Research Program

Interpretive and Normative Investigations of Technology and Technological Culture

Version 15-9-2008

Mission and aims

Technology has come to play a defining role in society. Every major activity in our lives, such as work, play, learning, communication, and travel, centrally depends on technology. All major institutions of society, such as government, healthcare, defense, education, religion, and law, are increasingly fixated around technology, and changes in them are to a large extent driven by technology. Modern technology has had many benefits for humanity, enhancing welfare and individual freedom, but has also brought harms, ranging from environmental problems to issues of rationalization and alienation.

In light of these developments, the aim of the research programme “Interpretive and Normative Investigations of Technology and Technological Culture” is to perform a philosophical analysis of technology and its role in contemporary society. Ultimately, this philosophical analysis is to contribute to a better role of technology in society, for instance by stimulating better research and design practices, better policies, and better public debates about technology. The programme has an interpretive and a normative aim. Its interpretive aim is to understand the way in which technological artifacts and practices give shape to, and are themselves shaped by, core aspects of modern culture and society. Its normative aim is to provide evaluations and assessments of technologies and their correlated social and cultural impacts. The programme studies both technology and engineering, and a large part of its focus is on specific technologies, including information and communication technology (ICT), biomedical technology and nanotechnology.

It is an objective of the programme to bring forth a body of high-quality original and innovative philosophical research that has national and international recognition. The programme intends to be an internationally leading programme in the philosophy of technology that contributes significantly to the national and international advancement of the field, and that also contributes to philosophy at large. Parts of the programme aim in addition to contribute to the interdisciplinary field of science and technology studies (STS) and to engineering science.

Whereas the programme thus intends to make a major scholarly contribution, the research is intended to have an impact not just in scholarly circles, but just as much in professional and popular circles. The department of philosophy has a long tradition of participation in public debate and of close interaction and collaborations with groups and organizations in society. In the department’s professional publications and activities, that are intended to constitute a large part of its production, the department directs itself to individuals and organizations in the field of engineering, and in technology policy and management. Here, its publications and activities are aimed at furthering a philosophical understanding of technology and its relation to society, that has the potential to contribute to better design practices and better technology management and policy. The programme also aims to contribute towards solutions for social problems that centrally involve technology. In the department’s popular publications and activities, finally, it aims to inform public debate and help elevate the level of discussion on topics that range from genetic engineering to informational privacy to sustainable production and consumption.

General Characterization of Research

Research in the programme typically takes one of three approaches. A first approach is to focus on specific technologies or relations between technologies and aspects of society and to investigate them philosophically. For instance, studies may focus on ambient intelligence technology, and study its ethical aspects. Or they may focus on human enhancement technologies and study their implications for human nature. Or they may focus on modeling in engineering science and study its epistemological aspects. A second approach is to focus on specific domains, practices or problems and to focus on the role of technology in them. For instance, studies may focus on diagnostic procedures in healthcare, and focus on the role of technology in them. Or they may focus on environmental issues and the way in which technologies may help solve them. A third angle is to focus on particular normative ideals and to investigate to what extent technologies live up to them or how they could live up to them better. For instance, studies may focus on democracy, and investigate how technology may support democratic processes. Or they may focus on ideals of the good life, and study whether particular technologies support these ideals.

Further distinct features of the programme are its focus on the social and cultural consequences of contemporary technology, its naturalistic or “empirically informed” orientation, its constructivism, and its focus on ICT, biomedical technology and nanotechnology. The need for an empirically informed approach in the philosophy of technology is a shared commitment of all participants in the programme.

While maintaining some of research questions and themes of the classical philosophy of technology of the 20th century, the programme has moved beyond it by having performed a so-called "empirical turn" in the philosophy of technology. This “empirical turn” implies, first of all, that research focuses on specific technologies rather than technology-in-general, and takes place at a concrete level of analysis. Much of its focus is on actual, contemporary practices and discourses involving technology, rather than on philosophical abstractions.

Another feature is the employment of a constructivist rather than a deterministic conception of technology, which recognizes the malleability and contingency of technology, its development, and its social impacts and cultural meanings, while still recognizing that technical artifacts also have their own agency or normativity. Another feature is that the programme aims for a fair assessment of positive and negative consequences of technology. A final feature of the ‘empirical turn’ is that closer collaboration is sought with the engineering sciences and social sciences. Research frequently involves case analysis and discourse analysis, and develops and tests philophical notions and theories in close interaction with the empirical.

