allow you one question with which to work out which door to choose? In order to solve such puzzles, we require the tools of the philosopher's trade: logic. It is essential for the philosopher to argue well, and the course in logic - for which no mathematical background is necessary - helps to make you more sensitive to the structure of an argument, and helps you to develop strategies for dealing with a number of logic problems.
There is also a combination of set texts to study, both ancient Greek and early modern. The particular texts may change from year to year, so please consult the latest Philosophy Faculty syllabus.
The three parts of the Philosophy Tripos correspond to the three years of a Cambridge degree. All of the above are available in the second and third years, although further, optional subjects are offered, including aesthetics, the philosophy of science, political philosophy, and a great number of courses focusing on various historical figures and periods. Philosophy can also be combined with another Tripos, such as Classics or Psychology.
The teaching offered to Philosophy students at Cambridge is second to none. The Philosophy Faculty organise lectures for all students across the Colleges on various parts of the syllabus. It also arranges smaller seminars (of around 8 or 9 students), which provide excellent opportunities for involved discussion with students from other Colleges. This alternates each week with a formal logic class.
Your College organises Philosophy supervisions. These are the main focus of your work at Cambridge, for which you are required to write weekly essays and then meet for a discussion of your work and related issues with a supervisor who specialises in that particular area. Since argument is the nub, and argument is primarily an activity rather than product, arguing well with and against the supervisor is often the primary focus of a supervision, although some supervisors also like to impart knowledge, as well as offer advice on writing technique.
When you attend for interview, there is a one hour written test which you will be required to sit, usually before your first interview. Typical offers are A* A A at A Level, or 776 and 43 points in the IB. Successful applicants come with a very wide range of school examination subjects. Since we are looking for rigorous minds, good results in maths are useful - but not compulsory.
Catz is a fantastic College, and Philosophy is an amazing subject. Admittedly, as a Philosophy student at Catz, I might be a little bit biased … but there really are plenty of excellent reasons for applying! I won't go on about the loveliness of the College, as this is supposed to be subject-specific, so you will just have to take my opinion there as read!
When deciding which College to read Philosophy at, you will want to look at the teaching (i.e. the Director of Studies and other supervisors) at that College, the facilities offered by the college and - I reckon, if you are any kind of student at all! - the distance from the main lecture site, the Sidgwick Site.
I think the supervisors at Catz form a very well-balanced team to help you with your studies at Cambridge. Weekly supervisions form the core of the Philosophy workload, so it is important that you get along well with your supervisors.
Facilities-wise, the library at Catz is well-stocked; and, since you are so close to the Faculty, it is usually possible to find the book you want, when you want it. I have to say I find the weekly Great Book Hunt for every essay a bit tiresome but the online Cambridge library search engine is usually very efficient at searching out the more obscure texts for you. Catz is also fantastically situated for lectures - in first and third year it is a five minute walk from the Sidgwick site and in second year about two! So no excuses about forgetting to set an alarm clock, particularly since philosophers are far too sensible to have nine o'clock lectures!
To sum up, Catz is a wonderful place in terms of situation, teaching and facilities (and don't forget the friendliness!) and it is a brilliant place to come and study philosophy.