Philosophy of Technology
On Artifacts
Views on Artifacts first: 2011-10-12
last: 2011-12-16

The recent philosophical literature offers a range of views on artifacts. The main purpose of this section is to make a quick scan of various views on artifacts as an input of the more detailed analyses of artifact use and design. Many philosophical views on artifacts focus explicit or implicit on the ontology of artifacts often in contrast with the ontology of natural things. [Houkes 2009] Although the purpose here is not to cover the metaphysical aspects, some concepts are worth considering. First a quick survey of various approaches is given.

Following Gergely Csibra and György Gergely's hierarchical levels of artifacts, artifacts here are defined as reusable objects with a value. This excludes for example the tree branch selected, or broken to the right length, by a chimpanzee to collect termites. [the aspect of value is worked out in  artifact design/value]

In philosophy of technology it is quite common to speak about theories of artifacts. However, this suggests different theories to be mutually excluding. In my more phenomenological approach views on artifacts is more appropriate as I do see these to be often complementary, related to the kind of analysis.

Views on artifacts Functional views
Intentional views
          Triple stances
Combined views
The views on artifacts can be clustered along different dimensions. There is the dimension of  metaphysics -vs-  empirical pragmatism, the dimension of  designers -vs-  users view and there is the  functional- vs  intentional view. All three of these dimensions allow combined and intermediate positions. One could say that one's artifact theory will be defined on the first dimension by the basic philosophical position. The orientation on the second is related by the purpose of the philosophical activity on that moment, currently the user orientation seems to be dominant in philosophy of technology, however here the focus on artifact design will be stronger. The choice or combination of functional or intentional approach comes with some specific issues, as will be discussed below.

Functional views on artifacts

Heidegger was one of the few philosophers in the first half of last century who spent a fair amount of attention to technology. In his first main work  Sein und Zeit he identifies artifacts as being available (vorhanden) in a functional meaning, in the life world (Umwelt). He recognized the specific character of functional artifacts (Zeug) with the hammer as typical example. [Heidegger1927: chap.3] Heidegger's view here, from a users (Dasein) perspective can be characterized as functional, instrumental.

Skolimowski defines technological objects just as  artifacts produced by man to serve a function; it might be a supersonic airplane as well as a can-opener. This last one is an interesting one, as it is an example of how a technological solution, canned food, leads to the need for a functional artifact to facilitate the usage. And preceding that a number of technological functions are required to produce it.

Artifacts are typically categorized according to function, that is according to the ends for which they are intended as means. [Hughes 2009: 376] This is in line with Peter Kroes' analysis of the naming of artifacts. He gives the example of an exploded view of a car carburetor which shows that artifacts are typically indicated according to function and in a system by their specific function in that system. [Kroes 2006b:138]

Judit Futó, Téglas, Csibra and Gergely show that structuring in relation to function is not related to language but seems to be a basic cognitive mechanism that can already be observed with preverbal infants:

– within the domain of artifact understanding – function demonstration can induce kind assignment and object individuation in 10-month-old infants even in the absence of linguistic labeling. [Futo2010: 8]

Beth Preston states that a full fledged function theory of artifacts ought also to account for:

Multi realizability: comparing the intentionalist view with reproduction views notices that typically artifacts are multi realizable with the example of spoons have been made from wood, shell, horn, bone, pottery, porcelain, plastic, metal;

Multi utilizability: Many artifacts are designed to serve a particular function, but then although not intended for, they can be used for other functions, like an umbrella, designed to protect against the rain but it can also be used against sunlight, or as a weapon. An other example close to daily use: the spoon used to open a cocoa tins.* [Preston 2009: 214 - 215] Considering multifunctionality, I had in mind the screwdriver to used for other functions like opening a paint tin.
Peter-Paul Verbeek articulates this approach more explicitly or even extremely as the ultimate users view:

The artifacts do not have an essence, they should not be considered outside the users context, they are what they become in usage. [Verbeek 2000: 134]

I think we should add:

Multi functionality: Some artifacts are designed to provide more functions. The Swiss army knife might be the most typical example. Here designers have to find the balance between adding more functions against higher costs and the possible effect on usability.

Concurrent functionality: Many artifacts are characterized by more than one function being applicable at the same time. A good example of concurrent functionality is a uniform, these serve the function of clothing, but have a specific communication function, identify the group and often even the function and rank of the person wearing the uniform. (Preston refers to this example of uniforms used by Michael Schiffer, but under the category of multi utilizable). In a way most clothes have such kind of concurrent function.
An other example  is that of a house, or a building in general as discussed in the section value of artifact design. [see artifact design/value]

Status functions: Many artifacts will have a status functions, but for a category of artifacts the status function is the main function with paper money as a typical example given by Preston in her analyses of Searle`s view. The status function can relate to  a value, but also just have a meaning as for example traffic signs, icon signs for exit etc. The assignment of a status creates what Searle calls an institutional act, a fact which exists only through collective human agency.

Phantom functions: Beth Preston points to a very particular kind of function: a function that is not real. Examples mentioned are: drugs that are known not to cure certain illnesses and amulets for protection against the "evil eye". I would say a placebo is also an interesting example also if has a kind of  "meta function" namely to have a phantom function.

