I recently started taking a graduate course in the “Philosophy of Technology”. I wrote this reaction to the first course meeting.
While I have some meaningful background in analytic philosophy (mainly epistemology and philosophy of mind) at the undergraduate level, the philosophy of technology as a field is new to me, and it has been a while since I read / engaged with any sort of work that is properly in the style of analytic philosophy more broadly. Coming back to it – both having been in the world and having broadened my intellectual lenses – I am finding that it strikes me in a different kind of way. Where once I might have been excited by the grand ideas & big concepts, I am now struck more by the naïveté of its tendency towards universalism and focus on sharp conceptual analysis1.
The course starts out today, for example, with what feels like a classic philosophy-style definitional question, asking “what is technology?”. Readings, students, and the professor offer some efforts towards an answer. One reading begins with an “instrumentalist” (or perhaps teleological) definition – technology is a human creation to achieve some end: to make a task easier, quicker, more efficient; to solve a problem etc. The reading questions this type of definition, pointing out that technology is not only a means but also a structural thing that can determine / affect / distort our relation to the world. To put the point in sharp relief: technology is not just a means to an end, but also something that determines what ends we seek, how we understand these ends and so on.
We discuss definitions in class as well, with the professor pushing classmates to clarify their definitional attempts – this type of sharp conceptual analysis feels very characteristic of a philosophical approach to me. Classmates allude to the readings and offer their own intuitions: technology as tools; technology as an effort toward improving the world; and so on. One classmate memorably criticizes the other students’ efforts, noting that their definitions are “value-laden”, and instead offers a barren, “value-neutral” definitional effort.
The professor closes the session with his own proposal at a complete definition – a lengthy three-pronged thesis that technology includes some facets of “artefacts” (technologies are things, tools – computers, cars etc.), “activities” (e.g. of organizing in certain ways, of operating said tools/artefacts), and “knowledge” (e.g. the theoretical knowledge of how to produce / execute the tools/processes etc.). One student reasonably questions: what human-touched thing can not be subsumed under so broad a definition? The professor responds (“natural trees”), but underscores that part of the purpose of the definitional discussion is to highlight that it is indeed difficult to provide a satisfactory definition of a concept like technology.
As I read and listen to such discussions, I find myself contrasting this philosophy course with the starting point of an STS (science and technology studies) course I took this time last year. Where philosophy begins with an attempt towards a singular grand definition, STS begins from a far more constructivist standpoint. How does the STS stance address these types of definitional questions? It is a kind of sidestep move. Per Gallie, a big, abstract, value-laden term like “technology”2 (like “art” or “science” or “justice”) will surely be an “essentially contested” one, doomed to be used by many but ever contested / disagreed upon in its uses, application & meaning. Given this, STS invites us not to merely offer our own definition and so participate in this ongoing contest; instead, STS suggests that we step back and examine the contest itself as our object of study. What is the “boundary work” (Gieryn) involved in demarcating between “technology” and not? What norms, values, intuitions, imaginations, institutions are being recruited by definition-proposers in stabilizing their would-be boundaries between this “technology” and “non-technology”? What is “at stake” in this exercise of boundary-drawing, inventing technology and not? It might be an interesting exercise for another time to filter the class conversation through this lens. For now, I simply acknowledge the substantial difference in “starting point” of these two disciplines.
In general, I would like to think more about how to conceptualize work from the philosophical perspective. Aside the critical intuitions offered here, I also have competing moral/intellectual intuitions that philosophy-style work is valuable in other ways. For one thing, I think engaging in careful conceptual analysis and argumentation can be valuable as an intellectual exercise in clarity and persuasion.
Second, I suspect that there is a way to motivate universalist-style reasoning in the context of deliberative democracy, even from a more constructivist perspective. Roughly: even if I do not believe that my universalist philosophical arguments are really tapping into some universal moral/intellectual truths3, they are still useful in (1) making arguments that are legible to others in democratic society – even if e.g. their positionality is very different from mine, and (2) in stabilizing / achieving closure on societal-level policy issues. I think there is a connection to Ezrahi’s work here – and more broadly how STS folks like Sheila Jasanoff think about the role of expertise in democratic society.
To be clear, none of this post is intended as a critique of the philosophy course itself, which I really enjoyed overall. It’s more just an attempt to understand my own attitudes towards philosophy in general vs. other types of intellectual approaches. ↩
The term “technology” might not immediately seem “value-laden”, but I think it really is if you consider its association with nomrative terms like “progress” ↩
Either because I doubt their epistemic potency or doubt the existence of such truths in general ↩