A painting of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden by artist Lucas Cranach

Explaining and understanding human behaviour

Module details

  • Offered to 2nd Years
  • Mondays 16.00-18.00
  • Planned delivery: On campus (South Kensington)
  • 2-term module worth 5 ECTS
  • Available to eligible students as part of I-Explore
  • Extra Credit, or Degree Credit where your department allows
Degree credit module options by departmentHow to enrol

This module explores philosophical problems that surround attempts in psychology, sociology, anthropology and other ‘human sciences’ to understand and explain human behaviour. We will begin with the age-old philosophical problem of free will, asking whether it is possible to bring our individual actions and cultural practices within the scope of a theory of mind or society.

Examples in the weeks that follow will include apparently irrational beliefs in other cultures, aesthetic and moral value judgments, mental ill health, deviant behaviour and the nature and binding force of social norms. This is an interdisciplinary module in which you will be encouraged to question your own assumptions about what makes us tick.

Information blocks

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of this module, you will be able to:

  • Critically examine empirical studies of human behaviour and understanding.
  • Compare and contrast different philosophical approaches to explaining human behaviour.
  • Exercise critical awareness of the arguments for and against social science.
  • Integrate concepts which link philosophy and your degree discipline.

Indicative core content


  • The free will problem
  • Anscombe’s analysis of the concept of intention
  • Austin's discovery of 'ordinary' actions
  • Durkheim’s ‘first and most basic rule of sociological method’, to ‘consider social facts as things’
  • Malinowski’s call to consider forms of life ‘from the native’s point of view’
  • Value as an anthropological problem, as seen e.g. in Malinowski’s study of the Kula ring
  • Evans-Pritchard’s account of witchcraft among the Azande
  • Bourdieu’s sociology of taste
  • Freud’s economic, topographical and structural models of the minds, and his approach to explaining neurotic illness
  • Irving Goffman’s studies of the ‘interaction order’ of everyday activities
  • Harold Garfinkel’s studies of participants’ order-production methods
  • Debates surrounding cultural relativism and rationality
  • The regress problem of Wittgenstein’s remarks on rules and rule-following, and Peter Winch’s Wittgensteinian critique of ‘the idea of a social science’
  • The problem of making ‘knowledge-how’ (Gilbert Ryle) or ‘tacit knowledge’ (Polyani) propositionally explicit
  • The ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of knowledge
  • The problem of ambiguity in the human sciences as between a deed repeatedly done and the doing of it on a particular occasion
  • The problem of the reflexivity of the human sciences

Learning and teaching approach

A range of discussion activities will be used to make learning active. Though you will need to do some preparation for sessions, you will be encouraged to regard the sessions themselves as the times when you study for the module. You will be asked to decide what you think, not told what to think, and will be asked to do this in class, not in private study after class. You will be asked to respond to presentations from the module leader and to listen and respond to other students’ responses.
The module will be augmented by some digital tools:
  • A virtual learning environment, podcasts (e.g. Philosophy Bites, In Our Time, etc.) and videos (e.g. YouTube, Vimeo).
  • Recordings will be made of presentation from the module leader. Note, however, that recordings cannot be made of discussion activities, which will constitute a major component of the module.
The module will use an appropriate VLE through which summative assessments will be submitted. Feedback will be supplied via the VLE, with the feedback from your term one essay designed to support you in developing your term two essay.


  • Coursework: 2000-word essay due at the end of term 1 (40%)
    This assessment has a lower weighting than the later essay of the same length, as it comes early in the module and you may not have much experience in the subject
  • Coursework: 2000-word essay due at the end of term 2 (60%)
    This assessment has a higher weighting than the prior essay of the same length because it comes at the end of the module and so it will better evaluate your summative learning

Key information

  • Requirements: You are expected to attend all classes and undertake approximately 85 hours of independent study in total during the module. Independent study includes reading and preparation for classes, researching and writing coursework assignments and preparing for other assessments.
  • This module is designed as an undergraduate Level 5 module. For an explanation of levels, view the Imperial Horizons Level Descriptors page.‌