PPE: History and Background

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Radcliffe Camera in Oxford (David Iliff, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The programme PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) originated in the 1920s at Oxford University, providing an alternative to that university’s well established ‘classics’ course of study. Since then many similar programmes have been developed at leading universities in the US and the UK. The programme is also offered elsewhere in the world, but on the European continent only a few small universities have a PPE programme at the bachelor level. The PPE bachelor programme at VU Amsterdam is the first one on the European continent that is offered fully in English and by a large university.

PPE programmes provide the knowledge of core elements of and approaches within Philosophy, Political Science and Economics (multidisciplinarity), and aim to teach the student to apply the different perspectives in combination with each other (interdisciplinarity). The programme’s popularity stems from the resulting unique application of analytic rigor to pressing social, political and economic issues. The three disciplines which comprise PPE are natural complements:

  • Philosophers examine our epistemological presuppositions and consider why and what we should value
  • Economists study how our goals can be realized with scarce resources
  • Political scientists focus on the processes by which we make decisions about who gets what, when, and how.
John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill (ca. 1870)

Given their complementarity, it is not surprising that the disciplinary separation between Philosophy, Political Science and Economics is a recent phenomenon. In the works of authors like Aristotle, Adam Smith, Marx and John Stuart Mill no clear separation between these subjects can be found. The demarcation began at the end of the 19th century and was subsequently reinforced by the growing specialization within the disciplines:

  • Theoretical philosophy (logic, epistemology, philosophy of science) emerged as a field clearly different from practical philosophy (ethics, political philosophy)
  • Microeconomics and macroeconomics constituted two research communities that hardly engaged with each other
  • Within political science a distinction was made between comparative politics, international relations and political theory.

PPE counters these historical trends. Complex societal problems require generalists, that is, researchers, policy makers and professionals who are able to examine an issue from different angles, who can combine different perspectives in a constructive way, and who are aware of the broader social and historical context of the problem in question.