The first thing to know about the Cambridge undergraduate philosophy course is that it’s analytic through and through. Analytic philosophy is a fairly recent tradition, dating back to the late 19th century; some of its earliest members were Russell, Moore and Wittgenstein, all of whom taught at Cambridge. It’s roughly a way of doing philosophy characterised by a dry and precise writing-style, plus an interest in general questions about how logic and language work.
What the course being analytic means for students is that they spend the bulk of their time reading English-speaking writers from the past century or so; writers who typically care more about clarity than stylistic beauty. It also means that students have to study logic in both the first and second year (which is a big thing in the analytic tradition).
This level of analyticity is distinctive to Cambridge. In some ways it’s great, in others not – I stress it here because whilst it’s an important thing for applicants to know about, it’s seldom explicitly discussed. What you should take home is that it’s very unlikely that you’ll be reading, for instance, a 20th century French thinker’s ruminations on the meaning of life. You’re actually more likely to be reading rather technical papers on the meaning of the word ’the’.
Every year you study four papers ( = modules): two in the first term (’Michaelmas’), two in the second (’Lent’) – the third term (’Easter’) is for revision. But you sit five exams, because of the Essay Paper, in which you pick a word or phrase from a list of around 10 and just… write something philosophical about it for three hours. (It’s a misnomer because the other exams are, of course, all essay-based too: three in three hours (except first year logic which has formal stuff).) The Essay Paper is pretty controversial, and pretty hard, but don’t let it scare you off. In practice you end up writing on something you’ve read/thought about; plus there are ways of avoiding it in the second and third years.
The details of what you have to study and when are all on the faculty website. Logic is, as mentioned, compulsory for first and second years. In the first you study formal logical languages, as well as philosophical issues surrounding those languages. The second year stuff is almost entirely philosophical. You do not have to have done – or be good at – maths to do formal logic. Much of it is more like learning a really strict language than solving maths problems.
In the third year you have complete free rein over your papers. If you fancy moving away from the analytic stuff which focuses on logic and language, there are modules offering that. And you can write a dissertation on pretty much anything, so long as someone in the university can supervise it.
You write one 2-3000 word essay a week. You then talk about the essay for an hour with a very clever person: either an academic or a PhD student working on the essay’s area. For the essay you’ll typically read something between 5 and 8 papers, and draw on lecture notes (if you’ve had them on this topic yet – lectures don’t synchronise with essays, since everyone has different essay-schedules). This is not very much reading, especially compared to other arts subjects. But it’s dense, and requires a lot of patience and concentration. You also have to think a lot about what you’ve read; probably more than any other student has to. So study is very much independent: lectures are little more than overviews of the topics; writing and discussing your essays are where the real learning happens.
Peterhouse is an excellent college to study Philosophy at, in many people’s eyes second only to Trinity (historically the philosophical hub of Cambridge). The Director of Studies – the person who’s in charge of your academic life, deciding what you study when and with which supervisors – is Chair of the Faculty ( = head of department); a pretty important (and very nice) guy named Tim Crane. The other Peterhouse philosopher, Richard Holton, is also very distinguished. So you are very well looked after.
The only possible bad point about philosophy at Peterhouse has to do with the college’s size: there may not be a lot of other philosophers in Peterhouse to talk about the course/essays/philosophy with. But then again, there may! It’s hard to say: in 2010, only one philosopher matriculated ( = joined the college); in 2011, four did. But this isn’t really worth worrying about.
There are reading suggestions on the faculty website. Those are all books, but don’t be afraid to have a go at some papers, if you fancy it (use the Part I ( = first year) reading lists on the website as a guide). But don’t try to read too much; you’re not expected to. A well-kept secret is that you don’t have to know a single thing to be a good philosopher. You are, however, expected to be able to think carefully, and this is something you can practice. If you come across an argument you don’t quite understand, try to identify the premises and conclusion, and how exactly the arguer’s getting from the one to the other. Do this even as you read the newspaper, or watch TV, or chat to your friends. It’s also good to get into the habit of writing down any philosophical ideas you might have: this forces you to make them clearer.
This is probably the hardest and most rewarding undergraduate philosophy course in the country. It’s pretty narrow in its focus on recent English-language thinkers, but it teaches you how to think well about really difficult questions. If you think that sounds fun, apply!
Michael Thorne, 2013