The Theatre of Engineers – Materialism on an uncanny Stage

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).

There are many engineering disciplines, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, etc, it is also problematic to generalize them together as a single discipline called engineering. But nevertheless I think they do share something in common, that is an engineering language of forms. I want to tackle this language through the mediation of theatre, in which engineers are developing the stage and also acting on it. Theatre (theatron) in Ancient Greek shares the same etymology with theory (theorein), meaning seeing. It implies ways of looking at things, and through which we integrate into practices. By doing so, we are not only affecting the artefacts but also the audience, the relations constituted within the theatre between the actors, the stage and the audience always lead to what Bernard Stiegler calls ‘transindividuation’, meaning the transformation of the individual upon acting. When transindividuation is put in an engineering context, it has to be further understood by what Simondon calls transduction. According to Simondon, “The transduction that resolves things effects the reversal of the negative into the positive: meaning, that which makes the terms fail to be identical with each other, and that which makes them disparate (in the sense in which this expression is understood in theory of vision), is integrated with the system that resolves things and becomes a condition of meaning.” Transduction, understood thus, demands an external milieu, that is also to say a theatre. It is a process of redistribution of energy/information due to a disparity or difference within the domain. And if we situate in the context of a theatre, then it is complicate relations set up by the engineers, the stage, the actors, the audiences. The theatre in this sense is also one which is immanently constituted, the word ‘uncanny’ or Unheimlich in a Freudian sense already points out that it is something comes out to light but remains hidden, a feeling of familiar yet strange. This uncanny of the stage refers to a renewal of materiality, and also the production of new types of materialism, that is nevertheless always familiar and strange to its past. I propose to carry out these reflections through three stages: crafts, machines and technical systems, and finally the association to what I called digital objects.


Theory and practice are often seen as separated in modern philosophy, for example in the work of Kant, his first critique contributes to theoretical philosophy, and the second critique to practical philosophy. Nowadays the contradistinction between theory and practice can be also seen in the opposition between philosophical thought and engineering practice. The former is dismissed as useless, the latter is criticized as thoughtless. Such an opposition is very obvious in the Anglo-Saxon world. But this opposition seems didn’t exist in the first generation engineers: the craftsmen. According to Martin Heidegger, theorin and praxis are two inseparable concepts of technics in the ancient Greek thought. The artisans or craftsmen, when they are making the craft, for example they don’t fix a form on the material, instead they allow the form to appear by itself. There is a particular way of seeing, in which visual and haptic senses coupled together. We can read this from the four causalities proposed by Aristotle:

(1)the causa materialis, the material, the matter out of which, for example, a silver chalice is made; (2) the causa formalis, the form, the shape into which the material enters; (3)the causa finalis, the end, for example, the sacrificial rite in relation to which the chalice required is determined as to its form and matter; (4) the causa efficiens, which brings about the effect that is the finished, actual chalice, in this instance, the silversmith

This bringing forward into presence, is poiesis in Greek, or her-vor-bringen in German. Heidegger continues ‘Bringing forth comes to pass only in so far as something concealed comes into unconcealment. This coming rests and moves freely within what we call revealing [das Entbergen]. The Greek has the word Aletheia for revealing’. Technics brings the object poetically in to appearance, into a world, which in turns conditions the relationship between human beings and their world. The first generation engineers are those who exposes to the manifestation of truth, Aletheia, hence they are also the gatekeepers or the shepherds of beings. In this theatre, the engineers limited themselves to stages like a workshop, market place. They contributed to the theatrical effect by constructing everyday aesthetic experiences.

But in the four causes, we already discovered the separation between form and matter. This separation constitutes the powerful hylomophism which conquests the intuition of the engineers’ mind. Forms are imposed on matters in order to determine its being. In the previous example, where visual and haptic senses are both present in the process of making, the artisans brings the objects into presence; but in the form dominating engineering practices, abstract thinking precedes the process of making. This transition is what Heidegger calls forgetting. Form is the language of engineering. This is strongly expressed in a statement of the architect and mathematician Christopher Alexandre’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form:

The ultimate object of design is form. The reason that iron filings placed in a magnetic field exhibit a patter—or have form, as we say—is that the field they are in is not homogeneous. If the world were totally regular and homogeneous, there would be no forces, and no forms. Everything would be amorphous. But an irregular world tries to compensate for its own irregularities by fitting itself to them, and thereby takes on form .

As an engineering principle, form is the solution to the problem according to a specific context. Form is also a short-cut to understand the irregularity of the world. The craftsman produces form from matter, so every item possesses a unique form or authentic identity. With mechanical reproduction, the poetic dimension of manual labour slowly disappears. Walter Benjamin calls the authenticity that originated in the hand of the artisans and craftsmen ‘aura’. While form is transferred from hands to machines, form becomes indifferent to matter. We see another compensation here, mechanical reproduction compensates the weakness of the craftsman’s technological immaturity. The disappearance of aura is at the same time the celebration of technology advancement.

