The Philosophy of Technology


Technology is an important cultural phenomenon. As a practice, technology involves creating artifacts with goals, functions, and byproducts. A technological artifact is a man-made object, such as a computer or a software program, that is used to achieve a particular purpose.

In the early centuries, technology was a great force in the Roman empire and in the Middle Ages. It facilitated the growth of human capabilities and led to an appreciation of human beings. However, it was also used for bad purposes. The invention of alchemy and mechanical arts in the Latin West around the middle of the twelfth century led to the idea that human art could surpass nature’s products.

During the Industrial Revolution, a critical attitude towards technology emerged. This attitude was reflected in a number of works by philosophers. These authors, who were either trained in the social sciences or humanities, had little firsthand knowledge of engineering practices. Although the positive view of technology was retained through the nineteenth century, it was largely replaced by a more neutral conception.

Many philosophers of technology believe that technological development is a goal-oriented process. A central question in the philosophy of technology is how technology is formed. While there are many definitions of technology, most philosophers agree that it is a physical structure constituted of processes involving both the cores of an artifact and the purpose of an artifact.

Philosophical reflection on technology began to pick up steam in the Renaissance. Among the first modern authors to put forward such reflection was Francis Bacon. His New Atlantis was written around 1627. Despite this, many philosophers were hesitant to consider technology as a separate phenomenon from science. Some even considered it to be the same, arguing that technology is simply a form of applied science.

During the late nineteenth century, there was a lively debate over foundational issues. Most of these authors were schooled in the humanities, and they tended to reject technology as an answer to human action. Yet they did not condemn spinning mills or the use of machines as capital crimes. They were not as hostile to the development of steam engines as Karl Marx was.

Since the twentieth century, the philosophy of technology has developed into a separate discipline. While some of the early philosophical contributions were focused on the meaning of technology, a major focus of this branch of thought is on the design and creation of artifacts. Because of its wide scope, the discipline has developed in many ways.

One approach, based on the instrumentality theory of technology, views technology as a value-laden entity that can be construed in a variety of ways. Using the term “value-ladenness” to describe the characteristics of technology, the philosophers argued that technology is neither good nor bad. Another approach, based on the political theory of technology, argues that technology is a product of institutional power relations. There are also those who argue that technology has moral agency.

Regardless of their viewpoints, the foundational issues discussed during the late nineteenth century are still central to the debate about technology today. In addition to the relationship between technology and science, these foundational questions reflect the close relationships between these two fields.