Philosophy of technology  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The philosophy of technology is a philosophical field dedicated to studying the nature of technology and its social effects.



Considered under the rubric of the Greek term techne (art, or craft knowledge), the philosophy of technology goes to the very roots of Western philosophy.

  • In his Republic, Plato sees techne as the basis for the philosophers' proper rule in the city.
  • In the Nicomachean Ethics (Book 6), Aristotle describes techne as one of the four ways that we can know about the world.
  • The Stoics argued that virtue is a kind of techne based upon a proper understanding of the universe.

20th century development

Whereas 19th Century philosophers such as Karl Marx were philosophically interested in tools and techniques, the most prominent 20th century philosophers to directly address modern technology were John Dewey and Martin Heidegger. Although both saw technology as central to modern life, (to speak roughly) Dewey was optimistic about the role of technology, while Heidegger was slightly more pessimistic. This is an oversimplification, however, as Heidegger can be seen as critical but open to technology. To Heidegger, technology's essence, Gestell or Enframing, is both the greatest danger and the greatest possibility for humankind. Dewey's work on technology was dispersed throughout his corpus, while Heidegger's major work on technology may be found in The Question Concerning Technology.

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan became a major radical voice in the field, with such works as the bestseller The Medium is the Message, as well as The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

Contemporary philosophy

Contemporary philosophers with an interest in technology include Jean Baudrillard, Albert Borgmann, Andrew Feenberg, Langdon Winner, Donna Haraway, Avital Ronell, Don Ihde, Bruno Latour, Paul Levinson, Carl Mitcham, Leo Marx, Gilbert Simondon, Jacques Ellul and Bernard Stiegler.

While a number of important individual works were published in the second half of the twentieth century, Paul Durbin has identified two books published at the turn of the century as marking the development of the philosophy of technology as an academic subdiscipline with canonical texts ; these were Technology and the Good Life (2000), edited by Eric Higgs, Andrew Light, and David Strong and American Philosophy of Technology (2001) by Hans Achterhuis.

Technology and neutrality

With improvements in technology comes progress and a great concern over its shadowing effect on society. Leila Green uses recent gun massacres such as 'the Port Arthur Massacre' and the 'Dunblane Massacre' to bring out the concepts of technological determinism and social determinism. Technological determinism argues that 'it was features of technology that determined its use and the role of a progressive society was to adapt to [and benefit from]technological change.'[Green, Leila (2001) Technoculture, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, p 2.]. The alternative perspective would be social determinism which looks upon society being at fault for the 'development and deployment'[Green, Leila (2001) Technoculture, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, p 3] of technologies. The reactions to the gun massacres were different in various regions, Tasmanian authorities made gun laws even stricter than before, while there was a demand in the US for the advocacy of fire arms. And here lies the split, both in opinion and in social dimension. According to Green, a technology can be thought of as a neutral entity only when the soci-cultural context and issues circulating the specific technology are removed, it will be then visible to us that there lies a relationship of social groups and power provided through the possession of technologies.

See also

Further reading

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