Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE)
Dr Stuart White is a Fellow and Tutor in Politics who teaches the Theory and Practice of Democracy, the Theory of Politics, Classical Political Thought, the Foundations of Modern Social and Political Thought and Marxism. His research interests lie in normative political theory, public policy and the history of political thought.
Dr James Tilley, also a Fellow and Tutor in Politics, teaches Introduction to Politics (part B), Comparative Government, Political Sociology and Modern British Government. His research interests lie in the fields of political sociology and public opinion, with a focus on British politics.
Dr Péter Esö is the Fellow and Tutor in Economics who teaches Core Microeconomics and Game Theory. His research interests include microeconomic theory, game theory, and the economics of information.
Dr Geoffrey Ferrari is a Lecturer in Philosophy for Jesus College. His primary research areas are in moral philosophy (including metaethics, normative ethics and value theory). He is also interested in logic, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language.
About the Course
PPE is an unusual course, and the three subjects, philosophy, politics and economics, offer highly contrasting intellectual styles and challenges. There is great variety and scope for specialization within the course, and you should have little difficulty in selecting papers that meet your intellectual needs and interests. At one extreme you can keep all three subjects going for the full three years and by the end of this particular programme you will have a clear grasp of the major institutions, thinkers and ideas that have shaped modern society. At the other extreme you can concentrate primarily on one subject, dropping another altogether after the first year, and doing only a few papers in the third. You could thus, for example, ‘major’ in economics treating politics or philosophy as a subsidiary. In this way you could reach a high standard in economics, but backed up by the intellectual variety of papers in another, contrasting discipline.
Academic Philosophy will not tell you the secrets of the universe, the meaning of life, how to find peace of mind, or how to live your life. It will teach you to think critically about these issues. The emphasis is on precise and careful arguments. Thinking philosophically therefore requires rigour, precision, and creativity. In one of the main papers, History of Philosophy, central ideas advanced by the great philosophical thinkers of the past such as Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume are rigorously examined. Questions of the following sort are asked: What can we know? What is the relation between mind and body? What is a person? The work of the great dead philosophers is compared with twentieth-century treatments of similar issues, and undergraduates are encouraged to form views of their own. An essential aim is the acquisition of an ability to handle philosophical problems, rather than just learn about existing philosophical systems. In the second main paper, Ethics, the topics studied include the nature and status of moral assertions, free will and moral responsibility, rights and duties. The character of the paper can perhaps best be conveyed by some of the questions set in recent years:
- 'Do we have any reason to be moral? Do we need any?'
- 'Do we have moral obligations towards non-human animals?'
- 'Am I responsible for my own character?'
For those going on to specialise in Philosophy there is a variety of options (see below).
Politics as an academic discipline differs from the popular conception of what the subject is about. While there is room for commitment and controversy in the academic study of politics, the primary emphasis is analytical. The aim is to promote a clear view of political ideas, movements and institutions, and to achieve insight into the nature of authority and the distribution of power in society. In achieving this end, the method followed is that of a critical scrutiny of both political ideas and also hypotheses regarding the political behaviour of institutions and voters, rather than that of attack or defence of the standpoint of any political party or group.
No less importantly, politics comprehends a much wider and more diverse range of studies than is usually imagined. On the one hand, it includes political theory. Here we attempt to critically analyse such key concepts as liberty, democracy, equality and social justice, including classic texts and thinkers of continuing relevance in contemporary life. On the other hand, it mainly includes the empirical study of politics, and political systems, which can be divided into four main areas:
- Political sociology: we are normally interested in trying to explain individuals’ behaviour and attitudes.
- Comparative government: we are interested in political institutions (such as legislatures or electoral systems), and want to explain the dynamics and development of those institutions.
- International relations: we want to understand the relationships between states, as opposed to individuals or institutions.
- Political history: we examine in detail the nature and background of important political events and social changes in individual countries (or groups of countries) using a more historical methodology.
As this brief survey suggests, politics as an academic subject is concerned with almost every aspect of man in society, and the fact that it differs from popular conceptions of ‘politics’ doesn't make it less exciting or challenging. Indeed, few students will find their political opinions unchanged at the end of their course in politics, and most will agree that they have benefited from subjecting their political ideas to a disciplined critical inquiry.
The problems of Economics are familiar to us from the newspapers and television. The economics of unemployment, inflation and taxation, the role of the government in the provision of education, health and other public services, intervention in the private sector and regulation, problems of world trade and growth and international justice, are all inescapable issues for an intelligent observer of the contemporary scene. It is towards the understanding of these issues that Economics is directed, and it is that challenge which makes Economics such an important discipline.
