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Welcome to first year

Welcome to first year in philosophy at UCD

We’re delighted that you’ve decided to study philosophy at UCD. This little brochure will tell you more about the subject and how we teach it.

1. What is philosophy?

Notoriously, it’s not easy to say exactly what philosophy is until you start reading it, writing it and doing it. But a lot of you have already ‘done’ philosophy without knowing it! For example, you’ve probably been involved in — or at least witnessed — debates about whether someone or something is beautiful, or whether some behaviour is ethical, or whether some action or decision is fair, or whether some act was undertaken freely, or whether someone was being genuine, or whether gods or ghosts or angels exist, or whether J. K. Rowling’s account of time travel in Harry Potter and Cursed Child is consistent with the version of time travel introduced in the earlier books. If you’ve had experience of these kinds of debates — or even thought about them at all — then you’ve done philosophy. And if you’ve ever thought about the best way to conduct these sorts of debates — what sort of arguments are good arguments, and what sort of arguments are bad arguments — then you’ve also done philosophy. But even if you’ve never thought about any these things, it doesn’t take much to start thinking philosophically. For instance, consider this: it seems natural to be a bit sad about the fact that you won’t exist in the future, after you die. But it would be weird to be sad about the fact that you didn’t exist in the past, before you were born. Why is that? (Now you’re doing philosophy!)

We offer you a way to start thinking about big questions such as those described above, about the nature of beauty, goodness, ethics, freedom, authenticity, our relations with others, existence, time, logic, knowledge, alienation, oppression, and more. In doing so, we offer you a path to developing your own answers to many of life’s toughest questions: how ought I live? What makes for a good life? What exists? How much do I know? What can I hope for? We also help you to learn to express yourself more clearly and precisely, both in speech and in writing, and to read and listen more critically and intelligently. In short, we’ll help you to become a clear and nuanced thinker. This skill will benefit you both in your other studies at UCD and throughout your life.

UCD has the biggest and most philosophically diverse philosophy department in Ireland, and the largest range of philosophy modules on offer. There really is something for everyone. See here for the (opens in a new window)descriptions of all the philosophy modules.

See also our webpage “Why study philosophy?

2. Some practicalities of first-year modules

Your SISWeb will give you details of the assessments for each module, and it is important to study this carefully so that you know what you’ll have to do. Each module has a Module Outline — i.e. a syllabus — which will be made available to you through the module page on the Brightspace virtual learning platform. This should provide all the details about the content, structure, and assessment for each course. Some things to note:

  • Many first-year modules have a two-hour exam, held during the exam period in December (for Semester 1 modules). The precise exam timetable is not available until late October.
  • Most of the modules require at least one essay, and some require two essays. Make a note of the essay deadlines when you are planning your semester.
  • Some of the modules have an attendance requirement, so you should check this. For example, 10% of the final mark for a course might be based on your attendance at tutorials (more on which below).

3. Essays

A philosophy essay usually consists in an argument: that is, a set of reasons given for believing some conclusion. And one of the great things about philosophy is that your lecturers won’t mind at all if they disagree with your conclusion — what they really care about is whether you give good reasons for believing your conclusion. In other words, what really matters is how you arrive at your conclusion, not what you conclude. If you study philosophy then we’ll spend lots of time teaching you how to reason well and how to write philosophy essays.

To get a sense of what a philosophy essay might look like, here are two very short sample arguments about the ethics of lying:

  • It is never morally permissible to lie. The reason is that moral rules – such as the rule that one oughtn’t lie – are just the rules of behavior that we would want everyone everywhere to follow. So it would not only be wrong but unreasonable to break such a rule.
  • It is sometimes morally permissible to lie. The reason is that lying sometimes produces the best overall consequences, and the right action is always the action that produces the best overall consequences.

Suitably expanded, either of these arguments could be at the core of a good philosophy essay. How could they be expanded? Well, both essays would be better if the reasons given for the relevant conclusions were supported by further reasons. For example, in the case of the first argument we need to say why we should believe that moral rules are rules of behavior that we would want everyone everywhere to follow. In the case of the second argument, we need to say why we should think that the right action is always the action that produces the best overall consequences.

There are other things that could be done to make the essays better. For example, the essays would be better if the concepts involved in the arguments were clearer. For instance, what is it to be ‘unreasonable’ in the context of the first argument? And what exactly are ‘good consequences’ in the context of the second argument?

The essays would also be better if some further relevant arguments were brought into play. For example, either essay could begin with a brief summary of another philosopher’s argument for the opposing view (in the case of the first argument, that lying is sometimes morally permissible). We could then offer our own reasons as to why we think that that argument fails. That would strengthen the case for our conclusion. (Indeed, we don’t even need to find an actual opposing argument: describing and responding to possible objections is a very important part of philosophical thinking.)

