History and Philosophy of Science

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Option Representative: Diana L. Kormos-Buchwald

The history and philosophy of science option (HPS) provides students the opportunity to explore the historical evolution of the sciences and the philosophical perspectives that inform them, as well as the dynamics between science, technology, and other human endeavors. 

HPS courses in history help students learn about the origins of experimental practice; the social and institutional contexts of science; the origins and applications of quantitative methods; specific developments since antiquity in physics, biology, chemistry, geography and cartography, medicine;  and biographical and comparative studies in these fields.  HPS courses in philosophy deal with issues in causation and explanation; the foundations of probability and statistical inference; and philosophical problems in particular fields such as biology, mathematics, medicine, neuroscience, and physics. In their coursework, students receive regular feedback from the faculty on their research, writing, and presentation skills. They have the opportunity to carry out independent research, especially in their thesis work, and present their findings in a seminar setting.

This option thus aims to give students a broad, basic understanding of how science is practiced and how that practice has changed over time. Students learn to address questions such as: To what extent was the scientific revolution revolutionary? What is a scientific explanation and how do scientists go about constructing and justifying one? How have conceptions of scientific experimentation changed? What are the ethical issues raised by experimentation with human or animal subjects? How has relativity theory changed our conceptions of space and time? The option is designed to complement the regular science curriculum at Caltech, offering students the opportunity to enlarge upon, and to contextualize, the strong technical skills they acquire in other courses and options.

Because of its emphasis on essay writing and formulating complex philosophical and historical arguments, our curriculum provides training in writing and communication skills that are increasingly vital today. The HPS option provides excellent preparation for students going into law, business, medicine, science journalism and public affairs, and it also prepares students for graduate work in the history and/or philosophy of science.

The HPS minor is designed for students who want to pursue concentrated study in HPS without the extensive coursework and the senior thesis required by the HPS option. Freshman humanities courses other than Hum/H/HPS 18 may not be counted toward an HPS minor. Students wishing to do a minor in HPS must declare a minor with the HPS option representative. Those completing the HPS minor requirements will have the phrase "minor in History and Philosophy of Science" added to their transcripts.

Course Schedule Recommendations

We recommend that students intending to follow the HPS option take Hum/H/HPS 18, Introduction to History of Science, as one of their freshman humanities courses. Students making the decision to follow this option in their sophomore year should take Hum/H/HPS 18 and HPS/Pl 120, Introduction to Philosophy of Science, as early as possible in that year. Students may also enter the option in their junior year if they can complete the option's requirements in time for graduation. Please also note the following:

  1. Not all required courses are offered each term; students should consult the current catalog to determine which terms required courses are being offered, and they should construct their course plan for the year accordingly.
  2. We encourage students to choose their advanced social science electives from among courses that will enlarge their perspective on topics related to HPS (for example, Ec 118, Ec/SS 128, Ec/SS 129, Ec/SS 130, PSY 101, PSY 115, PSY 125, PSY 130, PS 120, PS 121, PS 122, An 22, An 123).

Finally, HPS 102 ab, Senior Research Seminar, may be taken in any two consecutive terms in the senior year. Students should coordinate with their HPS advisor in determining their course schedule.

NOTE: The official source on requirements for graduation is the Caltech catalog from the year in which a student began studies at Caltech. Please see the catalog online, from this and previous years, for more information regarding the applicable option and minor requirements. Please click here for additional information regarding the HPS option.