The method of study is to start with the fundamental economic sectors and institutions in an economy. Households, differentiated according to size, income and social class, offer labour services, purchase consumer goods and save. Firms, differentiated by size and industry, undertake production and investment. Trade unions operate in the labour market. Banks and other financial institutions operate the financial system. Governments form a major part of all advanced economies, and are involved in regulation and production themselves. For each set of economic sectors, we propose theoretical models to explain their behaviour and performance. These models are then compared with the evidence and amended accordingly. The next stage is to put all the models together, and examine the workings of the system as a whole. At this point we may be interested in the aggregate performance of the economy as a whole. If the system is subjected to a shock from the outside (a sudden rise in the price of oil, for example), how does it adjust? And how might the government respond to the problems created? Alternatively, we may look at more fundamental issues, like the efficiency of the price system in regulating production in the economy, or the wider issues of capitalism versus socialist planning.
The development and testing of theoretical models has become much more logically rigorous in recent years, with a considerable emphasis on Mathematics in exposition. So a logical mind and willingness to acquire some mathematical skills are essential to success in the subject. However, it is not all "scientific" model building. The best economists are still those who can see into the essential features of an economic problem, and can distinguish fruitful approaches to understanding it. That requires an intelligent understanding of institutions (and here the links with Politics and Sociology are vital), and an awareness that solutions to economic problems raise thorny ethical issues (and here there are important links with Moral Philosophy). Economics as a discipline is intellectually very demanding: but the satisfaction and insight that it gives makes the effort well worthwhile.
The first year (Preliminary Examination)
The first year course is designed to lay the foundation for more advanced work to be done in the second and third years on the course. The Preliminary Examination consists of three papers.
The PHILOSOPHY paper has three sections of which you have to choose two: they are General Philosophy (based on a selection of key texts), Moral Philosophy (based on JS Mill's Utilitarianism), and an introduction to Logic. This last may appeal specially to the mathematically minded, but can also be managed by those with no special mathematical training.
The INTRODUCTION TO POLITICS paper contains questions on the politics and government of the United Kingdom from 1945, the United States from 1932, France from 1946 and Germany from 1949. At the heart of this is the comparison of institutional arrangements and sociological differences between countries, and there are also some explicitly comparative questions. In addition to the study of the institutions of those countries, students study a selection of major theorists in political thought, including Rousseau, Mill and Marx.
The INTRODUCTORY ECONOMICS paper covers elementary Economic Theory and the application of Mathematics to simple problems in Economic Theory. The mathematical level is not beyond that of A-level although some new material of special interest to economists is introduced.
The second and third years (Final Honour School)
You will have the option of studying all three subjects (the tripartite option) or just two. The core papers are:
Ethics, plus TWO of the following FOUR papers:
- History of Philosophy from Descartes to Kant
- Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics
- Plato's Republic
- Knowledge and Reality
TWO of the following FIVE papers:
- Comparative Government
- British Politics and Government in the 20th Century
- Theory of International Relations
- Theory of Politics
- Political Sociology
- Quantitative Economics
The further papers include:
Philosophy of Mind; Philosophy of Religion; Philosophy of Logic and Language; Philosophy of Kant; Formal Logic; Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein; Philosophy of the Science and Social Science; Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Criticism; Post-Kantian Philosophy; Medieval Philosophy; Theory of Politics.
Modern British Government and Politics; Government and Politics of the United States; Government and Politics in Western Europe; Russian Government and Politics; Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa; Politics in Latin America; Politics in South Asia; Politics in The Middle East; International Relations in the Era of Two World Wars; International Relations in the Era of the Cold War; Classical Political Thought up to 1800; Foundations of Modern Social and Political Thought; Marxism; Sociological Theory; The Sociology of Industrial Societies; British Society in the Twentieth Century; Labour Economics and Industrial Relations; The Government and Politics of Japan; Social Policy; Comparative Demographic Systems; Quantitative Methods in Politics and Sociology; The Government and Politics of China.
British Economic History since 1870; Command and Transitional Economies; Comparative Demography; Econometrics; Economic Decisions within the Firm; Economics of Developing Countries; Economics of Industry; Economics of OECD Countries; Finance; Game Theory; International Economics; Labour Economics and Industrial Relations; Mathematical Methods; Microeconomic Theory; Money and Banking; Public Economics.
It is also possible to write a short dissertation, not more than 15,000 words, in place of one of the Further papers. The topic can be any subject that falls within the scope of PPE.
Teaching Method and Work Load
As is usual in Oxford, the teaching is partly University-based and partly College-based. Lectures are provided by the University. Your tutor will advise you each term on the lectures you should attend from the very large number offered. Tutorials are provided by the College and writing essays for tutorials is a major focus of your work. You will typically have one or two tutorials in a week, and the preliminary reading and writing for each tutorial will constitute a large proportion of your working week. There will also be some classes organised by the College; Maths and Logic classes at the beginning and revision classes at the end of the course. For most of your first two years you will be taught in College, but in your final year you will be taught by specialists from other colleges if you have chosen further subjects (such as International Relations) that are not the specialities of the Jesus Tutors.
The College has an undergraduate library with books and some of the main periodicals covering the various aspects of the PPE course. It has reading rooms, but is also a lending library. The main University library (the Bodleian) has a very large collection, for reference only. In addition there are University departmental Libraries with borrowing facilities at the Social Sciences Library (Manor Road), and at the Philosophy Sub-faculty Centre (Merton Street).
