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2 Philosophy of Technology: Humans Acting in the World
The Future of Philosophy: A Manifesto
The difficulty has been to find a mechanism to concentrate on. The one philosophical
stance that actively seeks to make this connection is pragmatism. Beginning with
C.S. Peirce (and before him, David Hume (see Pitt 2005)), whose main theme was
the method to eliminate doubt, through Nicholas Rescher, the pragmatists have
concentrated on acting in the world.
Therefore, in this chapter I propose to stop approaching philosophy as a set of
independent areas that can be ordered in a taxonomy. Under the general rubric of the
philosophy of technology reconceived as a philosophical analysis of humans acting
in the world, I propose that we concentrate on diagnosing the various philosophical
concerns that arise in the context of undertaking our real world projects as part of a
team. In this view we cease to think of ourselves as metaphysicians or epistemologist, but as philosophers who can help identify metaphysical or epistemological
issues as they arise while we do our work together with engineers, geologists, social
planners, etc. The idea here is not to see the traditional areas of philosophy as
separate areas of research in their own right, but as problem areas that need to be
identified and dealt with in specific contexts.
What Sellars proposes as the aim of philosophy, to see how it all hangs together,
cannot be achieved if we don’t first have some sense of how the various components
of philosophy itself hang together, for the ways we relate the various components of
the world and human endeavors will be a function of the philosophical assumptions
we bring to the party. Thus, how you see the fruits of research in physics will be a
direct function of your views regarding the metaphysics of science. Further, you
can’t provide a systematic explanation of how it all hangs together if your philosophical view is itself fragmented. If you don’t understand how your metaphysical
views affect your epistemological endorsements, then there is no way to see how it
all hangs together. The wrong way to do this is to specialize in one field, say, metaphysics. How can you lay claim to being a philosopher if all you do is worry about
one small set of abstract and irrelevant problems in one small area of human
thought? The philosopher’s job is help us work through the real world implications
for a proposed plan of action, not whether or not to be is to be the value of a bound
variable (with apologies to Quine).
Let me be clear, I am not proposing a return to the grand metaphysical schemes
of the nineteenth century. What I am proposing is a reorientation. When we introduce students to the world of philosophy we often tell them it consists of roughly
five areas: epistemology, metaphysics, value theory, the history of philosophy, and
logic and philosophy of science. But when pressed we have a hard time making
sense of this overly simple taxonomy. For example, why is the philosophy of science a separate domain – doesn’t it belong under Epistemology, and why is it
lumped together with logic? Yes, it does seem like the odd man out, but there are
sticky metaphysical questions about the reality of scientific objects and questions
about method that, it has been argued, warrant separate treatment. What about aesthetics, the philosophy of law, and the philosophy of technology? How do they fit
in? So as to appear more systematic than we really are, we have brushed aesthetics
under the value theory rubric. The philosophy of law has also been relegated to
value theory because laws, it is said, embody values. But the law is also a force for
social change, and is itself a complex technology. So philosophy of law can be taken
as part of philosophy of technology. When we undertake a legal action we engage in
activities which affect the lives and fortunes of many others. The philosopher’s role
is to assist in ferreting out the implications of this or that legal move or attempt to
change the legal system. We should be working with lawyers, judges, plaintiffs, and
legislators to help determine the best path of action. And the philosophy of technology itself….? Well, in the years immediately following Heidegger, Philosophy of
Technology would probably also have been considered part of value theory, but then
given the growing closeness of science and technology in the minds of many, it was
assumed to be part of the philosophy of science, but it is not, since the sciences and
our technologies have little in common except that the sciences use technologies
and our technologies sometime rely on scientific principles or discoveries and I am
increasingly unsure that the philosophy of science requires a separate place in the
taxonomy. If anything, philosophy of science should be subsumed under the philosophy of technology. We can’t do science without the tools of mathematics and
the means to conduct experiments. In short, science is technology-dependent and,
thus, our views regarding science will be heavily influenced by our philosophy of
technology. Most of us who work in the field think the philosophy of technology
is a legitimate independent area of philosophy. But how can we justify this
When we turn to aesthetics it is not clear why it became lumped under value
theory; for the simple question “What is art?” is not about value primarily, unless
you arbitrarily decide to approach it that way, but it is certainly not necessary to do
so – it can be a problem in metaphysics, for example when you ask what constitutes
a work of art, is it the playing of the symphony, which when finished is gone, or is
it the written score?
The problems here run deep. And to place blame, it all began with Aristotle’s
assumption that man is a rational animal (Nicomachean Ethics 1.13) instead of casting us as a social animal. More to the point, we are homo faber, man the maker. It
was in the context of the social group that the first tools were produced. Simply put,
once we move beyond the mistaken identification of technology with tools, we can
appreciate the enormity, for example, of the development of agricultural practices as
technologies for transforming the land. For with the development of agriculture it
was possible to change from nomadic peoples following the herds with the seasons
to settling down and building villages. This resulted in a number of transformations.
The division of labor, beyond hunters/gathers, became possible and with it specialization, music, writing, and the further development of innovations to expand human
expression and go beyond the efforts to simply secure survival. Aesthetics can thus
be subsumed under philosophy of technology as well as we seek to understand what
a better life means and how beauty contributes to the flourishing of the human spirit.
Thus, how we live our lives becomes an aesthetic issue.
Of course this is written with a broad brush and the devil is in the details, for not
all human development followed this pattern. For some there was no development
beyond giving up the nomadic life, consider the aboriginal peoples of South
America, Australia, and New Zealand. But in the cultures where we let the
The Future of Philosophy: A Manifesto
technologies lead us, we could also talk about human progress and wonder what the
future will bring, something not possible in primitive societies content with the
routines of day to day living.
What cannot be denied is that if we take the rational part of us as primary, we
would have been someone’s dinner long before we figured out how to survive by
reason alone. Consider by way of example the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s
film 2001, A Space Odyssey. Kubrick is nothing less than brilliant in the insights he
brings to the evolution of the human condition. We find two groups of apes/primitive
men fighting over control of a water hole. At first there is a lot of screaming and
grunting and pushing and it is apparent they don’t really want to get truly physical.
But then what appears to be the leader of one group picks up the femur of an animal
that had died at the watering hole and using it instinctively as a club kills a member
of the other tribe, thereby securing the water hole. In the scene he kills the other ape
and looks at the femur and there appears to be a flash of understanding as to how this
sort of thing can be used in the future as a tool (?) or weapon (?) and in exultation
he tosses it into the air. It begins rotating slowly and the scene shifts to a space
shuttle carrying passengers to a space station rotating around the moon, all to the
sounds of the Blue Danube waltz.1
Kubrick gives us the connection between tools, warfare, technological development and the transformation of ape to man in an incredibly insightful presentation.
It was important that he had two groups of apes in competition – the social group is
primary, competition for survival is basic and the tool makes it possible.
So if we take that as our starting point, then we could argue that the tools are
essential to the survival of the group. This places the philosophy of technology at
the starting point in our efforts to form a coherent explanatory philosophical base
from which to achieve, now somewhat limited, Sellars’ aim for philosophy. For
within the philosophy of technology, understood as understanding the relations
between mankind and the world, we find all the questions of philosophy, perhaps
slightly transformed. Let’s see how this plays out.
From a Perennial to a Heraclitian Philosophy
Within the category of value theory we usually find ethics, metaethics, political
philosophy, social philosophy and (wrongly) aesthetics. We also have a central
question such as “What is the good life?”. But to try to answer that question without
understanding that it cannot be answered in the abstract by merely defining “good”
It has been brought to my attention that some believe that the flash of insight the master ape had
was the result of the aliens who planted the monolith; that the aliens in effect put that idea in his
head. Needless to say, there is a lot of disagreement over how to interpret that film. Whether or not
aliens helped, the key point is that the film’s portrayal of early human behavior and the almost
immediate clash with the future serves as a fruitful presentation of a powerful idea.
and “life” is to fail to see the bigger picture.2 From our new perspective we see that
it is not “What is the good life?” that needs answering – it is rather something like
“What is required to live the good life?” Now we are talking about groups of humans
interacting and being creative, seeking to minimize excess effort in favor of leisure
and improvement. We can now ask in a meaningful way, “What do we need to live
the good life?” This question takes us beyond traditional issues of ethics and the
hypothetical best political system to actual material needs and how technologies
affect the quality of life. We begin to see how our technologies are integral to our
way of life and how they can contribute both positively and negatively. Let us
assume that it has been decided that the generation of electrical power is essential to
improving our way of living and the best way to do this in current circumstances to
build a dam that will allow us to generate electricity. Having decided this, we are
immediately led to epistemological issues such as “Do we know what the consequences of building this dam will be?” And that requires that we know what is
involved in building a dam and how it affects the local ecology and the ecology
downstream (philosophy of science). This can lead us to the question of the very
nature of a dam – what is it (metaphysics)? How does it differ from the water it
seeks to contain? Are there fundamentally different things in the world? If so, how
can we use them to our advantage? Who should we trust to give us the answers to
these questions, i.e., who has the relevant knowledge, and how do they interact with
our leaders and politicians (our leaders being the CEOs of major multi-national
corporations and our politicians are their dups). This inevitably raises questions of
the social impact of the dam and how people and their way of living will be affected.
But this requires that we have a grasp of the kinds of thinking and reasoning that
would be appropriate to dealing with these issues, now enter logic. The philosophical questions here fall out of the development of a technology as we seek to make
sense of what we are doing – and it is the doing that sets it all in motion. The role of
the philosopher seen from this perspective is to help the team of actors involved in
this. And the kinds of philosophical issues that arise arise because of something we
want to do or the kind of project we are engaged in. So, in an important sense, there
is no fixed taxonomy for philosophy. It is rather that the way and order in which
philosophical questions arise have to do with what we are trying to accomplish. It
also follows that as philosophers, in the spirit of the empirical turn, we need to know
a lot about a lot of things, especially how things work.
This approach makes a lot more sense than simply asking “What is the Good
Life?”, “What is Real?”, and “What can I Know?”; assuming these questions can be
answered in the abstract and then be of use. The fact of the matter is that the only
philosophical questions that are of use are the ones we have refined to the point
where they can be turned into empirical sciences such as physics, astronomy,
linguistics, economics, political science, etc., and, hence, cease to be philosophical
issues. The history of philosophy has been the history of spin-offs. The questions we
The real point here is move ethics away from an actor-centered perspective to a group-centered
perspective. The actor-centered views such as utilitarianism and deontology rarely if ever have
anything to do with how we act. If anything, they are employed in a casuistic manner, after the fact.
The Future of Philosophy: A Manifesto
are left with as philosophers remain incoherent, framed as they are in isolation, and
the answers we provide are useless since they are so abstract they fail to make
contact with social reality.
To take the empirical turn seriously and then take the next step we begin with the
idea that we are social creatures living in a physical world and it is our job as philosophers to understand that relationship in a coherent and explanatory manner.
There is one final point to consider here. In the perennial philosophy as conceived by Leibniz and used as a whipping boy by Sellars, philosophical questions
are eternal questions, asked by all reflective people through the ages. Further, the
answers to these questions are also assumed to be eternal. But with a little reflection
we realize that those assumptions can’t be correct. For the answers to the eternal
questions, if there be any, change over time, as noted above. But here is where the
discussion seriously diverges from what was said earlier. These changes are propelled by technological innovations. To rely on one of my favorite examples (manuscript in progress, Seeing Near and Far: A Heraclitian Philosophy of Science),
consider how the answer to the questions “Can I trust what I see?” changes over
time. To begin with what it means to see something changes as we introduce technological innovation into the game. When Galileo turned his telescope towards the
moon he “saw” things seeable by the naked eye. Yet the telescope enhanced that
seeing, thereby expanding the notion of what it is to see something. Likewise, for
the concept of observation. The concept of observation changes over time due to the
introduction of novel technologies that make what it is to be a scientific observation
something very different from naked-eye seeing. When the NASA Galileo probe
sent pictures back from its visit to Jupiter it involved a very complicated process.
First of all the “camera” was not the family camera. Second, multiple instruments,
mostly computer controlled, hence lots of interactive computer programs, were
needed to keep the probe oriented towards the earth and then send the “picture”
homeward. A major assumption at play is that nothing happened to the picture as it
traveled through space. Then the information that had been transmitted was collected by the array at Arecibo and using multiple computers and programs finally
portrayed on a screen – voila’, a scientific observation of Io! Making this observation was not exactly the same as looking through a hand held telescope at the moon.
And yet we still accept it as an observation of Io – our concept of what constitutes a
scientific observation has changed, forced by the technologies we use.
As our technologies become more sophisticated this sort of conceptual change
will happen at a faster rate, forcing us to continuously rethink our conceptual structures and our own relations to world. So the answer to “what do I know” will change
as will all the others answers to the so-called perennial questions. The truly difficult
philosophical task will be, in the light of constant change, to continue to see how it
all hangs together. In short, the empirical turn takes us down the Heraclitian road.
To take the empirical turn seriously and then take the next step we begin with the
idea that we are social creatures living in a physical world and it is our job to understand that relationship in a coherent and explanatory manner. Given that starting
point we have a different job from philosophers laboring in the shadows of the
perennial philosophy and one that may actually be doable. But first we have to
understand that whatever coherent account we come up with will be constantly
changing as our technologies change, forcing new social arrangements, making new
discoveries possible, and posing new questions of justice and virtue. Scientific
change is fueled by technological innovation, as is social change. And so it seems
that since our technologies and what we do with them define us, then we should see
all philosophical discussion as part of the philosophy of technology.
Kroes, P., & Meijers, A. (Eds.). (2000). The empirical turn in the philosophy of technology.
Amsterdam: JAI/Elsevier Science.
Pitt, J. C. (2000). Thinking about technology: Philosophical foundations of the philosophy of technology. New York: Seven Bridges Press. http://www.phil.vt.edu/Pitt/jpitt.html
Pitt, J. C. (2005). Hume and Peirce on belief, or, why belief should not be an epistemic category.
Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, XLI(2), 343–354.
Sellars, W. (1963). Philosophy and the scientific image of man. In Science, perception and reality
(Chapter 1, pp. 1–28). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Joseph C. Pitt AB College of William and Mary. M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from University
of Western Ontario. Professor of Philosophy, Virginia Tech. Founding Editor of Perspectives on
Science: Historical, Philosophical, Social. Former editor of Techné: Research in Philosophy and
Technology. Latest book: Doing Philosophy of Technology. Founding Director of the Center for the
Study of Science in Science, which has transformed over the years into the Graduate Program in
Science and Technology Studies. Major interests: the impact of technological innovation on scientific change. Current Projects: Editor of The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Technology
(in progress); Seeing Near and Far, a Heraclitean Philosophy of Science.
Science vs. Technology: Difference or Identity?
Abstract It is argued in this paper that there is an important conceptual distinction
between science and technology. As parts of human culture and society, science and
technology exist today in a state of dynamic mutual interaction, but differences can
be found in their aims, results, and patterns of development. Therefore, there are
also signiﬁcant differences in science policy and technology policy. This conclusion
is at variance with the fashion of using the term “technoscience” in the STS-studies.