The Greeks knew only two procedures of technically reproducing works of art: founding and stamping. Bronzes, terra cottas, and coins were the only art works which they could produce in quantity. All others were unique and could not be mechanically reproduced. With the woodcut graphic art became mechanically reproducible for the first time, long before script became reproducible by print. The enormous changes which printing, the mechanical reproduction of writing, has brought about in literature are a familiar story.

The two attitudes of Heidegger and Benjamin best captured the contradiction of modernity. The domination of form over matter, also leads to the transformation of the stage. Machines becomes the interpreter or mediator of the language of forms, the actors on the stage are moving from practical making to abstract thinking.


The abstract thinking is characterized by the acquisition of mathematical language. In the Engineers of the Renaissance, Bertrand Gille portraits the renaissance engineers as ‘an artist and artisan, a military man, an organizer of festivals, a man of such complexity and genius that it seemed that no effect was beyond his powers’ . Yet, a fundamental change was also happening at that time, Descartes and Fermat set a new beginning to abstract thinking, as one of the consequences formal training in mathematics became necessary. In contrast to most of the historians he showed that Leonardo da Vinci was the one who found himself caught up in the lack of formal training. Such a shift in the thinking further concretized at the time of Enlightenment. The French architect and historical Antoine Picon confirmed it as a shift from geometrical rationality to analytical rationality . Picon also observed that engineers no longer defined themselves ‘through the mastering of purely geometrical knowledge, as designers or as “artist engineers” closely related to architects. They created for that purpose a new science, involving the use of calculus’ . The analytic method is not limited to mathematics but rather to a broader sense of ‘rational decomposition and recomposition’.

The consequences of this language of forms were fully expressed and raised to a philosophical height in the Encyclopaedia edited by Dennis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert. One of the goals of the encyclopaedia is to ‘publish all the secrets of manufacturing’ . In the 17 folio letterpress volumes of the encyclopaedia, about 2,900 plates in 11 folio volumes were devoted to technology. Diderot was trying to defend the mechanical arts, which was understood to be inferior to liberal art including philosophy, in his entry on ART in the encyclopaedia, Diderot asked:

In what physical or metaphysical system do we find more intelligence, discernment, and consistency than in the machines for drawing gold or making stockings, and in the frames of the braid-makers, the gauze-makers, the drapers, or the silk workers? What mathematical demonstration is more complex than the mechanism of certain clocks or the different operators to which we submit the fibre of hemp or the chrysalis of the silkworm before obtaining a thread with which we can weave? … I could never enumerate all the marvels that amaze anyone who looks at factories, unless his eyes are closed by prejudice or stupidity.

In effort to discover the significance of mechanical arts, Diderot’s Encyclopaedia demonstrated two important points. Firstly the triumph of mechanical art, which is conceived as a system of technical knowledge, or more precisely a general grammar that conditions reasoning. At the opening of the encyclopaedia Diderot and d’Alembert describes a tree structure that constitute of human knowledge. The tree consists of three parts: Memory, Reason and Imagination. All these three parts of human knowledge are conditioned by different skills, for example under the category of memory, we can find the gold drawing and diamond cutting, etc. The arrangement of the encyclopaedia itself is presented as a machine. Secondly, it further separated theory from practice; the complexity of the machines is not graspable by those who are using them. It also announced the end of the culture of talents of the renaissance engineers as Bertrand Gille described it. Diderot he himself has tried to visit the workshop, talked to the technicians and tried to learn how to use these machines, for example the knitting machine invented by the Englishman William Lee. Diderot uses this research method to denounce the project of Ephraim Chambers who published the Cyclopaedia: or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences in London in 1728, that directly inspired the French edition. The age of the craftsman is gone. The working process is mediated by machines that were present as abstract beings, system of knowledge that constitutes the inexperience of human being. The sociologist Richard Sennett writes, ‘he [Diderot] had entered the robot’s dangerous lair, in which the machine’s ‘‘talents” provide a model of perfection against which human beings measure their own inadequacy. ’

The engineers now working on machines reconstructed the stage in terms of abstractions and forms, which is concretized in machines. The form that was obtained by seeing through the objects was then replaced by the interpretation of machines. Those on the stage are not working with the simple proxies; instead they are transforming their own stage. What were produced within the workshop are not simple fabricated products such as glass or paper, but also the social economic system, and ultimately the human beings. Sennett wrote ‘Only a generation after the Encyclopaedia appeared, Adam Smith had concluded that machines would indeed end the project of enlightenment, declaring in The Wealth of Nations that in a factory ‘‘the man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations . . . generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”’

Technical System

It is also within the language of abstract forms, Sennett announced that ‘modernity’s first encounter with the power of machines produced a dense and contradictory culture.’ The triumph of technical knowledge and formal systems laid down the foundation for human reason, but at the same time it transformed the theatre into what Max Weber calls an iron cage. Simondon also describes this transductive process, in which the workers in the factory are integrated with the machine, and hence have to be interpreted by the machines. Stiegler identifies it with what Marx calls protetarietization, a lose of skills. The formal and systematic knowledge always strives toward universality and stability throughout its propagation. With machines, we create a new materiality. Forms are actualized at the physical contacts between wheels, pulleys, chains, etc. Under such a condition, the philosopher Gilbert Simondon is able to describe to us a technical individual, which is an ensemble of relations actualized in the way that is able to restore its equilibrium, i.e. an associated milieu . These technical individuals then constitute a technical system, that also at the same time starts shaking the imagination of pure form.

