Focussing Philosophy of Engineering: Analyses of Technical Functions and Beyond

  • Pieter E. Vermaas
Part of the Philosophy of Engineering and Technology book series (POET, volume 2)


In this chapter I elaborate on the problematic status of philosophical research on the conceptual, methodological and epistemological questions posed by engineering, and comment on the current efforts to develop this research by means of a philosophy of engineering consisting of collaboration between philosophers and engineers. I describe how recent conceptual analysis of technical functions, leading to the ICE theory of technical functions, has evolved as part of discussions in the philosophy of biology. Attempts to analyse technical functions in collaboration with engineers proved to be difficult by the engineering criteria of effectiveness and efficiency. These criteria provide room for straightforward analyses of technical functions but less so for analyses that contain philosophical detail. The ICE theory, for instance, is of limited use to engineers; a simplification of it, which I present and call the Fiat account of technical functions, is more suited to engineering but is in turn of less interest to philosophy. I conclude that profitable collaboration between philosophers and engineers is difficult and that research on conceptual, methodological and epistemological issues of engineering may better be developed by making it relevant to existing research in philosophy of technology. Philosophy of technology harbours on-going research on, for instance, ethical, social and political questions posed by engineering, and can also harbour on-going research on conceptual, methodological and epistemological questions. The current efforts to establish a philosophy of engineering should in my opinion therefore be aimed at creating an active link to philosophy of technology.


Technical Function Technological Knowledge Functional Description Technical Artefact Philosophical Research 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



It is a pleasure thanking Wybo Houkes for comments. Research for this contribution is supported by the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research (NWO).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyDelft University of TechnologyJaffalaan 5The Netherlands

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