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Introducing History and Philosophy of Science

Technology, medicine and the sciences shape and dominate much of modern life. Many get specialist training in these fields. Even more people live in a world where the results of scientific inquiry and technical programmes matter. The challenges of learning and applying scientific techniques and principles raise fundamental and exciting questions about our ways of understanding the world.

It is crucial that as citizens we are as well equipped as possible to understand and debate how these enterprises work and what they mean. We need to know how the sciences achieved their position in our society. We must be able to make sense of the processes of scientific knowledge, technological projects and medical strategies. We should be able to see how and why these enterprises exert their powers and how they are trusted, contested and changed.

Diagram of a foetus by Justin Dittrich Siegmund, 1723 (Image credit: Wellcome Library, London)

The courses offered by the Department of History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) furnish resources to achieve this. Students are trained to employ techniques from history, philosophy and the social sciences. Students with a background in natural sciences or medicine learn how to put their work into its wider context and to ask more fundamental questions about their approach and achievement. Those from history, philosophy and the social sciences learn more about the essential roles and developments of the sciences, medicine and technology in the world. With these techniques, they are taught how to follow the ways in which sciences, technology and medicine changed and how to appreciate the way they function now.

Many of the most urgent public problems facing us now rely on very basic claims about how we get reliable knowledge and whom we should trust. Fraught debates about the causes of climate change or the safety of genetically modified foods, about the validity of techniques drawn from complementary medicine or the authority of evolutionary explanations of human behaviour, all involve deep questions about the character of dependable knowledge.

Courses in HPS help students think about these questions as they occur in the major debates around the sciences. Such controversies often call on citizens to ask about the truth of the claims made by scientists, medical practitioners or technologists. We can examine whether the sciences are in fact in the business of providing certain truths about the world, or whether, instead, their task is just to generate better predictions. Many current conflicts, whether in health care or engineering, in criminology or ecology, involve assertions and assumptions about the underlying causes of apparently evident effects. So as scientists and citizens we need to understand the diverse ways in which causation works. We also inquire about how different authorities have given reasons to trust what scientists say. This requires us to figure out the conditions for accepting some claim about nature and to see how persuasion works. Often, we rely on what others tell us. What we believe may well be contradicted by others' accounts. HPS programmes offer many fascinating approaches to understanding what is going on in such cases.

So we depend on good pictures of the sources and methods by which we find out about the world. For a long time, the sciences have been taken to be the model of secure knowledge. Students in HPS learn how to explore such models and how they have changed. These changes have taken place in surprising and provocative ways. HPS courses study models of knowledge across many societies and periods. There are many more systems of making knowledge than those pursued in modern technological societies. So students can learn about the knowledge systems and practical enterprises of other cultures, including classical China, ancient Mesopotamia or medieval Christendom. One vital aim is to explore the world-views of other communities, to make sense of approaches very different from those of industrial societies. Students also examine how these systems acquire their impressive power to act in the world. This means we have to ask why it is believed that the sciences are in fact such a potent way of understanding the world around us.

The task of scientific understanding has been, and is now, achieved through a range of very contrasting approaches. These include experiment and measurement, meditation and observation, classification and artistry. In different places and at different times highly variable methods have been put to work to establish how nature works and to manage and manipulate it. The purposes that guide human communities in the development of natural knowledge and of sophisticated techniques are also highly disparate. It makes a difference if nature is seen as a result of divine creation or instead as a vast, self-sustaining machine. It also makes a difference if the trustworthy interpreters of nature are treated as priests or as engineers.

So one of the most important questions about the sciences is their relation with the wider social system. Technologies and sciences in the modern world rely on massive networks of social organisation and communal enterprise. One way of thinking about the sciences is to treat them as institutions, then study the groups that make knowledge work, check its validity, train its practitioners and give it value. HPS courses help students learn how to apply this approach to the sciences, to medicine and to technology. These courses let students debate the urgent questions of the collective and individual character of reliable knowledge and effective technique.

The same kinds of fascinating and important issues arise in medical experience. Different peoples give very contrasting senses to the principal events of human life and death. Students of HPS explore how the medicalisation of these events was effected. They study the relations between notions of well-being and health, social life and individual fate, as models of medical intervention and of the human body have been contested, revised and developed. There have been close connexions between attitudes to technologies and to medical strategies. These have shaped the status of physicians and health carers, they matter to the condition of men and women in society and to the imagination of what counts as a good life. Courses in HPS allow students to investigate these fundamental social, ethical and historical problems and to learn how to analyse the condition of the biomedical world and its meanings.

The HPS department offers its students the chance to gain important insights about the condition of the sciences, of technology and of medicine. It also trains them in techniques of interpretation and argument, communication and critical analysis. These are indispensable skills throughout the Tripos. They are also increasingly valuable in an epoch when social, biomedical and environmental transformations pose such major challenges to public knowledge and expert authority. Graduates from the Department have successfully won places as researchers and activists, science educators and journalists, exhibition curators and media professionals and experts in science and technology policy. Join us in this programme!

Suggested reading

To find out more about HPS, try some of these books:

  • Peter Bowler and Iwan Morus, Making Modern Science (University of Chicago Press, 2005)
  • H.M. Collins and Trevor Pinch, The Golem: What You Should Know About Science (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • Jeff Hughes, The Manhattan Project: Big Science and the Atomic Bomb (Icon, 2003)
  • T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1996)
  • Bas van Fraassen, The Scientific Image (Clarendon Press, 1980)
  • James Watson, The Double Helix (Longman, 2001)