While having undertaken an “empirical turn” and interacting closely with empirical research in social science and engineering, the programme strives to retain a distinct philosophical identity, and to contribute to general discussions in philosophy. Its orientation remains philosophical, and distinct from empirical research, including empirical studies of technology in science and technology studies (STS), due to its focus on philosophical (conceptual, interpretive and normative) questions, its employment of philosophical methods of investigation, and its dialogue with the philosophical tradition. On the one hand, the research utilizes ideas and theories from the philosophical tradition, and on the other, it aims to contribute to mainstream discussions of philosophy. It does so by studying how technology alters the concepts and realities traditionally studied by philosophy (how, for instance, medical technologies and human enhancement change our notion of the subject and of the body) and by studying how technology uncovers and provides new perspectives on old philosophical issues (how, for example, a study of virtual reality may help shed light on general issues in ontology).

As part of its empirically informed approach, the programme has instituted a focus on three technologies: ICT, biomedical technology, and nanotechnology. These are technologies with much societal impact and revolutionary promises for the future, and all three are central to the research orientation of the University of Twente. The department’s research on these technologies is embedded in three multidisciplinary university-wide research institutes, the Center for Telematics and Information Technology (CTIT), the Biomedical Technology Institute (BMTI), and the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology. The choice to participate in these institutes facilitates research collaboration with the engineering sciences, as well as the social sciences present in these institutes. In addition to being embedded in these institutes, a large part of the programme is also embedded in the 3TU Centre for Ethics and Technology, which is a mutual initiative of the departments of philosophy of the three technical universities in the Netherlands: the University of Twente, Delft University of Technology and Eindhoven University of Technology. This Centre strives to be an internationally leading centre in the ethics of technology.

Theoretically and methodologically, the programme draws from both analytical and contintental approaches, including conceptual analysis, (post)phenomenological approaches, hermeneutical methods, transcendental methods and discourse analysis. For its case-oriented research, it also utilizes methods and approaches from science and technology studies (STS). Both methologically and theoretically, the programme is therefore diverse, but there is a shared interest to transcend philosophical traditions and to be pragmatic in one’s research methodology. Most researchers draw from multiple philosophical traditions in their research.

Its distinct empirical turn, its focus on social and cultural consequences of technology, its specific focus on ICT, biomedical technology, and nanotechnology, and its pluralist methodology make the programme unique internationally. The philosophy of technology programmes of the technical universities of Delft and Eindhoven have also undertaken an empirical turn, simultaneously with the Twente programme, but their focus is not on social and cultural consequences of technology but rather on the philosophy of engineering. Whereas the Delft and Eindhoven programmes are primarily directed at an internal analysis of engineering practice and methodology, the Twente approach consists in a broad philosophical analysis and evaluation of the social and cultural roles and consequences of technology.

Research Lines

In light of the research programme’s mission and aims, four research lines are defined. A first line, Philosophical Anthropology and Human-Technology Relations, contributes significantly towards the interpretive aim of the programme, of understanding how technological artifacts and practices interact with society. This line takes a microlevel approach to this issue, studying the relations between individual human beings and technological artifacts. This line also makes a contribution to the normative aim of the programme by engaging in evaluations of the quality of these relations.

A second line, The Good Life in a Technological Culture, contributes mostly to the normative aim of the programme, by evaluating technology and its societal consequences from the normative ideal of the good life. The good life is often held to be the highest good, something to which all other normative ideals are subordinate. It is therefore appropriate to investigate how and to what extent technology contributes towards the realization of this ideal. This research line benefits from research results of the Philosophical Anthropology line because this line directly helps to understand how individual humans experience technological products, which is important for an understanding of the impact on their lives, and because this line also engages in normative evaluations of the quality of these relations, evaluations that may be of use of the Good Life research line.

A third research line, Ethics and Political Philosophy of Emerging Technologies, contributes to the normative aim of the programme, by studying ethical and political issues in new and emerging technologies. This line picks up on an issue that is largely left out in the previous two lines. These lines tend to assume that particular technological artifacts or practices already exist, and then go on ask what their significance is to humans. The Emerging Technologies research line instead looks at the processes that take place before technologies exist, or at least before they are used by humans and have an impact on them. This line focuses on technology that is still in the making, and asks how ethical and political reflection on them can help bring about better results. It considers how actors involved in the development of new technology can engage in better practices, and how the public and political debate on new technologies can be improved.

