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History and Philosophy of Science (HPS)

Option Representative: Nicolas Wey-Gomez

Full-Time Faculty: Jed Z. Buchwald, Fiona Cowie, Diana L. Kormos Buchwald, Mordechai Feingold, Chris Hitchcock, Gideon Manning, Steven Quartz, Nicolas Wey-Gomez.

The program in History and Philosophy of Science is devoted to the study of the historical evolution and philosophical underpinnings of the physical and biological sciences. Work in history and philosophy of science may be pursued as an undergraduate option, a graduate minor, or on a course-by-course basis.


 Historical research in the program includes the origins of experimental practice, the social and institutional contexts of science, the origins and applications of quantitative methods, specific developments since antiquity in biology, chemistry, geography and cartography, medicine, and physics, as well as biographical and comparative studies in these fields. Philosophical research in the program deals with issues in causation, explanation, scientific inference, the foundations of probability and decision theory, philosophy of mind, psychology, and neuroscience, and scientific fraud and misconduct.

Few HPS programs aim to develop strong ties with scientists at their universities. As a result, opportunities for fruitful interaction between historians and philosophers of science and scientists themselves are lost. The program at Caltech constitutes a major exception: our historians enjoy connections with their colleagues in the sciences, as exemplified by HPS seminars, which colleagues from other divisions regularly attend, and by the Einstein Papers Project (under direction of Diana Kormos Buchwald). Caltech philosophers of science have also long nurtured ties with their scientific peers: Steve Quartz and Fiona Cowie, for example, have had active collaborations within the Division of Biology. 

Unlike many programs elsewhere, HPS at Caltech does not have graduate students. We are free from preoccupation with issues of training and employment that so often deflect scholars elsewhere from research, collaboration, and undergraduate teaching. Moreover, resources that might otherwise be devoted to graduate training enable us to bring to Caltech eminent and emerging historians and philosophers of science to work with us in a congenial and collaborative atmosphere that encourages interaction with the broad range of scientific activity at the Institute. Our distinguished visitors have included Timothy Breen, Anthony Grafton, Evelyn Fox Keller, John Heilbron, Robert Iliffe, Myles W. Jackson, Lisa Jardine, Naomi Oreskes, Jürgen Renn, and Noel Swerdlow. We also host the series of Harris Distinguished Lectures in Science & Civilization, which aims to foster greater understanding between the sciences and the humanities by bringing eminent people from both sides of the intellectual divide to Caltech - such as H. Varmus, Oliver Sacks, Richard Rhodes - to speak about their work and its broader social and intellectual context.

HPS faculty members also serve on the boards of numerous journals and series in the field. In addition, three journals and two book series in history of science (edited By Jed Z. Buchwald) have their homes partly or entirely here: Archive for History of Exact Sciences(Springer), Perspectives on Science (MIT), Sources and Studies in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences (Springer), Archimedes (Kluwer), and Transformations (MIT). BothArchimedes and Transformations explicitly seek work that unites history and philosophy of science, emphasizing the connections that the program at Caltech fosters. Perspectivespublishes work that tackles difficult and pressing issues in both the history and philosophy of science. 

The HPS program has been built further since spring 2002, initially with the addition of Mordechai Feingold, a social and institutional historian of 17th- and 18th-Century science. He brought an essential component to the program, as the very structure of modern science has its roots in the early modern period, and also enhances connections with colleagues in history and literature. Since 2007, Gideon Manning has brought to the program his expertise in medieval and early modern philosophy, as well as in history and philosophy of biology and medicine. And, since 2010, Nicolas Wey-Gomez, has added his own knowledge on the history of cartography, geography, and exploration since antiquity. In addition, the program continues to explore the possibility of engagement with the history of 19th and 20th century biology and with empirical ethics.  In Fall 2013, Frederick Eberhardt will contribute to our expertise in philosophy of science, bringing interdisciplinary connections to the fields of computer science and psychology. These additions and new thrusts combine with our existing strengths and close connections between historians and philosophers to produce a uniquely focused, collegial, and scientifically engaged program in the history and philosophy of science.

Program Goals

The option in history and philosophy of science (HPS) provides students with a broad education in the historical and philosophical issues arising in connection with science and technology. Students take courses addressing fundamental questions about scientific concepts and practice, such as the following: 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 over time? How and why did modern physics (or chemistry or biology) emerge in the form that it did? How should the theory of evolution inform our conception of the modern mind and brain? What role can the neurosciences be expected to play in solving the 'mind-body' problem? The option thus aims to give students a broad basic understanding of the ways in which science is practiced, and the ways in which that practice has changed over time. It is designed to complement the regular curriculum at Caltech, offering students the opportunity to enlarge upon, and to contextualize, the strong technical skills they acquire in other courses and options. The HPS option provides excellent preparation for students going into law, business, medicine, and public affairs, as well as solid preparation for graduate work in history and/or philosophy of science. In addition, and because of its emphasis on essay writing and the formulation of complex philosophical and historical arguments, it aids budding scientists and engineers in developing the writing and communication skills that are increasingly vital today. 

Option Requirements

  1. Hum/H/HPS 10; HPS 102 ab; HPS/Pl 120; and HPS 103 (one quarter). (HPS 102 b fulfills the Institute science writing requirement.)
  2. One advanced course in the history of science, chosen from HPS/H offerings with a course number of 98 or higher; one advanced course in philosophy of science, chosen from HPS/Pl offerings with a course number of 98 or higher; and any four courses in HPS. (No more than 9 units of HPS 98 may be counted towards the HPS major.)
  3. 45 units of courses in science, mathematics, and engineering. This requirement cannot be satisfied by courses listed as satisfying the introductory laboratory requirement or by a course with a number less than 10.
  4. Passing grades must be earned in a total of 486 units, including all courses used to satisfy the above requirements.

We recommend that students intending to follow the HPS option take Hum/HPS/H 10 "Introduction to History of Science" as one of their Freshman humanities courses. Students making the decision to take this option in their sophomore year should take Hum/HPS/H 10 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 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).
  3. HPS 102ab, the 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.

History and Philosophy of Science Minor

The minor in History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) is designed for students who want to pursue concentrated study in HPS without the extensive course work and the senior thesis required by the HPS option.

HPS minors must complete 72 units of HPS courses. These may include Hum/H/HPS 10 and up to 9 units of advanced reading in HPS (HPS 98). Freshman Humanities courses other than Hum/H/HPS 10 may not be counted towards an HPS minor. SStudents 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. 

Minor requirements

  1. 72 units of HPS courses numbered 99 or above.
  2. 9 units of HPS 98 may be substituted for any 9 of the 72 units required for the minor.
  3. 9 units of Hum/H/HPS 10 may be substituted for any 9 of the 72 units required for the minor.