The Importance of Philosophy to Engineering

Topics: Engineering, Professional Engineer, Philosophy Pages: 22 (8110 words) Published: May 9, 2006
Philosophy has not paid sufficient attention to engineering. Nevertheless, engineering should not use this as an excuse to ignore philosophy. The argument here is that philosophy is important to engineering for at least three reasons. First, philosophy is necessary so that engineers may understand and defend themselves against philosophical criticisms. In fact, there is a tradition of engineering philosophy that is largely overlooked, even by engineers. Second, philosophy, especially ethics, is necessary to help engineers deal with professional ethical problems. A case study of ethics requirements for U.S. engineering curricula substantiates this point. Third, because of the inherently philosophical character of engineering, philosophy may actually function as a means to greater engineering self-understanding. The thesis of the present paper is that, common presumptions to the contrary, philosophy is centrally important to engineering. When engineers and engineering students - not to mention those who make use of engineering services - dismiss philosophical analysis and reflection as marginal to the practice of engineering, they are mistaken on at least two counts: historical and professional. It is also the case, I would argue, that engineering is important to philosophy - and that philosophers have made woefully insufficient efforts to appreciate and assess the technical realities that they too often presume to criticize. Were philosophers to set their own discipline in order with respect to engineering, philosophy would no doubt be even more important to engineering than is presently the case. Nevertheless, even granted the inadequate attention conferred on engineering by philosophy, philosophy is of critical and increasing significance to engineering. The argument in support of this thesis will, appropriately enough, rely in key respects on engineering experience. It will proceed by means of a historical review of engineering efforts to do philosophy in part as a self-defense against philosophical criticism. Then, in a central case study, it will summarize and reflect on efforts in the United States professional engineering community to incorporate philosophy into engineering education curricula. The later sections of the paper will, however, make a more reflective effort to speculate about the deepening relations between engineering and philosophy in an increasingly engineered world. Engineers are, I will finally suggest, the unacknowledged philosophers of the postmodern world. 1. SELF-DEFENSE AND PHILOSOPHY

Let me begin, then, with the issue of self-defense. As preface to this issue, consider an engineering-like schematic presentation of the problem. The problem is that engineering and philosophy are typically conceived as two mutually exclusive domains, somewhat as follows:

In the minds of most people, engineering and philosophy do not have much to do with each other. They are, as it were, giant islands separated by a large body of water. 1 In fact, from the perspective of some members of the engineering community - not to mention those of the philosophy community - the situation is even worse. Engineering is customarily divided into a number of different branches: civil engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, nuclear engineering, computer engineering, etc. Something similar goes for philosophy. It too includes different branches: logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, etc. Representatives of some of these areas of the philosophy world, especially ethics and aesthetics, seem to have mounted canons on their areas of the philosophy island in order to fire away at selected domains of the engineering world. At least since the 1960s, members of the philosophical community or its fellow travellers have been accusing engineers of building nuclear weapons that could destroy civilization as we know it, manufacturing transportation...
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