Philosophy (BA, Dip HE and Cert HE)
A philosophical education of the very highest academic quality
For thousands of years, people have asked fundamental questions about the world, their place in it, and their relations to each other. These questions, and attempts to answer them, define the subject matter of philosophy. With our prestigious BA degree in Philosophy, you can participate in the exciting and fundamental enterprise that is philosophy: the asking and answering of the deep questions that figure centrally in human thought.
This programme is for you if you wish to:
- be challenged intellectually and improve your powers of reasoning and argument, your ability to analyse complex ideas, your understanding of people, and your capacity for original thought
- gain a thorough grounding in the central areas of philosophy. You will be introduced to historical and contemporary issues in the subject and encouraged to make connections between the ideas and arguments that inform philosophical debates
- study a range of philosophical works from classical times to the present day. Subjects include existence and reality; knowledge and belief; mind, thought, reason and logic; truth and meaning; and the ethical and aesthetic values of goodness and beauty
|Application deadline||1 October in the year before you intend to sit your first examinations|
|Registration deadline||30 November|
|Start studying||Study materials are usually available from mid-August|
|Examinations take place||May|
You can choose from:
- BA in Philosophy
- Diploma of Higher Education
- Certificate of Higher Education
- Individual course Introduction to Philosophy [PDF]
The Diploma or the Certificate of Higher Education are ideal options to consider if you don't feel ready to commit to a full degree programme or don't satisfy the entrance requirements for the degree. Once you pass the Certificate you will be invited to register for the Diploma, and having completed the Diploma you will be invited to register for the BA.
You also have the option of taking Introduction to philosophy as an individual course. This will give you a taste of what the study of philosophy involves. If you obtain a mark of 50 or above, you can apply for the Certificate of Higher Education in Philosophy and will be credited with a pass in this course.
For further information about the provision of individual courses please see the current Philosophy Regulations.
Prestige and career progression
The programme has been developed by Birkbeck’s Department of Philosophy, one of the highest ranking Philosophy departments in the UK. Through their writing and editorial work, academics in the department are significant contributors to the worldwide philosophical community. The BA degree will prepare you for many careers including the public services, teaching and research, journalism, media and business. While not a vocational subject, it is well known that the study of philosophy is an excellent preparation for success in law, administration, and business.
Flexible study at a reasonable cost
You have 3-8 years to complete the BA degree and 2-5 years to complete the Dip HE or 1-5 years for Cert HE. Fees are payable as you progress rather than as a single lump sum. The following are examples of University fees for the whole programme of study: £4,575 for the BA, £3,185 for the Dip HE and £1,795 for the Cert HE. Please note that these examples are calculated using current fees for 2014-15, do not reflect any annual change to fees and assume completion in the minimum time permitted. For the Individual course 'Introduction to Philosophy' the total fee is £510.
Structure and Syllabus
Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy
The BA in Philosophy consists of twelve courses. Take four courses from level 4, four from level 5 and four from level 6 to include the dissertation.
Diploma of Higher Education in Philosophy
The Dip HE in Philosophy consists of eight courses. Take four courses from level 4 and choose four from level 5.
Certificate of Higher Education in Philosophy
The Cert HE in Philosophy consists of four courses from level 4.
- Introduction to Philosophy
In this course, students will be introduced to the methods and content of philosophy by considering, at an elementary level and in a carefully guided way, some of the central problems that arise within the subject. Included here will be: free-will, determinism and responsibility; personal identity; the relation of the mind to the body; the nature of knowledge; the ideal of equality; issues raised by portrayals of tragedy; the reality of qualities; and our understanding of moral dilemmas.
Note: this course is also available to study as an individual course.
- Ethics: historical perspectives
Ethics: historical perspectives focuses on the history of moral philosophy, including a study of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Mill. This historical background prepares the way for the second of the ethics courses, which deals with contemporary perspectives. However, the views discussed in this course are not of merely historical interest. Conceptions of morality that are now widely shared were in large part shaped by these thinkers.
