A Level Philosophy

 

What is it about at sixth form level?

What is real? How should we live? What can we really know? Questions as broad and deep as these have fascinated people for centuries. As a philosophy student, you will start thinking about them and explore ideas and thinkers from across the ages. In one lesson, you might be walking with Socrates in ancient Athens as he argues that we are born with knowledge; in another, you might be back in the modern day wondering whether computers could ever experience love or sadness. You will meditate with Descartes on what sort of thing you are and you will address in detail what philosophers have said about the perennial puzzle of whether God exists.

Philosophy attracts those who like journeys, not destinations. This does not mean that philosophical questions have no answers. For whether they do or do not is itself a philosophical question! The questions are fascinatingly simple yet profound and they invite us to explore what they mean and what the ‘philosophical landscape’ looks like in which we would hope to find the right path.

Lower sixth

In the AS year, you will study two units. In Unit 1 (Epistemology) you will look whether, when we perceive the world, we see it as it is or just how our mind makes it appear. You will consider a question first raised by Plato about how knowledge differs from belief. You will then consider where our ideas and knowledge come from: are they gained from experience or are we born with them? In Unit 2 (The Philosophy of Religion), you will start by examining the concept of God. You will then consider famous arguments for God. You will finish by considering whether it is even possible to talk meaningfully about God.

Upper sixth

In the A2 year, you will study topics in two other areas of philosophy. In Unit 3 (Ethics), the central issue is how to decide what the right thing to do is. Three theories will be considered and how they relate to some interesting real-life issues, such as war, crime and punishment and violence in computer games. We will then ask what it means to say that something is wrong or right. In Unit 4 (The Philosophy of Mind) we will try to explain how the subjective conscious mind fits into the objective physical world. Is the mind nothing more than the brain? Could there be ‘zombies’ who are physically identical to us but lack consciousness?

Why study it and what skills does it develop?

Philosophy is an old and much-respected discipline. It will introduce you to new ideas and new ways of thinking. You will quickly discover how it makes connections with almost every other subject you will be studying. For example, mathematicians assume we know mathematical truths but the philosopher will ask how, if numbers are not sensible things. Historians will look at the causes of past events and the philosopher will ask what it is for one thing to cause another. A physicist will talk of particles that cannot be seen with the naked eye. The philosopher will ask whether we are entitled to believe in such ‘non-observables’.

As you pursue the course, you will learn the important art of how to construct and analyse arguments. You will learn how to make your way through challenging texts. You will learn how to express difficult ideas clearly in both speech and writing. These are all invaluable skills for the study of any subject at university and beyond.

What prior knowledge and skills are required?

No particular qualifications are required. You should be aware that the course requires a lot of reading, a lot of writing and a capacity for logical thought.

How is the course assessed?

AS level

The AS is assessed by one three-hour end-of-year examination. The paper is divided into two halves, one for each unit (Epistemology and The Philosophy of Religion). For each unit, there will be a set of compulsory questions requiring answers of different length: two short-answer questions, two medium-answer questions and one long-answer question. The AS is 50% of the A level.

A2 level

The A2 course is assessed by one three-hour end- of-year examination. The paper is divided into two halves, one for each unit (epistemology and the philosophy of religion). For each unit, there will be a set of compulsory questions requiring answers of different length: three short-answer questions, one medium- answer question and one long-answer question. The A2 is 50% of the A level.

Reading

Philosophy for AS: Epistemology and Philosophy of Religion
By M. Lacewing
Published by Routledge, ISBN 978-1138793934

Philosophy for A2: Ethics and Philosophy of Mind
By M. Lacewing
Published by Routledge, ISBN 978-1138837874

An Invitation to Philosophy
By M. Hollis
Published by Wiley & Sons, ISBN 978-0631206644

Think
By S. Blackburn
Published by Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0192854254

Exam Board and Specification Codes

AS: AQA 2175 (1176), A2: AQA 2175 (2176) (legacy)

 

Oliver Milton
Head of Department