Technological innovation has had an important impact on our lives and culture. From the wheel in the Bronze Age to the use of fire for human brain development during the Ice Age, the invention of new technologies have been key to our progress. New technologies have also ushered in a knowledge economy. Many of these innovations have had significant societal ramifications, affecting people at every level. Technology can be defined as the application of knowledge to produce useful tools or artifacts, or as a problem-solving solution to a particular need.
Philosophy of technology is an area of study that is largely devoted to the meaning of technology and its relationship to society and culture. This field has been active for centuries, and it has also developed over time. While a number of philosophers have argued for the democratization of technological development, this is not the only approach to the subject. There are a number of political approaches to the subject as well.
The first recorded example of a philosophy of technology is from ancient Greece. Democritus asserted that the building of a house imitated the natural process of weaving. He was not the only philosopher to use examples from nature to argue that human activity is capable of achieving greater creative outcomes than natural products. During the Middle Ages, alchemical writers suggested that human art could surpass natural products.
One of the earliest theories on the origin of technological invention comes from Aristotle. In his Physics II.2, Aristotle referred to examples from nature to support his thesis that human action can be explained by reference to technical artifacts. Such discussion continues to play an important role in modern discussions of the metaphysics of artifacts.
Another early theory on the origin of technology is Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes. These four factors are considered to be the source of all forms of creation, including natural and technological. It was this theory that was put forth by many modern philosophers in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, philosophical considerations of technology focused on issues of human action and practical rationality. The philosophical literature during this period is marked by a positive attitude towards technology. However, by the late nineteenth century, a critical attitude predominated. Representatives of this attitude were schooled in the humanities and social sciences, and they had little first-hand experience with engineering practice.
Some political and philosophical perspectives on the subject date back to Karl Marx. A number of the political and philosophical positions rely on discourse ethics, pragmatism, and the concepts of power and normative justice.
During the last two centuries, the philosophy of technology has evolved into a discipline. This evolution has tended to be a slow process, converging on a variety of strands of philosophical thinking. Although its origins are unknown, the philosophical history of technology can be broadly divided into the following groups:
Substantive theories are based on scientific theories. Such theories provide the background knowledge necessary to understand the object of an action. Applied research produces operative theories, which are based on the application of scientific theories to a particular case.