Epistemology is sometimes known as the theory of knowledge and, as this name suggests, it is a philosophical enquiry into knowledge. The questions it seeks to answer are: What is knowledge? How do we get it? Are the means we employ to get it defensible? These questions prompt a number of debates. One concerns the conditions that have to be satisfied for it to be true that someone knows something. Enquiry into this problem shows that we need to understand belief and its relation to knowledge; and that we have to be clear about the nature of any justification we have for our knowledge claims. Another debate concerns the adequacy of our ways of getting knowledge. We typically employ reason and perception in this task, but the challenge of scepticism shows that the uses we make of them involve a number of serious difficulties. A satisfactory account of knowledge has to address all these matters.
Logic is the study of the central notions that figure in our most general attempts to understand reasoning. Included here are: validity, truth, necessity, identity, naming and reference, existence, conditionals and counterfactual conditionals, as well as a number of issues raised by the relationship of formal logic to natural language. The content of this course is sometimes called either ‘philosophical logic’ or ‘philosophy of logic’.
The topics studied are closely related, and count among the most fundamental and challenging in philosophy. Some grounding in them is essential for an appreciation of what is discussed in all other branches of philosophy, and it is for this reason that logic is studied early on.
(Formal logic – the systematic study of deductive reasoning – is a separate, although clearly related, course. It would deepen your understanding of this subject if you acquired some background in elementary formal logic, and you might do so by reading Guttenplan’s introduction to this subject (The Languages of Logic).
- Greek philosophy: Plato and the Pre-Socratics
Greek philosophy: Plato and the Pre-Socratics focuses on the work of the predecessors of Plato – collectively known as the pre-Socratics – as well as on the main dialogues of Plato. It has been said that all of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. While this is certainly an exaggeration, it points to the fundamental importance to philosophy of its history, and in particular of the part played in that history by Plato.
- Modern philosophy: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume
Modern philosophy: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume is a study of the main works of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. In particular, it studies the epistemological and metaphysical views of these philosophers. The philosophers Locke, Berkeley and Hume are generally reckoned to be the main representatives of the empiricist tradition, whereas Descartes is seen as one of the forerunners of the rationalist school. However, the work of the empiricists can be seen as a reaction – in part – to Descartes and rationalism generally, so this first subject in modern philosophy begins with Descartes. The label ‘modern’ is intended as a contrast to ‘ancient’, (i.e. Plato, the Pre-Socratics and Aristotle, among others). It is generally understood as covering the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries – a period in which there was a decisive break with ancient philosophy.
- Ethics: contemporary perspectives
Ethics: contemporary perspectives is the study of problems in moral philosophy and contemporary meta-ethics. Ethics or moral philosophy is the inquiry into the nature of moral value. It is concerned with questions about goodness, right and wrong, the virtues and the nature of the worthwhile life. One way into a consideration of moral philosophy is to read the works of those who have made substantial contributions to our understanding of moral questions: Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Mill and others. (This is the subject matter of the other course in ethics) But a historical approach needs to be complemented by the more direct consideration of questions about virtue, action, consequences, rights, duties, the ‘fact-value’ distinction, the nature of moral truth, the universalisability of moral principles, and much besides. These sorts of issue form the basis of this course.
Note: Prerequisite - 'Ethics: historical perspectives' (PY1095) must be taken at the same time or already have been passed.
Metaphysics is the study of the ultimate nature of reality. It attempts to assess answers to this fundamental question: What exists or is real? Specific metaphysical questions are so various and important that discussion of some of them has come to form separate branches of philosophy, for example Philosophy of mind and Philosophy of religion, both of which are in the list of optional courses. However, the central and more general questions of existence and reality remain part of this core courses, and give rise to more specific ones that are also studied, namely: What is time? Are particulars more basic than events? Do human beings have free will? What is causality? Are there universals? Does the world exist independently of our knowledge of it?
Note: Prerequisite - 'Logic' (PY1070) must be taken at the same time or already have been passed.
- Methodology: Induction, reason and science
Methodology is a continuation of epistemology in a particular direction: it is, in part, an enquiry into the nature of the reasoning and methods used in investigation of the natural and social world. It includes, in fact, elementary philosophy of science, and it considers questions about inductive reasoning, probability, explanation, evidence, ‘laws of nature’ and the reality of ‘theoretical entities’ such as elementary particles and fields. The optional course Philosophy of science takes these topics further, but Methodology provides a groundwork which is both of intrinsic interest and great value to inquiry in other fields of philosophy.
