Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images


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In the first place there is the field of knowledge management. In this field one often does not seem to differentiate between different kinds of knowledge. Some authors e. Hitt, Ireland and Lee take as a starting point the standard definition of knowledge as 'justified true belief', but do not take into account that in the case of technological knowledge that definition may not be the best representation of technological knowledge.

The same is true in the field of education, and in particular education about technology. Differences between the nature of technological knowledge and other types of knowledge, as well as differences between different types of technological knowledge, should be taken into account when it comes to the transfer of technological knowledge. In his survey of the philosophy of technology, published in the book 'Thinking Through Technology', Carl Mitcham identified 'technology as knowledge' as one of the four ways of considering technology the other three ways are: technology as artifacts, as activity, and as volition.

In his chapter on technology as knowledge, Mitcham summarises the main outcomes of philosophical studies in this field. It appears that not that much has been published in this respect. Several philosophers wrote about the fact that technology cannot be described adequately as 'applied science'. Nowadays, most philosophers of technology accept the idea that technological knowledge is different from scientific knowledge. But how it differs from scientific knowledge has not yet been described in much detail. The same conclusion is drawn in another synthesising book by Subrata Dasgupta.

For philosophical reflections on the nature of technological knowledge Mitcham mentions at least two fields that can be used as a source of inspiration. The first is the history of technology. Philosophers' interest in drawing from this field can be related to what is called the 'empirical turn' in the philosophy of technology.

Apart from the history of technology, a lot of studies into technological knowledge, and in particular the role of technological knowledge in design processes, have been done in the field of design methodology. It would go beyond the practical limitations of this paper to give a more complete survey of existing literature about the nature of technological knowledge than Mitcham's and Dasgupta's. Instead some examples of authors in the fields of history and design methodology will be mentioned for each field to show what kind of ideas have developed in the past.

These are just examples and no claim of completeness or representativeness is made here.

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The main motive for including this section in the paper is to show that confrontation of what has been written in these fields with existing philosophical reflections can offer interesting perspectives for new reflections on the nature of technological knowledge. Also, some philosophers that were not yet included in Mitcham's survey will be mentioned with respect to that confrontation. So, in the first place, we can find historians who have reflected on the nature of technological knowledge. As mentioned before, in the philosophy of technology an 'empirical' turn is taking place. Philosophers have developed an interest in reflecting on empirical data about technological developments.

According to Rachel Laudan, such material is generated not in the least by historians. Two names in particular should be mentioned here: Edward Constant and Walther Vincenti.

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Both have been involved in studying the development of flight technology. Both Constant and Vincenti have emphasised that it is not only scientific knowledge that plays a role in engineering design other historians had made the same statement before, e. Edwin Layton, Michael Gorokhov, and Henryk Skolimoski but that there is a body of knowledge, different from science, which is used by engineers in their design work.

Vincenti made an effort to classify the different types of knowledge that aircraft engineers used. According to him engineering design knowledge can be fundamental design concepts operational principles and normal configurations , design criteria and specifications, theoretical tools mathematics, reasoning, laws of nature , quantitative data descriptive and prescriptive , practical considerations and design instrumentalities 'procedural knowledge'.

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He also identified the origins of these types and knowledge and found that science makes a very limited contribution to the engineers' knowledge and that the design process itself is also a knowledge generating activity. In the field of design methodology, too, reflections on the nature of the knowledge that is used in design processes have been published. Cross in that article focuses on the problem solving skills and their tacit character that type of knowledge seems similar to what Vincenti called 'practical considerations'.

Nigan Bayazit is an example of an author who took a broader view by referring to the distinction between procedural and declarative knowledge.

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In addition, Bayazit mentioned normative knowledge preferences, values, tastes, attitudes and collaborative design knowledge. Bayazit does not define this last category but only points out that knowledge development of individuals collaborating in a group is different from knowledge development of individuals working alone. Perhaps, surprisingly, the discipline that seems to have a backlog in theories about technological knowledge in design, is philosophy.

This is probably due to the fact that in the past technology has not had much attention in the mainstream of philosophical debates. The philosophy of technology is a fairly recent field within philosophy, at least more recent than, for example, the philosophy of science. There has not yet been much serious effort to seek for ways of applying philosophical theories about knowledge to technology.

