He was born in Shropshire of a Leicestershire family. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and St John's College, Cambridge, of which he became a fellow in 1699. He seems to have lived chiefly at Cambridge until he resigned his fellowship in 1708, and his pastorals were probably written in this period. He worked for Jacob Tonson the bookseller, and his Pastorals opened the sixth volume of Tonson's Miscellanies (1709), which also contained the pastorals of Alexander Pope.
Philips was a staunch Whig, and a friend of Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. In Nos. 22, 23, 30 and 32 (1713) of The Guardian he was rashly praised as the only worthy successor to Edmund Spenser. The writer, probably Thomas Tickell, pointedly ignored Pope's pastorals. In The Spectator Addison applauded Philips for his simplicity, and for having written English eclogues unencumbered by the machinery of classical mythology. Pope's jealousy resulted in an anonymous contribution to the Guardian (No. 40), in which he drew an ironical comparison between his own and Philips's pastorals, censuring himself and praising Philips's worst passages. Philips is said to have threatened to hit Pope with a rod he kept hung up at Button's coffee house for the purpose.
At Pope's request, John Gay burlesqued Philips's pastorals in his Shepherd's Week, but the parody was admired for the very quality of simplicity which it was intended to ridicule. Samuel Johnson describes the relations between Pope and Philips as a perpetual reciprocation of malevolence. Pope lost no opportunity of mocking Philips, who figured in the Bathos and the Danciad, as Macer in the Characters; and in the instructions to a porter how to find Edmund Curll's authors, Philips is a Pindaric writer in red stockings.
In 1718 he started a Whig paper, The Freethinker, in conjunction with Hugh Boulter, then vicar of St Olave's, Southwark. Philips had been made justice of the peace for Westminster, and in 1717 a commissioner for the lottery, and when Boulter was made Archbishop of Armagh, Philips accompanied him as secretary. He sat in the Irish parliament for County Armagh, was secretary to the lord chancellor in 1726, and in 1733 became a judge of the prerogative court. His patron died in 1742, and six years later Philips returned to London, where he died.
His contemporary reputation rested on his pastorals and epistles, particularly the description of winter addressed by him from Copenhagen (1709) to the Earl of Dorset. In TH Ward's English Poets, however, he is represented by two of the simple and charming pieces addressed to the infant children of John Carteret, 2nd Lord Carteret, and of Daniel Pulteney. These were scoffed at by Jonathan Swift, and earned for Philips from Henry Carey the nickname of "Namby-Pamby".
Philips's works include an abridgment of Bishop John Hacket's Life of John Williams (i700); The Thousand and One Days: Persian Tales (1722), from the French of F Pétis de la Croix; three plays: The Distrest Mother (1712), an adaptation of Racine's Andromaque; The Briton (1722); Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (1723). Many of his poems, which included some translations from Sappho, Anacreon and Pindar, were published separately, and a collected edition appeared in 1748.