The philosophical nature of engineering - A characterisation of engineering using the language and activities of philosophy

Grimson, W (2007) The philosophical nature of engineering - A characterisation of engineering using the language and activities of philosophy. [Conference Proceedings]


There is a growing volume of literature concerned with the Philosophy of Engineering or Engineering Science. However to develop a satisfactory overall statement of a 'Philosophy of Engineering' is very challenging, and is perhaps not attainable. To some extent the underlying reason that there cannot be a single coherent engineering philosophy is the highly polyparadigmatic nature of engineering. However some progress is possible by starting with Ludwig Wittgenstein's contention that 'Philosophy is not a theory but an activity'. This paper sets out a perspective on engineering using the available tools and activities of philosophy and thus leading to a philosophical characterization of engineering. Further, the many parallels between philosophy and engineering are observed. It has been pointed out elsewhere that philosophy is like engineering, concerned above all with topics where theory and evidence are not in perfect agreement, and where practical needs force consideration of theories which are known cannot be exactly right. Carl Mitcham has noted that because of the inherently philosophical character of engineering, philosophy may actually function as a means to greater engineering self-understanding. This paper argues that academic programmes could usefully include a module on 'Philosophy in Engineering' in the undergraduate engineering curriculum to provide that enhanced self-understanding, and in turn to relate that understanding to the greater community and contribute therefore to engineers being more accountable to society. The method used in this paper to characterize engineering is based on the direct use of the activities that correspond to the five classical branches of Philosophy - namely Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ethics, Logic, and Aesthetics. The paper also briefly considers Post-modernism and Deconstructionism, the justification being that there are different worldviews and concepts of reality held by society, the very society that engineering aims to serve. This then can act as a guard against the de-contextualising of engineering, a danger that has been highlighted by a number of authors writing about engineering education. The relevance to engineering of each of the branches of philosophy is discussed, and to illustrate the approach a historical design example is presented, where it is acknowledged that it is in design that engineering exhibits its highest intellectual challenge. For the purpose, a simple model of design is presented consisting of the following stages: Requirements, Design, Evaluation, Knowledge Refinement (experience) and Deployment. © American Society for Engineering Education, 2007.

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