Above references and observations seem good reasons to support the functional approach. However specifically in the metaphysical position a set of problems arise. The functional approach inevitable leads to the issues of defect, broken down artifact and malfunctioned artifacts. (See for a detailed analysis about malfunctioning  Misrepresenting and Malfunctioning K. Neander (1995) Several authors require of a theory of artifacts that the question is answered whether a defect artifact is to be considered as an artifact. [see  intentional view for an answer]

Proper function: The notion of proper function, introduced by Ruth Millikan in the domain of biology, is used to overcome the issue of not/mal function of artifacts.  However in most cases the use of proper function moves into the intentional view on artifacts [Preston 2009: 218-227]

Intentional views on artifacts

In her Metaphysics of Everyday Life Lynne Rudder Baker states that artifacts by definition have an  intended function. [Baker 2007:55] The intended function is what an artifact is supposed to do. (I would prefer to say: the intended function is what an artifact is supposed to perform when being applied under the intended conditions and specified way of usage). This makes it a normative notion and gives the room for malfunction, because there is no intention without the possibility of its being frustrated, no function without the possibility of malfunction. [Baker2007:51] The definition of the  proper function of an artifact is the intended function, even if the artifact never performs its proper function, this covers the problem of malfunction (id.:52)

However this view comes with some other problems. The reference to intention usually includes the design perspective or the supposed design perspective. This makes is very sensitive for the knowledge about the intention of the creator. Also, the meaning of intention can lead to misunderstanding as Daniel Dennett found after a number of years, that he used a different concept than a couple of other philosophers. [Dennett 1987: chap. 8]
This position is complete opposite of Verbeek`s as cited above.

Triple stances view

Daniel C. Dennett introduces a specific intentional view of artifacts with his well known introduction of the  triple stances towards the world: the  physical stance, the  intentional stance and the  design stance.
In  True Believers (chapter 2 of his book  Intentional stance) as a replacement of his article  Intentional systems) in 1971. [Dennett 1987: 3] Dennett introduces a philosophy of mind perspective, while the above mentioned approaches are mostly ontologically oriented.

The intentional stance is based on the observation that we as humans tend to ascribe intentional attitudes not only to biological subjects but also to complex artifacts.(id.: 22-23) While clever engineers would view a simple (not microprocessor controlled) thermostat with a physical stance ordinary users might view the thermostat at first view as a device with an intention.

Dennett's view on artifacts, as it is scattered over various articles and books, has been analyzed by Melissa van Amerongen. [Amerongen 2008] She notices two main problems, one is related to the proper definition of the design stance:

Unfortunately, despite its crucial role, Dennett is terribly unclear
about what exactly the design stance is, and he gives contradictory clues as to
what exactly its role is supposed to be, especially when it comes to the interpretation
of technical artifacts. [Amerongen 2008: 83] van Amerongen concludes that also, Dennett`s introduction of the notion of optimality does not provide a good solution.

The other is related to the relation between the intentional stance and the design stance:

If intentions have to be understood in terms of designs, it seems terribly circular to claim in addition that design has to be understood in terms of (designer) intentions. [id.: 101]

These problems are mainly caused by Dennett's use, apparently on purpose, of the same terms for his explanation both of the biological world and the world of artifacts. He even uses the expression `biological artifacts'. [Dennett 1987 :321]
Dennett then uses design stance as a way to view the results of an evolutionary process with a certain logic, however, the logic is the logic of survival not as to fit the human interest.  Whereas design in relation to artifacts in general is applied to fit human interests. The logic of  design, as analyzed in here is the 'logic' to reach a predefined end, in evolution the end is not predefined, it is the result of the process.

Although, one can question the use of the  intentional stance over the whole range of Dennett`s philosophical activities, the basic concept seems a valuable observation, probably useful to understand some basic cognitive mechanism. As an extension of Dennett's example of the thermostat: Also with complex temperature controls engineers tend to start thinking in behavior instead of physical mechanisms.

Functional and Intentional view combined

It is not uncommon to connect the two approaches by referring to  proper function as the intended function. This meets the ontological oriented requirement that the artifact existence can only be understood by the assumption that the originator had an intention. [Baker 2007] A user invented function then is referred to as an accidental function. And then, sometimes an accidental function can be at the start of a new chain of developments and thus lead to proper functions of these new artifacts.
Kroes and Meijers introduced a dual nature concept of artifacts as a kind of paradigm for a major philosophical research program:

In so far as technical artifacts are physical structures they fit into the physical conception of the world; in so far as they have intentionality-related functions, they fit into the intentional conception. Both conceptions are necessary for characterizing technical artifacts.

[t]he best way to conceive the functions of artifacts, is to regard the notion of function as a bridge concept that relates the physical and intentional domain. [Kroes 2006:2]

But they acknowledge that there is no generally accepted theory of function available in literature. (This probably is due to the attempts to combine the concept of function in the domain of biology with that in the domain of technology)

 Function and  intention appear to be basic cognition functions. Function is recognized by children and used in naming as mentioned above. The intention view did not only come up in the ontological analysis, but also will play a role in the action theoretical analysis in the next sections. Although the function can be considered as a bridge concept between the physical and intentional domain, the cognitive aspects as mentioned in the functional view indicate that the function is also more than just an conceptional element.

Artifact use
Philosophygarden        of Hans Tromp