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Department of Philosophy

What Is Philosophy?


“Great philosophers need a combination of gifts that is extremely rare. They must be lawyers as well as poets. They must have both the new vision that points the way we are to go and the logical doggedness that sorts out just what is, and what is not, involved in going there. This difficult balancing-act is what has gained them a respect which is of a different order from the respect due to either kind of work on its own. It accounts for the peculiar prestige which philosophy still has, even among people who are extremely vague about what it is or why they might need it.”

Mary Midgley, ‘Philosophical Plumbing’  

Philosophy is traditionally pictured as a woman

This most ancient and fascinating of intellectual disciplines is fundamental to our understanding of what it is to be human.

Philosophy is an ancient discipline which studies the most fundamental questions that arise in all areas of human concern, from religion and politics, to morality and the sciences.

Philosophers ask questions about assumptions which most people, including thinkers in other disciplines, take for granted. For example, what is the nature of external reality and can we know about it? What is a person? Do human persons have free will and does it make sense to hold them responsible for their actions? Does the idea of a creative God, or an interventionist God, make sense? What is truth? How is it related to meaning? Is there only one true morality?

Philosophical questions such as these are fascinating but vexing and in joining the philosophical task of trying to answer them, you will become part of a tradition which goes back to Plato and Aristotle, to Heraclitus and beyond – to mention only the Western tradition.

The study of philosophy at Durham does not follow one particular school – the department has expertise in Anglo-American analytical philosophy and also, unusually in the UK, in Continental philosophy, with its distinctive set of issues and approaches to resolving them.

In studying philosophy at Durham, you will learn as much about how to think about difficult questions, as you will learn about the answers that can be given to them. You will be equipped for life with an ability to detect bad argument, whether in politics, in the media, or in discussion with the people you live and work with, and an ability to produce better arguments of your own.


“Philosophy is thinking hard about the most difficult and ultimate questions.”

Elizabeth Anscombe, Philosopher