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 nine papers;
  • a dissertation;
  • two primary source essays.

Option B consists of:

  • four unseen written examinations chosen from the nine papers;
  • two primary source essays.

The papers

Students taking Option A may choose any three of the following papers; students taking Option B may choose any four. Papers 1 and 9 will not be available in 2015–16.

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

This paper's scope includes the development in early modern Europe of occult and natural philosophies, mathematical sciences, natural history and museology, projects of exploration and technology. Lectures examine such themes in early modern European cultures as the social organisation, methods, cosmologies and materials of inquiry; concepts of natural order and economy in enterprises of collecting, writing, travelling and field study; and the practices of experimentation, classification and practice in natural philosophy and natural history.

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. 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.

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. 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 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.

Paper 11: Topics in Twentieth Century Science and Technology

This paper explores important topics in the history of science from World War I until the end of the 20th century. 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. The paper traces aspects of 20th-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 source 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.


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.