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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Part IB students' guide

Course manager: Matt Farr

Lectures in Lent and Easter Terms 2024 are held in Arts School Lecture Theatre A.

Michaelmas Term
Natural Philosophy (History of Science)
Dániel Margócsy (6), Philippa Carter (4), Charu Singh (2)
Fri 5pm (weeks 1–8)
Wed 5pm (weeks 1–4)
What Is Science? (Philosophy of Science)
Anna Alexandrova (4), Marta Halina (4)
Mon 5pm (weeks 1–8)
Philosophy of Medicine (Philosophy of Science)
Stephen John (4)
Wed 5pm (weeks 5–8)
Lent Term
Empires of Knowledge, 1789–1914 (History of Science)
Mary Brazelton (6)
Fri 5pm (weeks 1–3)
Wed 5pm (weeks 1–3)
Can Machines Think? (Philosophy of Science)
Marta Halina (4)
Mon 5pm (weeks 1–4)
Science in Power, 1914–1989 (History of Science)
Dmitriy Myelnikov (6)
Fri 5pm (week 4)
Wed 5pm (weeks 4–8)
Space, Time and Reality: The Philosophy of Physics (Philosophy of Science)
Matt Farr (4)
Fri 5pm (weeks 5–8)
Is Social Science an Oxymoron? (Philosophy of Science)
Anna Alexandrova (4)
Mon 5pm (weeks 5–8)
Easter Term
Philosophy of Science in Practice (Philosophy of Science)
Stephen John (4)
Fri 5pm (week 1–4)
Philosophy of Biology (Philosophy of Science)
Michael Diamond-Hunter (3)
Mon 5pm (weeks 1–3)
Science and Crisis, 1989–present (History of Science)
Dmitriy Myelnikov (3)
Wed 5pm (week 1–3)
Revision Lecture Mon 5pm (week 4)

The Natural Sciences Tripos Part IB course in History and Philosophy of Science offers a wide-ranging overview of the nature of science and its place in society. The course explores the historical, philosophical and social dimensions of the sciences, the ways in which the sciences are shaped by other aspects of social and economic life, and the roles of scientists in public debate. Examples are drawn from many different disciplines, over a period extending from the Renaissance to the present day: from early astronomy, alchemy and natural philosophy, to the atomic bomb, the discovery of DNA and climate change. We examine questions about how theories are tested and change, and about the nature of causation, laws and scientific explanation. The course also considers whether or not science provides an increasingly accurate account of a largely unobservable world.

Other Triposes: HPS Part IB is also available as an option for students taking Part IIA of the Human, Social and Political Sciences Tripos (HSPS) or Part IB of the Psychological and Behavioural Sciences Tripos (PBS). These students choose only one paper: History of Science (HPS1) or Philosophy of Science (HPS2). Natural Sciences Tripos students take both papers.

For help with writing supervision essays, the writing support seminars are recommended.


History of Science

Resources for Part IB History of Science on Moodle

Natural Philosophy

Dániel Margócsy, Philippa Carter, Charu Singh (12 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

The history of the sciences asks about the ways in which different groups of people have found out about their world and how they organise this kind of exploration. The power and importance of science, technology and medicine in our own culture helps make this history significant. To understand what this importance means we need to know how it was achieved and how it changes. The way to understand how other people investigate nature is to try to look at their world from their point of view, a view often very different from our own. Until the end of the 18th century, Europeans organised their enquiry as natural philosophy, a means of understanding how God's creation worked and what it meant for humans' purposes and their fate.

The lectures start by treating the moment at the start of the 16th century when the religious unity of Christendom was broken and when new technologies in chemistry and navigation, printing and war, all began to change the world. The course traces the development of natural philosophy and its different forms of organisation as new models of the heavens and the Earth were developed, and as new maps of nature and of the body were drawn. The lectures extend their scope to the end of the 18th century, marked by dramatic industrial, political and disciplinary changes that helped transform the sciences. Much emphasis is placed on the way in which practices, maps, diagrams and instruments represented and helped to change natural knowledge, so the lectures are plentifully illustrated with original pictures and charts.

Introductory reading:

History of Science and Medicine

The lectures that cover the histories of science, technology and medicine from the 18th century to present are organised into three courses in Lent and Easter Terms: Empires of Knowledge, 1789–1914; Science in Power, 1914–1989; Science and Crisis, 1989–present.

Introductory reading:

Empires of Knowledge, 1789–1914

Mary Brazelton (6 lectures, Lent Term)

These lectures consider how European colonialism in the late 18th and 19th centuries fundamentally mediated historical developments in what came to be known as the sciences. Themes running throughout the lectures include the ways in which imperial, industrial, and economic power have shaped not only the history of science, but also the ways in which scholars have written that history in the Western world.

Science in Power, 1914–1989

Dmitriy Myelnikov (6 lectures, Lent Term)

These lectures explore the development of the sciences, medicine and technology from World War I to the end of the Cold War, a period characterised by global conflict, industrial transformation and decolonisation. Themes running throughout the lectures include the escalating association of science with the pursuit of power and profit by states and corporations as well as the continuity of violence – and frequent complicity of scientists, medics and other experts in that violence – from colonial to postcolonial contexts. They also consider critiques of science, paying particular attention to how the inclusion of diverse perspectives on the history of the sciences challenges the narratives of progress and modernity that have often been championed by those in power.

