1 Compromised Exactness and the Rationality of Engineering

Steven L. Goldman

1.1 Introduction

In the spring of 1929, on the occasion of the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University, John Dewey asked: ‘Are there in existence the ideas and the knowledge that permit experimental method to be effectively used in social interests and affairs?’ (Dewey, 1988, p. 218). By ‘experimental method’, Dewey meant systematic reasoning about effective means for achieving a specified end. This was problem‐solving reasoning par excellence for Dewey, because it was reasoning that was reflexively shaped by its consequences in a cognitive positive feedback loop characteristic of applied science and engineering. It was just this ‘experimental method’, Dewey argued, that by uniting the results of experiment‐validated scientific knowledge with the objectives of engineering practice had enabled the society‐ and culture‐transforming accomplishments of nineteenth‐century technological innovations. What Dewey was asking in the Gifford Lectures, then, was: Do we know enough, not in science and engineering, but about the methodologies employed in applied science and engineering, to apply those methodologies to ‘social interests and affairs’?

Here we are, eighty‐six years later, asking the same question: Is there, in the kind of reasoning routinely employed so successfully by engineers to solve technical problems, a model for the design of more effective social systems? Do we, today, know enough about engineering ...

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