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Philosophy of Technology and Engineering Sciences


    Anthonie Meijers, editor

    Now, if there are no artifacts, then there are no philosophical problems about artifacts.

    [Van Inwagen, 1990, p. 128]

    Not so very long ago most philosophers of science maintained that the subjectmatter of this volume was uninteresting and most ontologists claimed it was nonexistent. It was thought to be uninteresting because technology was taken to be an applied science in which the application itself presented no new philosophical challenges. It was believed to be non-existent, because technological artifacts and systems did not live up to the criteria for being part of the ultimate inventory of the world. A combination of these two views leads to the rather fatal conclusion that the philosophy of technology and engineering sciences is boring stuff about non-existing entities! This volume shows how completely wrong that conclusion is.

    The fact that most philosophers of science have not regarded technology or engineering as a subject worthy of serious study clearly emerges from various wellknown introductions, companions and anthologies. [Curd and Cover, 1998] and [Curd and Psillos, 2008], for example, do not have a single index entry for artifact,

    design, engineering or technology in 2000 pages of philosophy of science. There

    are some exceptions though, such as [Newton-Smith, 2000] which contains a small section on the philosophy of technology.1

    In analytic ontology interest in technological artifacts has also been largely lacking.

    2 If such artifacts are discussed at all it is often in the context of arguments intended to show that they do not really exist. The roots of this attitude lie in the positivist rejection of metaphysics.3 What survived of metaphysics after positivism

    focused on the fundamental concepts of the natural sciences. Basic social sciences and humanities concepts were ignored, taken to refer to non-existing entities, or thought to be reducible to concepts in physics. Since technological artifacts are 1More evidence for the lack of interest shown by philosophers of science can be obtained from the Philosophers Index (Philosophers Information Center 2008), database 19402008. A search

    for the keyword science produces 46,250 entries, a search for engineering only 450 entries, and

    a search for technology 1250 entries. The keywords artifact and design generated 300 and

    1200 entries respectively. Entries with the subject label ethics were excluded, because the focus

    of the search was on the philosophy of science.

    2A combined search for artifact and ontology led to only 16 (!) entries in the Philosophers

    Index database 1940-2008.

    3See Thomassons chapter in this Volume, Part II.

    human-dependent objects, they do not fit the physicalist mould and are therefore an easy target for eliminativists.

    There are many reasons why the above conclusion is wrong. The relation between science and technology is infinitely more complex than suggested by the simplistic idea that technology is just an applied science.4 One only has to look at

    the pervasive role of technology in modern science to see this. Furthermore, the fact that most ontological accounts of artifacts, or medium sized objects in general, are eliminativist can be taken as an indication that there are serious problems with key concepts in metaphysics, such as the concepts of co-location and existence. So instead of simply biting the bullet about the non-existence of artifacts the conclusion might be that we should rethink basic ontological concepts.5

    Technology forms a very rich philosophical terrain and the Handbook can be read as a map of the many fascinating issues that can be found here. A number of them have been investigated in depth in the philosophical literature, such as the relation between science and technology,6 the theory of measurement,7 or the role

    of professional standards in engineering practice.8 Other issues have only been

    partially explored, such as the types of design problems that engineers solve;9 the

    epistemic role of models in engineering,10 or the notion of technological explanation

    as distinct from scientific explanation.11 Many issues, however, have not been

    addressed at all and that is why there still is a lot of pioneering work to be done in the philosophy of technology and engineering sciences.

    In what follows I will first define technology and the engineering sciences, which is the subject of this Handbook (Section 1). In Section 2, I will discuss various ways of studying the subject. This will include the approaches taken by historians of technology, by researchers working in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), and by philosophers of technology. I will then briefly review highlights in the history of the philosophy of technology and engineering sciences (Section 3). In Section 4, I discuss the architecture of the Handbook which consists of six parts, each covering major aspects of the field. Section 5, the final section, reflects on the nature of the essays in this volume. The philosophy of technology and engineering sciences is a relatively young discipline. In addition to well-established accounts there are explorative essays on a number of areas so far more or less uncharted by philosophers. The Handbook thus also aims to set a research agenda.

    4See Radders chapter Science, technology and the science-technology relationship in this Volume, Part I; and Houkes chapter, The nature of technological knowledge, in this Volume

    Part II.

    5See Thomassons chapter Artifacts in metaphysics in this Volume Part II.

    6See Radders chapter, Science, technology and the science-technology relationship in this Volume Part I.

