The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Don Ihde

Instrumental Realism:

The Interface between Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Technology


I. Introduction: Philosophers and Technology

Indiana University Press

Bloomington, 1991, 3-10

Although there is a vast literature concerning technology, rarely has it been the primary theme of philosophers.  But even with the plethora of books concerning the human impact of technology, few are concerned with the nature of technology per se.  Either the literature tends to focus upon effects of technology or it-may-itself be technical literature.  Rachel Laudan, one of the new group of historians concerned with the history of technology, has observed, “For all the diatribes about the disastrous effects of technology on modern life, for all the equally uncritical paeans to technology as the panacea for human ills, the vociferous pro-and anti-technology movements have failed to illuminate the nature of technology.” [1]

Such a lack of focus also occurs within the disciplines, which again tend to focus either upon social effects or upon techniques of decision or management within the technological context.  Again Laudan:

On a more scholarly level, in the midst of claims by Marxists and non-Marxists alike about the technological underpinnings of the major social and economic changes of the last couple of centuries, and despite advice given to government and industry about managing science and technology by a small army of consultants and policy analysts, technology itself remains locked inside an impenetrable black box, a deus ex machina to be invoked when all other explanations of puzzling social and economic phenomena fail. [2]

What Laudan misses to a degree is that there has been some careful attention to technology by European philosophers, although that literature is not well known in the dominant North American circles.

The first book to coin the term “philosophy of technology” was written in 1877 by the neo-Hegelian Ernst Kapp.  Of course, the later Marxian traditions also recognize the role of technology within human history and economics; but even more broadly, almost every major European philosopher in the dominant traditions of the mid-century also devoted attention to technology.  Here the list would have to include Ortega y Gassett, Karl Jaspers, Nicolas Berbyaev, and Gabriel Marcel.  But the name of Martin Heidegger would take the central


position.  Yet until recently, even Heidegger’s clearly focused thematic concern with technology has gone largely without notice or comment from even the continentally oriented American philosophers within the scholarly traditions which follow this tradition here.

A second source of philosophical interest, one would think, should arise in the closest-related special interest among philosophers - the philosophy of science.  This has not been the case until very recently, and then only after reaction, in effect, to challenges by minority groups within the profession of philosophy.

In a discussion of the state of the art, I shall turn to that often non-benign neglect for two purposes: First, I wish to locate the sources for a potential reevaluation of technology with respect to the philosophy of science; and second, I wish to use, by way of introduction, some of the more important European sources which show the greatest promise of development vis-à-vis an emergent philosophy of technology.

There has been for many years a thriving North American establishment in the philosophy of science.  Indeed, the Philosophy of Science Association (founded in 1934) is the largest special-interest society within the profession of philosophy in America.  The counterpart organization for technology, the Society for Philosophy and Technology, was not formally organized until 1983 (although it had met in a series of conferences for at least a decade before), and its membership is still less than a fifth of that of the PSA.  This disproportion in organizational -size is at least indicative of the degree and relative lateness with which philosophers in North America have come to a serious concern with technology.

There have been some beginnings.  The major journal for the history and philosophy of technology, Technology and Culture, presented an issue as early as 1966 on “Toward a Philosophy of Technology.”  Among those who contributed were: James Feibelman, Mario Bunge and Joseph Aggasi, who are still active in the field; and the organ of the Society for Philosophy and Technology, Research in Philosophy and Technology, ,which owed its primary existence to the work of Paul Durbin:  Its reappearance is now under the hand of Frederick Ferré.  However, Research collects articles which are usually quite diverse and interdisciplinary, and has not published either monographs or thematic books.  But in contrast to the large European literature on the subject, there has been little serious work on the subject.  As late as 1979, Mario Bunge could say:

Technophilosophy is still immature and uncertain of its very object, and does not exploit the entire scope of its own possibilities.  That it is an underdeveloped branch of scholarship is suggested by the fact that so far no major philosopher has made it his central concern or written an important monograph on it. [3]


Bunge himself outlines, then, what he hopes will be the fields of “technophilosophy,” his term for philosophy of technology.  And although he was certainly aware that there were European strains, his attitude toward them reflects the negative attitude that most mainstream old philosophy of science has taken:

Characteristica1ly, such writers as Berdyev, Ellul, Heidegger, Marcuse and Habermas fail to distinguish technology from its applications, and endow it with an autonomous existence and, moreover, power over man. [and, presumably referring to these same authors]... I do not count the tiresome tirades on the way technology “dehumanizes” man or robs him of his “authenticity”; this is not philosophy, but bad literature. [4]

But Bunge himself, along with the others mentioned (and to which one might add Edward Ballard, Peter Caws, Joe Margolis, and Marx Wartofsky as widely known philosophers who have written early articles on the subject), stands out from the more prevalent philosophical indifference to technology as a theme.