Science and Crisis, 1989–present

Dmitriy Myelnikov (3 lectures, Easter Term)

These lectures consider the histories of science, technology and medicine in a period characterised by an apparent triumph of capitalist democracies over state communism and authoritarianism that has proven increasingly illusory. Recurring themes include the alliance of science and efficiency in the neoliberal era, the continued role of science and technology in the exercise of state power, and challenges to the authority of scientists and engineers arising from both ends of the political spectrum.


Philosophy of Science

Resources for Part IB Philosophy of Science on Moodle

What Is Science?

Anna Alexandrova, Marta Halina (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

Is science better than other forms of knowledge? Even if it is not better, is it in any way distinctive? This course covers key attempts to demonstrate and to uphold such distinctiveness. We start with classic 20th century attempts to identify the scientific method. Karl Popper, for example, argued that a genuine attempt to falsify one's own theories was the hallmark of the critical attitude essential to science. This view has been challenged by Thomas Kuhn who regarded a dogmatic adherence to a paradigm as the hallmark of 'normal' science, and by philosophers like Nancy Cartwright who denies the possibility of codifying science into a set of rules. Social approaches to scientific knowledge instead characterise science by a set of norms this community follows. We consider recent attempts by scientists to overcome the replication crisis by instituting norms of open science. Finally, this course considers pluralist alternatives to characterising a scientific method.

Introductory reading:

Philosophy of Medicine

Stephen John (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

Medicine is among our most important institutions. Though its aim is practical, medicine is shot through with conceptual commitments and theoretical assumptions, its basic tools rely on causal hypotheses supported to varying degrees by inductive inferences, and medical research is developed in a complex political and economic nexus. Thus medicine is a prime subject for philosophical analysis. This short course will examine three core topics in philosophy of medicine: the nature of disease, the evidential basis for assessing the effectiveness of treatments, and the political context of medical research.

Introductory reading:

  • Stegenga, Jacob, Care and Cure: An Introduction to Philosophy of Medicine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018)

Can Machines Think?

Marta Halina (4 lectures, Lent Term)

What is the mind? What is consciousness? Can machines think? Questions such as these have puzzled philosophers for centuries and represent active areas of contemporary research in cognitive science. These four lectures explore what we have learned about the mind from philosophical and scientific perspectives, focusing on the problem of other minds: how can we gain knowledge of other minds, whether human, animal, alien or artificial? We will explore proposed solutions to this problem and apply them to practical questions such as, 'is machine consciousness possible?' and 'do fish feel pain?'.

Introductory reading:

Space, Time and Reality: The Philosophy of Physics

Matt Farr (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Modern physics paints a picture of the world that differs radically from our everyday conceptions. This course introduces you to the philosophical foundations of physics and the two-way relationship between physics and philosophy. What does physics really imply about the nature of the world we live in? What kinds of things are space and time? Could we travel into the past? How can we have knowledge of unobservable entities ranging from superstrings to the structure of the universe itself? And should we really trust the ever-changing theories that science gives us? We will examine these questions and more through a series of case studies from the history of physics.

Introductory reading:

Is Social Science an Oxymoron?

Anna Alexandrova (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Social sciences are both powerful and insecure: powerful because of their often close relation to policy, insecure because the expertise of social scientists is frequently questioned. In these lectures we examine the long standing view that social sciences cannot be truly scientific because their objects are people and because their methods must be distinct from natural sciences. Can there be a science of human beings? Do social sciences have laws? If not, can they still offer respectable explanations? Or perhaps we can only hope for post-hoc narratives that provide insight without being able to predict or to give causal explanations. Finally we ask whether social sciences are inherently political and what this might mean for their validity.

Introductory reading:

Philosophy of Science in Practice

Stephen John (4 lectures, Easter Term)

In this lecture course we look at the complex inter-relationships between scientific research and social values. We start by considering different accounts of the proper aims of science, asking how these accounts relate to practical problems around science funding. We then go on to consider the process of research, focusing in particular on two topics: ethical restrictions on permissible research, and whether non-epistemic values are required to close the gap between data and theory. In the third part of the course, we consider the use of science in practical domains such as medicine and policy-making, asking which kinds of evidence count as good bases for decision-making. Finally, we consider the broader question of why and when the public should trust scientists, and whether and how scientific institutions can facilitate such trust.

Introductory reading:

Philosophy of Biology

Michael Diamond-Hunter (3 lectures, Easter Term)

This short course gives a taster of the philosophy of biology via introduction of a few interesting (and highly debated) concepts. First, we look at an important species concept, and potential issues when using it in biological practice. Second, we look at the concept of a population, and how differences amongst them have ramifications for empirical work. Last, we look at the understanding of a biological individual, and discuss some ramifications for biology and public policy.

Introductory reading: