SPT v4n1 - Advances in Philosophy of Technology? Comparative Perspectives

Number 1
Fall 1998
Volume 4


Paul T. Durbin, University of Delaware

Advances in philosophy of technology? Addressing the central theme of this volume, I first ask myself whether there have been any advances in North American philosophy of technology in the last fifteen or twenty years. Attempting to answer this question, I discover and report on quite a few recent books and a few journal articles. In spite of this seemingly-significant flood of publications, however, critics have questioned whether any significant advances are being made in these admittedly numerous books and articles.

Joseph Pitt, past president of the Society for Philosophy and Technology, quotes friends of his in the Society for History of Technology as reacting with horror to a proposal for a joint meeting: "Oh, no! Those SPT people hate technology. Further, they know nothing about technology" (Pitt, 1995) . Philosophers of technology, in this view, are certainly not making any advances,at least, not any advances that would mean anything to people outside this would-be field.

This raises the obvious question: What counts as a genuine advance in technology studies? And the view or thesis that I want to defend here is this:

In all respects except one, advances in the philosophy of technology are approximately equal, in their progressiveness, to progress in the fields with which those advances have been negatively contrasted,namely, the philosophy of science and social studies of science and technology. (The exception is important, since I consider it the most important area of advance.) In my conclusion, I make some comments about all of these fields, including philosophy of technology, contrasting academic with real-world social progress.


I begin with the best evidence there is to support a claim that there have been advances in the philosophy of technology in the USA and Canada. To support such a claim, I point to the work of the North American philosophers who traveled to the first international conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology in Bad Homburg in 1981 and whose papers were printed in the proceedings volumes, Technikphilosophie in der Diskussion (1982), and Philosophy and Technology (1983),both edited by Friedrich Rapp and myself. At least six of the North Americans invited to Bad Homburg can be cited in support of the claim that there are continuing advances, right up to the present. I have in mind Stanley Carpenter, Don Ihde, Alex Michalos, Carl Mitcham, Kristin Shrader-Frechette, and Langdon Winner. (I set aside my own case for now, not out of modesty but because I want to make a separate point at the end.) To these six can be added one other philosopher at Bad Homburg, Bernard Gendron, not in terms of his own later work but viewing his as a springboard to the later development of that part of the environmental ethics movement that has a close relationship to technological issues, and also Albert Borgmann, who was not at Bad Homburg but whose thought has undergone development in ways that have led people to say that his work represents the first real tradition in North American philosophy of technology.

Stanley Carpenter came to Bad Homburg at least partly on the basis of a book that he had co-edited (with Alan Porter, Alan Roper, and Fred Rossini), A Guidebook for Technology Assessment and Impact Analysis (1980). At the conference, Carpenter's contribution was listed under the technology assessment heading, but his interests were already oriented toward environmental concerns, and focused particularly on ways in which an "alternative" or "appropriate" technology is necessary if the ecosystem is to be preserved. Carpenter has not so far produced another book after Bad Homburg, but he has been a regular participant in the series of Society for Philosophy and Technology international meetings that continues today. For instance, at the 1993 SPT conference near Valencia, Spain, Carpenter presented a paper, "When Are Technologies Sustainable?" Again, at the 1996 conference in Puebla, Mexico, his topic was similar: "Toward Refined Indicators of Sustainable Development."

Don Ihde had also written a book on philosophy of technology before Bad Homburg, Technics and Praxis: A Philosophy of Technology (1979), but his case differs from that of Carpenter in two respects: he has written several more books, and he is the editor of a philosophy of technology book series published by Indiana University Press. The first book published in that series, Larry Hickman's John Dewey's Pragmatic Technology (1990), shows that Ihde was not interested, in the series, in pushing his own phenomenological approach to philosophy of technology, but is open to a variety of approaches. Ihde's own approach does show up in his later books, Existential Technics (1983), Consequences of Phenomenology (1986), and Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (1990),even in his Philosophy of Technology: An Introduction (1993), though that textbook does present other views. In general, one can say that Ihde's development is a matter of greater depth and clarity in his phenomenological analysis, though Technology and the Lifeworld gives more than a passing nod to the centrality of environmental concerns.

Alex Michalos talked about technology assessment at Bad Homburg, but he had been invited at least in part because of his editing of the journal, Social Indicators Research, which is devoted in large part to quality-of-life measurements in our technological culture. Michalos has continued these efforts in a massive way, with his five-volume North American Social Report (1980-1982) and his four-volume Global Report on Student Well-Being (1991-1993), and with regular contributions to all sorts of conferences devoted to various aspects of measuring the quality of life today.

Carl Mitcham's contribution to the Bad Homburg proceedings focused on what he called "the properly philosophical origins" of modern technology, as opposed to the more commonly-discussed social or economic or scientific origins. And this metaphysical/religious approach to the understanding of technology both reflected Mitcham's earlier work,in the two volumes he compiled with Robert Mackey, Bibliography of the Philosophy of Technology (1973, which cites other approaches but gives heavy emphasis to the metaphysical/religious), and Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Technology (1972; reprinted with revised bibliography, 1983),and presaged his later work, Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy (1994). Many reviewers have applauded this as Mitcham's masterpiece and as the first true summary of the development of the field.

Kristin Shrader-Frechette's first major work, Nuclear Power and Public Policy, appeared in 1980. In later books, she has addressed Risk Analysis and Scientific Method (1985) and Risk and Rationality (1991). These and others of her publications are always masterpieces of clarity and precision--no matter whether the risk analysts she attacks appreciate her criticisms or not. In my opinion, Shrader-Frechette's most interesting book to date is Burying Uncertainty: Risk and the Case against Geological Disposal of Nuclear Waste (1993). There all her skills as an analyst and arguer are on display as much as ever; and the comprehensiveness of her survey of arguments on all sides is admirable. But what makes me admire the book more than anything else,and more than her earlier contributions,is her new-found awareness of how enormous the pressure is in technical communities to ignore, and resist, the force of her arguments, no matter how clear and convincing.

Langdon Winner's contribution to the Bad Homburg conference, "Techne and Politeia: The Technical Constitution of Society," follows up on his themes in Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (1977). A typically Winnerian gem of an essay, "Techne and Politeia" was used many times in many arenas, and shows up in Winner's later collection of essays, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (1986). It is probably Winner more than any other single author whom historians and sociologists of technology love to hate, and he has returned the favor in, "Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding It Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology" (1991), his presidential address at the 1991 SPT conference in Puerto Rico.

Bernard Gendron's Bad Homburg paper, "The Viability of Environmental Ethics," suggests another progressive path in the history of the philosophy of technology in the last fifteen years. In 1989 and 1992, Eric Katz published two excellent annotated bibliographies of environmental ethics in Research in Philosophy and Technology (volumes 9 and 12), and the theme of volume 12 is technology and the environment. Many younger philosophers associated with SPT have taken up this theme, notably David Rothenberg , in Hand's End: Technology and the Limits of Nature (1993),where Rothenberg argues against setting up any opposition between human, including technological, civilization and nature; David Strong , in Crazy Mountains: Learning from Wilderness to Weigh Technology (1995; here Strong tries to heed Rothenberg's message but ends up seeing many more positive features in natural wilderness than in today's consumer-oriented technological society); and Eric Katz (again) , in Nature as Subject: Human Obligation and Natural Community (1997). There Katz argues against applications of traditional ethical theories to environmental problems, as the right approach, and in favor of a more radical "moral justification for the central policies of environmentalism" in terms of "the direct moral consideration and respect for the evolutionary processes of nature" (p. xvi). Katz has also teamed up with Andrew Light in the editing of Environmental Pragmatism (1996),a collection dear to my heart because the essays collected generally argue that we should go beyond theoretical debates to a discussion of real environmental issues and even more toward attempts to work out (with others) solutions for real environmental problems.

Albert Borgmann was not at Bad Homburg, but his thought has been viewed by some as the only contribution to philosophy of technology that has given rise to its own tradition or school of thought. Borgmann published Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, his neo-Heideggerian manifesto, in 1984. This was followed by Crossing the Postmodern Divide in 1992. David Strong's Crazy Mountains, mentioned earlier, is an explicit attempt to apply Borgmann's theses in an effort to arrive at a philosophy of wilderness in the midst of,and as confronting,technological culture. In 1995, a group of Borgmann disciples convened a conference, "Workshop on Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life," in Jasper National Park in Canada. Approximately twenty philosophers attended,some disciples, some critics,and Borgmann concluded the meeting with a thoughtful reply to his critics and some reflections on the future of philosophy of technology. The organizers expect to publish a volume based on the proceedings.


Everything I have summarized so far in support of a claim that there have been advances in North American philosophy of technology since Bad Homburg is, actually, preparatory to the question I want to address in this paper. It should be obvious that there has been progress in the field of philosophy of technology in some sense. But exactly what do we mean when we speak of "advances," whether in the philosophy of technology or in any other similar field today? Is it just a matter of a continuing stream of new books and new journal articles published? I want to address this issue comparatively, by way of a comparison and contrast with developments in the philosophy of science and the sociology of science and technology.

First, however, we need some definitions of what it may mean to speak of advancing or making progress in any academic field.

Discussing the rise of analytical philosophy in the early twentieth century, Bertrand Russell (1945, p. 834) once claimed that, using logical techniques, analytical philosophy is "able, in regard to certain problems, to achieve definite answers" (in contrast with older philosophical approaches); in this respect, Russell claimed, analytical philosophy's methods "resemble those of science." Like scientific advance, Russell was assuming, there can be similar philosophical progress, with one contribution building on others, and so on. In the United States at least, this has become the ideal of academic progress, with one article in a "leading" journal in a "cutting-edge" field worth more, in terms of merit and reward, than any other kind of publication,except possibly a "major" book reviewed (favorably) in all those leading journals.

However, once this academic standard of progress was extended, by departmental committees and deans, to almost every field of higher learning, it began to come under attack. An early and vituperous version can be seen in Jacques Barzun's Science: The Glorious Entertainment (1964). These critics maintain that, when the standard is applied in humanities fields such as literature, history, and the arts,and many of the critics lump philosophy together with other humanistic disciplines,it is totally inappropriate. The only measuring rod we can use in these fields (and, as we will see below, later postmodern critics now say this is true even in the sciences) is greater and greater originality, especially in terms of persuading whatever are perceived to be the relevant audiences.

A few transcendentalist metaphysicians and theologians object to both the strict (progressive) academic standard and the much broader "originality" (postmodern?) standard as retrogressive chasing after increasingly trivial minutiae. The only real progress moves in the opposite direction, toward more and more comprehensive syntheses,ever closer approaches to truth or beauty or goodness (sometimes capitalized as Truth, Beauty, and Goodness). Such Hegel-like synthesizers are, I admit, rare today; but there are "right-side-up" dialectical materialist neo-Hegelians and others who insist on real social progress as the only appropriate standard. (I will return to this at the end of the paper.)

Finally, still others insist on what I would call an Aristotelian model, recognizing that academic fields are divided along disciplinary lines, each with its own standards. At least some of the sciences may meet the standard criterion of progress within limited domains, but most intellectual endeavors can make only "intensive" or "qualitative" progress, providing no more than a deeper appreciation of, or new insights into, old truths, traditional arts and crafts, and so on.

We can now ask whether, in the past twenty years or so, there has been progress, in any of these senses, in philosophy of technology or in such allegedly more progressive fields as the philosophy of science and the sociology of science and technology.


I take as my starting point for comparison here the (U.S.) Philosophy of Science Association's collaborative volume, Current Research in Philosophy of Science (1979), edited by Peter Asquith and Henry Kyburg . Two articles in the book are illustrative: Noretta Koertge's "The Problem of Appraising Scientific Theories" (pp. 228-251) and Ronald Giere's "Foundations of Probability and Statistical Inference" (pp. 503-533). Koertge says, "Philosophers of science [especially Popperians] have made considerable progress in providing clear accounts of how to appraise the content and the test record of a theory",and the series of citations she lists may seem impressive to at least sympathetic readers (though Koertge also adds immediately, "They have had much less success in explicating complicated mixed appraisals",p. 246).

Giere says, "The development and consolidation of the 'subjective' Bayesian account of statistical inference during the past twenty-five years has been a remarkable intellectual achievement" (p. 508). This, however, must be balanced against Giere's claim less than a decade later, in what can only be called a philosophical "conversion" to "naturalized epistemology":

My skepticism [has] progressed to the point that I now believe there are no special philosophical foundations to any science [or, in the example above, statistical inferences in science]. There is only deep theory, which, however, is part of science itself. And there are no special philosophical methods for plumbing the theoretical depths of any science (Explaining Science: A Cognitive Approach, 1988, p. xvi).

As evidence of the current state of philosophy of science in the USA, I can cite two recent books: Robert Klee's Introduction to the Philosophy of Science: Cutting Nature at Its Seams (1997), and Joseph Rouse's Engaging Science: How to Understand Its Practices Philosophically (1996).

Klee's exciting and challenging introductory survey of everything that has happened in the philosophy of science since the 1930s ends with a chapter on the realism-antirealism debate. At the end, Klee says, "I have never tried to hide from the reader my realist leanings" (p. 239)