Ropohl - like Vincenti - defines a number of categories of technological knowledge: technological laws, functional rules, structural rules, technical know-how and socio-technical understanding.


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At first sight, there seems to be a fair amount of overlap between Ropohl's and Vincenti's categories. Only Ropohl's socio-technical knowledge category, according to himself, is missing in Vincenti's analysis. Ropohl is not an epistemologist and does not refer to epistemological debates on the nature of knowledge.

Davis Baird has called attention to the 'thing-y-ness' of things and, related to that, for what he called 'thing knowledge'. According to him in the philosophy of technology material aspects have not sufficiently been taken into account. Taking these into account would pose an interesting question to classical epistemology, namely, the question whether or not thinking about innovations in the material realm is adequately described by defining knowledge as 'justified true belief'.

Reflecting on the knowledge of artifacts in technology may well cause us to propose revision of this definition. Randall Dipert already pointed out that in an epistemology of artifacts rationality in our attitude towards artifacts is less a matter of having true beliefs by the most reliable criterion available than a certain usefulness in regarding them to be a certain way.

We have seen examples of authors in different disciplines who have reflected on the nature of technological knowledge. We noticed historians who provided empirical data, design methodologists who focused on the skill-types of knowledge that are involved in design, and philosophers who in an 'empirical turn' have started to exploit the empirical case study material.

We also saw several efforts to define categories of technological knowledge. It is striking that there is not much cross fertilization between the fields mentioned above philosophy, history and design methodology. Each has its own academic journals and international research networks.


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  • A comparison between the different approaches would be an interesting impetus for a new research. Mitcham briefly referred to that definition, but did not yet compare it with the categories he collected from the other authors. Comparison of this definition with what has been stated about technological knowledge in other views see above immediately raises interesting questions about this 'standard' definition of knowledge. We already mentioned Davis Baird's view on 'thing knowledge' and Randal Dipert's remark about usefulness rather than truth being a criterion for our beliefs about artifacts.

    One could question how the intentional and normative aspects of engineers' and designers' knowledge would fit into the standard definition of knowledge. Can knowledge about the purpose and functioning of an artifact be described as 'justified true belief' or is it of a different nature? And what about the knowledge to determine if an artifact is 'successful' or not?

    Michael Polanyi has defined the concept of 'skills' and Gilbert Ryle has written about the difference between 'knowing that' and 'knowing how', whereby the last type of knowledge is closely related to Polanyi's 'skills'. Many of these 'skills' have the property of being 'tacit'. It can be questioned here too if such knowledge complies with the definition of 'justified true belief'. It seems that various questions emerge when the 'standard' definition of knowledge is applied to technological knowledge and ample opportunities for further reflection show up here.

    There are at least three ways of making progress in the study into the nature of technological knowledge. In the first place, it would be worthwhile to draw a comparison between the different approaches through which the nature of technological knowledge has been studied so far: the historical, the design methodological and the philosophical.

    In the second place, the work of Vincenti, that so far has been one of the most promising in terms of exploiting empirical data for philosophical reflections, was limited because it only dealt with one particular field of engineering, namely aeronautic engineering the design of aircraft. It would be interesting to see how Vincenti's categories for engineering knowledge 'what engineers know' and the ways through which those are obtained 'how they know it' would stand in comparison with entirely different fields of engineering; for example, the design of Integrated Circuits.

    This approach fits well with the 'empirical turn' in the philosophy of technology. Another aspect that makes the LOCOS case different from Vincenti's cases is that it does not deal with an object a product such as an airplane but with a structure in a material. In the third place, we see that there is a lot of attention paid nowadays to the integration of technical and social aspects in design.

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    Products not only have to function well whereby the laws of nature determine what is feasible and what is not , but they also have to meet the customers' needs and other social requirements e. Engineers and designers have to integrate knowledge of all those different aspects. This awareness has had a large impact on the way engineers and designers work nowadays and the way in which they are educated.

    It is hardly known, though, what 'integration' exactly means. How can we know that these different types of knowledge have been integrated? How can we assess whether or not this integration was successful?

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    Such questions are most relevant in many contemporary situations, in which the need for this integration is well recognised. In this paper, such questions will not yet be addressed.

    Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images
    Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images
    Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images
    Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images
    Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images
    Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images Shaping Concepts of Technology: From Philosophical Perspective to Mental Images

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