The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Don Ihde

Instrumental Realism:

The Interface between Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Technology

Epilogue: Philosophy of Technology beyond Philosophy of Science

Indiana University Press

Bloomington, 1991, 136-141

The focus upon the interface between philosophy of science and philosophy of technology through the technological embodiment of science in instruments is an important but narrow focus.  It is important because as argued by our instrumental realists, it is really science’s technologies which have been much of the basis of uncovering the new.  This is particularly the case in the now large dimensions of the macro- and micro-levels of reality beyond the reaches of unaided perception at the very base of scientific progress.  This new or re-balanced focus as opposed to the preoccupations of an older philosophy of science is intrinsically important.  And when this leads, as it has here, to the ambiguity of the scientific object which is “real” but produced, then the incarnation of science as technoscience is even more marked.

Yet the focus is also narrow.  This is because, even with instrumentation, there are related and secondary phenomena which also need to be noted.  And as the location of a region of overlap between philosophy of science and philosophy of technology, this interface as developed is only suggestive.

At the beginning, I remained within the umbra of science’s instrumentation and its effects.  The dominant view of science held by most philosophers would hold that the primary trajectories of a science-technology relation are those which can be circumscribed by the overall idea of a science-driven technology.  This occurs at the simplest level in the notion of “pure” science eventually producing some “applied” effect.  I began this primer by questioning that set of priorities.  By now it should be clear that there is another direction of effect; there is also a technology-driven science.

At the highest altitude, such a perspective was suggested most radically by Heidegger, who holds that what we take to be science - even in its most theoretical heart - is an effect of a technological way of taking things, of “revealing a World.”  But at a lower and much more concrete level we also have noted how parts of our world are instrumentally and technologically revealed and even produced.

Instruments, our instrumental realists have pointed out, are the


essential means for that world-revelation.  Yet here too the focus has been perhaps too narrow.  At the beginning, even if recognizing more complexity in principle, the choices of illustrations concerning instruments may have been overly cautious and simple.  Most of the examples in the first books are a little like Heidegger’s equally favored selection of simple tools in the workshop, with associated fears of larger technologies such as dams on the Rhine or atomic bombs.  While fears about larger and more complex instrumentation do not trouble our authors, there remains something of the smaller and more manageable to the examples selected by all of our instrumental realists.  Telescopes and microscopes - even if updated in high-tech ways to include electron and sonic microscopy and spectral and light-enhanced telescopy - remain central.  And with the hermeneutic variety of indirectly “read” instruments, we remained with thermometers or display panels.

Not that more could be done with even these examples: Use and design were dealt with differently by different authors.  And one secondary area of what I call technology-driven science also was located.  Some, and increasingly many scientific phenomena are clearly technologically carpentered phenomena.  Heelan makes this sort of carpentry central, but Hacking and Ackermann also recognize at least one class of scientific phenomena which would not be known or would not exist without technologies.  And most recognize the historian’s adage about “science owing more to the steam engine than the steam engine to science.”  One of the carpentered examples is clearly that of the laws of thermodynamics arising in relation to steam engine performance rather than nature observation.  The same technology-driven modelling is taken to be excessive in Dreyfus’s critique of artificial intelligence.  He clearly doubts that the laws of psychodynamics will arise in conjunction with computer modelling.  But beyond sensory enhancement lies a whole realm of technology-artifact-produced science.  This, too, is part of the interface between philosophy of science and philosophy of technology in the shadows of instrumentation within the large laboratory.

These phenomena lie within the direct examination of instrumentation, and they have been noted in various ways by each of our authors.  But there is also a more subtle, secondary effect which ought to be pointed up as belonging to technology-driven science.  It is what I call the inclination of a trajectory.  Such inclinations are related to the capacities opened up by instruments, capacities of a technological possibility leading to the productive capacities of experimental science.

At the highest and most general altitude, if it is true that research programs in the sciences are more and more concerned with the macro-and micro-levels, is not this itself an indicator of following a technologically possible trajectory?  Does the array of instrumentation “suggest” just such a direction?  Even in the case of our simpler


instruments, just such a trajectory may be detected in the early stages.  Magnification “suggests” more magnification; resolution more resolution, until eventually, we reach not only the historic refinements of microscopes and telescopes, but their contemporary variants which also present whole-image results isomorphic with ordinary vision - NMR, songrams, etc.  This is following a technological trajectory with its fascination.  But it is also a subtle indirect and secondary effect of a technology-driven science.

