Monday, January 03, 2022

A Philosopher Defines Engineering


Most engineers give little if any thought to professional philosophers, but the reverse is not the case.  One philosopher who has given a great deal of thought to engineers and engineering is Michael Davis, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  In his recent book Engineering As a Global Profession, Davis takes on the task of defining engineering, and finds that it's not as easy as you might think.


One of my own favorite short definitions of engineering was penned almost incidentally by the English essayist G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936).  In discussing the difference between cultures given to contemplation (such as India) and cultures given to engineering (such as America), he says the latter are "people engaged in the application of physical science to practical commerce."  Davis would say that while some engineers do exactly that, other engineers who we legitimately call by that name work as teachers or government inspectors, neither of whom apply physical science to practical commerce.


Chesterton's definition is an example of trying to define engineering by function.  This sort of definition says that engineering is characterized by what engineers do.  The functional definition of engineering says that any material artifact that takes some thought and planning to do is an engineered product.  By this definition, engineering goes back at least to the time of Egypt's Great Pyramid, which was built around 2600 B. C. 


Davis thinks that however smart or impressive the people were that built the Great Pyramid, they were not engineers.  Neither was Benjamin Wright, one of the people who supervised the construction of the Erie Canal in upstate New York in the early 1800s, despite the fact that he was titled "Chief Engineer."  Davis prefers to call Wright a surveyor who supervised a project that we would now call an engineering project, and points out that in those days, anyone in charge of an "engine" (which could be any machine from a steam locomotive to a crane) was called an "engineer."  To this day, we call people who drive railroad locomotives engineers, but that is obviously a different use of the word than the one we are trying to define.


Well, if Davis doesn't want to use a functional definition of engineering, what does he want to use?  One type of definition he favors is a disciplinary one.


A discipline, according to him, is "an easily recognizable body of knowledge, skill, and judgment useful for a certain activity."  And he traces the discipline of engineering back to the École Polytechnique of Paris, which around 1800 evolved a curriculum of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and mechanical drawing to enable its military-officer graduates to build structures of interest to the army, such as bridges, roads, and fortifications. 


With the advent of steam railways in the 1820s, such people proved to be useful for designing both rolling stock and the railways themselves, which were largely non-military.  Over the next decades, the military-trained individuals who applied their military-engineering discipline to such civilian projects started calling themselves civil engineers, to distinguish themselves from military engineers.  In the U. S., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute granted the first degree in civil engineering in 1835, and used basically the same curriculum that the military academies used for their engineers.  Since then, thousands of private and public universities have offered engineering programs of many kinds, but Davis would say they all share the same basic disciplinary structure.


One more aspect of engineering rounds out Davis's definition:  engineering is a profession.  And what is a profession?  Over the years, Davis tried many definitions drawn from various approaches to the problem.


Sociologists look at economic or political signs of a profession.  Economically, professions tend to control the market for their services so as to increase their own prosperity.  Politically, they tend to favor laws that uphold professional standards and discourage non-professionals from pursuing the professional activity in question.  Davis eventually rejected these ways of defining a profession as either not adequately capturing what engineers do, or as including things that most people would not consider a profession.  For example (mine, not his):  drug dealers tend to make a great deal of money as long as they stay out of jail.  By the economic definition alone, one might be tempted to call drug dealing a profession.  But no reasonable person would.


After many years of thought and interviewing dozens of engineers, Davis came up with a definition of profession that he is reasonably happy with:  "A profession is a number of individuals in the same occupation voluntarily organized to earn a living by openly serving a moral ideal in a morally permissible way beyond what law, market, morality, and public opinion would otherwise require."  Of course, Davis thinks engineering is a profession, and he also includes law and medicine in the list of professions. 


But interestingly, he does not think business management in general—the kind of things MBAs do—is a profession.  Why not?  Davis puts it this way:  "In the 1920s, management ('business administration') seemed destined to join architecture, engineering, law, medicine, nursing, social work, teaching, and the like occupations as a profession. . . . But, by the 1960s, it was already clear that business management was not going to be a profession (in our preferred sense).  Business managers were happy to declare that their primary loyalty was to their employer; their primary goal, to 'maximize' their employer's profit."  In other words, business managers did not as a group profess to serve a moral ideal beyond maximizing profit for their companies. 


So at last, what is Davis's definition of engineering?  To get an adequate answer to that question, you will have to read Davis's book.  But in the space remaining, I will say that engineering is not merely a function, although designing appears in most lists of what engineers do.  Engineering is most certainly a discipline:  an organized body of knowledge and judgment that requires maturity and experience on the part of its practitioners.  And engineering is a profession:  a group who pledge themselves to a moral ideal that, however imperfectly realized in some cases, serves to unite and guide the group to improve the material aspects of human life. 


Sources:  Michael Davis's Engineering as a Global Profession:  Technical and Ethical Standards was published in 2021 by Rowman & Littlefield, and all quotes above are from the book. 

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