None of the three PPE subjects may be studied on their own at Oxford. The following combinations are available at Jesus College:
- Economics and Management
- History and Economics
- History and Politics
- Mathematics and Philosophy
- Philosophy and Modern Languages
- Philosophy and Theology
- Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics
There is no need to have studied any of the three subjects at AS/A2 level before starting PPE. Some people have done extremely well at PPE having studied, for example, French, German and Latin, others having studied Maths, Physics and Chemistry.
Although a background in Mathematics is not formally required for admission, PPE applicants should have sufficient interest in, and aptitude for, mathematics to cope with the mathematical elements of the course. Mathematics is a particular advantage for the Economics component of the course, as well as for the first year logic course in philosophy, and for understanding theories and data in politics.
Last year around 90% of the applicants who were offered places for PPE had studied Maths to at least AS-Level, or equivalent. You may like to consider taking Maths to AS-level, or an equivalent qualification such as IB Standard Level, even if you do not pursue it further. It is useful to have learnt the basics of differentiation before starting your university course in PPE.
Candidates are selected on the basis of academic record (e.g. GCSEs) and potential, as shown by their UCAS reference, performance in the written test and in interviews if shortlisted. All candidates are required to sit the Thinking Skills Assessment (as are candidates for Economics and Management). Candidates will need to register with the Admissions Testing Service by 15 October 2013 to take the test, either at their own school or college (or at an examination centre for individual or overseas applicants), on 6 November 2013. Please see www.tsaoxford.org.uk for details. There is no test during the interview period and candidates are not required to submit written work.
During the interview, discussion is focused on a short text or texts which are distributed to candidates beforehand. In the interview we are looking for the ability to understand the arguments in the texts, to express the arguments clearly, to criticise and develop them, and to apply them in areas outside the text. Every candidate is confronted with the same text and the same questions to ensure that performances can be compared between candidates.
In a total College entry of about 100 undergraduates, 8 are offered places in a typical year to read PPE or History and Politics. Offers made to pre-A level candidates will be conditional upon A2 level results (normally AAA, excluding General Studies). Offers made to post-A level candidates will usually be unconditional.
Deferred Entry: Applications for deferred entry to Jesus College are welcomed. You must apply for deferred entry at the time of application to Oxford: you cannot change your mind after an offer has been made. Please refer to departmental web sites for subject-specific advice. You should be aware that applicants who are offered places for deferred entry will generally be among the strongest of the cohort for their subject. We would not usually offer more than one or two deferred places per subject in order not to disadvantage the following year's candidates. In some cases, an applicant for deferred entry may be offered a place for non-deferred entry instead. If you require any further advice, please contact the Admissions Officer.
Postgraduate Studies and Careers
Philosophy Graduate students will find themselves members of a large graduate community, together with others with shared interests who are at an equivalent stage in their intellectual development. The following degrees are offered at postgraduate level:
- MLitt, DPhil, MSt or BPhil in Philosophy
The Department of Economics has around 200 graduate students. As a research based community, the Department puts great weight on developing its graduate students. The following degrees are offered at postgraduate level:
- MLitt, MPhil or DPhil Economics
- MSc Economics for Development (joint with Development Studies)
- MSc in Financial Economics (joint with Saïd Business School)
The Department of Politics and International Relations is internationally renowned as a centre for excellence in teaching and research. Its reputation attracts students and senior academics from across the world. The following degrees are offered at postgraduate level:
- MLitt or DPhil in Politics
- MPhil: Comparative Government; Political Theory; European Politics and Society
- MSc: Politics and International Relations Research; Political Theory Research
PPE students go on to a wide range of careers, although in many cases you must expect to undertake a further period of professional training. If you want to become a professional economist (either in government or academic life) you must take a post-graduate course like the MPhil. Postgraduate work (whether in Philosophy, Politics, Economics or Sociology) is generally popular. Other common destinations are accountancy, banking, finance, industry (often on the marketing side), management consultancy, the Civil Service, journalism and social work.
Preliminary Reading and Further Information
If you are wondering whether you might enjoy PPE, not having come across any of the subjects formally before, it might be wise to read a few introductory books. The following will give you some idea of what the academic study of Philosophy, Politics and Economics involves (but there is no need to read them all):
- Thomas Nagel, What Does it All Mean? (Oxford UP paperback)
- Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford UP paperback)
- Simon Blackburn, Think (Cambridge UP)
- Jonathan Wolff, Introduction to Political Philosophy (Oxford UP)
- Michael Rosen and Jonathan Wolff, Political Thought (Oxford UP)
- Charles Lindblom, Politics and Markets (Yale UP)
- Bill Jones et al., Politics UK (Prentice Hall)
- James C Scott, Seeing Like a State (Yale UP)
- John McMillan, Reinventing the Bazaar (W.W.Norton)
- Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist (Little Brown & Co)
- Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus, Economics (McGraw-Hill/Irwin)
Further information about PPE at Oxford can be found on the Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Politics and International Relations and Department of Economics websites, and the University's Undergraduate Courses pages.
Last updated September 2013