In the just-cited examples, we remain within the narrowly focused domain of science’s instrumentation - but science is more than technologically embodied.  It is also institutionally technologically embedded.  That was clearly recognized both by the new generations of discourse and power praxis philosophers of science such as Rouse, Gutting, et al., and by the sociology of science thinkers.  Here we focused upon such praxes in the laboratory, the experiment.  To Galison and Latour I could have added others who have not yet produced books.  Indeed, in this series Robert Crease now joins the writers in experiment, with his The Nature of Scientific Experiment. [1]  Today’s Big Science is so closely tied to Big Technology that one can meaningfully speak of a single, complex phenomenon whch is both a scientific technology and a technological science: technoscience.

Not that our instrumental realists have overlooked this complexity within Big Science.  Ackermann had already accounted for some of the social construction in science and its embeddedness in the political matrices of our times.  Heelan and Hacking are today engaged in book projects focusing precisely upon the larger socius of experiment and corporate science. [2]  And my recent Technology and the Lifeworid places science in the context of multiple world cultures. [3]

There is even a sense in which the embeddedness of science in corporate modes is as old as its beginnings in the Renaissance, although without the levels of complexity and megascale technologies as in the last five decades.  One finds our Galileos and da Vincis courting, in anticipatory fashion, precisely the equivalents of today’s “military-industrial complex,” about which Eisenhower warned us.  At its birth, one could say that science foresaw itself as power- and money-oriented.  Big Science is corporate-structured and concretely overlaps in both style and organization other corporate structures of clearly less “theoretical” bent.  These factors which today disturb social consciousness are part of the context for the internal modes of contestation and exclusion which the hermeneutic philosophers of science and the sociologists of science detect in the high-ante stakes within laboratory science.

This fact points to an entirely different interface area between philosophy of science and philosophy of technology but one which does not so neatly overlap, as in the examples explored more deeply here within the confines of epistemology and ontology.  The issues


surrounding Big Science-Big Technology are unavoidably linked to social-political and ethical philosophies in ways which go beyond most extant philosophy of science.

If the dominant strands of philosophy of science have heretofore been insensitive to or forgetful of the science/technology interface in instrumentation, these same strands have been equally negligent with respect to the social structures and operations of science in its now dominant corporate form (excluding some strands of Popperian, Marxian, Critical Theory, and Feminist philosophers also recognizable as important minoritarians).  Within the philosophy of science, only recently and primarily from the discourse-praxis and hermeneutic philosophers of science, have these issues been seen to be deeply intrinsic to the institutions of science itself.  But ethics, social-political philosophy, and concerns for social effects frequently have been central to much philosophy of technology.

In short, much philosophy of science has concentrated upon the process of discovery, and that, within fairly narrow boundaries.  It might be said, in contrast, that in its more dominant concerns, much philosophy of technology has concentrated upon the impact and effect of science-technology or technological science.  It has, in effect, taken Big Science much more for granted than any of the dominant or older strands of philosophy of science.

It might be said that insofar as Big Science belongs to, or even creates, Big Technology, what many of the philosophers of technology have discerned by way of such big effects has stimulated alarm.  Big Science-Big Technology has become a global force which poses effects upon global political and environmental levels.  It is these phenomena which have drawn much of the attention within philosophy of technology.

Unfortunately, it has also led to extremes which are the counterparts of the narrow, propositional, and theoretically preoccupied parts within philosophy of science.  Only in this case the figures drawing attention have been largely dystopian and technologically negative critics, convinced that technology is negatively affecting the essence of the human (Jonas), narrowing options to monodimensional choices (Marcuse), overwhelming nature itself (Ellul), etc.  Thus, to the often sterile tone of much philosophy of science is counterpoised an alarmist dystopianism within some philosophy of technology.

Yet, just as philosophy of science in even its most narrow concerns continues to deal with issues of importance, however badly contexted, the same may be said to be the case with the extremism associated with some philosophy of technology.  Big Science-Big Technology has become a global force, and it does have an effect upon the natural and social environment.  And these issues must be recognized and discussed within a philosophy of technology, which is necessarily broader than


philosophy of science per se - at least, so long as philosophy of science remains theory-centered.  Were philosophy of science to concentrate upon technoscience, the outcome might bring together in a new way what now remain separate but related disciplines.

