Art, Science—or Engineering

by johnmccreery

The intersection of our thread on talking with fundamentalists and various threads now active on the Open Anthropology Cooperative, reminded me of Henry Petroski’s classic To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design. There, right at the beginning of chapter 4 “Engineering as Hypothesis” (1985:40), I found the following.

Every issue of The Structural Engineer, the official journal of the British Institution of Structural Engineers carries prominently displayed in a box on its contents page this definition of its subject:

Structural engineering is the science and art of designing and making, with economy and elegance, buildings, bridges, frameworks, and other similar structures so that they can safely resist the forces to which they may be subjected.

Since some engineers deny that engineering is either science or art, it is encouraging to see this somewhat official declaration that it is both. And indeed it is, for the conception of a design for a new structure can involve as much a leap of the imagination and as much a synthesis of experience and knowledge as any artist is required to bring to his canvas or paper. And once that design is articulated by the engineer as artist, it must be analyzed by the engineer as scientist in as rigorous an application of the scientific method as any scientist must make.

I now find myself wondering, when we heavy thinkers get caught up in debating whether what we do is art or science, aren’t we ignoring another possibility, i.e., engineering. There is to be sure a nauseous feeling associated with the notion of “social engineering”  these days. But at the end of the day, aren’t we still succumbing to the ancient prejudice that people who actually make things are doing something “below” us? Wouldn’t we and our students both be better educated if we got our hands dirty a bit?

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4 Comments to “Art, Science—or Engineering”

  1. Plus, engineers are totally sexy.

  2. @nicoleandmaggie, this would come as news to most of the engineers I know. But maybe that’s part of their appeal.

    @John, as I was just remarking at Undine’s place I come from that subset of prole-origined infiltrators of the high academy who think of dirty hands as a minimal qualification to accomplished personhood. Which, when I put it that way, looks transparently ideological. Be that as it may I change my own oil, rebuild my own toilets, tile my own floors and think of my teaching as a collaborative process of socially engineering people who can “safely resist the forces to which they may be subjected” that’s creative like art and recursive like science. So, like, I agree with you.

  3. @Carl, it’s a bit different for me. My dad and younger brother are both graduates of the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Apprentice School and handy with all sorts of machines. My Oedipal rebellion took the form of distancing myself from all that, so I am a late convert to the proposition that mind without hand is not the essence of humanity. That said, when I look back on the process that took me from philosophy to anthropology and a dissertation focused on non-verbal symbols, then on to advertising—where we talk constantly about material stuff in ads as well as products—I suspect that what I am currently about is a return to the roots.

  4. The personal stuff aside, one of the things I find most most intriguing about an engineering approach is a hint in Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade. There he recommends treating social systems as machines designed to produce precisely the output you see. Thus, for example, if the issue is school dropouts, don’t ask why kids drop out of school. Instead, ask how a school is designed to produce precisely the number of dropouts it does and examine the mechanisms involved.

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