Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Val Dusek, Philosophy of Technology: an Introduction

My review will appear in Practical Philosophy

Val Dusek
Philosophy of Technology: an Introduction
Oxford: Blackwell, 2006, pp. v + 244
ISBN 1-4051-1163-1 (pb), US$32.95, £18.99

This ambitious book attempts to present an overview of a relatively young and amorphous sub-discipline, that is, the philosophy of technology. It is written and structured in the manner of a standard textbook—newly introduced names and terms appear in boldface, tangential topics are discussed in special "boxed" passages, and each chapter concludes with a list of "study questions." Dusek is obviously at pains to write with maximum clarity for the sake of undergraduates who may be required to read his book.

This is perhaps the first course book to be written on the philosophy of technology, leaving Dusek a free hand to determine the scope and internal logic of his topic. He rises to the challenge in a spirit of breathtaking disciplinary expansionism, offering reasoned justifications for the wide diversity of issues included in his book. Philosophy of science must be outlined, since technology is often dependent on science. Plato, Bacon, and others are mentioned as forerunners of technocratic social and political thought. Artificial intelligence is a kind of technology and it has been the subject of much contemporary philosophical debate that is ripe for the picking. Environmentalists have their qualms about technology, so that environmental ethics can also be gobbled up by this new field. The ‘rationality debates’ sparked by Evans-Pritchard's anthropological study of Azande magic touched upon the question of the universality of instrumental reason, which is arguably identifiable with technological reason, adding another twelve pages to the book. Heidegger's discussion of tools, Hannah Arendt's work/labour distinction, feminist views on technology, and anti-technological ideologies are also among the topics covered.

Dusek is to be commended for writing in an informed and lucid manner about such a wide variety of issues and authors. He moves with apparent ease from ancients to moderns, from analytic philosophy to continental, from phenomenology to neural connectionism, from the history of Chinese science to social constructionism. Certain themes, such as the search for a definition of technology, do reappear as leitmotifs throughout the book. However, Dusek does not really work out a grand logical map of issues in the philosophy of technology of the kind one would expect from an introduction to a better established (or less wide-ranging) area in philosophy. What he does give us is a wide overview of philosophical (broadly understood) discussions of technology (broadly understood) in all their varieties. Comprehensiveness has its price in depth; only a volume of monstrous proportions could do justice to such a wide range of topics. Occasionally, but only occasionally, Dusek's quest for comprehensiveness lapses into something more resembling a bibliographical essay than an introductory text. Despite these drawbacks, his book seems to be the best place to start for anyone trying to put together a course on the philosophy of technology, or simply interested in gaining an appreciation of the scope of this new field.