Note: this course was formerly called ‘Methodology’. Its new title makes clearer what the course involves, but there has been no change in the syllabus.
- Modern philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant
Modern philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant is a study of the main works of Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant. This course focuses on the rationalist tradition in modern philosophy, and begins the study of Kant. (Further work on Kant can be undertaken by studying the optional course devoted to his writings.) As with the other courses in modern philosophy, this one is concerned primarily with the epistemological and metaphysical views of these thinkers.
Note: Prerequisite - 'Modern philosophy: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume' (PY1065) must be taken at the same time or already have been passed.
- Greek philosophy: Aristotle
Greek philosophy: Aristotle focuses on the main works of Aristotle. More than any other single philosopher, Aristotle has shaped the development of western philosophical thinking, whether because of agreement and development of his ideas, or in opposition to them. The emphasis in this course will be on Aristotle’s logical, epistemological and metaphysical views; his ethical writings form part of the subject on historical perspectives on ethics.
Note: Prerequisite - 'Greek philosophy: the Pre-Socratics and Plato' (PY1085) must be taken at the same time or already have been passed.
- Continental philosophy: Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche
This course covers the views of Hegel and two post-Hegelian nineteenth-century German philosophers: Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. One is advised to also have some knowledge of Kant’s philosophy.
Note: Prerequisite - 'Modern philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant' (PY3125) must be taken at the same time or already have been passed.
In Aesthetics we turn to questions about the nature of art, values in art and the appreciation of nature as art. Wide reading in the history of aesthetics is necessary for a proper approach to the course. Issues in contemporary aesthetics are illuminated by their treatment throughout history, and the understanding and assessment of the views of past thinkers is facilitated by reflection on the problems they deal with. Aesthetics, done properly, is as hard and as rewarding as any branch of philosophy. It is philosophy turning its attention to the nature of aesthetic experience and judgement, and to questions about art, the different art forms, how they relate to the world and to the mind, and what value they may have. Some questions in aesthetics also form part of philosophy of mind or metaphysics, for example. It is not an easy subject to study. One does best by using as material one’s own experience of artworks and of aesthetic situations, but one has to use the tools of philosophy as carefully as possible in order to think about them relatively dispassionately and in a disciplined way. There are no fixed starting points in the course, which is why, again, wide reading in the history of aesthetics is especially recommended.
- Philosophy of language
Philosophy of language is organised around general questions of language and meaning. The nature of language has long been an obsession of philosophers. More recently it has also become the focus of empirical investigation in linguistics. The course is concerned both with the most general and abstract aspects of language, meaning and knowledge and with more specific problems that arise in understanding particular aspects of natural languages.
Certain more elementary aspects of the philosophy of language are covered in ‘Logic and metaphysics’, and it is good to have a grounding in issues surrounding reference and truth covered on that paper. On this paper you will be focusing more on general methodological considerations about meaning and reference: what form should a theory of meaning take; what does knowledge of meaning consist of; what kinds of facts are there about meaning? Certain figures have dominated discussion of language in the twentieth century, from Frege and Russell on to Wittgenstein’s emphasis on use of language over representation; to Quine’s scepticism about the determinacy of translation; Grice’s attempt to explicate meaning in terms of speaker’s intentions; Davidson’s work on theories of truth and radical interpretation, to the consequences of Chomskian linguistics. In addition to studying the work of these philosophers, you will have the opportunity to look at particular problems concerning indexical expressions; proper names; the nature of definite descriptions; pronouns and quantified phrases in natural language; indirect contexts and propositional attitude ascriptions; adverbs, adjectives and metaphor.
- Philosophy of mind
Philosophy of mind is concerned with metaphysical and epistemological issues that arise from reflecting on the mind. You will also find the Philosophy of psychology section of this handbook useful, as well as various parts of the Logic, Metaphysics, Epistemology and Methodology sections.
