Research Areas and Projects

Philosophical Characterization of Technology
  I. Two Views of Technology
  II. Existing Theories
  III. The Triple Characterization
  IV. The Cultural Quadrants

The Philosophical Characterization of Technology

I. Two Views of Technology: the Engineering View and the Humanities View

A. Thinking through technology with Mitcham

Mitcham's book Thinking Through Technology may look like a historical survey of philosophy of technology at first glance, but since it's a very young field the book actually provides a framework for the current study. Unlike in science or technology, where a new theory or invention often eliminates the significance of previous ones, many ancient philosophical thoughts are still alive today. The case is even more so in philosophy of technology. Traditionally technology was just regarded as an instrument associated with certain utilities. With the emergence of the dominance of technology in the modern world, technology gained substantially increased attention. That's when the systematic philosophical reflection on it began. As that happened only recently, in the 19th century after the Industrial Revolution, all previous philosophical thoughts of technology are still relevant for the moment.

Three major contributions of Mitcham's book are: First, it highlights the two contrasting views of technology - the engineering view and the humanities view. Second, it proposes a general framework for sorting out various thoughts in the field. Third, it applies the framework elegantly to the three typical Western attitudes toward technology. What follows is some elaboration and interpretation of these contributions.

B. Classical philosophy of technology

When people say "classical philosophy of technology" today they roughly refer to the humanities view above called by Mitcham. According to Brey, it has the following common characteristics:

This summary doesn't apply to all the classical philosophers of technology with the humanities view. It fits well with Heidegger and Ellul, but not Mumford. In my opinion, Mumford's view of technology was general, but neither deterministic nor pessimistic.

C. The empirical turn

The so-called "empirical turn" is said against classical philosophy of technology. Empirical is the opposite of generalized, but all the above characters of classical philosophy of technology were changed. Correspondingly philosophy of technology after the empirical turn has the following distinct features:

D. Bridging the two views

The dichotomy between empirical and classical philosophies of technology and that between engineering and humanities views of technology don't exactly correspond to each other, but they are closely related. One thing needs to be pointed out: the traditional engineering view of technology was also very general compared with contemporary theories. So the empirical turn is more evolution of the field than conceptual shift. On the other hand the empirical and engineering views are well aligned with each other. Since the empirical turn one could discern that attention to details has put many general issues of modern technology aside, which was the major concern of classical philosophy of technology. Therefore the dichotomy ends up with one between the micro and macro views.

However, without the concern with general issues philosophy of technology could be degraded to ethics of specific technologies. Both empirical details and general issues are important. What's urgently needed is to combine them into an organic system. Mitcham's book is apparently an effort toward bridging the two views. If we could still regard technology as a box, there is no reason why we cannot both have an inside view of the box, and at the same time don't forget that the box is located in a large context. In fact the inside and outside views, or the micro and macro views could benefit each other if we don't hold the presupposition that they are inherently incompatible.

II. Existing Theories

A. The mono characterization: technology as applied science

A once dominant view of technology was that technology was applied science. The general assumption was that science discovered general laws of nature, whereas technology applied scientific discovery to solving specific problems in human life. The application of science in technology could happen in two basic ways: knowledge application and method application. Bunge clearly distinguished two types of technological theories: substantive and operative technological theories. The former was a direct application of scientific knowledge, whereas the latter resulted from applying scientific method. A general implication of this mono characterization of technology was that, the whole phenomenon of technology could be explained by science.

This turns out to be a very simplistic view of technology. The phenomenon of technology is in fact much more complicated than applied science. As we'll see below, it captures one important element of technology, but leaves out other essential aspects.

B. The dual characterization: the physical and functional aspects of technology

The mono characterization of technology is based on the scientific worldview. Although it recognizes the connection between technology and human need, the latter doesn't cause any issue, because human life is simply included in the scientific territory. The dual characterization just focuses on this issue. Its basic assumption is that some aspect of human life (intentionality) is beyond physical explanation.

Compared with the naive mono characterization the dual characterization is a big improvement. It can handle more technological phenomena. But in my opinion it still falls short of addressing all the subtleties of technology. It reveals the close connection between technology and human intentionality besides science. However, it confuses the subtle difference between intentionality and intendedness. Technological function is motivated by and based on human need and hence closely related to human intentionality. On the other hand, technological design is an intended action. The two don't necessarily match. Generally we need further differentiation.

III. The Triple Characterization

Compared with Mitcham's framework of the four facets of technology, the triple characterization of technology is intended to put more emphasis on the unique characters of technology. Object, knowledge, activity and volition are aspects shared by many human activities. They are more useful for sorting out various studies of technology than demarcating between technology and various other cultural areas. What's more important, the triple characterization demonstrates the connection between technology and other social/cultural areas at the same time of demarcation. And since it's also details oriented, it provides a solid foundation for bridging the micro and macro views of technology.

A. The three elements of technology

In discussing the dual characterization of technology we've reached the viewpoint that we need to further distinguish design from function besides the physical aspect of technology. To be precise, physics is only one part of the foundation of technology. There are also chemical and biological technologies. So the physical aspect should better be replaced with scientific aspect. Therefore, we have science, design and function as the three elements of technology. These three elements capture the three basic characteristics of technology: It's nature-restricted, human-made and human-used.

We can see the above three elements of technology are not separate components, but intertwined aspects of the same entity. There are both scientific and functional elements in design. Science definitely stands under function. And design to a large extent determines function.

B. Technology and science

People's understanding of the relationship between technology and science has gone through dramatic development. We can identify three different phases:

On this background my view on the relationship between technology and science can be summarized as follows:

C. Technology and art
D. Technology and economy
E. Technology and ethics/politics
F. The triple characterization of technology as a way of bridging the two views

IV. The Cultural Quadrants

Based on the above characterization of technology I'd further propose the cultural quadrants as depicted in the following diagram.

Cultural Quadrants

Human spiritual activity in the form of culture may be divided into four quadrants along two axes: creativity and openness. The two poles of the creativity axis are making sense of the existing world and creating the new world. Creating the new world is definitely a standard form of creativity. But making sense of the existing world is also a form of creativity. When we make something, that something is something new. So we are creating something. Just in this case the thing created is the sense, in the form of theory, of the world, but not the world itself in the strict sense. Once something new is created by human beings, it becomes part of the existing world. This includes both the created world in the strict sense and the created theories. The two poles of the openness axis are restricted openness and open-endedness. Again both are open in a sense, but one type of openness has some kind of restriction whereas the other doesn't. Generally all human spiritual activities are open creation, but we could still divide the area into different fields with subtle differences along the two basic axes.

The advantage of this division is that it offers clear demarcation of the major cultural fields. Specifically it neatly puts science, technology, philosophy and art into one of the four quadrants respectively. Next we look at each field/quadrant in detail:

Two important comments need to be made here regarding the cultural quadrants. First, science, technology, philosophy and art are four typical or representative fields in the four quadrants. Other cultural fields can also be put into the quadrants. Some may end up in the boundary area. For instance, religion is another key cultural field. Traditionally people talked of science, philosophy, art and religion as the four fundamental cultural fields. Now we've separated technology from science and granted it foundational status. Then where should we locate religion in this new picture? Religion primarily provides a theory of the world, so it should belong to the left side of the diagram. Next, is the theory open-ended? Apparently not. Since it has predefined premises, it's restricted. In the Introduction to A History of Western Philosophy Russell put philosophy in between science and religion. Now we have quite different relationship among them. Second, activities in the four quadrants penetrate into one another. The mutual penetration of science and technology is obvious. Science and technology are more intensively used in art creation. Philosophy and art are inseparable in some works. There are philosophies of everything, although the science of philosophy, the technology of philosophy, or even the art of philosophy all don't make sense.