Maybe you’ve just finished your GCSEs and have decided to enter the brave new world of Philosophy at A Level. It might feel both exciting and a little daunting to be beginning a brand-new subject in Year 12, rather than continuing one, such as Physics or English, that you’ve studied for some years. This is the right way to feel! Philosophy is a challenging and demanding subject, but it’s one which all of my students find richly repays and rewards their efforts (even if I sometimes leave them at the end of the tutorial with their minds reeling). Philosophy asks us to question many of the assumptions we have made about the world and about ourselves. You’ll find yourself pondering things like: What counts as knowledge? How do I know that matter exists? What’s the right way to live? What is happiness? Are there objective moral truths? Is there a God? And if there is, why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? What is consciousness and how does it relate to the physical world?
It isn’t uncommon for people to feel that they come out of Philosophy A Level knowing less than when they went in! But what Philosophy teaches us is hugely valuable: it makes us more keenly aware of how we get hoodwinked by bad arguments and makes us use language more precisely and clearly. It might also change your life.
Although there are Religious Studies A Levels that include some aspects of philosophy, I’m going to concentrate here on the one purely philosophical A Level, which is set by AQA. If you’re taking this board, you’ll be studying four different strands of philosophy. In Year 12, you’ll begin with Epistemology – which concerns what we can know and what knowledge is – and Moral Philosophy – which is about how we decide upon the right way to live and act and where notions of good and evil come from. In Year 13, you’ll move on to Metaphysics of God – asking whether the arguments for the existence of a supreme being are convincing – and finally Metaphysics of Mind – in which you’ll consider what it is that we mean by ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ and how this consciousness is linked to the brain and the physical world.
If you want to get ahead of your classmates and dip your toes into Philosophy this summer, I would recommend that you take a look into these books. All of them are short and engaging written, and so are perfect for taking on holiday. Crucially, they aren’t “textbooks” and so it won’t feel like you’re just ploughing through stuff that you’ll then have to learn again next year. Rather they are ways to see what each topic is about, inspire a love for the subject, and get your mental cogs turning.
- What Does it All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel.
One of the best things about this book is that it doesn't drop a single name. There are no philosophers mentioned here, just philosophical ideas: free will, justice, ethics, death, other minds, language, and the meaning of life. A great introduction to the subject.
- Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig
Craig introduces first-timers to some of the core issues in Philosophy through discussion of specific texts. So Plato's Crito introduces us to ethics, Hume's Of Miracles sets off a discussion about knowledge, and an ancient Buddhist dialogue between a monk named Nagasena and a visiting Greek king provides a starting point for thinking about identity and the self.
- Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer Nagel
What is the difference between believing something and knowing something? What justifies a claim to truth? How do we know that there is actually a real world outside of our minds and that we’re not just dreaming? Nagel charts a clear course through these puzzles.
- Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity by Larissa MacFarquhar
While most of us try to be half-way decent people, few take the drastic measures adopted by the women and men profiled in MacFarquhar’s book. She introduces the reader to people who live among lepers, a couple who adopt twenty children in distress, and a man who donates his kidney to a total stranger. An exhilarating read that forces us to think hard about what makes a ‘good’ life.
- Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
This book is based on the wildly popular lectures of Harvard professor Michael Sandel who guides the reader through the main moral theories in Western philosophy while never losing sight of real-world examples. This book is particularly recommended for those also studying politics or economics or thinking of reading PPE at university.
Metaphysics of God
- Philosophy of Religion: A Very Short Introduction by Tim Bayne
What do people mean when they use the word ‘God’? Is it a coherent concept? Do the arguments for and against God’s existence stand up to scrutiny? Tim Bayne’s excellent introduction will set your mind buzzing on these topics.
Metaphysics of Mind
- Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind by Annaka Harris
There’s a fundamental difference, we might think, between me and my coffee cup. I have all sorts of experiences – emotions, sensations, memories, desires and so on – while my coffee cup (I presume) doesn’t feel anything at all. I’m conscious. It’s not. I don’t think my coffee cup gets lonely when I leave it in the cupboard. But what is it that makes that difference? Why am I conscious and the coffee cup isn’t? And how can I be sure that you are conscious? Could robots ever become conscious? Harris’s beautifully written guide to these mysteries and more is an excellent primer on the key questions you’ll consider in this module.
If you are looking for further help, Keystone has several tutors like me who specialise in teaching AQA Philosophy.