The Theatre of Engineers – Materialism on an uncanny Stage, YUK HUI
An invited speech given at the Atelier “Philosophie et Ingénierie”, at Chambery, France, 16 May, 2011. This is also a drafted paper in preparation for publication.
This talk is a reflection on what Tim Berners-Lee calls ‘philosophical engineering’. There are several ways we can discuss about philosophy and engineering. For example, we can talk about the philosophical implication within the discipline engineering, especially how philosophical logic and philosophical understanding of language can be used to build machines, in this sense, philosophy becomes kind of conceptual-engineering, and engineering is necessarily philosophical. We can also work on the question of ethics and technology which is becoming more and more important. We can also have a philosophical reflection on engineering in order to discover a cultural history, and also to reflect on its development. For examples, we can see in the works of Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul, Gilbert Simondon, Carl Mitcham etc. But it is surprising to note that there hasn’t been much discussion about engineers, what we can find are only historical materials or biographies of genius engineers, for example Leonardo da Vinci. In most of the philosophical reflections, it seems as if the engineers didn’t exist or do not have a place to act, but only machines and humans. But such carelessness nevertheless ignores that engineers are the one who are building the world, they do it by projecting their own ways of seeing, and hence transformed the way of our seeing. On the one hand we have to ask how can we understand their practice, and engage more with the engineers’ work? On the other hand, the engineers have to reflect on the reality and their way of acting. This paper attempts to tackle this ignored question, and sketch a possible way of interventions. It starts and ends with a reflection on what Tim Berners-Lee calls philosophical engineers:
We are not analyzing a world, we are building it. We are not experimental philosophers, we are philosophical engineers. We declare “this is the protocol”. When people break the protocol, we lament, sue, and so on. But they tend to stick to it because we show that the system has very interesting and useful properties.
This title ‘philosophical engineers’ is probably one of the most dangerous words if we understand it intuitively. Though Berners-Lee proposed this term since physics was once called practical philosophy, so engineering can be related to philosophy as well. But isn’t engineering itself philosophical at the very beginning? This is one of the things I wanted to demonstrate. Also, having the prefix ‘philosophical’ kind of suggests that engineers are now judges of truth, and that makes it dangerous. In fact, we can easily associate Berners-Lee’s statement with Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach. In this famous short text, Marx criticized Feuerbach’s materialism that he only concerns how humans are affected by the world, but forgets that humans are the one who change the world. The criticism is concretized in the last sentence: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’. Marx’s tone is repeated today not by the revolutionaries, but Tim Berners-Lee: engineers build the world, even if you refuses, finally you will have to live with it. But if we didn’t clarify the above questions, the word ‘philosophical engineer’ remains obscure. We may want to ask do these philosophical engineers with Marx’s gesture, miss Feuerbach’s point? This demands a hermeneutics interpretation of the engineering culture, which is always a looking back (après coup) and also a projection (le projet).
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