I cite this brief and recent state-of-the-art observation because it points to much deeper roots.  There are persistent reasons to be found in the dominant traditions of the philosophy of science, which themselves form the context of vision which overlooks technology.  In Technics and Praxis - written in 1979, Bunge’s crucial year - I claimed:

Part of the silence concerning technology comes from within philosophy itself.  Philosophy usually conceives of itself more as a type of “conceptual” engineering than as a “material” engineering.  Here there is a deeper set of relationships between science and technology as they emerge both in ancient and contemporary thought in philosophy.

This symptomatology points to the dominance of a long “Platonistic” tradition with respect to science and technology, a tradition which, with respect to science and technology; turns out to be “idealistic.”  This conclusion turns upon the variable which I have called the primacy of praxis and is related only partly to the long-held distinction between theory and practice.

The theory-practice distinction, however, may also be associated with a much deeper distinction, the mind-body distinction.  Theory, as a set of concepts in some system of relations, is usually thought of as the product of mind, while practice often is associated with a product of body.  And in the “Platonistic” tradition, mind takes precedence over body.  Praxis philosophies return to this tradition in a new way because the primacy of a theory of action is one which positively evaluates what I shall call the phenomena of perception and embodiment.

Contrarily, a “Platonistic” tradition is one which negatively judges, or at least evaluates, perception and embodiment as lower on the scale of human activity than what is presumed to be a “pure” conceptuality. [5]


The. long tradition of Platonism noted here continues into the later concerns of the philosophy of science.  It also determines the dominant view concerning the relationship between science and technology, which is that technology is applied science, or a merely neutral development from science.

Today, such a view is increasingly being called into question, perhaps most often by social scientists and historians, but also by philosophers, including many who are now working in the philosophy of technology.  Again I cite my earlier Technics and Praxis:

If one assumes that technology is an extension of science, a mere application and its instrument, then to address the effects of technology is at most to address a tertiary phenomenon.  A series of relations may be formalized thusly:

Science - technology - social effect

Here the original cause is science as concept; technology is its effect or application; and the ethical or social effect is the tertiary phenomenon resultant from the series.  Given this schematism, the only radical way of treating any problems which arise at the end of the series as other than symptoms would call for revision or change in the cause - in this case, the conceptual foundations of science itself.

Of course, some philosophers do precisely this.  The current debates about ‘value free’ science, even among neo-positivist philosophers, and the attacks upon various forms of scientific reductionism are, at least within the limitations of the idealist interpretation, working at the right level.  The intuition that negative results from technology lead back to possible flaws in conceptual science is at least a consistent position with respect to Platonism. [6]

Since this now decade plus beginning, there has been an accelerated interest in the philosophy of technology.  Here the principals have been thinkers like Langdon Winner with The Whale and the Reactor (1986), Albert Borgmann with Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (1984), and even my own more recent Technology and the Lifeworld (1990).  But in these cases the breadth of concerns is such that a focus upon the interface with the philosophy of science is often only sporadic within the books as a whole.

However, in comparison with the centuries-old traditions of Modern Science, philosophy of science is something of a relative newcomer.  Prior to the nineteenth century, for example, it was often difficult to distinguish philosophy from science.  What we would roughly call natural science today was, in early modern times (seventeenth to eighteenth centuries), natural philosophy.  And even earlier it was, in fact, hard to distinguish science from its applications and embodiments, a fact which will have some bearing upon precisely the issue of the relation of science to technology.  But with the gradual separation of


science and philosophy until its much more extreme distinctions in professional form today, there was a more highly contrasted science-technology distinction, which eventually led to the disappearance of concerns with technology from philosophy.

To the informed, it would be unnecessary to note that the dominant philosophy of science in North America was first positivistic and then modified into what today is broadly called analytic philosophy.  Both versions of philosophy of science were highly Platonistic in the sense sketched above; they conceived of science as a body of propositions, a conceptual, rational system, essentially disembodied from both social and material connections.  This perspective views science as essentially a system of concepts and logical connections motivated by both explicit and implicit rational processes.  This view has had a deep and profound effect even beyond the work of what I shall now call the old philosophy of science.  For example, the sciences’ own interpretations of themselves and their earlier history largely remained sympathetic to the positivist strain which continued to dominate early twentieth-century philosophy of science.

The father of the North American revolution in history and philosophy of science observed in the very opening chapter of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

Even from history... [a] new concept will not be forthcoming if historical data continue to be sought and scrutinized mainly to answer questions posed by the unhistorical stereotype drawn from science texts.  Those texts have, for example, often seemed to imply that the content of science is uniquely exemplified by the observations, laws, and theories described in their pages.  Almost as regularly, the same books have been read as saying that scientific methods are simply the ones illustrated by the manipulative techniques used in gathering textbook data, together with the logical operations employed when relating those data to the textbook’s theoretical generalizations. [7]

This is the attitude which accepts the notion of the older philosophy of science, an ideal and abstract science which apart from being ahistorical, is disembodied.  It is a science without perception and a science without technology.