    7See Suppes chapter, Measurement theory and engineering in this Volume Part IV.

    8See Pritchards chapter, Professional standards in engineering practice, this Volume Part V. 9See Dorst and Van Overveld, Typologies of design practices, this volume Part III. 10See Part IV, this Volume.

    11See Pitts chapter, Technological explanation in this Volume Part IV.


    The difficulty of delimiting the subject of this volume does not arise from the lack of definitions of technology or engineering as there are dozens of such definitions.12

    The problem is rather how to come up with a sensible definition given this multitude. The aim of providing such a definition here would be to mark out the kinds of phenomena this Handbook covers. The purpose would not be to specify the essence of the subject (if any), to describe the linguistic origin of these words or to prescribe what the terms should mean.

    The English word technology comes from the Greek τέχνη, which is usually

    translated as art, craft or skill.13 For modern language users this needs further

    clarification, because the Greek notion of τέχνη was intimately connected to the

    notion of knowledge.14 For the Greeks there was therefore no need to combine the word τέχνη with the word logos (as in technology), because τέχνη already involved

    logos. In Platos early writings there are two types of τέχνη: one requiring a

    lot of physical work (resulting in paintings or sculptures) and one requiring only minimal physical work (arithmetic, logic, astronomy). In later works the notion

of τέχνη became associated with the knowledge and activities aimed at making or


    The English word engineering originates from the Latin ingenera, meaning to

    implant, generate or produce.15 In the lateMiddle Ages it was linked to the making and operating of military hardware. The term civil engineering was introduced

    in the 17th century to distinguish non-military applications, such as roads and bridges. Engineering was defined at the beginning of the 19th century as the art

    of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man.16 In later definitions art was substituted by science and mathematics:

    engineering is the application of science and mathematics by which properties of matter and the sources of energy are made useful to people.17

    These definitions show that technology and engineering cannot be identified exclusively in terms of a body of systematic knowledge. After all they do not aim at knowledge for its own sake, but rather at the development and use of knowledge for practical purposes. Technology or engineering is primarily a practice which is

    knowledge-based. In this practice scientific knowledge, but also experience-based know-how, codes and standards, customer requirements, organizational, legal and economic constraints, physical circumstances, scarcity of resources, uncertainty and ignorance play an important role. The title of the Handbook seeks to empha- 12See Mitcham and Schatzbergs chapter, Defining technology and engineering science in this

    Volume Part I.

    13See for an extended discussion [Mitcham, 1994, 114134].

    14This excluded those skills that the Greeks took to be solely based on experience, such as cooking or swimming.

    15Ibid., 144149.

    16This is the classic definition of engineering as a civilian enterprise formulated by Thomas Tredgold for the Royal Charter of the British Institution of Civil Engineers (1828). See also Mitcham and Schatzbergs chapter in this Volume Part I.

    17Websters Third New International Directory (2002).

    size both aspects. It refers to the practice of technology and engineering, but also to the engineering sciences as a body of systematic knowledge. Thus defined the philosophy of technology and engineering sciences has a broader scope than most philosophies of the so-called special sciences. It is therefore better to see it as part of the philosophy of technology than as part of the philosophy of science, though these are partly overlapping domains.

    Carl Mitcham made a useful distinction between four modes of technology:18

     technology as a set of artifacts or systems of artifacts;

     technology as a form of knowledge (for the design, production, maintenance and use of technological artifacts and systems);

     technology as a range of activities (designing, producing, maintaining and using artifacts); and

     technology as an expression of the will of its makers, designers and producers (volition).

    This distinction shows in another way that the cognitive dimension of technology is important, but does not suffice to define technology.19

    It is on the basis of Mitchams distinction that the subject-matter of this Handbook can be delimited. It first of all deals with technological artifacts and systems, the objects that technology and the engineering sciences produce. In the second place it covers technology as a body of systematic knowledge. This includes the

    methodology and epistemology of the engineering sciences as well as the relationship of technology to the natural and social sciences. The Handbook finally addresses technology as a range of activities. The main focus is on the activity of design but the Handbook also looks at other key engineering activities. An important qualification needs to be made at this point. Though Mitchams

    first three modes of technology clearly fall within the scope of the Handbook, the focus is on science-based engineering. The authors of this Volume are mainly interested in the knowledge and activities of modern engineers and in the objects they produce. Users of technological artifacts are only considered insofar as they are relevant to science-based engineering (for example, artifacts are usually designed by engineers with users in mind and they come with a manual). The Handbook only marginally touches on the roles of craftsmen, managers and other professionals involved in the technological domain. This reflects an important decision in the design of the Handbook. The rationale behind this decision is twofold. Firstly, the editors wanted to focus on those aspects that are currently underexposed and ill-understood within the realm of the philosophy of technology. The Handbook thus clearly fills a gap in the field. Secondly, since this is a Handbook in a series 18See [Mitcham, 1994].