- Political philosophy
Political philosophy is the study of how we can and how we ought to live together. Throughout the history of Western philosophy, those figures whose thought has engaged with ethical problems have been equally concerned with political philosophy and vice versa. Just as the form of ethical theories has varied greatly over the last 2,000 years, so too have the forms that questions and answers take within political philosophy. It is, therefore, very important to address the problems of political philosophy within both a historical and an ethical framework.
Throughout history we have considered the following problems (among others): the question of the nature and claims of justice; the existence of natural rights; the status of positive law; the existence of distinctive obligations towards the state or towards each other as co-members of some society; claims of property; claims of liberty; the best understanding of equality and its claim on us.
In ancient political philosophy we find concerns about the nature of justice and the well-ordered state. In early modern discussion, the authority of the state and questions of right loom large. From this tradition we derive the heuristic use of the state of nature: Hobbes uses this to ask how we can be rationally compelled to obey the sovereign, and to offer an answer; in Locke we find an influential discussion of property rights and the origin of political obligation; Rousseau, much more radically, seeks to explain how we can be bound rationally by law, through the concept of the general will. In different ways Hegel and Marx offer critiques of the Enlightenment conception of the citizen and state. In Mill, we find the radical utilitarianism of the early nineteenth century modulated into a delicate plea for liberty.
In Anglo-American political philosophy over the last 30 years, the work of the Harvard philosopher John Rawls has been central in defining the scope and focus of debate, although the ideas of Isaiah Berlin, G.A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, Joseph Raz and T.M. Scanlon are of great importance too.
- Philosophy of religion
Philosophy of religion is not a course that is easily demarcated in respect of its scope and point. That said, philosophy of religion is commonly understood to be the philosophical scrutiny of the claims of religious believers and those made on behalf of religious traditions. The focus of study is principally on the three monotheistic traditions of the West: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Those coming to the subject for the first time need to be aware that it demands competence in many of the central areas of philosophy: metaphysics, philosophical logic, epistemology and ethics. In this respect, the course provides a student with an opportunity to apply their general philosophical acumen to a body of important questions concerning theism. Among the questions raised are: the existence of God; the coherence of theism; the compatibility of divine omniscience and human freedom; the problem of evil; and immortality.
- Dissertation - Philosophy
Students must have passed all four level 4 courses and four level 5 courses before registering.
A dissertation of 7,500 words on a topic to be negotiated with a member of the staff at Birkbeck College, University of London. Students will receive feedback on a one-page outline (consisting of a working title, a summary of the main sections of the dissertation, and a short bibliography), and comments on complete draft, if required.
A dissertation can be on any topic in philosophy, and producing one allows students the chance to call on their accumulated knowledge of the subject. Most students feel that this module rounds off their degree, giving them a real sense of achievement. It is something we have added to the BA degree as a result of feedback received over the years from students.
If you successfully complete the Cert HE in Philosophy you can progress to either the Dip HE or the BA in Philosophy.
The course Introduction to philosophy is available to study on a stand-alone basis as an individual course.
If you take Introduction to philosophy as an individual course and obtain a pass mark of 50 or above, you will qualify to register for the Cert HE in Philosophy and to be credited with the course.
Levels 4, 5 and 6 refer to qualification descriptions given in the framework for higher education qualifications (FHEQ).
How you study
Studying as an International Programmes student through distance and flexible learning offers you maximum flexibility in planning your studies; you can study at a time and place to suit yourself using the study materials we provide. When you register you will be given access to an online virtual learning environment (VLE). On the VLE, you will find:
- a student handbook
- a subject guide for each course you are taking
- past examination papers and Examiners' reports on those examinations
- a copy of the Regulations
- access to the University of London Online Library with a selection of links to relevant materials.
In addition to the materials we provide, you will need to buy some books, and others you will need to refer to in a library. As far as possible, you should consider the facilities available locally to you, and how accessible books are likely to be before registering.
We also provide all students with a student registration card.
Sample study materials
The following resources (PDF's) include introductory reading lists and example examination questions for each of the Philosophy courses.
