vendredi 13 juin 2014

Engineering Knowledge.

Tobias Revell, 88.7, 2012 (via

Engineering knowledge, though pursued at great effort and expense in schools of engineering, receives little attention from scholars in other disciplines. Most such people, when they heed to engineering at all, tend to think of it as applied science. Modern engineers are seen as taking over their knowledge from scientists and, by some occasionally dramatic but probably intellectually uninteresting process, using this knowledge to fashion material artifacts. From this point of view, studying the epistemology of science should automatically subsume the knowledge content of engineering. Engineers know from experience that this view is untrue, and in recent decades historians of technology have produced narrative and analytical evidence in the same direction. Since engineers tend not to be introspective, however, and philosophers and historians (with certain exceptions) have been limited in their technical expertise, the character of engineering knowledge as an epistemological species is only now being examined in detail. This book is a contribution to that effort.

My involvement in the study of engineering knowledge stems in part from a question put to me by my Stanford economics colleague Nathan Rosenberg over lunch in the early 1970s: "What is it you engineers really do?" What engineers do, however, depends on what they know, and my career as a research engineer and teacher has been spent producing and organizing knowledge that scientists for the most part do not address. My attempts to deal with Rosenberg's question led me therefore - without at first realizing just what I was doing - to examine the cognitive dimension of engineering. Given a long-standing interest in history, it was also instinctive for me to approach the problem historically. To my pleasant surprise, I found myself in step with the work being produced by historians of technology.

In the view developed by these historians, technology appears, not as derivative from science, but as an autonomous body of knowledge, identifiably different from the scientific knowledge with which it interacts. The idea of "Technology as Knowledge" - title of an influential paper by Edwin Layton, one of the view's early champions - credits technology with its own "significant component of thought". This form of thought, though different in its specifics, resembles scientific thought in being creative and constructive; it is not simply routine and deductive as assumed in the applied-science model. In this newer view, technology, though it may apply science, is not the same as or entirely applied science.

This view of technology - and hence engineering - as other than science accords with statements sometimes made by engineers, such as the following by a British engineer at the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1922: "Aeroplanes are not designed by science, but by art in spite of some pretence and humbug to the contrary. I do not mean to suggest for one moment that engineering can do without science, on the contrary, it stands on scientific foundations, but there is a big gap between scientific research and the engineering product which has to be bridged by the art of the engineer." The creative, constructive knowledge of the engineer is the knowledge needed to implement that art. Technological knowledge in this view appears enormously richer and more interesting than it does as applied science.

The newer view comes from the work of historians over several decades. The historiographic development has been examined in an extended study by John Staudenmaier and a shorter review by George Wise. Both come to the conclusion, as expressed by Wise, that "treating science and technology as separate spheres of knowledge, both man-made, appears to fit the historical record better than treating science as revealed knowledge and technology as a collection of artifacts once constructed by trial and error but now constructed by applying science." The evidence to be presented here supports this conclusion. The reality of the distinction is emphasized for me by the fact that the school of engineering at my own university, as at all such institutions, finds it necessary to maintain its own library, separate from those of the departments of physics and chemistry. This separation is more than a convenience. Engineers, though they require many of the same books, journals and documents as physicists and chemists, need others not kept in the science libraries. Despite the historical and institutional evidence for its autonomy, however, the features that distinguish technological knowledge have not been laid out in detail.

The view of technology as an autonomous form of knowledge is bound closely with the debate over the relation between technology and science, which has been a long-standing concern of historians of technology. Staudenmaier sees the view of having emerged out of that debate and become a major theme in itself, with the science-technology relation reduced to a subtheme. Wise regards the science-technology relation as still an organizing issue for research, with the view of technology as a special kind of knowledge defining the technological side of the relation. However that may be, viewing technological knowledge as autonomous leaves the relation between technology and science still open to specification. Technological knowledge then takes its place as a component on one side of what can be called an "interactive model" of the relationship. In this model, which has been summarized concisely by Barry Barnes, technology and science are autonomous forms of culture that interact mutually in some complicated and still-to-be-spelled-out fashion. The nature of technological knowledge constrains but does not define the relationship.

Things look very different if the knowledge content of technology is seen as coming entirely from science. Such a view immediately defines the science-technology relation - technology is hierarchically subordinate to science, serving only to deduce the implications of scientific discoveries and give them practical application. This relation is summarized in the discredited statemen that "technology is applied science". Such a hierarchical model leaves nothing basic to be discussed about the nature of the relationship. A model with such rigiditiy is bound to have difficulty fitting complex historical record. 

W.G. Vincenti, What Engineers Know and How They Know It, Edition : Reprint. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993, p.3-5. 

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