Mitcham, Carl. Thinking Through Technology: The Path Between
Engineering and Philosophy. Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press. 1994.
Carl Mitcham argues that the philosophy of technology must engage in the engineering discourse while remaining open to the humanities perspective so that the complexity of the technology and the cacophony of the arguments about technology remain intelligible. (267) Thinking Through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy is an effort to "put forth a comprehensive, engineering-sensitive analysis." (269) Opening with three timelines that capture technological triumph and disasters, Mitcham emphasizes the need for careful philosophical thought to underpin the decisions Americans make about technology and to "create more space, more open ground" for the discussion of technology. (7) Mitcham's work is divided into two parts: Part One distinguishes between a humanities philosophy of technology and an engineering philosophy of technology, and argues the need for the former. Part Two argues a need for a more informed humanities philosophy of technology, one that deals more explicitly with engineering texts, and recovers from them the practice and diversity of technology as objects, action, knowledge and volition.
Mitcham introduces his subject by unpacking the two different meanings of "technology of philosophy." The "of" can be seen as a subjective genitive or an objective genitive; as technology's philosophy (subjective genitive) or as the philosophy that (also) deals with technology (objective genitive). Mitcham argues for the latter by suggesting that it is primary and more broadly inclusive. He reviews the earliest 19th century writings on technology from an engineering perspective found in Kapp and Engelmeier, as well as that of later thinkers Dessauer, Garcia Bacca and Bunge. While each writer varies widely on approaches and beliefs, it is interesting (but not surprising) to note the strong conviction on the part of each that technology is responsive to human needs, rooted in human morphology and is, in some sense, a divine and good practice. Mitcham turns next to humanities writers and glosses Mumford, Ortega, Heidegger, Ellul and Marx. The differences among these writers are perhaps stronger than any similarities; however, one strong impression does emerge: none are as positive about technology (or as invested) as their engineering counterparts. Technology is oppressive, a practice that erodes and denies humanity in action and thought. Mitcham offers the kinds of questions humanities philosophers might ask of technology and science, including professional, biomedical, and computer ethics and by asserting the necessity to ask such questions. Philosophy must ask "[i]n sum, what is the relation between the true, the good, the beautiful, the just and the transcendent being as disclosed in nontechnical and technological reality." (112) By way of conclusion to Part One, Mitcham gives a brief overview of the ancients on technology, who connect techne (art) and episteme (systematic knowledge) to logos (word, speech, reason) in order to grasp the eidos, (form, idea, whatness) of a thing to be made but not the method of poiesis (making) itself. Unlike moderns, who see matter as inert, ancients might argue that matter yearns for its form.
In the second part of the work Mitcham introduces four distinctions for human and technological interaction: object, action, knowledge and volition. He develops Chapter 6 to introduce a "provisional" framework and broad definition of technology, as follows:
* * *
* Technological Knowledge Technological activities Technological objects
* \ *
* / *
* / *
* Technological Volition (making and using) (or artifacts)
* * *
This schema is intended to "encourage active dialogue with ... previous
attempts [while] protecting and ordering the insights they contain." (157).
The following three chapters expound on the framework.
Mitcham cites the object classifications and divisions of Mumford, Noiré, Lafitte and Simondon, and offers his own classification of machines, but expands the definitions of machines through engineering conceptions of systems, devices and mechanisms. He further considers natural products and elements as they are altered by human action, for instance, bread, wooden legs, the earth itself: are these, too, technological objects? Finally, he briefly touches on objects as tools -- the variety of forms that the same "kind" of tool can inhabit, as well as tool classification as described by Ihde, McLuhan, and Illich.
Technology as knowledge and action receives similar treatment. Knowledge and is defined and classified as sensorimotor skills, technical maxims, descriptive laws (ancient), and technological rules and theories (modern); action is classified as crafting, inventing, designing, manufacturing, working, operating, and maintaining. Perhaps most interesting in these classifications is the application of efficiency and management As concepts, these two embrace and direct the "how to" of tool use and action and indicate whether or not technology is being used to further "humane" ends. Finally, technology is volition, and Mitcham groups volition in the following five categories: the will to survive, the will to control, the will to freedom, the will to efficiency, and the will to realize the self. Quite simply, Mitcham, through distinguished thinkers in all ages, bumps up against the same problem "the good that I would do, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do." (Romans 8:19) As reflected by the thinkers in part one, technology is both divine and demonic.
Mitcham concludes with a plea for a greater synthesis between humanities and engineering. "Studies of philosophy and technology, with both entering the fray, are what is needed." (267) Mitcham returns to these four distinctions -- objects, action, knowledge, and volition -- to talk about what technology is. The results are an interesting way to "read" the interactions of people with objects. Playing with toys, for example, is technology as object and activity (but not knowledge and volition). Designing imaginary cars as a hobby is technology as knowledge and activity (but not object and volition). Mitcham's epilogue argues that there are three ways of being with technology. First, there is ancient skepticism, keeping technology at arms length, with a sharp eye on its encroachments; next Renaissance and Enlightenment optimism, seeing technology as the art that underpins the universe and brings prosperity to those who engage in it, and finally Romantic unease, fearing a world that is spoiled by pollution, seeing a decline in domestic affection, in awe and terror of the sublime pitch to which technology raises our own abilities.
To offer a brief response, I would simply say Mitcham's work is impressive
for its breadth and learning, and my sole criticism is that the work ought
to be longer, and include a more reference to the writings and categorizations
of actual engineers, as is his avowed purpose. Because the thesis
of the work is more a plea for dialogue than an argument in itself, and
the work is more like an example of the required dialogue than an revisioning
of technological history, I can only suggest that one side of the dialogue
ought to be "louder." Most interesting and helpful for my work were
chapters 7-10, his explications technology as artifact, action and volition,
and I expect that a closer reading of these sections will repay the effort
with new ideas for my dissertation.