    19Houkes argues in detail in Part II of this Volume that it is very difficult to distinguish between science and technology solely in terms of this cognitive dimension.

on the philosophy of science, it also seemed appropriate to focus on science-based


    Several definitions of technology and engineering given in the Handbook refer to

    one of these three modes or to a combination of modes. For example, Hans Radder describes technology as a (type of) artifactual, functional system with a certain degree of stability and reproducibility (this Volume Part V). Paul Nightingale, on

    the other hand, defines engineering as the art of organizing and negotiating the

    design, production, operation and decommissioning of artifacts, devices, systems and processes that fulfil useful functions by transforming the world to solve recognized problems (this Volume Part II). The first definition primarily perceives technology as a system of artifacts whilst the second sees technology as a range of activities.

    Mitchams fourth mode of technology, technology as volition, largely extends beyond the scope of this Handbook. It concerns the social, cultural, political and anthropological aspects of technology. The philosophy of technology has a rich tradition of analysing these aspects as testified by authors such as Mumford, Ortega Y Gasset, Heidegger and Ellul. In addition, there has always been a strong emphasis on the ethics of technology, both from the point of view of the user and the professional engineer That the subject-matter of the Handbook is limited to the first three modes of technology reflects once again the desire of the editors to concentrate on those aspects that are currently underexposed. The four modes of technology, however, should not be taken as independent of each other. That is why there is also some discussion of the ethical, social and anthropological aspects of technology in Part V.20


    The subject-matter of the Handbook can be studied in many ways. Historians, STS researchers, engineers themselves and philosophers of technology have all contributed to a better understanding of the theory and practice of engineering. They do this from different theoretical and methodological perspectives. Some studies are of an empirical and descriptive nature, others are conceptual and/or normative; yet other studies seek to explain while others aim to evaluate; some studies focus on specific theories and methods of engineering while yet others concentrate on the social and economic forces interacting with technology and the engineering sciences. Obviously, one need not be committed to just one of these approaches.

    Historians have long been interested in technology as an object of empirical study. Apart from comprehensive overviews of the history of technology [Singer et al., 1954; McNeil, 1996], there are numerous historical case studies of engineers and engineering. For example, there are the biographies of individual engineers, such as Isambard Brunel [Rolt, 1959; Buchanan, 2002], Thomas Edison [Israel, 20These aspects of technology are prominent in, for example, [Scharff and Dusek, 2003].

    2000] or Vannevar Bush [Zachary, 1997]. Likewise there are the studies of the development of certain artifacts, such as the steam engine [Hills, 1993], the airplane [Constant, 1980; Abzug and Larrabee, 2005] or the atomic bomb [Rhodes, 1995]. There are also inquiries into the nature of technological knowledge that are based on historical cases [Vincenti, 1990]. Increasingly, however, the focus of historical studies has shifted from technology as a subject in its own right to the role of

    technology in the development of modern societies. Examples are the role of steel in the making of modern America [Misa, 1998], or the role of computers in the transition to an information society [Friedman, 2005]). Landmark studies in this respect are two book series on the role of technology in the formation of Dutch society in the 19th and 20th centuries, edited by Lintsen and Schot [Lintsen, 1995; Schot, 1998].

    Researchers engaged in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) have always been averse to traditional disciplinary boundaries. They are interested in using social science methods (for example ethnographical methods) to study science and technology. They try to explain their object of study primarily in terms of social action. Science and technology are seen as historically situated social practices that produce knowledge, meaning and impact. Instead of looking at the relation between a theory and the available empirical evidence, STS researchers focus rather on the negotiation processes between actors in the scientific field when explaining the acceptance of a given theory. The primary explanatory objective of STS is to produce a precise, empirical, multilevel account of the production [of knowledge], influence, and change.21 One example is the study by Geels en

    Schot of the various ways in which sociotechnical regimes change.22 The concept

    of a sociotechnical regime includes here not only the shared cognitive routines in an engineering community but also the social context of policy makers, users and special interest groups. There are two main theoretical positions in STS: the social construction of technology23 and actor-network theory.24 They share

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