Some critical comments are also given on the social constructivist treatment of
Keywords Applied research • Scientiﬁc realism • Sociotechnology • Technoscience
Creating and Blurring Distinctions
Philosophers, especially those belonging to the analytic tradition, are usually fond
of making conceptual distinctions. As an activity, philosophy aims at clarity through
the method of conceptual analysis. Examples of such important distinctions include
matter-mind, object-subject, reality-appearance, truth-falsity, theory-practice,
Another trend is the attempt to question and to abolish such conceptual differences. American pragmatism (from John Dewey to Richard Rorty) and French postmodernism and deconstructionism (Jacques Derrida) are philosophical programs
for blurring and abandoning binary oppositions.
Conceptual distinctions are not philosophically innocent, but typically involve or
presuppose wholesale theoretical and even ideological frameworks. Defending and
challenging, or creating and blurring, distinctions are two important aspects of
philosophical investigation. But, on the other hand, the results of such investigations
I. Niiniluoto (*)
University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
M. Franssen et al. (eds.), Philosophy of Technology after the Empirical Turn,
Philosophy of Engineering and Technology 23,
cannot be known in advance on the basis of some general program, but each issue
has to be studied separately in a careful manner.
In particular, what is said above applies to the scientiﬁc study of science, technology, and society (STS). In 1962 the inﬂuential Frascati Handbook of the OECD
consolidated two distinctions which have been widely used in science policy. First,
it distinguished research (“the pursuit of new knowledge”) and development
(the use of results of research “to develop new products, methods, and means of
production”). The roots of this R&D divide go back to Aristotle’s division between
episteme and techne. While episteme (Lat. scientia) means knowledge, or justiﬁed
true beliefs expressible by propositions, techne is deﬁned as a rational and stable
habit of making or producing material objects (see Nicomachean Ethics VI, 4;
1140a1). This difference between scientiﬁc knowledge and productive arts is the
basis of our standard distinction between science and technology. Secondly, the
OECD Handbook made a distinction between two kinds of research: basic research
(also called fundamental, curiosity-driven or blue skies research) seeks knowledge
for its own sake “without the aim of speciﬁc application”, while applied research
(also called mission-oriented research) pursues “knowledge with the aim of obtaining a speciﬁc goal”.
It is no wonder that the OECD terminology has been challenged in many ways.
For example, the distinction between basic and applied research has been rejected
by many scholars as obsolete (see e.g., Douglas 2014), while some others have still
defended the importance of this division in some reﬁned form (see Niiniluoto 1984,
1993; Sintonen 1990).1
Another example is the distinction between science and technology. The traditional conjunctive way of speaking suggests that science and technology are two
different parts or sections of human activities. But it has become fashionable in the
STS-studies to combine the two into the single term technoscience. Bruno Latour
(1987, p. 29) tells that “in order to avoid endless ‘science and technology’ I forged
this word”.2 The Society of the Social Study of Science (4S) has adopted this new
term as the title of its Newsletter, to indicate that its scope includes what used to be
called the sociology of science and the sociology of technology. But it is clear that
“technoscience” is not only a shorthand notation for a longer phrase, but it aims at
blurring an old distinction and thus constitutes a central and essential element of a
new ideology about the subject matter and methods of science studies.
A similar strategy is followed by Wiebe Bijker and John Law (1992), who use
the constructivist approach to deconstruct the science-society distinction. On the
basis of their idea of a “seamless web”, they introduce the term sociotechnology.
Douglas gives an interesting account of the emergence of the ideological contrasts between pure
and applied science in the nineteenth century, but she seems to forget that the “rhetoric invention
of pure science” took place already in the ancient Greece. She concludes that scientiﬁc progress
should be deﬁned in terms of “the increased capacity to predict, control, manipulate, and intervene
in various contexts”. As Douglas does not make a difference between applied research (as pursuit
of special kind of knowledge) and the applications of science (in control and problem-solving), she
is not in fact relinquishing the pure-applied divide but rather the science-technology division.
In fact the ﬁrst who used this term (in French) was the philosopher Gaston Bachelard in 1953.