Why think about Philosophy and Engineering?

We need to bring the two worlds together, both for the intrinsic value of better understanding engineering, but also to help society better use engineering to improve overall well-being.

In his essay "The True Grand Challenge for Engineering: Self-Knowledge," Carl Mitcham wrote:

"In the words of the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, in the first philosophical meditation on technology, to be an engineer and only an engineer is to be potentially everything and actually nothing. Our increasing engineering prowess calls upon us all, engineers and nonengineers alike, to reflect more deeply about who we are and what we really want to become."

We're motivated to deepen reflection on engineering and among engineers through philosophy because it can be important for society. While many engineers love to build things and have an innate sense of wanting to help society, in individual contexts it can be unclear what the ethical thing to do is and how an engineered system will affect society. The power that engineers have been implicitly granted and the overall complexity of social and engineering systems establishes the challenge of helping society. Philosophers and other scholars try to offer practical and ethical advice for engineering, but such advice can be disconnected from how engineering systems are actually developed and managed. Ethical dialog on engineering benefits from a sense of how institutions work and what knowledge gets brought to bear in the design and operations process.

Bringing engineers and philosophers into deeper conversation allows for both to learn from each other, and can serve as a community to reflect on society's broader approach toward engineering and its governance. In this way, fPET research can also be seen as ‘in family’ with a lot of other humanties and ‘science and technology studies’ research that strives for a deeper engagement between science and the liberal arts.

There are many important issues in the philosophy of engineering including epistemology, ethics, metaphysics and the philosophy of language. Engineering is often seen as having a different knowledge base than science (Layton 1971, Vincenti 1990), and warrants dedicated study apart from science. fPET research addresses this challenge, revealing new ways of reflecting on engineering practice, from design, production and maintenance. Engineers can help reflect on the conceptual foundations of what they do and tease out what types of knowledge (tacit and otherwise) that they use.  Engaging practitioners of engineering on all of these things is key in helping to get the right philosophical answers but also in helping to bring the insights from philosophy back into engineering practice and education.

For fPET 2018, we want a diverse mix of philosophical approaches, but are especially keen for analysis that engages with the richness of engineering practice. In this vein, studies that seek to understand and potentially give advice to engineers in practice are desired, both ethically as well as practically. Prior to fPET, we will work with a mix of engineers and philosophers to dialog and attempt to create shared insights across both fields, focusing on reflecting on engineering practice. The Washington, DC area is a unique place to host an fPET: there are many engineers in the extended DC metropolitan area, including many who work in government and as contractors. We will have a diverse community of philosophers, engineers, scientists and public policy practitioners together by hosting it at the University of Maryland, College Park, helping to put engineering into a broader government context.

For these reasons and more, we look forward to the discussion at UMCP on May 30-June 1 of 2018!

Credit above: NASA. Credit below: US Army Corps of Engineers

Credit above: NASA. Credit below: US Army Corps of Engineers


Layton, E., 1971. Mirror-image twins: The communities of science and technology in 19th-century America. Technology and Culture, 12(4), pp.562-580.

Mitcham, C., 2014. The true grand challenge for engineering: Self-knowledge. Issues in Science and Technology, 31(1), pp.19-22

Vincenti, W.G., 1990. What engineers know and how they know it: Analytical studies from aeronautical engineering. Baltimore, John Hopkins University.