There are numerous books about the philosophy of science, but relatively few focus on the philosophy of engineering. Why has the philosophy of engineering been undeveloped in contrast to science? While many engineers prefer to build new things rather than philosophize, a key explanation for the neglect of engineering is an unjustified misconception about the importance of abstract theoretical and scientific knowledge versus engineering knowledge.

The speaker will talk about his experiences in engineering and policy, to show how these philosophical ideas shape engineering, which in turn shapes the world around us. Philosophical claims about engineering date back to at least Socrates, who argued for the value of abstract, theoretical knowledge. The history of U.S. science policy based its post-World War II funding policies off of the linear model of innovation, where advances in engineering are assumed to be traceable to earlier advances in science. Historians and philosophers have shown many of these philosophical views are wrong-headed. In particular, Vincenti’s What Engineers Know and How They Know It illuminates the richness of engineering knowledge, showing that it is not merely applied science. After reviewing how these philosophical ideas manifest in the real world of engineering, the presentation will show how a better understanding of what engineers know also offers a way to better push engineering towards more ethical ends.

Zachary Pirtle recently co-chaired the 2018 Forum on Philosophy, Engineering and Technology. He has worked as an engineer to support exploration systems for human space flight, and was previously a Fulbright scholar to Mexico and a Mirzayan science and technology policy graduate fellow at the National Academy of Engineering.

Co-presented with Brooklyn Public Philosophers.

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