Philosophy of the Social Sciences

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof. J. McKenzie Alexander


This course is available on the BSc in International Relations, BSc in Philosophy and Economics, BSc in Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and BSc in Politics and Philosophy. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit. This course is available to General Course students.


No formal pre-requisites, but PH103 The Big Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy or equivalent is recommended.

Course content

This course examines philosophical problems of social science concerning what societies are like and how scientists theorize about them. The first part of the course will focus on questions of scientific method about the nature of understanding and the kind of knowledge the social sciences should, or can, aim for; as well as on questions of ontology pertaining to the nature of the social world. The overarching goal is to provide an intellectual geography of the philosophy of the social sciences, to which students will refer in the second part of the course when specific philosophical issues will be closely analysed and discussed. Contents to be covered in the second term will be structured around three main themes: action, rationality and intelligibility; institutions, culture, and the relationship between mind and society; and the moral aims of the social sciences, as well as their role in just social change.


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the LT.

This year, some or all of this teaching will take place online.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to write four formative essays, two in Michaelmas term and two in Lent term. The two summative essays then correspond to the two formative essays which received the highest marks.  Class presentations or weekly activities may also be required, depending on the pedagogical approach of the class teacher.

Indicative reading

A detailed reading list will be provided at the beginning of the course. Indicative readings include: Nancy Cartwright and Elinora Montuschi (eds.), Philosophy of the Social Sciences: a new introduction); Harold Kincard, John Dupré, and Alison Wylie (eds.), Value-Free Science: Ideals and Illusions; Jon Elster, Explaining Social Behaviour; John H. Miller and Scott Page, Complex Adaptive Systems; Dawn Langan Teele, Field Experiments and Their Critics: Essays on the Uses and Abuses of Experimentation in the Social Sciences; Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy of Social Science (Fifth edition); Harold Kincaid, Philosophical Foundations of the Social Sciences; Daniel Steel and Francesco Guala (eds.), The Philosophy of Social Science Reader; Michael Martin and Lee McIntyre (eds.), Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science.


Essay (25%, 2000 words) and essay (25%, 2000 words) in the MT and LT.
Take-home assessment (50%) in the ST.

Summative assessment for PH203 will consist of two essays and a take-home exam. Of the four essays assigned over the course (two in Michaelmas term, two in Lent term), the two essays which received the highest marks will be selected to count towards 50% of the final grade (i.e., 25% for each essay). In Summer term, a take-home exam, to be completed over the course of a week, will also be set. 

Student performance results

(2017/18 - 2019/20 combined)

Classification % of students
First 19.4
2:1 68.7
2:2 6
Third 1.5
Fail 4.5

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2019/20: 25

Average class size 2019/20: 9

Capped 2019/20: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills