Stephen Johnston, Paul Gostelow and Joseph King's
Towards a philosophy of engineering


'Wresting with philosophy can help us understand the scope and boundaries of engineering practice and the assumptions underlying our profession. Not to do so can leave us at the mercy of those whose view of engineering may be quite different from our own. As engineers we need to think through and express the aims and aspirations of the engineering profession ourselves in our own terms' [1].

A Philosophy Primer

The authors set out a brief history of Western philosophy starting with Classical Greece and Thales of Miletus. In the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, Latin translations of Aristotle and others became available and Thomas Aquinas synthesised Christian and Aristotelian logic. In the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries Niccolo Machiavelli, Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes developed political theories and moved thinking way from the strictly theological. Bacon and Hobbes set the agenda for what became Empiricism, which the authors point out was the corner stone of the Industrial Revolution. In particular, Bacon considered the only worthwhile knowledge to be that which was discovered by experiment or observation of the natural world. Descartes on the other hand is known for Rationalism which the authors summarise as 'truth resides in our mind to be discovered by reason'.

Johnston, Gostelow and King note that in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the Age of Enlightenment, Empiricism established itself as the scientific orthodoxy and the aims of John Locke, George Berkely and David Hume were to apply the method of natural science to human nature and in their individual ways promote the liberation of scientific enquiry from inherited orthodoxies. Immanuel Kant provided a unifying thread by arguing that the order and regularity in objects, which we call nature, is really introduced by the observer.

In the nineteenth century, the authors note that Georg Hegel went back to a more rationalistic idealism where the truth was seen as not external but evolving and historical. Karl Marx took this a step further arguing that material reality was the starting point for any analysis in that it was only possible to understand a situation by seeing how it had come about and recognising the internal tensions which might generate change.

Twentieth century philosophers developed three schools of thought: Existentialism, Logical Positivism and Post Modernism. Existentialism became influential in continental Europe during the second quarter of the twentieth century. It stresses that 'being' must take precedence over 'knowledge'. The authors note that from an engineering perspective, 'existentialism challenges each engineer to assume project responsibility and in doing so to engage with individual concerns and develop technologies that maximise personal autonomy'. In opposition to Existentialism is Logical Positivism [which is a combination of empiricism and rationalism: Ed.] which says firstly that all knowledge of fact is based on the data of experience, and secondly that beyond the realm of fact we can indeed use pure logic and pure mathematics. Logical Positivism is criticised for excluding insights from the sociology of science on the way scientific activity is carried out, how problems are chosen and how resources are allocated. Post Modernism asserts that in the late twentieth century society has suffered a crisis of confidence, uncertainty and a mutually destructive relationship with nature. Post Modernists argue that all understanding is interpretive and no interpretation is final, a view that the authors point out is unlikely to appeal to engineers. However they note that Post Modernism does have useful tools in the form of 'discourse' (for example, the shared assumptions and special terminology in engineering) and 'deconstruction' (dissection and critical analysis).

The authors end their overview by noting that engineer commentators have been scathing about the failure of academic philosophers to provide intellectual guidance. Therefore the road to a philosophy of engineering may instead be via the philosophy of science and philosophy of technology.

Technology, Science, Engineering and Engineering-Science

The authors give a thumbnail sketch of the origins of the philosophy of science and some of its development. An early view was science advanced by formal analysis, and knowledge was accumulated. Karl Popper rejected this view and proposed that it advanced by participants coming up with unjustifiable anticipations, guesses or part worked out solutions and then subjected these to tests aimed at refuting these hypotheses. Thomas Kuhn developed an explanation for how researchers worked. He said that multiple explanations about a topic eventually coalesced into an agreed explanation or a paradigm. One example was the nature of electricity for which many explanations were proposed in the eighteenth century but which eventually settled into a common view. Such a paradigm then forms the basis for further research. However, paradigms are not necessarily permanent. New paradigms can form which both include the old one and explain its anomalies. This means that successful basic research demands both a deep commitment to the existing paradigm and a preparedness to recognise where this does not provide an adequate explanation.

Johnston, Gostelow and King look at the relationship of engineering to other areas of knowledge: science, technology (which encompasses engineering and overlaps part of science) and engineering-science (the intersection of engineering and science) and comment on the nature of each of each.

The popular view of technology is the very visible high-technology. This emphasis promotes the view that technology is scientific and therefore value-free. The authors cite numerous criticisms of this from technological historians, philosophers and feminists. The authors note that nevertheless the value-free view has lead to university engineering courses being structured to avoid the social content of engineering practice.

While science is the systematic, arranged knowledge of the material and physical world, modern science is technology as far as its experimental procedures are concerned. Quoting Rapp, 'but scientific research does not by itself easily translate into technical practice. To make the transition all of the skill and knowledge of the engineering arts and sciences are needed. Clearly the structure of thinking in the technological sciences, as well as the methodological principles of design and efficient and purposeful action, exhibit patterns of their own. So thay can by no means be reduced to a philosophy of science.'

Modern professional engineering emphasises judgement, as well as knowledge, when developing ways to advance the progressive well being of human kind. To this the authors add requirements for ecological sustainability and a recognition of responsibility to non-human forms of life. They examine what constitutes engineering knowledge. Scientific knowledge forms a base but real life problems are more complex [in that these involve many other factors: Ed]. Design in the face of imperfect knowledge and multiple constraints is a central engineering activity. So the professions of science and engineering are very different.

Engineering-science forms only a part of engineering, providing a scientific base for engineering practice. The authors note that a failure to appreciate this has lead to serious shortcomings in the teaching of engineering. Engineering-science is intermediate between pure-science and pure-practice and emphasises prediction of behaviour rather than causation.

Can a 'Philosophy of Science' be a 'Philosophy of Engineering'?

The authors examine whether a philosophy of science can be a useful guide for a philosophy of engineering. They note that although engineering as a practice has become more reliant on science, the two are different in practice and purpose. It is unlikely that a philosophy of science could be adopted as a philosophy of engineering per se.

Can a 'Philosophy of Technology' be a 'Philosophy of Engineering'?

The authors note that engineering provides a bridge between science and technology on one hand, and between technology and commerce on the other.

The philosophy of technology is interested in explaining how technology evolves, how choices are made about which potential technologies will be developed, and who makes those choices. Quoting R. E. McGinn, the authors note that to benefit from technological processes we have to adjust the way we work. That is, we pay a price for our benefits. These adjustments are specialised division of labour and standardisation of many elements in our lives. So while technology shapes our priorities because it produces the material framework in which we live, it can also have unintended and unexpected secondary effects which can aggravate existing problems or create new ones. It would not be going too far to say, like Langdon Winner, that technologies become cultures or ways of life. And in challenging this is where alternate views become relevant: those of ecologists and feminists for example. The authors quote S. L. Goldman, saying that on one hand because engineering contributes to technology as a social construct, it faces the same moral, political and aesthetic questions as technology does.

We can draw the conclusion from what the authors say, that engineering, while needing to take into account the broader issues facing technological progress, nevertheless has its own imperatives.

The Need for Engineering Values and Philosophy: a Narrowing Engineering Perspective in Education and Business

Goldman also looks at the purpose of engineering, and at design in particular. He argues it is 'an explicitly valuational activity, a synthesis of a "box" of means, a set of imposed constraints, and a fuzzy vision of the end to be achieved.' Edwin Layton is quoted as saying that '[f]rom the view of modern science, design is nothing, but from the point of view of engineering, design is everything'.

The authors note Goldman's point that teaching the design process has suffered as a result of an over-emphasis on scientific analysis in both teaching and research. Johnston, Lee and McGregor take this point further arguing the discourse of engineering has become captive to the discourse of science and business, which have been largely allowed to define engineering knowledge and forms of practice.

That is, 'the domination of engineering education by the discourse of science has limited the type of problems posed and the type of solutions accepted. In [that] process, instead of open-ended, design-oriented problems, which recognise the social context of engineering ... the emphasis has moved too far towards closed problems with a single correct answer.

The authors also observe that design teachers are commonly generalists with substantial engineering experience but few publications and therefore find it hard to compete for promotion with engineering scientists. A more appropriate balance needs therefore to be struck between designers and engineering scientists.

In industry, they see the domination of engineering organisations by a business ethic, rather than having an engineering ethos, as tending to de-engineer these organisations and lower the organisational ability to carry out central technical tasks effectively.'

The Need for Engineering Values and Philosophy: Avoiding a Present Threat to the Standing of the Profession

What is the implication then of engineering teaching in the twentieth century being dominated by the engineering science approach, which has stressed grounding in scientific disciplines and emphasised high-technology research, at the expense of design and practice?

The authors note that the assumption which the engineering-science approach makes is that technology is value-free and that human needs are extraneous. It is based on the idea that the organisation and management of engineering activities can be separated from the technical aspects. Universities adopting this approach fail to teach the skills engineers need to transition to management and to prepare them professionally for wider interactions with public and business interest groups. Many engineers fail to realise that the situations in which they act are value-laden. The authors see that this failure is a major threat to the standing of the profession.

Johnston, Gostelow and King note that engineering is a creative activity, as much an art as a science. Therefore a philosophy of engineering is both possible and essential. No well developed philosophy of engineering exists at present. 'The central issue for a philosophy of engineering will probably be the clarification of the meaning and significance of engineering activity. Also, a comprehensive philosophy of engineering will have to deal adequately with the character and significance of engineering practice, the nature of engineering knowledge and the way it is learned, and the roles in engineering of [non-scientfic] art, aesthetics, creativity and judgement.'

'[T]he lack of an adequate philosophy of engineering [is] a major problem for the engineering profession .. [and a philosophy] is essential for the assertion of professional identity and the formulation of clear directions for future development [of the profession].'


[1] Stephen F. Johnston, J. Paul Gostelow and W. Joseph King,
      Engineering and Society: Challenges of Professional Practice
      Chapter 10: Towards a Philosophy of Engineering, pp. 511-549
      Prentice Hall, 2000
      ISBN 0-201-36141-8