Philosophy in New Zealand: a good place to study

If you are reading this article you probably have a fair idea of what philosophy is and have made up your mind that you would like to give it a go. But is New Zealand a good place to study it? The answer is unequivocally yes...

Since it really got going in the 1930s, New Zealand philosophy has had a distinguished history. Many good, and even great, works of philosophy have either been written in New Zealand or by New Zealand-trained philosophers, beginning with Popper’s famous critique of Plato and Marx, The Open Society and Its Enemies, and including Prior’s Logic and the Basis of Ethics, Hughes and Cresswell’s An Introduction to Modal Logic, Musgrave’s Common Sense, Science and Scepticism, Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics, Mulgan’s The Demands of Consequentialism and Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct. Nor is this merely a matter of past glories. According to the PBRF, New Zealand’s equivalent of the British Research Assessment Exercise, philosophy is the number one research discipline in New Zealand, with philosophy departments coming out twice as the top research departments in the country (Otago and Auckland in 2003 and Otago and Canterbury in 2007).

But does the teaching match the research? Here it is more difficult to point to hard evidence. However, you tend not to be promoted if you are a bad teacher and departments suffer if they can’t retain their students. Thus New Zealand philosophers have powerful incentives to be good teachers.

New Zealand is strong in moral and political philosophy, logic, epistemology, metaphysics, the philosophy of science (especially the philosophy of biology) and the history of philosophy (especially early modern philosophy). Note, however, that New Zealand philosophy departments are mostly rather small, which means that not every department is equally good at all of these things. Thus an intending student, especially someone planning to do an MA or a PhD, should work their way through the various departmental websites, checking whether the ‘house specialties’ of a given department are right for you. Intending undergraduates will typically ‘major’ in philosophy doing mostly philosophy papers but some from other subjects culminating in a BA. PhDs and MAs are ‘research only’ in New Zealand, meaning that there are no taught courses and that the chief requirement is to write a dissertation.

However, New Zealand-trained students don’t usually go on to a higher degree without a fourth year of study (usually leading to a BA with honours) involving some advanced taught courses. Some funding is available for talented overseas postgraduates, but the competition is stiff.

New Zealand’s universities are mostly situated in attractive but small cosmopolitan cities – such as Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington - with easy access to spectacular countryside. However, if you are a ‘big city’ person, only Auckland - with a population of 1.4 million - is likely to be big enough for you. New Zealand is great for people who like access to the mountains and the sea.

Charles Pigden
Associate Professor of Philosophy
(University of Otago)
Australasian Association of Philosophy