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Philosophy at Magdalen

Many people, once introduced to philosophical problems through discussion or reading, find themselves hooked and fascinated by the questions it raises. Fundamental and persisting problems that philosophers have struggled with since Plato include:

  • What is it to be free, and in particular to act freely?
  • What is the role of sense-experience in giving one knowledge of the existence and nature of a world beyond one’s own mind?
  • What is the relation between mind and body?

These are just three of the fundamental, perennial problems of philosophy that are part of the core syllabus.  Beyond that, studying philosophy at Oxford allows a very large range of choice in further areas.

In addition to its intrinsic fascination, the study of philosophy is an excellent training of the mind in skills of analysis and critical thinking, close scrutiny and understanding of texts and, quite generally, the ability to win an argument!  Those who have studied philosophy as part of a degree course at Magdalen who return, often comment on how much their study of philosophy has helped them in the jobs they have gone into after graduating.

Philosophy at Oxford is not studied at undergraduate level in a single-subject course, but instead is studied as one part of ‘joint’ degree courses, combined with one or two other subjects. There are eight such Joint Honour Schools at Oxford, and Magdalen accepts students for all but two of these. For Philosophy, Politics and Economics (‘PPE’) the college currently accepts up to 9 students per year. Between 5 and 8 students a year are accepted for Classics. Up to 3 are accepted for Psychology and Philosophy and the recently introduced school of Philosophy and Linguistics. In addition, in a typical year about 3 students in total are accepted for the smaller Schools of Philosophy and Modern Languages, Physics and Philosophy, and Mathematics and Philosophy. The College has a strong tradition in these ‘small schools’, and very much welcomes applications from good candidates. We do not admit students for Philosophy with Theology, nor for Philosophy with Computer Science.

Magdalen is fortunate to be one of the few colleges with two full-time Tutorial Fellows in philosophy. Professor Lizzie Fricker is the senior philosophy tutor. Her research interests are in theory of knowledge, philosophy of mind, and the later philosophy of Wittgenstein. Her own research for some years has focused on issues concerning our knowledge from ‘testimony’, that is everything we know only at second-hand through accepting the spoken or written word of another about some matter. Professor Paul Elbourne is the author of a book Definite Descriptions, and has published extensively in the philosophy of language and linguistics. In addition, the College is very fortunate to have as a lecturer in philosophy Dr Ralph Walker, Emeritus Fellow of the college who recently retired after a long career as senior philosophy tutor at Magdalen. He is a specialist in Kant, and in ancient philosophy (Plato and Aristotle), and has a quite exceptionally wide range of interest and competence in many areas of philosophy.