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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.

  • Paper 1: Early History of Science, Medicine and Technology
  • Paper 2: Sciences and Empires
  • Paper 3: Modern Medicine and Life Sciences
  • Paper 4: Philosophy and Scientific Practice
  • Paper 5: Epistemology and Metaphysics of Science
  • Paper 6: Ethics and Politics of Science, Technology and Medicine

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 five series of primary source seminars, each made up of four seminars. Students should attend four series of seminars. They then choose two sources on which to write their essays.

The prescribed sources for 2019–20 are as follows:

  • Jan van der Straet (Stradanus), Nova Reperta (New Inventions), a series of 20 engravings (c. 1590)
  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, PMG19 Addendum A: Final amendments to the NICE technology appraisal processes and methods guides to support the proposed new Cancer Drugs Fund arrangements (2016)
  • The Stanford School:
    • John Dupré, The Disorder of Things: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 1993), chapter 10, 'The Disunity of Science', pp. 221–243
    • Ian Hacking, 'Do we see through a microscope?', Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 62 (1981): 305–322; it is also reprinted essentially in the same form as chapter 11 of Hacking's Representing and Intervening
    • Nancy Cartwright, 'Fundamentalism versus the patchwork of laws', chapter 1 of The Dappled World: A Study in Boundaries of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); previously published in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94 (1994): 279–292
  • Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (New York: Macmillan, 1911; 2nd ed. 1938)
  • Hans Reichenbach, The Direction of Time (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971)
  • Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968)


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.

Supervisions and writing support

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

We provide optional tailored study skills sessions and one-to-one writing support for those who feel this may be of benefit.

Pass rates

Pass rates for HPS Part II are close to 100%, and every year a significant proportion of the students receive a first class degree.

Distribution of Part II marks