The same view, in the older historical disciplines, continued this implicit Platonism, which had as its implication the dominant view that technology must be the stepchild of science.  Edwin Layton noted that historians, “while correctly repudiating the Marxist thesis that the Scientific Revolution was no more than the systematization of the knowledge of the craftsman, overreacted when they came to the converse conclusion, namely, that science was prior to and generative of technology.” [8]

Given the usual conservatism of philosophical change, particularly


within the mainstream of recent North American thought, it is hardly surprising that the few philosophers who have begun to develop interest in the philosophy of technology continue to carry over to it the same interests and assumptions which motivated their primary interest in science.  Bunge’s approach is symptomatic.  In his article “The Five Buds of Technophilosophy,” one can easily see this focus.  He asks:

• Is there a technological method parallel to the scientific method and, if so, what are its rules and what is the efficiency of the latter?

• Some philosophers have claimed that, unlike science, technology has no laws and theories of its own.  True or false?  And, if true, what distinguishes technological law statements and theories from scientific ones?

• What are the peculiarities of the rules of advanced technology vis-à-vis mathematical and scientific rules? [9]

Here we have a virtually stipulative concept of technology, one which, by definition, illustrates the predisposition to interpret technology as applied science.  In this case, vast areas of technological phenomena are effectively excluded - certainly traditional technologies and all variants other than those related to science.  Moreover, as the historians have recognized, even many technologies which have been developed in the recent scientific milieu are not reducible to applications of science.

When philosophy does turn its attention to the insistent presence of technology, it inevitably casts the question in one or another of the dominant modes of philosophical interpretation and reconstruction.  Thus the logic of technological thinking and practice... and the question of technology’s relation to science has been posed in the framework of the nomological model of explanation in the sciences - e.g., are there “laws” of technology or how does technology fit within the context of justification which defines the project of a logical-empiricist philosophy of science? [10]

But this is the old philosophy of science, regardless of its continued institutional power. [11]  And even if, as we shall note, some of the preferences for purely conceptual concerns remain intact even in the new philosophy of science, a crack has appeared through which other possibilities may be glimpsed.  What I call the new philosophy of science not only has opened the way to a different perspective upon science and its development but, in that very perspective, makes way for, a philosophical concern with technology.

It is interesting that the roots of the new philosophy of science, particularly in the Anglo-American sector, are those which relate in every instance to historians and philosophers who have been sensitive


to the historical, perceptual, and community embodiments of science.  And whereas I shall turn shortly to some of the major philosophic aspects of this change of perspective, it should be noted that a good deal of separately originated and motivated work has also been carried out in the history of technology.

For example, with respect to the dominant notion of the science-technology relation, Rachel Laudan observes that the younger generation of historians of technology has become increasingly revisionist and has called this concept into question: “No less than three special issues of ‘Technology and Culture’ in recent years, not to mention countless individual articles and books, have been devoted to revisionist examinations of the relationship of science and technology.” [12]  This attack comes from both philosophical and more concretely, historical examination:

Recent attacks on the concept of technology as applied science have employed two strategies, one empirical and one analytic.  On the empirical front historian after historian has chronicled episodes in the development of technology where the major advances owed little or nothing to science.  Whether one takes steam power, water power, machine tools, clock making or metallurgy, the conclusion is the same.  The technology developed without the assistance of scientific theory, a position summed up by the slogan “science owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to science. (Italics mine]” [13]

I am, of course, still characterizing the Anglo-American state of the art which has in its own way and by its own insights become revisionist.  But in the wider world, it is not true that philosophers have failed to appreciate the insight of the historian’s slogan.  The smaller community of North American philosophers of science who are aware of the European traditions would immediately recognize in this questioning of the relationship an echo of Martin Heidegger’s much earlier revolution in perspective.  In the early fifties he not only had already made the question of technology a central one to his thought but had suggested a radical inversion of the science-technology relation:

Because the essence of modern technology lies in enframing, modern technology must employ exact physical science.  Through so doing the deceptive illusion arises that modern technology is applied physical science.  This illusion can maintain itself only so long as neither the essential origin of modern science nor indeed the essence of modern technology is adequately found through questioning. [14]

In short, without returning to the presumed Marxian concept that the Industrial Revolution is a systematization of handcraft work, Heidegger asserts the reversal of Platonism.  If anything, science becomes for


Heidegger a technology-science relation.  I shaI1 return to this theme later, noting only that the radicalness of this shift in perspectives has remained largely invisible to the old philosophy of science; and although not often explicitly noticed, it relates more closely to the perspective of some of the new philosophy of science.  Had the Heideggerian counterpart to Platonism been a livelier part of the debate, perhaps it might not have taken so long for the new perspective to emerge.

What I call the old philosophy of science, however, remains, largely unaware of and uninterested in even science’s necessary technology, its instrumentation.  Often satisfied that there is a sharp, or at least identifiable, distinction between “theoretical” and “experimental” science, the old philosophy of science has addressed itself almost exclusively to the former.  This is partly in keeping with its own internal traditions, which view philosophy as an almost exclusively logical and linguistic exercise.  Only recently have these prejudices begun to be called into question and revised in any serious way.

Yet the challenges which form what I shall call the “new” philosophy of science are irreversible, and they have begun to bear fruit for the interface between the philosophy of science and the philosophy of technology.