Introduction to Philosophy PY1020
Ethics: historical perspectives PY1095
Greek philosophy: Plato and the Pre-Socratics PY1085
Modern philosophy: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume PY1065
Ethics: contemporary perspectives PY3115
Methodology: Induction, reason and science PY3035
Modern philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant PY3125
Greek philosophy: Aristotle PY3120
Continental philosophy: Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche PY3190
Philosophy of language PY3210
Philosophy of mind PY3100
Political philosophy PY3090
Philosophy of religion PY3110
The fees below relate to the 2015-2016 session and are subject to annual review.
|Application handling fee||£ 80|
|Initial registration fee||£ 755|
|Continuing registration fee||£ 430|
|Examination fee per course||£ 240|
|Individual course application handling fee||£ 80|
|Individual course composite fee||£ 430|
|TOTAL Individual course (Introduction to Philosophy)||£ 510|
|TOTAL Certificate of Higher Education||£ 1,795|
|TOTAL Diploma of Higher Education||£ 3,185|
|TOTAL BA||£ 4,575|
ConvertGBP x 1
Disclaimer: the currency conversion tool is provided to you for convenience only and does not constitute an endorsement or approval by the University of London; the exchange rates are provided dynamically via a third-party source, consequently, the University of London International Programmes is not responsible for their accuracy.
The totals provided above are examples of the total amount of fees payable to the University for the whole programme of study. These examples use the current fees, do not reflect any annual change to fees and assume completion in the minimum time permitted.
When to pay
- The application handling fee is payable when you make your application. The closing date for applications is 1 October. If you meet the entrance requirements you will be invited to register.
- The initial registration fee is payable when you register with the University. The closing date for registrations is 30 November.
- The examination fee is payable when you choose to enter an examination. Examination entries are accepted from mid-December to the closing date of 1 February. Examinations take place in May or June each year.
- The continuing registration fee is payable in the second and subsequent years of registration at the time when you confirm the courses that you will be registered for during that year. The closing date for continuing registration is 1 November.
How to pay
All University fees must be paid in pounds sterling (GBP). The University accepts:
- Western Union - Quick Pay
- Credit/debit card (Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, Electron, JCB)
- Sterling banker's draft/cheque
- International money/postal order
Further details are given in payment methods.
In addition to the fees payable to the University, you should also budget for:
- purchase of books (up to £300 per year, depending on number of courses taken)
- tuition costs (if studying at a teaching institution)
- the fee charged by your local examination centre to cover its costs; this fee will vary.
Fees are subject to annual review and the University reserves the right to amend previously announced fees, if necessary. For a full list fees that may be applicable, please see the fee schedule.
Each course of the BA degree, Diploma of Higher Education and Certificate of Higher Education in Philosophy and the Diploma in Philosophy will be assessed by one two-hour (Level 4 and 5 courses) or three-hour (Level 6 courses) written examination held at established centres worldwide. Two-hour examinations require students to answer two questions, three-hour examinations require students to answer three questions.
The exception to this is the Dissertation course in the BA degree in Philosophy (New Regulations). The Dissertation course is assessed by a 7,500 word dissertation. Details of the Dissertation arrangements will be given in the Dissertation subject guide. For the BA, a student is required to have attempted the examination in a total of twelve courses.
In order to obtain the degree a student must pass a minimum of eleven (including the Dissertation course) courses. The pass mark is 40%, but a student may be compensated for one failed course (excluding the Dissertation), if the mark achieved is between 30 – 39%.
You do not have to come to London to take your examinations. Examinations are held worldwide in May each year in local overseas centres as well as centres in the UK. Examinations overseas are arranged mainly through Ministries of Education or the British Council. You will be charged a fee by your local examination centre (this fee will vary). For further information please see the Assessment and Examination section of our website.
To be eligible for the BA or Diploma of Higher Education in Philosophy you must normally* be aged 17 or above by the 30 November in the year of registration and satisfy the University’s General Entrance Requirements.
To be eligible for the Certificate in Higher Education in Philosophy you must normally* be aged 18 or above by the 1 September at the time of registration have passed the equivalent of at least three separate subjects at UK GCSE/GCE O level (at not less than grade C).