Since this line involves and the construction and assessment of future applications and uses of the technology, it can benefit from the Philosophical Anthropology research line, which thematizes possible use relations and the significance they have for humans. It can also make use of results from the Good Life research line, since its ethical and political evaluations also include evaluations regarding the benefits of new technologies for good life. Conversely, this research line can also benefit the Philosophical Anthropology and Good Life research lines, since these research lines sometimes also study new and emerging technologies, and the Emerging Technologies research line can then help them to arrive at realistic assessments of these technologies.

A fourth research line, Philosophy of Science for a Technological Society, focuses on engineering science. It aims to develop an alternative philosophy of science that does justice to the central role of scientific practice and to the special status of the engineering sciences. This research line contributes to the interpretive aim of the programme, by studing the nature of engineering science and scientific practice, and to the normative aim, by thematizing what are good practices in engineering research and by studying epistemological responsibility in scientific expertise. This research line is potentially important for the other three lines because the philosophy of technology often focuses on engineering design to the neglect of engineering science, the more fundamental research processes that often precede engineering design. This neglect is unfortunate, since many important decisions with social and ethical consequences for subsequent technology development are already made during this stage.

This line may particularly benefit the Emerging Technologies line, which considers both engineering design and engineering science, by informing it of the nature of engineering science and its relation to engineering design, and of the ethical and political decisions that are already made at the phase of engineering science. Conversely, it may benefit from the Emerging Technologies line in studying epistemological responsibility and ethical commitments in scientific expertise. This line and the Good Life line may also mutually benefit from each other through because of a shared interest in the role of values in knowledge, which relates to the themes of the good of information and of the relation between ethics and epistemology in these research lines. There is also a shared interest of this line and the Philosophical Anthropology research line in human-technology relations, as this line puts significant emphasis on the role of instrumentation in scientific research.

Given the mission and aims of the program, all research lines make the following general contributions to the program:


a theoretical contribution to the philosophical understanding and evaluation of technology and its relation to society. This may include the philosophical study of technology and engineering; the relation between technology and aspects of society (humanity, culture, politics, etc.); the relation between technology and normative ideals (ideals of ethics, politics, aesthetics, epistemology, etc.)


a contribution to practices of engineering design and engineering science. Each research line engages in applied research that evaluates how practices of engineering design or engineering science may be improved


a contribution to technology policy. Each research line engages in applied research that considers how the design and use of technology in society should be organized and regulated, or how engineering science should be funded and regulated, and what the responsibilities of various agents are in this process.


a contribution to the analysis of social problems in which technology plays an important role. Each research line considers one or more of such social problems and suggests solutions or better practices towards solving them. Some examples of such problems are: the environmental crisis; public safety; social cohesion and integration; the crisis in healthcare; the problem of scarcity of resources.

Because the issue of sustainability and the environment is an emerging theme in the research programme, this will be a shared issue to explore. Each programme line is encouraged to undertake research on it. Another designated emerging theme in the programme is that of globalization and the issues and problems that correlate with it, and programme lines are similarly encouraged to addressed it.

To support coherence and collaboration between research lines, joint research activities and meetings take place that address one or more of these four contributions. Such activities both support the general goals and orientation of the programme and help articulate themes in the different research lines. Joint activities also take place on an issue that relates to both teaching and research, which is the role of Bildung at a technological university. Occasionally, there will also be cross-programmatic activities on other themes, to be proposed over the course of the research programme.

(a) Philosophical Anthropology and Human-Technology Relations

Coordinator: Dr. ir. Peter Paul Verbeek


The research line Philosophical Anthropology and Human-Technology Relations focuses on analyzing the relations between human beings and technologies, and on assessing the quality of these relations. In addition, it aims to inform practices of technology design and to contribute to public discussions about the social and cultural roles of technology. Technological artifacts and systems have come to play a pervasive role in human existence. They increase our capabilities and powers, mediate our experiences, structure our actions, inform our moral decisions, and even start to merge with our bodies. In the philosophical-anthropological tradition, which is concerned with the question of how to understand the human being, technology soon came to be recognized as an important aspect.

