Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Part II

The Part II course in History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) gives students an insight into the historical development of science, medicine and technology. It addresses questions about the nature of scientific knowledge, and critically examines the social authority given to scientific expertise. It thus provides essential intellectual resources for understanding some of the most important aspects of modern society and culture.

This is a full-time Part II course in the Natural Sciences Tripos. We also offer single-paper options as part of the NST Part II course in Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Part IIB of the Human, Social and Political Sciences Tripos, and Part IIB of the Psychological and Behavioural Sciences Tripos.


There are two alternative ways of designing your HPS Part II programme.

Option A consists of:

  • three unseen written examinations chosen from a broad range of papers
  • a dissertation;
  • two primary source essays.

Option B consists of:

  • four unseen written examinations chosen from a broad range of papers;
  • two primary source essays.

Each examination paper counts for 20%, the two primary source essays for 20% and the dissertation (in Option A) for 20% of the overall mark. This means that Option A is 40% coursework and Option B is 20% coursework.

The papers

Students choose from the following list of papers. Any combination of papers will provide a very broad exposure to the field of history and philosophy of science and medicine and will fully meet the course aims and objectives.

Papers 8 and 9 will not be available in 2016–17.

Paper 1: Ancients and Moderns

Paper 1 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. 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.

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 central 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 (including life and medical 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 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: Science and Technology Since 1900

This paper surveys the history of science and technology from the turn of the 20th century until 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 globalisation of research. 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

All students write two extended essays (up to 3,000 words), each focused on an assigned primary source. During Michaelmas Term there will be a series of primary source seminars associated with each of the papers. Students should attend four series of seminars. They then choose two sources on which to write their essays.

The prescribed sources for 2016–17 are as follows:

  • Paper 1: Edward Sherburne, The Sphere of Marcus Manilius made an English Poem (1675)
  • Paper 2: Simon Forman's and Richard Napier's Casebooks
  • Paper 3: The Board of Longitude: materials and documents
  • Paper 4: Gleanings in Science (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1829–31)
  • Paper 5: Lennart Nilsson's photograph of an 18-week fetus (1965)
  • Paper 6: Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, 2nd edition, translated by P.P. Wiener (1954)
  • Paper 7: Doha declaration on the TRIPS agreement (2001); Indian supreme court ruling on Novartis (2013)
  • Paper 10: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), The American Psychiatric Association (2013), pp. xli–xliv, 5–24 and other selections
  • Paper 11: World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development (1980)


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 original work (up to 12,000 words). Students make short presentations on their dissertation work in dissertation seminars in Lent Term.


All papers are supported by supervisions; we recommend that students write 6–8 supervision essays per paper.