Philosopher Technologists

I’ve been thinking a lot about how my philosophy degree has shaped my thinking, and how many people I meet in my workworld that have philosophy degrees. In fact I was discussing that with David Mossley  just recently.

I’ve been forming a little theory about why that is, and this evening I just read a post by Professor Peter Bradley, a philosopher about why there are not very many visible philosophers in the “digital humanities” field. It didn't quite match my perception of the digital space, so I got to thinking I might write this post after all.

Way back I heard an episode of the Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4, where they were debating philosophers vs scientists. It struck me as rather a “what did the philosophers ever do for us”? question.

In everyday language, philosophy is seen as:

  • Complacent: being philosophical about it = accepting your lot
  • Pointless: philosophising in the pub = thinking too much without intending to act

OK, yes, academic philosophy can have a bit of that about it. But put that to one side and think about what philosophy is not the perception of what philosophy is as a job. (And let's face it, most academic jobs look like that from the outside).

I think philosophy is growing a set of methods, just like science is a set of methods. It creates a body of knowledge, but the act of philosophy is the act of applying the methods. And that’s no coincidence! Hello Aristotle! Philosophy and founder of the sciences. Science branched off.

Likewise you see the way that philosophy branches off into particular areas of enquiry that become physics, study of art, history, maths … philosophy grows new disciplines. This was Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigmatic shifts. We see philosophical method in artificial intelligence / consciousness, cosmology, quantum physics … areas of science that we still need thought experiments and mental constructs to help shape the discipline. And I've been hearinfg a lot more recently that philosophy needs to come back in to management to give more thorough grounding for theories about behaviour, motivation, control, ethics and so on.

Looking at other way round, what does it mean when people with philosophy training start clustering somewhere? I think it means the thing they are focusing around is being birthed into something more solid.

I haven’t been closely following Web Science but it seems to me that its explicit interdisciplinarity is a sign of exactly this: it is on the verge of a new discipline. (Useful background from by CETIS 2008 (!)  And I’d bet my pennies that there are a lot of philosophers helping to define and test the boundaries of the emerging discipline.

Am I saying that philosophers are web coders? No. Though there are a lot of coders who have migrated from non-computing backgrounds into it. Google’s statement that it values humanities and social sciences is strong evidence that being a technologist doesn’t only mean being a computing sciences graduate.

And what does being a technologist mean? Well the automotive industry is multiprofessional: designers, engineers, marketers, manufacturers, safety experts, sales people, mechanics. Technology is a multiprofessional industry.

So, a quick twitpoll …

2 questions: do you have a philosophy background, and do you consider yourself a technologist? 1 MINUTE OF YOUR TIME!

Its not scientific, but its something I've been curious about for a while, so this is a first step to find out if I'm on to something. If anyone wants to do something more methodologically sound I'd love to help!

Poll closes this Sunday night 27th November.

6 thoughts on “Philosopher Technologists

  1. I started reading philosophy 101s when I was at school, and sat in on Philosophy of Mind lectures I wasn’t enrolled in whilst taking my electronics degree… During my PhD I read a fair amount of philosophy of mind and history and philosophy of science books and papers…

  2. PhD philosophy, now working in ed tech research at The Open University. In my opinion, philosophers develop some very flexible skills which often go unrecognized. But there’s a combination of push (no jobs in academic philosophy) and pull (need for approaching complex issues in balanced and non-linear ways; ability to analyze ethical issues; ability to communicate & act as knowledge-broker, etc. in ed tech) which is in effect. I’ve certainly been struck by the number of people I’ve met a conferences, etc who also have some training in the subject…

  3. Reblogged this on jbrittholbrook and commented:
    So, I found Amber today on Twitter. I forget exactly how. Anyway, she was, or so I thought, an IT person saying philosophically interesting things. Now, she has revealed that, in fact, SHE’S A PHILOSOPHER! I should have known.

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