Human beings have often been characterized as technological beings, tool users by definition. Arnold Gehlen spoke of humans as ‘Mängelwesen’, deficient beings that use technologies to complement, enhance, or disburden themselves; Helmuth Plessner spoke about the ‘natural artificiality’ of human beings; and Bernard Stiegler focuses on the ‘originary technicity’ of humanity. This technological character of the human condition and of human existence has received various evaluations – ranging from the fear of ongoing alienation to the celebration of developing ever more advanced ways to enhance the human being. The research line Philosophical Anthropology and Human-Technology Relations aims to contribute to the analysis and evaluation of the technologization of humanity.

Technology domains

The focus will be on four technology domains: industrial design, focusing on the relation between users and products and on assessments of the impact of products on user practices and experiences and their implications for design methodology; information and communication technology, focusing on the mediating role of old and new media and their social and cultural impacts, human enhancement technology, focusing on the ethical and anthropological implications of new technologies that improve humans beyond normal functioning, and finally the area of art and technology, in which the technological mediation of art production and utilization is studied.

Research Questions and Subthemes

The main research question for this line is:

How can the various relations between human beings and technologies be analyzed from a philosophical point of view, and how can the quality of these relations be assessed?

In answering this question, this research line confronts the philosophical-anthropological tradition with recent developments in science and technology, and in the philosophy of technology. How to reinterpret classical philosophical-anthropological notions in confrontation with contemporary technological developments? To what extent do notions like eccentricity, intentionality, temporality, natality, and mortality still open meaningful ways of understanding human existence? And which notions need adaptation as a result of the ever more interwoven character of humans and technologies?

In our technological culture, therefore, doing philosophical anthropology requires analyzing human-technology relations. How to conceptualize the variety of human-technology relations, ranging from using artifacts to being influenced by them, and from designing artifacts to merge with them physically? In order to address these human-technology relations adequately, different aspects of them need to be explored: metaphysical, ethical and aesthetic/cultural, which will be done in three subthemes.

The subtheme metaphysics of human-technology relations investigates the implications of new understandings of human-technology relations for the modernist understanding of reality in terms of human subjects versus nonhuman objects. Several approaches have challenged the modernist subject-object separation, ranging from postphenomenology to actor-network theory and poststructuralism. These approaches make it possible to think the subject-object relation in new ways, which can also serve as a new basis for understanding the relations between humans and technology. What metaphysical approaches are needed to do justice to the many new relations between humans and technologies – like the moral significance of technology, the technological mediation of subject constitution, human enhancement technologies, the cultural roles and impact of technologies, and the technologically mediated character of experience?

The subtheme ethics of human-technology relations focuses primarily on the quality of human-technology relations and on the impact of technologies on humans as moral beings. This leads on the one hand to questions about the moral role and significance of technological artifacts. How and to what extent do they influence and direct human beings in acting morally and making moral decisions? Answering this question requires a two-track approach. On the one hand, the mechanisms of influence exercised by technological artifacts need to be explored and analyzed. And on the other hand, it is needed to investigate how these influences can be accommodated in the practice of conducting one’s life. In this respect, special interest is paid to Foucauldian ethics as ‘the art of living’ to the possibilities to extend it so as to include also the technological mediation of human existence. Based on these two approaches, the impact of technological artifacts on user practices and experiences will be considered, especially in relation to industrial design, in order to arrive at an ethics of the design and use of technological products.

The subtheme aesthetics, culture and human-technology relations primarily address the relations between art and technology. How can contemporary art be understood as artistic research of the technological mediation of human experiences and practices? Technologies help to organize the sensory repertoire of human beings: they disclose new ways of experiencing reality. The ways in which artists experiment with such mediations, therefore, form a highly interesting point of application for the philosophy of contemporary art. Also, the research line includes the cultural dimension of human-technology relations and the mediation aspects involved in technology transfer between cultures.



VENI project ‘Technology and the Matter or Morality’ [Verbeek]


IOP-IPCR project ‘Product Impact’ (as part of the overall project ‘Design for Usability’) [Dorrestijn, Verbeek]


PhD Project ‘Technological Mediation and Moral Responsibility’ [Waelbers]


VIDI project ‘Technology and the limits of humanity’ [Verbeek plus PhD candidate]


Book project [Munnik]


Media art project [Kockelkoren]


Research on human enhancement [Coeckelbergh]

(b) The Good Life in a Technological Culture

Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Philip Brey


This research line investigates the relation between technology and the good life. It aims to understand how technology contributes to or detracts from the good life, and how technology can and should be designed so as to account for ideals of the good life. The importance of this research line lies in the fact that the quality of life has become a major issue in modern societies, and technology is seen to both benefit and harm quality of life. Yet, no systematic investigations have yet occurred of the relation between quality of life and technology. This research line aims to focus squarely on this topic, and to engage in both fundamental and applied research. Technologies that will be investigated include, first and foremost, information and communication technologies and robotics. Other technologies will be considered as well, including biomedical technologies, nanotechnologies, sustainable technologies, and industrial design.

