Technology is an essential part of modern society. It is the means of communication, manufacturing, and production of artifacts that are used for specific purposes. However, there are also issues of technology’s moral agency.
During the past two centuries, the philosophy of technology has developed into an independent discipline. While there has been a variety of philosophical contributions to the topic, the origins of the discipline can be traced back to the late sixteenth century and earlier. During the early twentieth century, foundational questions emerged, and philosophers began to discuss the relationship between technology and rationality.
Early philosophical contributions to technology can be grouped into three categories: instrumentality, relation to culture, and impact on society. The first generation of humanities philosophers of technology tended to take a critical view of technology. These philosophers tended to treat technology as a “black box,” and they focused on its relationship to other phenomena.
Another important contributor to the philosophical development of technology came from an academic outsider. This was Samuel Butler. His work, Erewhon, was written during the Industrial Revolution and influenced by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In his work, Butler argued that the technological development of the industrial world would produce machines that dominated human life. But, he did not condemn the steam engines or spinning mills that were being used in the time period.
The third early contribution to the philosophy of technology was Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes. According to this doctrine, nature and technology are both governed by a goal-oriented process. As such, the relationship between action and rationality is an issue that is of considerable importance to technology scholars.
In addition, the role of tacit knowledge in technology has become an area of discussion. Although emphasized by some philosophers, tacit knowledge may not sufficiently distinguish between science and technology. Other philosophers, including Michael Polanyi, consider it to be a central characteristic of technology. Some other philosophers, like Langdon Winner, argue that technologies are intrinsically normative and that they embody a certain form of power.
Philosophical reflection on technology has not grown at the same pace as the discipline itself. This is because the topic touches so many different areas of thinking. Despite this, there are several themes that have persisted in the history of the field.
One such theme is that technology learns from nature. Several early philosophers, such as Democritus, suggested that technology imitated nature. For example, he believed that weaving was first invented by imitation. Others, such as Aristotle, disputed this idea. He wrote in Physics II.2, “It is impossible to think of any invention which is not based on imitation.”
Another theme is the relationship between technology and morality. Although this is not as clear-cut as it seems, it is one of the most important topics to be discussed in the philosophy of technology. Many scientists, especially engineers, are intrinsically motivated to improve the world.
Finally, the relationship between technology and society is a topic of growing interest. Political approaches to technology date back to Karl Marx, who believed that ongoing technological innovation was a necessary condition for socialism.