Philosophy of engineering

Philosophy of engineering

The philosophy of engineering is an emerging discipline that considers what engineering is, what engineers do and how their work impacts on society. As such, the philosophy of engineering includes aspects of ethics and aesthetics, as well as the ontology, epistemology, etc that might be studied in, for example, the philosophy of science.


Engineering is the profession charged by society with modifying the natural environment through the design and manufacture of artefacts. It might then be contrasted with science, the aim of which is to "understand" nature. The philosophy of engineering is then the consideration of philosophical issues as they apply to engineering. Such issues might include the objectivity of experiments, the ethics of engineering activity in the workplace and in society, the aesthetics of engineered artefacts, etc.

While engineering seems historically to have meant "devising", the distinction between art, craft and technology isn’t clearcut. The Latin root "ars", the Germanic root "kraft" and the Greek root "techne" all originally meant the skill or ability to produce something, as opposed to, say, athletic ability. The something might be tangible, like a sculpture or a building, or less tangible, like a work of literature. Nowadays, "art" is commonly applied to the visual, performing or literary fields, especially the so-called fine arts (‘the art of writing’), "craft" usually applies to the manual skill involved in the manufacture of an object, whether embroidery or aircraft (‘the craft of typesetting’) and "technology" tends to mean the products and processes currently used in an industry (‘the technology of printing’). In contrast, "engineering" is the activity of effecting change through the design and manufacture of artefacts (‘the engineering of print technology’).


What distinguishes engineering design from artistic design is the requirement for the engineer to make quantitative predictions of the behaviour and effect of the artefact prior to its manufacture. Such predictions may be more or less accurate but should include the effects on individuals and society. In this sense, engineering must be considered a social as well a technological discipline and judged not just by whether its artefacts work, in a narrow sense, but also by how they influence and serve social values. What engineers do is always subject to moral evaluation. [ 2nd Philosophy of Engineering Seminar Information] ]


Socio-technical systems, such as transport, utilities and their related infrastructures comprise human elements as well as artefacts. Traditional mathematical and physical modelling techniques may not take adequate account of the effects of engineering on people.

Product life cycle

The traditional engineering disciplines seem discrete but the engineering of artefacts has implications that extend beyond such disciplines into areas that that might include psychology, finance and sociology. The design of any artefact must then take account of the conditions under which it will be manufactured, the conditions under which it will be used, and the conditions under which it will be disposed. Engineers must consider such "life cycle" issues without losing the precision and rigour necessary to design functional systems.

ee also

*Carl Mitcham
*Henry Petroski
*Philosophy of technology



* P. & Gunn A.S. (1998), "Engineering, Ethics, and the Environment", Cambridge University Press, New York
* Addis W (1986) "Theory and Design in Civil and Structural Engineering: A Study in the History and Philosophy of Engineering", PhD Thesis, University of Reading
* Bucciarelli L.L. (2003) "Engineering Philosophy", Delft University Press, Delft
* Bush V. (1980) "Science,The Endless Frontier", National Science Foundation Press, Washington DC
* Beale N., Peyton-Jones S.L. et al. (1999) "Cybernauts Awake" Ethical and Spiritual Implications of Computers, Information Technology and the Internet Church House Publishing ISBN
* Cutcliffe S.H. (2000) "Ideas, Machines and Values: An introduction to Science, Technology and Social Studies", Rowan and Littlefield, Lanham, MD
* Davis, M. (1998) "Thinking like an Engineer: Studies in the Ethics of a Profession", Oxford University Press, New York.
* Florman S. (1981) "Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats" , St Martin’s Press, New York
* Florman S. (1987) "The Civilized Engineer", St Martin’s Press, New York
* Florman S. (1994) "The Existential Pleasures of Engineering" , 2nd ed, St Martin’s Press, New York
* Florman S. (1996) "The Introspective Engineer", St Martin’s Press, New York
* Goldman S.L. (1991) “The social captivity of Engineering”, "Critical Prespectives on non academic Science and Engineering", (ed Durbin P.T.), Lehigh University Press, Bethlehem, PA
* Goldman S.L. (1990) “Philosophy, Engineering and Western Culture”, in "Broad and Narrow interpretations of Philosophy of Technology", (ed Durbin P.T.), Kluwer,Amsterdam
* Harris E.C, Pritchard M.S. & Rabins M.J. (1995), "Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases", Wadsworth, Belmont, CA
* Johnston, S., Gostelow, P., Jones, E. (1999), "Engineering and Society: An Australian perspective", 2nd Ed. Longman,
* Martin M.W. & Schinzinger R (1996), "Ethics in Engineering" , 3rd ed. McGraw-Hill, New York
* Mitcham C. (1999), "Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy", University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 19-38.
* Mumford L. (1970) "The Myth of the Machine", Harcourt Brace Javonovich, New York
* Simon H. (1996), "The Sciences of the Artificial", 3rd ed. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
* Unger S.H. (1994), "Controlling Technology: Ethics and the Responsible Engineer" , 2nd ed., John Wiley, New York
* Vincenti W.G. (1990) "What Engineers Know and How They Know It: Analytical Studies from Aeronautical History", The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md.


* [ Philosophy in the Making] by Natasha McCarthy "Ingenia" March 26, 2006
* Creed M.J. (1993) “Introducing Structures in a Modern Curriculum”, Proceedings of the Conference, Innovation and Change in Civil Engineering Education, The Queen's University of Belfast
* Davis, M. (2001) "The Professional Approach to Engineering Ethics: Five Research Questions", Science and Engineering Ethics 7 (July 2001): 379-390.
* Lewin D (1981) Engineering Philosophy - The Third Culture , Paper to the Royal Society, UK
* Mitcham C. (1994), "Engineering Design Research and Social Responsibility”, "Ethics of Scientific Research" , pp. 153-196 and 221-223

Notes & References

External links

* [ Philosophy in the Making] by Natasha McCarthy "Ingenia" March 26, 2006

* [ Royal Academy of Engineering 'philosophy' seminars]

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