In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Artifacts

  • Introduction
  • General Discussions
  • Definitions of Artifacts
  • Artifacts in the Philosophy of Antiquity
  • Artifacts, Artworks, and the Ontology of Art
  • Artifacts versus Nature as a Metaphysical Problem
  • Abstract Artifacts and Fictional Objects
  • Social Artifacts
  • Artifacts in Science and Technology Studies
  • Ethical and Political Aspects
  • Legal and Institutional Issues Related to Technical Artifacts
  • Artifacts versus Nature in the Context of Environmental Studies
  • Artifacts and Cognitive Psychology
  • Animal Artifacts
  • Artifacts as Objects of Study in Cultural Studies
  • Experimental Artifacts

Philosophy Artifacts
Maarten Franssen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0145


Leaving Aristotle aside, philosophical interest in artifacts as a general class of entities is recent and largely restricted to, roughly, the period following the turn of the 20th century. Artifacts have, first of all, received explicit treatment from the perspective of two practices in which they play a crucial role. One is art, which was initially dominating and has occasioned discussion of the character of artifacts as, or in relation to, artworks. The other practice is technology, occasioning an interest in technical artifacts, instruments rather than artworks, an interest that runs parallel to the emergence, after World War II, of the philosophy of technology as a philosophical research area next to the long-dominating philosophy of science. Second, irrespective of their role in any practice, artifacts have been a focus of interest in metaphysics for some time, where they pose paradigmatic examples of objects whose status as “real” objects is questionable because no clear identity conditions can be given for them, either as individual objects or as kinds of objects. Yet other metaphysical issues related to artifacts are the dichotomy between the artificial and the natural and the question of whether the class of artifacts can include not only concrete material objects but also abstract entities. The relevance of artifacts to most people, however, lies not in their controversial definitional or metaphysical aspects but in the fact that the daily-life environment of people in urbanized societies is overwhelmingly made up of artifacts (mainly technical artifacts) and their presence, distribution, and properties are a major contribution to shaping the lives of people by the way they shape the goals that people set themselves and the way people set out to realize these goals. Accordingly, the societal, political, and normative dimensions of artifacts have received lively interest from researchers in the social sciences and from ethicists and moral philosophers. Apart from questions of general interest, there are a few specific areas where an interest in the character and status of artifacts is linked to concrete issues in policymaking: for example, environmental policymaking and patenting. Finally, there are a few areas associated with particular disciplines of (applied) science to which artifacts are central in a way that is of philosophical interest: psychological work on how humans think about artifacts, in particular, come to think about them in the course of their cognitive development; research of animal ethologists on the use tools by animals; and methodological research in relation to disciplines in cultural studies such as anthropology and archaeology.

General Discussions

Margolis and Laurence 2007 is a good introduction to the current state of the field regarding the character of artifacts as a kind of object. Concerning particular themes related to artifacts, Simon 1996 is an introduction to their grounding role in distinctions among sciences; Preston 2012 to their role in the structuring of human life and human activities; Verbeek 2005 to their role in the shaping of our decisions and ethical considerations; and Dennett 1990 to the relation to questions of meaning and interpretation. For the latter, Vaesen and van Amerongen 2008 provides a critical note. Additionally, two studies presenting a sort of commonsense view of artifacts from a nonphilosophical perspective have been included that both concentrate on artifacts as designed objects. Of these Petroski 1992 adopts a historical perspective and Norman 2001 a societal perspective.

  • Dennett, D. C. “The Interpretation of Texts, People and Other Artifacts.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 50 (1990): 177–194.

    DOI: 10.2307/2108038

    Argues that the interpretation of texts, people in psychology, and artifacts in archaeology, history, and daily life, are one and the same activity and are modeled on functional analysis in evolutionary biology and meet similar problems of equivocation and underdetermination. A consequence for artifacts is that their function cannot be considered determined by what their designers intended it to be.

  • Margolis, Eric, and Stephen Laurence, eds. Creations of the Mind: Theories of Artifacts and Their Representations. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Combines original essays on the metaphysics of artifacts, the (developmental) psychology of artifact concepts and categorization, and early evolution of human artifact use and tool use by nonhuman animals.

  • Norman, Donald A. The Design of Everyday Things. London: MIT Press, 2001.

    Through case studies, this book discusses conceptions of good and bad design and proposes several principles that should guide design. Emphasizes the importance of well-designed artifacts for the way we live our everyday lives, by making clear how badly designed artifacts can make our lives miserable. Originally published as The Psychology of Everyday Things by Basic Books in 1988.

  • Petroski, Henry. The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts—From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers—Came to Be as They Are. New York: Random House, 1992.

    Describes, with much attention for historical detail and cultural settings, how even the most humble artifacts from our daily lives can have complicated design histories.

  • Preston, Beth. A Philosophy of Material Culture: Action, Function, and Mind. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    Merges work on the concept of function with theories of individual and collective action involving material artifacts, in support of a view on the place of the individual in society and the improvisatory character of human action.

  • Simon, Herbert A. The Sciences of the Artificial. 3d ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

    Contrasts the sciences dealing with the methods and results of human intervention in the world, to those aiming to give a description of the world. Presents a fourfold delineation of “artificial things” as synthesized, imitating nature, functional, and subject to imperatives and characterizes them as interfaces between an inner environment (the workings of their physical structure) and an outer environment (their context of application). First edition published in 1969.

  • Vaesen, K., and M. van Amerongen. “Optimality vs. Intent: Limitations of Dennett’s Artifact Hermeneutics.” Philosophical Psychology 21 (2008): 779–797.

    DOI: 10.1080/09515080802516204

    Argues against the thesis proposed by Dennett that people’s interpretation of artifacts and other objects grounded in a design, such as biological items, relies on optimality considerations (i.e., what the item seems best for) rather than designer’s intentions by examining research in cognitive psychology and archaeology. Concludes instead that intentional considerations play a crucial and necessary role in artifact hermeneutics.

  • Verbeek, Peter Paul. What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

    Develops a view of artifacts as active components of technological culture to argue against the primarily negative and pessimistic interpretation of technology represented by Heidegger and Jaspers for an empirically richer and more nuanced picture of the way material artifacts shape human lives.

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