These forms don’t stand-alone. In fact, it is only through the sharing of forms that different machines can work together. Borrowing from Simondon’s idea of the technical system, which were also discussed by Lewis Mumford and Bertrand Gille, Jacques Ellul proposes that “The technological system is a qualitatively different phenomenon from an addition of multiple technologies and objects. We cannot absolutely understand them if we consider them separately or isolate one field of action from technology; we have to study them inside of, and in terms of, the overall technological system. ” The technological system consists of transports, communication and etc is becoming a totality. A systematic approach is a challenge to engineers who are fascinated with particular works. The accumulation of abstract knowledge that constitutes the cultural memories also the technical milieu with which one lives, legitimates the division of disciplines and division of labours, that lead finally to overlooking the stage again.

This technical system, as Ellul remarked, only fully realized at the time of computer. To Ellul, these computers organize the technological system and create a new reality. Written at the beginning of 1980s, Ellul didn’t employ the term ‘digitalization’, instead he uses ‘computerization’. How is this language of form developed and conceived today? The computers, the internets, the web and etc are compositions of protocols. In fact if we look at the success of the web, as it was expressed by Tim Berners-Lee ‘an architectural rule which the SGML community embraced is the separation of form and content. It is an essential part of Web architecture, making possible the independence of device mentioned above, and greatly aiding the processing and analysis.’ From crafts to machines to technical systems, we see the complexity developed out of forms. We have to go back to Tim Berners-Lee’s philosophical engineers, and his proposal of the web. With the web, digitalization cannot be reduced to the understanding of bits or information, since we will stay at a low level description of the world that doesn’t help us to experience it, rather digitalization opens up the whole realm of data production, exchange, and management. Data, is the new form of materiality that is produced in today’s technical milieu. I call these objects composed of data and metadata digital objects. Digital objects presents new type of relations that don’t rely on the physical contact of the pulleys and wheels as it was with technical objects. Instead those relations that were associated by physical contacts or symbolic forms or intangible mediations, are materialized in another format, data. In this sense, we must gain a new interpretation of what Jacques Ellul calls de-symbolization. De-symbolization, is the process in which signification is replaced by materialized relation, for example our friendships are materialized in terms of Facebook objects.

We read the statement of Tim Berners-Lee again: ‘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.’ Protocols, especially proposed by the semantic web, are still the language of forms in other formats. Engineers are the one who ‘declare’ the movement of the world, who create the reality. Where is the stage of the engineers now? We have seen, the engineers went from the craftsman’s workshops, to factories that produces machines, and finally to a converging technical system that things are shaped by commands.

This transformation of the stage presents us a paradox, on one hand it seems engineers are interacting more and more with the audience, the users, they are directly participating in the programming of experiences. On the other hand form are directly imposed by the engineers, ‘we declare “this is the protocol”’. In other words, it becomes an internal affair of the engineers, who are fascinated with Frege’s sense and reference, and Leibniz’s lingua characteristica. It is not a proposal of returning back to the role of the craftsman who sees the form out of the matter, which was described by Benjamin as a technical weakness. But we may want to ask how can we open up the concept of the form, is it possible to reinvent the language of form, that nevertheless reconstruct a stage that will be able to create a new form of individuation? Simondon proposes that there is a ‘the True form’ distinct from a ‘simple form, the pregnant geometric form, but the significant form, that is, the one that establishes a transductive order within a system of reality replete with potentials’ How can we think of such a ‘true form’ in the technical system, which maintains ‘compatibility without degradation’? I want to demonstrate here an example, which has been known as taxonomy vs folksonomy. Taxonomy is a form imposition, an engineering language, either it is philosophical engineering or conceptual engineering. Folksonomy, or tagging is another language of form that doesn’t impose its materiality of stage. The form of the object is not simply given, but also created out of the collective force, a form that is not simply aesthetic as in architecture, but forms that are transductive in its material relations.

This simple example only shows the tip of the iceberg, but it nevertheless that one has to mediate on the question of forms just as the post-war architects have done by turning forms into folds. Instead of celebrating the term ‘philosophical engineers’, we need to look back at the stage, which was developed in the long history of engineering. It is undeniable that the society is turning into an engineering process, including human subjectivities. We must take the word philosophical in ‘philosophical engineers’ further, we must reflect and act on the stage, but not simply to build the world, after all we are also shaped by the world, then who are we, if not at the same time the users or audiences.

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