, Volume 169, Issue 1, pp 125–143 | Cite as

The fine-grained metaphysics of artifactual and biological functional kinds

  • Massimiliano Carrara
  • Pieter E. VermaasEmail author
Open Access


In this paper we consider the emerging position in metaphysics that artifact functions characterize real kinds of artifacts. We analyze how it can circumvent an objection by David Wiggins (Sameness and substance renewed, 2001, 87) and then argue that this position, in comparison to expert judgments, amounts to an interesting fine-grained metaphysics: taking artifact functions as (part of the) essences of artifacts leads to distinctions between principles of activity of artifacts that experts in technology have not yet made. We show, moreover, that our argument holds not only in the artifactual realm but also in biology: taking biological functions as (part of the) essences of organs leads to distinctions between principles of activity of organs that biological experts have not yet made. We run our argument on the basis of analyses of artifact and biological functions as developed in philosophy of technology and of biology, thus importing results obtained outside of metaphysics into the debate on ontological realism. In return, our argument shows that a position in metaphysics provides experts reason for trying to detect differences between principles of activities of artifacts and organs that have not been detected so far.


Metaphysics Ontological realism Artifacts Artifact functions Metaphysics of artifacts Biological organs Metaphysics of biology Biological functions Functional kinds David Wiggins 



We like to gratefully thankWybo Houkes, Peter Kroes, Marzia Soavi, Achille Varzi, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful discussions and comments. Massimiliano Carrara is indebted to the Philosophy Department of Delft University of Technology for financial support to realize a preliminary version of this paper. Research by Pieter Vermaas was supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

Open Access

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of PadovaPadovaItaly
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyDelft University of TechnologyDelftThe Netherlands

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