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NONFICTION

THE EXISTENTIAL PLEASURES OF ENGINEERING by Samuel G. Florman (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne: $20.95; 208 pp. ) Samuel Florman, a civil engineer, mentions pleasure in the title of this book, but there’s little to be found between its covers: “The Existential Pleasures of Engineering” is a touchy defense of the profession rather than a paean to it, and a dated one at that. The book was first published in 1976, and has been updated not with new material but chapters from 8- and 14-year-old books, respectively, with the result that Florman seems to be fighting old battles with old arguments. Florman refers to “the doctrine that holds technology to be the root of all evil ,” but who takes that position seriously today, in the age of the personal computer? He rakes Jacques Ellul, Charles Reich, Lewis Mumford, Theodore Roszak and even Ren Dubos over the coals for their anti-technological writings, yet his counter-polemic seems just as over-heated as the prose he attacks. It’s bad enough that Florman faults E. F. Schumacher’s small-is-beautiful philosophy for potentially “doing much harm,” but very distasteful and unfair that he should associate Schumacher’s championing of self-reliance with the horrors of Cambodian communism and “those Oriental attitudes that perpetuate misery by teaching the masses to accept fatalistically their wretched lot.” Florman quotes approvingly Thomas Tredgold’s 1828 definition of engineering as being “the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man,” but one doesn’t have to be anti-technological to regard that statement as overflowing with hubris--a concept Florman defends, incidentally, by calling hubris “an essential element of humanity’s greatness.”


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