Ove Arup

+ Ove Arup studied philosophy before engineering and it was an important influence on his work.

I believe that by employing the techniques of the philosopher, we can understand more about what it is to practise engineering. And by applying this understanding we can create more opportunity for innovation.

Why does philosophy apply to engineering? I would argue that engineering is a school of thought. The spectacular objects created by engineers can distract from this. But to be an engineer is to follow a common approach. It’s about using a logical method to identify a problem, generate ideas for solving it and produce an optimal solution.

If we recognise engineering as a school of thought, and not just a body of knowledge, then it represents a valid area of philosophical study. But why is this important? Because I think that by better understanding not just engineering but the practice of engineering, we can overcome some of the obstacles to innovation.

For example, engineering – particularly in the built environment – is an industry that relies on experience. The gap between what is taught and what is needed to practise engineering is filled with on-the-job learning and accrued experience. However, this reliance on passing experience from long-serving practitioner to new recruit slows the pace at which new techniques are adopted.

Philosophy offers a way to reduce this reliance. If engineers are educated to think like engineers, rather than just how to calculate like engineers, then the risks associated with inexperience will be reduced.

A philosophical approach to engineering has other potential benefits. I think it can help engineering regain the credibility it lost at the end of the modernist period (a topic already touched upon in Thoughts by Tristram Carfrae).

From the modernists’ discredited hopes for creating ‘machines for living’ to the growing application of manufacturing processes to healthcare, the history of misunderstood and misapplied engineering thought extends to the present day. If we are more explicit about what engineering thought is and how it operates then we can avoid repeating these mistakes.

The fact that Ove Arup studied philosophy first and engineering second has been cited as a key influence on his thinking and approach. Yet, while engineering has been around in its modern form for approximately 150 years, philosophy of engineering is not a discipline many people have heard of.

That is changing. Both disciplines are showing greater interest in each other. Philosopher Alain de Botton’s 2006 book The Architecture of Happiness included, among many topics relevant to engineering, a comparison of the relative beauty of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and Maillart’s Salginatobel. And in 2007, the Royal Academy of Engineering held a series of seminars on philosophy and engineering.

I think even closer ties between engineering and philosophy can only be a good thing. It is time to recognise engineering for what it really is and give it the status it deserves. A philosophy of engineering enables us to do just that.