UK GCSE equivalents, including grade requirements can be found at: Entrance Qualifications
You do not have to hold formal qualifications to register for for the individual course 'Introduction to philosophy' . However, you are required to satisfy the University’s English language requirements as outlined below and normally* be aged 18 or above by the 1 September in the year of registration. If you take Introduction to Philosophy as an individual course and pass with at least 50% you will normally be accepted onto the Certificate of Higher Education in Philosophy and will be credited with this course.
* Applications will be considered from applicants who do not meet the normal minimum age requirement for admission. Each application will be considered on an individual basis, and the decision taken at the discretion of the University of London.
If you are not automatically eligible then you will be individually considered by the University of London’s Special Admissions Panel. The Special Admissions Panel will consider qualifications which are not published under the Qualifications for Entrance Schedule, incomplete qualifications (e.g. diplomas / degrees) and substantial relevant work experience. If we cannot accept you with your current qualifications and experience, we will advise you what qualifications you could take in order to become eligible in the future.
English language requirement
The language of instruction, reading and assessment is English. To succeed on our programmes you need a good level of competence in English. If you doubt your ability in written or spoken English we advise you take a course and test in English language before enrolling on the programme.
Required standard of English
You will usually meet the English language requirement for undergraduate programmes if you:
- hold a UK GCSE / GCE O level in English at grade C or above
- have five years secondary schooling taught solely in English or have passed GCE A levels or IB in essay-based subjects
- have passed an International Foundation programme that permits entry onto a recognised UK bachelor degree
- hold a full Postgraduate award, or a full first degree or Associate degree taught and examined in English from an institute that is acceptable to the University
- have passed, within the past three years, an Associate degree, Diploma or Higher Diploma awarded by an acceptable institute / polytechnic / university in Hong Kong, Malaysia or Singapore, or
- have passed, within the past three years, a test of proficiency in English language from an organisation acceptable to the University.
Where an applicant does not meet the required English language level but believes they can demonstrate the required level for admission the University may, at its discretion, consider the application.
Please note if an applicant satisfies one of the above conditions yet provides evidence of a test of proficiency in English language, awarded within the past three years, which is below the University’s minimum requirements then they will be required to retake such a test before being offered admission.
Accreditation of prior learning
If you have studied a syllabus as part of a previous qualification which is comparable in level, content and standard, you might not have to take a particular course as part of your University of London International Programmes degree if we believe that the subject has been covered to the same breadth and depth. This is called Accreditation of prior learning or APL. It is also sometimes known as Credit Transfer or Exemption.
We can award APL towards the BA degree only. The rules that apply are given in the Credit transfer and accreditation of prior learning section of the Programme regulations. More information about APL can also be found on the APL section of the website.
You must have regular access to a computer (or mobile device*) with an internet connection to use the University of London International Programmes website and the Student Portal. These are where your programme’s study resources are located. Through the Student Portal you can register as a student, enter exams and use your programme’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). The VLE provides you with electronic learning materials, access to the University of London Online Library, networking opportunities, and other resources.
To get the most from your studies, your computer should have at least the following minimum specification:
- screen resolution of 1024 x 768 or greater
- sufficient bandwidth to download documents of at least 2 MB
and the following applications installed:
- a word processor that reads Microsoft Word format (.doc)
- Adobe, or other pdf reader.
* Full mobile access is not available for all programmes.
Academic leaders: Birkbeck - Philosophy
Birkbeck College is ranked among the leading UK University institutions for its levels of national and international excellence in research in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.
Founded in 1823 as the London Mechanics' Institute and incorporated into the University of London as Birkbeck College by Royal Charter in 1920, today Birkbeck provides a unique range of degree and other courses designed specially to meet the needs of mature students. Birkbeck is uniquely placed to meet the needs of the External student.
Birkbeck ranks among the top 200 universities in the world, according to data published in the 2010-11 Times Higher Education World University Rankings [external link]. Ann Mroz, editor of the Times Higher Education magazine, commented: "The top 200 universities in the world represent only a tiny fraction of world higher education and any institution that makes it into this table is truly world class."
Birkbeck's Philosophy Department has an excellent reputation. In the last two national assessments it was ranked amongst the top six philosophy departments in Britain. Through their writing and editorial work, members of the Department are significant contributors to the worldwide philosophical community. For further information please visit the School of Philosophy website [external link].