I shall point to three such areas within such a technoscience approach.  The examples I select are all central to much philosophy of technology in its ethical, social-political concerns.  One of those concerns relates to the environment, a frequently treated issue in philosophy of technology writing.  My examples are: (a) PCB5 and the array of chemically created compounds which are toxic and do not occur in nature but are artifacts of technoscience production; (b) nuclear energy and warfare products which imply large social-political results; and (c) industrially produced aerosols, particularly those which affect ozone in the atmosphere.  In each of these cases, the product is one which does not occur within nature or within earth’s environment.  These products, not unlike the produced entities becoming paradigmatic as results of experiment, are technoscience entities.  The product is created or produced through technoscience, and in each case there is, or is implied, a global effect.  I am pointing to this simply as an important philosophy of science/philosophy of technology interface.  The nest of issues is large, complex and urgent.  But it is also an index for taking note of the areas where the latter subdiscipline does not overlap the former.  There is a sense that philosophy of technology is and ought to be broader than philosophy of science.  It is somewhat like the analogy between culture and religion: everyone has a culture, but not everyone is religious; everyone is involved with technology, but not all with science.

Philosophy of technology, if it is to deal with the broader issues of technology within human life, must turn its focus to issues of daily life, to the ethical impact of technologies - whether science-produced or not - and to the whole range of interfaces of technology and our lifeworld.

There is an existential quality to concerns which arise out of the broader areas of philosophy of technology, related to the way in which technologies have a way of “putting our bodies on the line.”  Concern for the natural and social environment is merely the broadest and most far-reaching of these existential implications.  More regionally, but clearly relating to domains open for philosophy of technology, are those related to medicine, wherein the creation of new scarcity, life/death boundary, the artificial prolongation of “vegetative” life, and a host of other issues have given birth to a species of high medical technology ethicians.  A second area of interest, only recently coming into philosophical purview, is the role of media.  Here again is a technology-saturated phenomenon which in many ways parallels precisely the one discussed here concerning instrumentation.  It might be said that in


particular, cinema, television, and the auditory media, have enhanced and expanded (and transformed) a lifeworld in this mundane, daily sense in ways similar to the ways instrumentation changed classical science.  There are embodiment, hermeneutic, and highly “carpentered” aspects to such media phenomena which could, and should, serve as interesting variants upon themes previously discussed here.  This is particularly so with the differences between what is presumably the “world-exhibiting” the “world inventing” aims of similar instrumentation differently contexted.

The global, environmental, and regional medical and media regions do not exhaust what could, and should, be dealt with by a sensitive discipline in the philosophy of technology.  These areas, however, point to a greater breadth, essential to philosophy of technology, than is found in philosophy of science.  The task is one of “reading” the world through technology.

Because philosophy of technology is still in its infancy but is simultaneously engaged in such a broad enterprise, it is not surprising that it should remain as yet preparadigmatic.  This can be an advantage, in that this new subdiscipline can learn from many sources.  I have suggested that it has learned some things from the traditions of Euro-American philosophy - in part, one could say that philosophy of technology comes more fully out of that tradition than most subdisciplines have.  But I also have suggested that even the older strands of Euro-American philosophy have not been as acutely aware of technologies in a more primary sense as they might have been.  There have been indirect lessons from the new philosophies of science as well as the history of technology.

The other side also should be emphasized: Philosophy of science could learn a great deal from a “reading” of the world technologically, through interpreting things via their enmeshment with artifacts.  I have suggested that the sense of concreteness, the sense of a certain “materiality” which arises from phenomenology in particular, may turn out to be much larger than is either expected or than is practiced today in the still separated professional and social practices of the philosophers who identify themselves with either subdiscipline.  The deeper recognition of a thoroughly technologically embodied and embedded science is a first attempt at shading in this middle area.

This primer has been an initial look at the juncture of the concrete praxes of technoscience as it interfaces with the necessary emphasis upon materiality within philosophy of technology.  And unlike even a little over a decade ago, a growing company has been found occupying this new territory.



1. Robert Crease is a colleague of Heelan’s and mine at Stony Brook.  He currently is the official historian of the Brookhaven National Laboratory as well as assistant professor of philosophy.  In addition, I should like to point to a former student of Hacking, Davis Baird, now an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina.  Baird is the author of “Five Theses on Instrumental Realism,” PSA, Vol. 1, 1988, in which he thought he had coined the term “instrumental realism.”  We met for the first time in the spring of 1988 (1 have used the term since 1977).

2. After the 1979-1985 period examined concerning my original list of instrumental realists, a great many philosophers of science began to turn to special interest in the experiment.  This includes the subsequent projects of both Heelan and Hacking.  Heelan is at work on a book, tentatively titled After Experiment, and has published an article, “After Experiment: Realism and Research,” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4, October 1989, in which he places the role of instrumental realism in the complex social context of modern experiment . Similarly, Hacking has published a recent article in which he deals with the issues of “lenses” in astronomy.

3. Especially relevant to scientific instrumentation, however, is Chapter 5, “A Phenomenology of Technics,” which, while not restricted to scientific instruments, expands upon and refines much of the earlier phenomenology of instrumentation found in Technics and Praxis.