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Statue of Socrates from the Academy of Athens,Greece

Context: What is philosophy of technology?

So far we have invited you to share your thoughts and intuitions on the impact of technology on our lives and about responsibility and control. If you had a look at the glossary already, you might have come across some concepts and ideas you are not yet familiar with. In the next steps you will be reading some philosophical texts and learn how two German philosophers thought about technology. To understand the context of their work, we will first provide you with more information about our specific field of philosophical inquiry. In this step you will find some background information and links to encyclopedias you could consult throughout the course.

Philosophy of technology studies the character of technology and its relations to society. It has various branches, focusing for instance on the ethics of technology, on the relations between science and technology, on human-technology relations, or the political dimensions of technology.

Developments in philosophy of technology

Philosophy of technology emerged as an independent field of philosophical inquiry in the second half of the 19th century, and embodies as many approaches as there are philosophical traditions. Some of them are more ‘theoretical’, others are more ‘applied’. Some of them focus more on sharpening the concepts with which we can understand technology, others more on theorising and evaluating the social and cultural roles of technology.

Over the last decades of the 20th century, the field made an ‘empirical turn’. It shifted its focus from studying ‘technology’ as a broad phenomenon to studying actual technologies, in their detailed relations with the sciences, with human beings, and with society. Rather than developing theories about ‘technology’ in general, it started to take actual technologies as a starting point for philosophical reflection. Technologies challenge philosophical concepts and theories. When medical diagnostic technologies get involved in our ethical decisions, for instance, this challenges our ideas about ethics itself: is ethics something that only humans can do, or is there room for technologies as well? When deep brain implants interfere with our moods and behavior, this challenges our ideas about autonomy, free will, and what it means to ‘act’.

Our focus in this course

In this course, we will focus on the relations between technology and society. We will learn more about the impact and importance of technological developments for individuals in contemporary society, as well as the role of technology in a broader social and political context. Moreover, we will connect philosophical theory to technology development and design: when we understand better how technology has an impact on human beings and society, we can take this into account when designing and implementing new technologies.

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The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy can also provide you with a nice overview of what philosophy of technology entails.

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This article is from the free online course:

Philosophy of Technology and Design: Shaping the Relations Between Humans and Technologies

University of Twente

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