Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies

Steve Fuller’s 2006 Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies served an important function in my first year studying Science and Technology Studies (STS). First, it gave voice to some sentiments  I had regarding the place of philosophy in STS. It also provided an extended, if somewhat intellectually daunting, overview of the history of STS into the early 2000s. I quickly became lost in Fuller’s references to positivist tendencies, 19th century sociologists, science wars debates and a host of other thinkers and themes. In short, I was just starting in STS and had no real bearings on what had come before I arrived.

As I go back to the text five years later, I realize first that, though still somewhat daunting, Fuller’s review of intellectual thought relating to knowledge formation, practices and theory makes much more sense now that I have more contact with the epochs and writers he describes. I also see that many of the questions I began asking my first year still tug at me: why is philosophy not as strong a component of STS as I wish it to be? where, outside of activism (and I in no way wish to belittle that important and crucial function), do normative claims in STS arise?  

Fuller (2006) argues that STS practitioners, and texts, provoke us “to engage in theory rather than philosophy. ‘Theory’ consists of serval possible frameworks for doing STS research, whereas ‘philosophy’ constitutes a more basic inquiry that asks embarrassing questions about the relative merits of particular frameworks vis-a-vis the reasons we have for wanting to do STS research in the first place” (p. 5). Yet, philosophers and philosophical questions are at the core of why STS emerged as a discipline (at least at Virginia Tech, my current institution) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 2009, at the 4S conference (Society for the Social Studies of Science), I presented a talk “Toward a Philosophy of Technology Studies,” claiming that STS needed such a philosophy. One commenter remarked that STS already has a philosophy, Actor-Network Theory. Though I do not mean to imply that everyone would agree with that commenter, it struck me as odd for two reasons: 1. no one in the audience disagreed with him; and 2. ANT is a theory, perhaps even a methodology, but not a philosophy.

In the subsequent years since that 4S conference, I have alternated between disillusionment with STS and its lack of direct philosophical orientation, and hope that there may be a way to bring normative discussions about the creation, mediation and transfer of knowledge/values back into STS discussions–if you follow, as I do, the idea that such discussions are not already part of STS. Fuller’s Social Epistemology (SE), not Alvin Goldman’s Analytic Social Epistemology (ASE), opened up a way for me to bring in normative discussions of STS issues. Unfortunately, as Fuller (2006, p. 8) notes, his philosophy of STS and SE do not explicitly deal with technology studies. Readings in philosophy of technology introduced me to STS in the first place, so I was filled with hope–that there was a topic for me in SE that had few people working on it, and thus a place for my ideas–and hesitation–that there was a topic for me in SE that had few people working on it, and thus where would I find basis and support for my ideas. 

in progress…

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