The question of what a good life consists of has always been one of the major questions of philosophy, having originated with the ancient thinker who gave philosophy its name, Pythagoras of Samos. In reply to the question, the classics have given us had Stoicism, Epicureanism, and the (perfectionist) virtue ethics of Aristotle, and the moderns have given us hedonism (Bentham and Mill), desire fulfillment theory (Kraut and Brandt), existential humanism (Sartre), and the capability approach (Sen and Nussbaum). Whereas the question of the good life is a perennial question of philosophy, it has always been asked anew in circumstances of societal change. Such circumstances invite reflection on whether the changes that are taking place contribute to the quality of life or detract from it, which in turn invites the question of what the good life is.

Modern times have seen a continuous cycle of progressive social and cultural change, with many of these changes being driven by technology. Technology has brought great new powers and has promised human beings control over nature, personal wealth, and liberation from labor and hardship, but has also brought about many negative effects. Classical positions in the philosophy of technology rate the impact of modern technology on the quality of life mostly negatively. The Frankfurt school, Heidegger, Ellul, Anders, Borgmann and others have argued that modern technology has limited our freedom, has rationalized and disenchanted our world, has enframed, dehumanized and alienated us, and has spawned mindless consumption.

The debate concerning these optimistic and pessimistic assessments has not yet been settled, but it has been stifled by the liberalism, the dominant political ideology in Western societies, according to which conceptions of the good life have no place in politics. Yet, liberalism cannot avoid discussing the good life and technology, since technologies are not neutral with respect to the good life, and because even the political and economic systems of liberalism have been questioned for their neutrality. There are good reasons, therefore, to consider systematically the relation between technology and the good life.

Technology domains

The main focus will be on information and communication technologies, intelligent systems and robotics. It will be investigated how new media, robots and other advanced technologies are changing society and culture, and what implications this has for the way of life and the quality of life. To a lesser extent, biomedical technologies, nanotechnologies, sustainable technology, and industrial design will also be studied. In part, the research will be comparative, comparing how good life issues emerge in different technology domains, and what their similarities and differences are.

Research Questions and Subthemes

This research line investigates the relation between technology and the good life. The main question it attempts to answer is:

How does modern technology benefit or harm the good life, and what role can be given to philosophical studies of technology and the good life in technological design, regulation, public debate and policy?

This question will be research in the context of three specific subthemes.

A first subtheme concerns the relation between technology and the good life. It will be investigated under this theme how the use of technology in general correlates with particular ideals of the good life, and how particular technologies and technical artifacts correlate with good life ideals. Specific research questions are: Does technology promote particular conceptions of the good life, by means of built-in values or agency? Which conceptions are promoted or harmed by which technologies? In studying these questions, the relation between technology and culture will be an explicit focus because cultural beliefs and practices influence how technologies are used and also shape ideals of the good life. It will be studied, therefore, how dominant ideals of the good life are a product of Western (consumer) culture, and how this also shapes modern technologies. Some of the insights thus gained will be applied towards design methodology. It will be investigated how value-sensitive design methods can be used to promote public values regarding the good life.

A second subtheme concerns the metaethics of technology and the good life. Many different ideals of the good life exist, and the question is how this descriptive pluralism must be accommodated in normative theory. Can ethicists propose unitary normative conceptions of the good life, thereby rejecting all other accounts? Or should they adopt a pluralist methodology, which can accommodate multiple conceptions? But if so, is critique then still possible? An additional issue concerns the relation between good life ethics and mainstream ethics (consequentialism, duty ethics, virtue ethics, theories of justice) in thinking about technology. In addition, this theme will explore the development of a broad conception of normativity for the evaluation of technology, that considers next to moral values also non-moral (prudential, cultural, social, aesthetic, etc.) values that play a role in evaluating technology, and considers their relation to ideals of the good life and the good society. Also considered in this context will be the way in which technology embeds values, as is done in Values in Design and Value-Sensitive Design approaches.

