The Meanings of Life

Philosophy for Beginners, Term 3:

The Meanings of Life

Tutor: Bambos Voutourides


Wednesdays, 14.00-16.00, 11 meetings

Full Fee £80 Conc. £35

Course Outline
Explore some of the most important ideas, themes and thinkers in the history of Western philosophy. Learn about some of the central problems of philosophy, and how to puzzle them for yourselves.

Who is this course for
This course is for absolute beginners, and no previous experience of philosophy is necessary. Students will need English language skills to the equivalent of level 2, however, in order to benefit fully from the classes.

Although the course continues from Terms 1 and 2 it is still possible to start on the course in this term and we will not assume that everyone in the class already has knowledge of the topics covered previously.

What does this course cover
In this term we will explore the theme of the source of our values and the meaning of our existence. It is often said that our modern world has moved from a religious to a secular age and we will be exploring whether or not we have really come to terms what such a transformation might mean, if indeed it has really happened.

Some of the questions we will be asking include: are there any rational justifications for religious belief? How should we think about the relationship between faith and reason anyway? If we come to reject the idea that a supreme being can act as the foundation of our values, what are the implications of this? Does the absence of the divine mean that our lives are pointless or without real meaning? Or does this mean that we have to create such meanings for ourselves? What might the implications of this be for our sense of morality, freedom and the idea of an objective truth?

In the course of exploring these questions, we will look at the work of ‘religious’ thinkers such as Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Pascal, Montaigne, Kant and, in a very different way, Kierkegaard. We will read and discuss faith and religious inner experience in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition, and explore the gap between reason and faith in Maimonides, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kemp, Spinoza, Ibn Rush and Al-Ghazali. We will then move onto the contributions of atheist and existentialist philosophers, beginning with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, as well as discussing existentialism in literature and art, focusing on Kafka and Dostoevsky. We’ll then turn to 20th century thinkers like Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and rounding up with Hannah Arendt, addressing how ethics and philosophy can continue to remain pivotal in a world without God or traditional fixed certainties.

By the end of the course, you should be able to:

- Explain and critically assess a variety of arguments for the existence of God

- Assess debates concerning the relationship between Faith and Reason

- Explain and assess the significance of key ideas in the existentialist tradition (e.g. Nietzsche’s proclamation of the ‘death of God’ and the ‘reevaluation of all values’; Sartre’s view that ‘we are condemned to be free’)

- Develop your knowledge of the history of philosophy and the ideas, debates and concepts that have been developed through this

What will it be like
The classes will be discussion-based, allowing participants to explore, debate, and (inevitably) disagree. Please note that in a philosophy class, disagreement is not only acceptable, but is actively encouraged. Be prepared to have your preconceptions challenged. Your tutors will assess your progress through your class participation, in conjunction with your own self-assessment of your progress. In philosophy, however, progress often means becoming less certain, or more perplexed.

What else do you need to buy or do
You will need a notebook, a pen, and an open mind. Your tutors may also recommend further reading, but the course does not require the purchase of any more materials. We will also make course materials and other resources available to you outside of class via the Centre’s Moodle website.

A good introductory book is Tim Bayne, Philosophy of Religion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2018).

What this course could lead to
You could move on to do some of the range of courses that the College offers at the Intermediate level of Philosophy. If you started the course this term, you could continue to study at this level on the courses for terms 1 and 2. You could also apply the ideas you have looked at in the course to a range of other courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences, such as Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, History or other subjects.

Any questions? Email Dan, the course tutor, on