Finally, it would be better if the arguments were supported with examples: real or imagined scenarios that either support the relevant conclusion or undermine possible objections. Again, thinking of relevant examples is an important philosophical skill – and it’s fun as well!

Here are some other essay topics that invite you to develop and support an argument:

  • The brain is not like a computer
  • Civil disobedience is justified
  • Existence with others always leads to alienation
  • I can make any word mean whatever I like
  • People should not be punished for crimes they commit whilst drunk
  • My freedom requires me to recognize the freedom of others
  • Private schools should be outlawed
  • Fictional characters don’t exist
  • Euthanasia should be legalised
  • God cannot be all-good and all-powerful, because if they were they would not allow so much evil in the world

See here for the School's https://www.ucd.ie/t4cms/essay_writing_guidelines.pdf. You could also seek advice from the UCD Writing Centre.

Essays have strict deadlines. Unless you hear otherwise, all essays should be submitted to the 'Assessment' menu on module site in Brightspace. You might also need to submit a hard copy to the School of Philosophy on the fifth floor of the D-block of the Newman building -- check the module outline. If your essay is late by up to one week, then you will be penalised one point (so a B- would go down to a C+). If your essay is late by between one week and two weeks, then you will be penalised two points. (This is a UCD-wide policy.)

Finally, the exam: typically in a philosophy exam you will have to write three short essays, but the same broad approach applies. Each exam essay should consist in an argument for a certain conclusion, and should make good use of the reading that was assigned in the lectures. The best way to get a good mark in your exams is to prepare the outlines of your exam essays in advance.

4. Reading

The Module Outline (Syllabus) for a given module will also describe the weekly readings for that module. Usually, these will be PDF documents that you can download and print off. But you might also be asked to consult books in the library, or to buy a book from the UCD Bookshop.

It is very important that you look at some of the readings as soon as the module begins, so that you know what is in store. But don’t worry if the reading seems hard at first — going to the lectures should help to make everything clear. And of course you should feel free to ask the lecturers about the readings — questions are always welcome!

If you decide to stay in the module (you have time to change your enrolment up to the end of the second week of term), then you will get into the habit of doing the assigned reading each week. Very often the lectures, the tutorials and even the essays will be about the weekly reading. So doing the assigned reading will really help you to get the most out of the course!

And note that ‘doing the reading’ doesn’t just mean reading the assigned text — it means thinking about it as well! In most cases, the author will be a philosopher who is trying to convince you to believe something, by giving you some reasons for believing it. You should always approach the assigned reading like a sceptical judge listening to the arguments of a slick lawyer, or a savvy shopper listening to a salesperson’s pitch — you *might* be convinced in the end, but you’re going to think very carefully about the arguments that the author is presenting before believing anything they tell you. And if you can think of any reasons for *not* believing them — if you spot any holes in the arguments, or think of counter-arguments, or notice that the author is using rhetoric rather than proper argumentation — then make note of them! They might just form the basis of your next essay.

As part of the enrolment process for any module you will join a tutorial group. Each first-year module offers a number of tutorial groups at different times during the week. Each tutorial group meets seven times over the term, from week 3 onward. Each tutorial group is led by a tutor, who will probably be someone who either has, or is studying for, a doctorate.

It is very important that you attend all of your tutorials, because they are your main opportunity to discuss the week’s lectures and the weekly reading. After all, discussion is the very heart of philosophy. In the lecture, your lecturer will do most of the talking — but the tutorial is your opportunity to discuss the ideas and arguments that the lecturer has raised. The tutorials also provide an invaluable opportunity to discuss your essays and exams. And, finally, they are a great place to get to know your fellow students!

5. Philosophy in Second-year and beyond

If you find you like philosophy, there’s plenty more on offer!The College of Arts and Humanities offers a Joint Honours with English and with History, and as a Major with a Minor in Art History or Music.

If you are in the College of Social Sciences, you may already be in a Joint Major in Philosophy and some other subject, or you might be in the Philosophy, Politics and Economics programme. Or you may be trying Philosophy as an elective. Either way, you should know that

  • at the end of Stage 1 you can transfer into another Joint Major programme, under certain conditions. See here for details.
  • at the end of Stage 2, you can transfer into a Single Major in Philosophy. See here for details.
  • If you have taken philosophy as an elective, you can also take further philosophy electives in order to gain a Structured Elective.

Good luck!

UCD School of Philosophy

Fifth Floor -- 510D, Newman Building, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
E: philosophy@ucd.ie