A third subtheme concerns the role of good life ethics of technology in politics. It is investigated here what the relation is between ideals of the good life and of the good society, and what role the state and other political actors should have in state in promoting or protecting particular conceptions of the good life and in setting technology policy. According to the dominant political ideology in modernity, liberalism, the state protects individual rights and promotes equality of opportunity, but does not promote particular conceptions of the Good, which casts discussions of the good life outside the realm of public policy. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that both technologies and social institutions (the market economy, and even liberalism itself) are not neutral with respect to the good life, and that many technologies, like information technologies and biomedical technologies have a deep impact on our lives. What implications does this have for liberalism, and for politics at large? In addition, it will be investigated what the relation is between the good life and the good society and between the individual and the collective Good, and how the discussion of good life issues can be democratized and be given a role in public debates about technology.



Vici project on new media and the quality of life [6 subprojects: Brey, Briggle, Spence, Søraker, Wong, Rosas] (2006-2012)


PhD project care robots and the good life [Van Wynsberghe, Coeckelbergh, 2008-2012]


CTIT-funded PhD project (2009-2013)


PhD project on the possibility to assess emerging technologies in terms of the good life [Keller] (completed 2007)


Regular contributions by others [a.o. Swierstra, Valkenburg, Verbeek, Coeckelbergh]

(c) Ethics and Political Philosophy of Emerging Technologies

Coordinator: Dr. Tsjalling Swierstra


Much of the ethical and political debate concerning technologies deals with expectations of not-yet existent or not-yet fully developed technologies. This research line studies, from the point of view of ethics and political philosophy, how ethical and political debate concerning these technologies is currently structured and how it can be improved, and how actors deal and should deal with the complex relation between emerging technologies and expectations about the future. In addition, the research line will also study, from the point of view of ethics and political philosophy, those (already existent) technologies that aim to disclose the future for us, such as medical diagnostic technologies.

It is not a coincidence that ethical and political controversies often concern new and emerging technologies. In the case of such technologies, it is their novelty that provokes these controversies. Their proponents as a rule stress that the technologies in question conform to established moral values and political practices. According to them, there is only a revolution on the level of science and technology, not on the level of morals and politics. However, this claim is often contested by opponents, who argue that the emerging technologies do conflict with accepted moral and political standards. The debate on this general issue is hampered by the fact that both proponents and opponents are debating the possible (in their own eyes: plausible) impacts of emerging, not yet functional and socially embedded, technologies. This fact is often stressed to discredit the arguments of the other party. A question that will be central in studying these debates is how such discussions can be improved.

Whereas emerging technologies are typically accompanied by promises by proponents, technologies can also make promises themselves: they can promose to help disclose the future for us. A good example of these technologies are the diagnostic devices currently under development in the field of nano- / molecular medicine. In this case, technology is not primarily the object of expectations, but their generator. To make matters more complex: when these diagnostic devices are still emerging, we are dealing with expectations (promises or fears) about expectations (predictions). These technologies invoke questions concerning privacy, discrimination and the good life.

Technology domains

The focus of the research line will be on biomedical technology. This is a technological domain where new technologies emerge on a regular basis, that often invoke strong moral and political reactions. However, we currently witness the progressive blurring of the borderlines between biotechnology on the one hand, information and nano technologies on the other. Because for the research questions of this line it is important to focus on ‘frontline technologies’, it is to be expected that expect that this convergence of technological domains will be increasingly important in this research line.

Research questions and subthemes

The main question for this research line is:

How can the ethical and political debate concerning emerging technologies and their implications for the future be improved?

This question translates into various more specific questions, such as: How is it possible to develop a so-called ethics of (techno-scientific) promising? How can we differentiate justified from non-justified hopes and fears? What can we learn about the future impacts of technologies by looking at the (recent) past? What is the role of moral imagination and how to enhance this type of ‘presenting’ the future? On a more procedural level: how can controversies be organized in such a manner that expectations, fears and hopes are best evaluated? By looking at these issues this research line will contribute to the field of (ethical) TA. The particular focus is not primarily on the type of impacts (on health, environment and safety) that constitute the focus of risk-assessment, but on technology’s ‘soft impacts’, that is: its cultural, social, political and moral consequences.

These questions will be further explored from the angles of the citizen, the engineer-scientist and the user/patient respectively. This plural approach results in three research subthemes: one in political philosophy, one in engineering ethics and one in medical ethics. The three lines do not stand apart, but show considerable overlap, and thus feed and enhance each other.

