Studying philosophy in the UK

What is philosophy?

Philosophy means ‘love of wisdom’, and philosophy as an academic subject involves the systematic study of deep and important questions about ourselves and our world. Studying philosophy will not, of course, guarantee that you become wise. But studying the subject is just about the best way to acquire those skills that allow you to become an independent and critical thinker, and to launch yourself on the path of wisdom both at university and in later life.

The Big Questions

Here are some typical philosophical questions. Is morality relative – to individuals or to societies? What is the nature of political power and authority? Is free will an illusion? What is the mind? Can we know anything at all about the external world? Is it rational to believe in God? Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? What unifies these questions is not their subject matter, but rather the methods we need to use in order to answer them; you can’t work out what makes an act right or wrong, for example, by doing a science experiment, a calculation or by reading a history book. Instead, philosophy encourages students to think about the nature of certain things, about the reasons people have for believing what they do about them, and about whether people are right to so believe. To do so, however, students need certain skills in thinking and reasoning; and the study of the subject in the UK is partly about the provision of these skills. Students learn how to construct arguments, criticise other people, develop creative solutions to problems, use your imagination, and defend your views against criticism from others. In addition, students learn about the theories and arguments of the great past philosophers, but normally only as a springboard for developing your own thoughts.


“... the great past philosophers”

Philosophy therefore teaches you what others have thought about these important issues; but it is, in the main, concerned with teaching you how to think for yourselves about them.

Philosophy in the UK

Philosophy is taught at some high schools in the UK. But in the main it is studied at university level. There are over fifty universities in the UK teaching philosophy at the undergraduate level, leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree (either single honours or joint honours); most of these universities also teach philosophy at the postgraduate level, leading to a Masters and PhD degrees. Different universities offer different patterns of study for BA degrees (three years in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; four years in Scotland) and different combinations for a joint degree. If you aren’t completely sure whether philosophy is for you, a joint degree is an option; you can sometimes transfer into a ‘single honours’ degree in one of your chosen subjects later on. Philosophy is also sometimes taught as part of a ‘combined honours’ degree programme, where you study a number of arts and humanities subjects throughout your degree.

UK universities are world-leading in terms of research and teaching. Ten of the top fifty research universities in philosophy in the world are in the UK. Many other universities are in the top one hundred. The UK is second only to the US in the number of high quality peer-reviewed philosophy articles published in the English-speaking world. The standard of teaching in UK departments is very high, and the study facilities excellent. The fact that philosophy continues to flourish in the UK is no surprise, since it has been regarded as an essential part of university education in the UK for hundreds of years, and was a core subject when the very first universities were founded here.

What careers are open to me with a UK philosophy degree?

A UK philosophy degree equips you with a range of skills highly valued by prospective employers in a range of careers. These include the ability to comprehend difficult and complex materials, to think clearly and logically, to develop and defend original arguments, and to communicate well in both speech and writing. As a result, philosophy graduates are commonly found in fields where these skills are particularly important - for instance in the legal profession, education, government, computer science, journalism, and medicine.

But the skills you develop doing philosophy in the UK will put you in an excellent position for further study at the postgraduate level. For instance, studies in the US show that philosophy graduates do consistently better than graduates from nearly every other discipline in the Arts and Social Sciences on general tests for admission to postgraduate schools, and on tests for law and business schools in particular. Studying philosophy in the UK provides, therefore, an excellent grounding for both further study and interesting careers – as well as providing you with the ability to think clearly, critically, and independently on any issue you like for the rest of your life.

Michael Brady, Director British Philosophical Association