Thinking Through Engineering

Carl Mitcham
March 01, 1994

Twenty-five years ago quite by accident I stumbled across a gaping hole in philosophy.

It was similar to the experience I had about the same time of driving across the high desert of northern Arizona and coming suddenly upon the Grand Canyon. No mountains around, no slope to the rim, just all at once you get out of the car, walk over to the edge, and are suddenly looking down thousands of feet into another world.

Orthographic Projection to define proportions of a head

Dürer's systematic use of orthographic projection to define the proportions of a head

Since then I have come to realize that my discovery is only the side canyon of a much larger gap in our world between what C.P. Snow had already baptized as the "two cultures." The particular canyon to which I refer is the gap between philosophy and technology.

For more than 300 years, first in the West and now virtually throughout the world, there has grown up a progressive commitment to technology. Modern technology bridges the gap between science and craft work, releases and harnesses the hidden energies of the Earth, mass-produces incredible quantities of consumer products, and transforms our relations to the natural world and to each other. But philosophy has only recently begun to examine the nature and meaning of this historically unprecedented activity, the objects modern technology creates, and the knowledge and volition in which it is grounded.

Take, for example, that particular expression of technology known as engineering. Engineering knowledge is quite different from science, and at best inadequately characterized as applied science. The engineering sciences—such as strength of materials, mechanics, thermodynamics, and aerodynamics—all have cognitive structures quite different from physics, chemistry, and biology. However, no widely studied epistemological theory even mentions, much less adequately discusses, engineering as knowledge. Not Descartes. Not Hume. Not Kant. Not anywhere in Hegel's great Encyclopedia (1817-1830). Although the practical arts play a major role in the great French Encyclopedie (1751-1766), the systematic development of technological knowledge was excluded from even the Encyclopaedia Britannica until the 1970s. The famous 11th edition (1910) doesn't even include an entry on technology.

The natural sciences emphasize laws about how the world is, engineering emphasizes rules for how to make it different. Although the scientific law "Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius" can be interpreted as theoretically grounding the engineering rule "If the temperature of water is lowered to 0 degrees Celsius, then it will freeze," the structure of the two statements is quite different. The first is declarative, the second hypothetical. Moreover, in many instances engineering rules are either not directly grounded in scientific theory or are grounded only by means of major simplifications. For example, the empirical rules for the slopes of repose of various types of rock aggregates are seldom related to any theories about possible friction between different solid geometries. Also, the calculations of trajectories for projectiles near the surface of the Earth systematically ignore the influences of gravity from the sun and moon. Indeed, only by making numerous simplified models about the world are engineers able to make anything. If their concern was truth rather than effectiveness, engineers would more likely be complicating rather than simplifying their models.

Precisely because of this concern to make rather than just to know, the central activity of engineering is not knowing but designing. Designing is a special kind of activity that so far has found almost no place in what is known as the "philosophy of action," that is, the reflective analysis of the distinctive characteristics of human behavior. And yet surely designing is oneof the most unique kinds of human activity. I recall one day as an undergraduate at Stanford University pointing this out to Donald Davidson, then reigning doyen of the philosophy department. He simply gave me a quizzical look and said it didn't interest him.

The activity of engineering design is a remarkably interesting phenomenon. First off, it is not something that human beings have always done in exactly the way engineers do it today. To decide how best to make an artifact or structure, by trial-and-error learning or with skills passed on from master to apprentice, is quite different than systematic planning on how to make something new. Furthermore, the systematic planning that modern engineering design entails rests on the development of a special mode of miniature model-making called engineering drawing. This drawing has a distinctive history that begins in the Renaissance with Leon Battista Alberti and Albrecht Dürer. Alberti first set up the loosely woven veil between the painter and a scene to be painted as a framework from which to produce a perspective drawing on a similarly cross-hatched canvas. Dürer extended this invention, as well as developing the principle of orthographic projections, or isometric drawing from multiple positions. These artistic techniques were picked up ad elaborated through Gaspard Monge's descriptive geometry, which he introduced into the Ecole Polytechnique at the time of the French Revolution.

Engineering drawing is a construction in miniature in which the relations of various elements can be tried out in a kind of trial-and-error method with pencil and paper. Mathematical calculations are, of course, often introduced to check some of these relations. But what is much more crucial than the math or science that are sometimes brought to bear is the graphic or visual thinking involved in this activity. Such graphic thinking, as the original manipulation of a virtual reality, when transposed to the world makes possible engineering power—and subtly anticipates the world of the screen that is now placed before us in movies, television, and computers. And this is a kind of thinking that, once again, is almost completely unexplored in philosophy—although it has certainly begun to be taken up by the emerging field of philosophy and technology studies.

The field of philosophy and technology studies remains an exceedingly small bridge across an ever-widening chasm between the humanities and technology. The general education requirements at Penn State, like those at virtually all other U.S. universities, call for no general introduction to technology or engineering—although all engineers must take courses in the humanities. In our high-tech, high-science world, this points toward a kind of blindness to the abyss widening at our feet. Though myself a critic of technology, it is a blindness that continues to dumbfound me, and one I cannot but work to overcome.

Carl Mitcham, Ph.D., is associate professor of philosophy and director of the Science, Technology, and Society Program, 117 Willard Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-1173. His most recent books are Philosophy of Technology in Spanish-Speaking Countries (1993) and Thinking Through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy (forthcoming, 1994). He is the new editor of the annual series Research in Philosophy and Technology, and next summer will be co-directing, with Leonard Waks, a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on "Re-Thinking Technology: Philosophical Reflection on Technology Since World War II."

Last Updated March 01, 1994