Volume 10, Issue 1, Fall 2006
Technology and Normativity
Jeroen De Ridder
The (Alleged) Inherent Normativity of Technological Explanations
Technical artifacts have the capacity to fulfill their function in virtue of their physicochemical make-up. An explanation that purports to explicate this relation between artifact function and structure can be called a technological explanation. It might be argued, and Peter Kroes has in fact done so, that there is
something peculiar about technological explanations in that they are intrinsically normative in some sense. Since the notion of artifact function is a normative one (if an artifact has a proper function, it ought to behave in specific ways) an explanation of an artifact’s function must inherit this normativity.
In this paper I will resist this conclusion by outlining and defending a ‘buck-passing account’ of the normativity of technological explanations. I will first argue that it is important to distinguish properly between (1) a theory of function ascriptions and (2) an explanation of how a function is realized. The task of the former is to spell out the conditions under which one is justified in ascribing a function to an artifact; the latter should show how the physicochemical make-up of an artifact enables it to fulfill its function. Second, I wish to maintain that a good theory of function ascriptions should account for the normativity of these ascriptions. Provided such a function theory can be formulated — as I think it can — a technological explanation may pass the normativity buck to it. Third, to flesh out these abstract claims, I show how a particular function theory — to wit, the ICE theory by Pieter Vermaas and Wybo Houkes — can be dovetailed smoothly with my own thoughts on technological explanation.