The subtheme political philosophy and emerging technology considers the perspective of the citizen. Expectations about the impacts of an emerging technology, play a crucial role in technology development in general. They serve to mobilize support and/or resistance to the emergent technology. As such they constitute an important field of public contestation, because the outcome of these discussions have a huge impact on the course and direction of future technology development. Here technology and democracy meet. From a democratic standpoint, it is important to evaluate and if possible enhance the quality of these debates. To do so, the recurring argumentative patterns and common motifs that can be discerned in these debates will be mapped. How convincing are these? Furthermore, have all relevant considerations a fair chance of being voiced and heard, or are there power structures in the public domain that frustrate the open exchange of arguments? What kind of model for public deliberation serves the goal of technology assessment best? And can the public imagination be stimulated and informed by creating scenarios about future impacts of emerging technologies. And how to ensure that these scenarios take into account the dynamic interchange between technology and morality? This also leads to fundamental philosophical issues, e.g. what kind of ethics can do justice to techno-moral change? How to avoid moral relativism?

The subtheme engineering ethics and emerging technologies considers the perspective of the engineer. Expectations also play a role far away from the public eye, viz. in the laboratories. Engineers entertain ideas and ideals about what the technology they are working on will eventually do in society. But how realistic are these expectations and promises? A second research line therefore concentrates on the way expectations guide technological design in everyday laboratory practice, and aims to help improve the quality of the visions engineers entertain about the future use and impact of their products. How to ensure that the values inscribed into the design matches what society wants, and how to enhance the realism and plausibility of the technical scenarios used by technology developers? Given the institutional constraints engineers are under, what can be requested from them with regard to the expectations they help formulate? What would be elements of such an ethic of techno-scientific promising?

The subtheme medical ethics and emerging technologies, finally, considers the perspective of the user/patient. Technology is not only the object of future expectations, it can also actively shape them. This is particularly the case in predictive medicine. Many diagnostic devices are developed with the aim of discovering risks and pre/non-symptomatic diseases. In most cases technological progress will not lead to hard predictions, only in risk-assessments. What is the epistemological status of such assessments? And how do ‘patients’ deal with this technologically produced uncertainty. Can the ethics of the good life provide them with ideas to do this better?


- techno-ethical scenario project [Swierstra, Boenink]

- NEST-ethics, model of democratic deliberation [Swierstra]

- liberalism, technology and the good life [Valkenburg]

- engineering ethics, value sensitive design, engineering scenarios, ethics of promising [vd Burg, Lucivero]

- dealing with uncertainty [Boenink]

(d) Philosophy of Science for a Technological Society

Coordinator: Dr. ir. Mieke Boon


This research line aims at developing an account of modern scientific research that gives it its proper place. It aims at developing an alternative picture of science, where the widely accepted representational picture of science (which assumes a two-placed relationship between world and knowledge) is replaced by a picture of science that takes into account a tripartite relationship between world, knowledge, and cognitive agent. This involves replacing the traditional empiricist stance (which aims at avoiding problems from metaphysics) by what is called a transcendental stance. From this stance, several of the traditional topics in the philosophy of science are reconsidered. This approach stands in a new tradition in the philosophy of science, which is the philosophy of science in practice. This approach has been organized in a new society, the Society for Philosophers of Science in Practice, SPSP, which is co-founded and co-directed by Mieke Boon. The line of research focuses on engineering sciences, but aim to expand to ‘social engineering sciences’ as well.

We live in a technological society of which almost every aspect has become subject for scientific research. Most scientific research aims at addressing societal and/or technological issues such as food production and processing, medical and mental care, consumer products, transport, pollution, and others. In our age, we aim at understanding these issues in a scientific way, and at solving problems by means of technological artifacts or by means of control and policy measures. Most scientific research thus aims at understanding societal and technological phenomena, as well as at developing knowledge and means for controlling, circumventing, creating and improving them.

Given these pragmatic aims of modern scientific research, it is an assumption within this research line that the representational picture of knowledge, still held by many mainstream philosophers of science, is philosophically untenable. Another fundamental presupposition of traditional philosophy of science is rejected as well, which is the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification. It is further assumed in this research line that as science does not produce truth, knowledge cannot be completely abstracted from its subject matter, nor from its intended function. Hence, (scientific) knowledge incorporates values, and the production and use of (scientific) knowledge involves responsibility, which is called ethics and epistemology, and epistemological responsibility, respectively.

