skip to content

Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Part IB students' guide

Course manager: Lauren Kassell

Michaelmas Term
Natural Philosophy (History of Science)
Simon Schaffer (9), Lauren Kassell (3)
Fri 5pm (weeks 1–8)
Wed 5pm (weeks 1–4)
What Is Science? (Philosophy of Science)
Tim Lewens (4), Hasok Chang (4)
Mon 5pm (weeks 1–8)
Is Social Science an Oxymoron? (Philosophy of Science)
Anna Alexandrova (4)
Wed 5pm (weeks 5–8)
Lent Term
History of Science and Medicine (History of Science)
Mary Brazelton (6), Helen Curry (6)
Fri 5pm (weeks 1–4)
Wed 5pm (weeks 1–8)
Philosophy of Science in Practice (Philosophy of Science)
Stephen John (4)
Mon 5pm (weeks 1–4)
Space, Time and Reality: The Philosophy of Physics (Philosophy of Science)
Matt Farr (4)
Fri 5pm (weeks 5–8)
Philosophy of Medicine (Philosophy of Science)
Jacob Stegenga (4)
Mon 5pm (weeks 5–8)
Easter Term
Can Machines Think? (Philosophy of Science)
Marta Halina (4)
Fri 5pm (week 1–4)
Philosophy of Biology (Philosophy of Science)
Tim Lewens (3)
Mon 5pm (weeks 1–3)
History of Science and Medicine (History of Science)
Richard Staley (4)
Wed 5pm (week 1–4)
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

Natural Philosophy
Simon Schaffer, Lauren Kassell (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.

  • Lectures will be live on Zoom with recordings available afterwards. Follow the links on Moodle.

Introductory readings:

History of Science and Medicine
Mary Brazelton, Helen Curry, Richard Staley (16 lectures, Lent and Easter Terms)

The 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed an unprecedented transformation of the sciences. These transformations were concomitant with and inextricable from the rise of European empires. New disciplines, such as physics, biology, geology and bacteriology took shape, housed in palatial museums, modern hospitals and research laboratories. The 'scientist' emerged as a public figure, and European governments devoted ever more resources to scientific teaching and research, cultivating symbiotic relationships between science, industry and empire. Darwinian evolution and the germ theory of disease extended the authority of the sciences to new domains, even as they shaped and were shaped by violent efforts to expand political authority to new colonial territories.

The association of science with the pursuit of power and profit became even more apparent, and further entrenched, as the 20th century progressed. Physicists' participation in World War II raised them to heights of social and political power. Biologists equipped with ever more sophisticated instruments set out to explain life at the level of molecules. Technological systems – designed to support energy, communication, commerce – reached global spans. This trajectory alarmed many, and by century's end there were also new critiques of science and technology in play, with perhaps none more important than environmentalism. The lectures examine these and other changes, and place them in the wider history of industrial and political revolution. They explore the role of the sciences in religious, philosophical, and political debates, in social and technological change, in medical practice, and in the transformation of everyday life.

These lectures are organised into three series. The first, Empires of Knowledge (1789–1914), will be given in six lectures by Mary Brazelton. The second, Science in Power (1914–1989), will be given in six lectures by Helen Curry. The third, Science and Crisis (1989–present), will be given in four lectures by Richard Staley in Easter Term.

Introductory readings:

Resources for Part IB History of Science on Moodle

Philosophy of Science

What Is Science?
Tim Lewens, Hasok Chang (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

What makes science better than, or at least different from, other systems of human thought? Is there such a thing as the scientific method? Is the development of science a linear, orderly and cumulative process, or an unpredictable sequence of changes? Karl Popper rejected empirical proof as the ideal of scientific knowledge, arguing that a genuine attempt to falsify one's own theories was the hallmark of the critical attitude essential to science. Imre Lakatos agreed but tempered Popper's falsificationism. In contrast, Thomas Kuhn regarded a dogmatic adherence to a paradigm as the hallmark of 'normal' science. Paul Feyerabend saw any attempts at specifying precise rules as futile, arguing that science progressed best when it was not constrained by any rigid notions about method. But perhaps science can be characterized not by a method but by a set of norms a community follows. We conclude by discussing feminist ideas about what these norms might be.

  • Live sessions on Zoom on 2 November and 30 November. Lectures are pre-recorded. Follow the links on Moodle.

Introductory reading:

Is Social Science an Oxymoron?
Anna Alexandrova (4 lectures, Michaelmas 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.

  • Live Q&A session on Zoom on 25 November. Lectures are pre-recorded. Follow the links on Moodle.

Introductory reading:

Philosophy of Science in Practice
Stephen John (4 lectures, Lent 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:

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:

  • Sklar, Lawrence, Philosophy of Physics (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992)
  • Maudlin, Tim, Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012)
  • Dainton, Barry, Time and Space (Chesham: Acumen, 2001)

Philosophy of Medicine
Jacob Stegenga (4 lectures, Lent 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, Easter 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?'.

  • All lectures are pre-recorded. Follow the links on Moodle.

Introductory reading:

Philosophy of Biology
Tim Lewens (3 lectures, Easter Term)

This short course offers a brief glimpse of what it is like to study the philosophy of biology. It does so by covering two very different topics. We will begin by looking at how Darwin built his evidential case for evolution, and how the lessons learned for how data support hypotheses have relevance for the debate over the status of so-called 'intelligent design theory'. In the second half of the course we move on to ask what is meant by 'human nature'. Both biologists and philosophers of biology have disagreed about whether the very idea of the 'nature' of a species is one that is respectable in the light of evolutionary theory.

Introductory reading:

  • Sterelny, Kim, and Paul E. Griffiths, Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)

Resources for Part IB Philosophy of Science on Moodle