Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Part II

The Part II course in History and Philosophy of Science gives students an insight into the historical development of the sciences, technology and medicine, and into their philosophical structure and sociological dynamics. It thus provides essential resources for understanding some of the most significant institutions in the world today.

This is a full-time Part II course in the Natural Sciences Tripos. We also offer three single-paper options to students taking the NST Part II course in Biological and Biomedical Sciences.


There are two alternative options for students taking HPS Part II: Option A is normally the choice of students who intend to graduate after taking Part II; Option B is normally the choice of those who plan to proceed to Part III. All students are free to choose either option.

Option A consists of:

  • three unseen written examinations chosen from the 11 papers;
  • a dissertation;
  • two primary sources essays.

Option B consists of:

  • four unseen written examinations chosen from the 11 papers;
  • two primary sources essays.

The papers

Students taking Option A may choose any three of the following papers; students taking Option B may choose any four.

Paper 1: Ancients and Moderns

Paper 1 considers a broad range of subjects across different cultures and historical periods. This course is concerned with the sciences in the ancient, medieval and early modern periods, and covers a wide geographical space, focusing on a number of different cultures. Interest will centre on concepts, methodology, apparatus, institutions and cultural transmissions of knowledge. While the lectures will be organised by chronology and linguistic/cultural geographies, the intention is to examine continuities and discontinuities around themes relating to what is sometimes defined as 'tradition-based' or 'tradition-challenging' attempts to explain the natural world. Questions relating to epistemology, authority and community will be explored. Given the longevity of some of the 'traditions' considered, there will be some forays into later periods, including the 19th and 20th centuries, on occasion. Why, for example, does Stephen Hawking refer to Aristotle in his latest book?

Paper 2: Early Medicine

This paper covers medical knowledge and practices in the ancient, medieval and early modern periods. Themes include understandings of the body and of disease; the status of medical knowledge; patient-practitioner relationships; the medical marketplace; sex and reproduction; and medicine, magic and religion.

Paper 3: Sciences in Transition: Renaissance to Enlightenment

Paper 3 examines how the sciences came to form the backbone of the modern world by describing what happened outside as well as inside laboratories and studies. During the European Renaissance, intellectual investigation was fuelled by international exploration. Commercial trade stimulated the global exchange of skills, knowledge and natural specimens, which circulated between different societies and changed as they travelled. As natural philosophers adapted old instruments and introduced new ones, ancient ideas co-existed with ones that still survive. The experimental entrepreneurs of the 18th century operated like public relations experts, promoting the societies, career structures and funding opportunities that came to characterise global sciences. This was the all-important transition phase between the private experiments of a few wealthy gentry and the public laboratories, state funding and industrialisation of the Victorian era.

Paper 4: Science, Industry and Empire

This paper addresses the major changes in the natural sciences between the Napoleonic Wars and the end of the First World War. This was the period when modern sciences in a recognisable form emerged, were consolidated and challenged, and extended their global reach. Many of the typical institutions of the sciences were established and developed: teaching laboratories and research institutes, industrially-sponsored research and professionally organised scientific careers and qualifications. New and large-scale publics for the sciences appeared, and, in turn, responded to and affected the content and aims of scientific inquiry. This was also the epoch of grand visions of natural order and its secular meanings, whether in thermodynamics and electromagnetism, in astrophysics and cosmology, or in evolutionary theory and racial science. The paper traces the interactions between imperial and national rivalries, notions of class and of culture, enterprises of commerce and industry, and the achievements of the major scientific programmes of the period.

Paper 5: Modern Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Born in hospitals, vaccinated, X-rayed, taking antibiotics, receiving transplants – medicine sets the parameters of our lives. Since a great deal of biology, chemistry and physics has been and continues to be done as part of medicine, it is also central to HPS. This paper is about how, and with what consequences, a new, scientific medicine was made for the modern world. The Michaelmas Term course surveys the creation since 1750 of new medical institutions, professionals and practices. The Lent Term course explores the 20th-century transformation of medicine into a major object of economic, political and ethical concern.

Paper 6: Metaphysics, Epistemology and the Sciences

This paper provides a canonical treatment of a series of traditional questions in the philosophy of science. The sorts of questions covered include whether we should believe that our best scientific theories are true, the issue of the general nature of scientific knowledge, the role of various forms of simplification and idealisation in science, the pretensions of science to reveal a mind-independent reality, and issues around the alleged unity of the sciences and of scientific method.

Paper 7: Ethics and Politics of Science, Technology and Medicine

Science, technology and medicine play a central role in the modern world. However, there are many on-going political and ethical controversies over the role they ought to play. These include debates over whether, when and how, ethical and political values should shape scientific research and practice, and over when and how scientific results and new technologies should be used. Furthermore, these important disputes relate to more fundamental questions about the relationship between truth, values and objectivity. The aim of this paper is to introduce students to both practical and theoretical debates over the politics and ethics of science and to examine their inter-relationships.

Paper 8: History and Philosophy of the Physical Sciences

This paper takes an integrated approach to the history and philosophy of science, focusing on physics, chemistry, astronomy and other physical sciences. It builds on the material covered in both the History of Science and the Philosophy of Science papers at Part IB, and complements the general philosophy of science treated in Paper 6 and the history of science presented in various other papers.

Paper 9: History of Philosophy of Science

This paper looks at the origins of the philosophy of science and at its history in the modern age. The lecture courses trace changing views on the sources and features of science and our knowledge of nature. Topics covered include the empiricist approaches to knowledge of Locke, Berkeley and Hume and their legacy; Kantian philosophy and the sciences; the 19th-century Kantian heritage (Whewell, Helmholtz, etc); positivism and neo-positivism (Comte, Mill; Mach, Carnap, Neurath); conventionalism (Duhem, Poincaré); pragmatism (Peirce, Dewey, Putnam).

Paper 10: Human and Behavioural Sciences

This paper explores historical and philosophical aspects of the social and psychological sciences, including the character of their subject matters and their methodologies. Amongst the disciplines covered will be psychology, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, economics, political science, anthropology, sociology and history. Topics may include historical development of concepts and methods in these sciences, principally in the 19th and 20th centuries; the cultural impact of these sciences; the supposed differences between these sciences and the natural sciences; their connection to values; the nature of explanation; the reality of objects; the possibility of objectivity; their relation to evidence-based policy.

Paper 11: Science and Technology Since 1900

This paper surveys the history of science and technology from 1900 to the present day. The period encompasses several striking transitions in scientific research, including a vastly expanded scale, new professional roles for scientists and new configurations of funding, and the globalization of research. Science and technology have dramatically reshaped everyday lives, from the food and fuel we consume, to the ways we understand ourselves and our societies, to the devices that keep us connected. Changes in science and technology have also fuelled our imaginations, whether dreams of solving global hunger or building space colonies, or nightmares such as nuclear annihilation and catastrophic climate change. The paper traces these various aspects of 20th- and 21st-century science through examples drawn from across the disciplines and around the world.

Primary sources

Students write two extended essays (up to 3,000 words), each based on a primary source. During Michaelmas Term there will be a series of four primary sources seminars for each of the papers. Students should attend four series of seminars: those associated with the papers they are taking plus, for Option A students, one other series of their choice. They then choose two of the sources on which to write their essays.

The prescribed sources for 2014–15 are as follows:

  • Paper 1: Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe
  • Paper 2: Simon Forman's Casebooks
  • Paper 3: The Board of Longitude: materials and documents
  • Paper 4: Ernst Mach, Contributions to the Analysis of Sensations (1886; Open Court 1897)
  • Paper 5: R.G. Edwards, B.D. Bavister and P.C. Steptoe, 'Early stages of fertilization in vitro of human oocytes matured in vitro', Nature 221 (15 February 1969), 632–635
  • Paper 6: Ian Hacking, 'Do we see through a microscope?', Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 62 (1981), pp. 305–322; Nancy Cartwright, 'Fundamentalism versus the patchwork of laws', chapter 1 of The Dappled World: A Study in Boundaries of Science, (Cambridge University Press, 1999); John Dupré, The Disorder of Things: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science (Harvard University Press, 1993), chapter 10, 'The Disunity of Science', pp. 221–243
  • Paper 7: A. Flanagin et al, 'Prevalence of articles with honorary authors and ghost authors in peer-reviewed medical journals', Journal of the American Medical Association 1998, 280(3):222–224; D. Healy and D. Cattell, 'Interface between authorship, industry and science in the domain of therapeutics', British Journal of Psychiatry 2003, 183:22–27
  • Paper 8: Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems – Ptolemaic & Copernican, trans. by Stillman Drake, foreword by Albert Einstein (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1953), 126–189
  • Paper 9: J. Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 2, ch. 9, 'Of perception'; G. Berkeley, An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, sections 132–148; G.W. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, Book 2, ch. 9, 'Of perception'
  • Paper 10: John Stuart Mill, The System of Logic, Book VI: 'On The Logic of the Moral Sciences'
  • Paper 11: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)


This part of the course – which is only for students taking Option A – gives students the chance to explore in depth a topic that really interests them. The dissertation is a substantial piece of work (between 5,000 and 12,000 words) on an approved topic within HPS. Each student makes a short presentation on their dissertation topic at one of the dissertation seminars in Lent Term.