Against this background, the research line Philosophy of Science for a Technological Society aims at developing an account that gives modern scientific research its proper place. Central themes include scientific understanding, explanation, models, fundamental laws, justification, causation and causal-mechanisms, mathematization, phenomena, experiments, and instruments. Research takes place at the interfaces of philosophy of science and epistemology, philosophy of science and history of science, and philosophy of science and ethics.

Technology domain

This research line does not focus on a technological domain, nor does it focus on engineering, but rather on the engineering sciences in general. Engineering is directly concerned with creating, producing, improving, controlling, or designing various devices, materials, or technical systems. Engineering science is scientific research in the context of technology, and more concerned with explaining, predicting or optimizing the behaviour of devices or the properties of diverse materials, whether actual or possible; this scientific knowledge is represented by means of scientific models and published in scientific journals or reports.

Research Questions and Subthemes

The central question of this research line is:

How can an alternative philosophical picture of science be developed that does justice to the central role of scientific practice in modern scientific research and to the special status of the engineering sciences?

Contrary to dominant approaches in the traditional philosophy of science, this line of research takes problems from scientific practices in a technological society as its cue. Several of the central problems are:


How to assess the quality of the engineering sciences?


How to perform scientific research that aims at developing technological means for solving societal problems?


How to communicate between engineering sciences and social sciences?


How to optimize the quality of education in the engineering sciences?

The research is further structured in three subthemes. In the first subtheme, philosophy of science for the engineering sciences, the aim is to develop a philosophy of science for the engineering sciences. It is carried out within the academic domain of the traditional philosophy of science. Traditional topics are newly addressed from the perspective of the “philosophy of science in practice”. Topics are: scientific phenomena, properties, theories, models, instruments, experiments, explanation, understanding, causation, laws of nature, and justification. Analyses of traditional accounts involves considering epistemological issues and historical accounts of scientific research. In this approach, focus is towards scientific reasoning and understanding. How do scientists recognize and discern properties, entities and phenomena? How do they develop scientific theories, laws and models, instruments and experiments? And how do they justify the results? The engineering sciences are taken as a prominent example. The aim is developing a philosophical account that is also viable alternatives to the laboratory sciences in general.

In the subtheme philosophy of science in scientific practice, the aim is to contribute to concrete scientific practices. Modern engineering sciences aim at understanding and creating materials, processes and devices that meet certain functions. Textbooks and cases from scientific literature in the engineering sciences or from historical cases are analyzed in order to find out about scientific approaches taken. This philosophical approach aims at developing the concepts just mentioned into conceptual tools useful for scientists. Examples are conceptual tools for analyzing scientific models, and for making a conceptual distinction between different scientific approaches such as experimental and mathematical approaches. Another important issue is inter- and multi-disciplinary research. Any topic of interest in the engineering sciences requires the use of scientific knowledge from distinct scientific disciplines. Cooperation between scientific disciplines is notoriously difficult. The aim is to develop conceptual tools that provide an understanding of the general structure(s) of scientific research, which will be evaluated and extended by means of “philosophy of science for engineering sciences” courses for graduate students, and by means of research meetings with PhD students and their professors.

The third and final subtheme is scientific expertise and epistemological responsibility. Scientific knowledge does not tell the truth. On the other hand, we have to rely on the use of scientific knowledge in developing technologies. How is this possible? In dealing with this question, the aim is to avoid externalist ethicist approaches, and instead, aims to address the internal role, the implication of ethical commitments in the epistemic process. Ethical commitments will be considered as a productive component of the epistemic process, through for instance judgments of significance or negligibility. The focus will be on the way in which epistemological conceptions can integrate ethical considerations, and on the notion of epistemic responsibility, and the implications for scientific methodology will be considered.



VIDI project (2003-2008) Philosophy of the Engineering Sciences [Boon, Peschard, Gluck, Knuuttila (external – University of Helsinki), Dijksterhuis (external – MB/STeHPS, University of Twente)]


Book Project (monograph) “Philosophy of science for the engineering sciences” [Boon]


Series of research meetings and workshops organized for research groups of MESA+ (2007-) [Boon]


Contribution to interdisciplinary research project “Science in the Context of Application at ZIF, Bielefeld, Germany [Boon]


Contribution to developing graduate program in MESA+ (2008-) [Boon]


Contribution to coordinating inter-disciplinary research projects in MESA+ (2008-) [Boon]