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A philosophical study of human–artefact interaction


This paper focuses on a critical intersection between philosophy of technology and cognitive archaeology with an objective in view. These two rapidly developing disciplines intersect on the problem of characterizing the dynamic relationship between human beings and technical artefacts. The intricacies of human–artefact relation have been a source of curiosity and contemplation for philosophers of technology since 1970s. In contrast, the cognitive archaeologists’ interest in interpreting the exact nature of the interaction between human cognitive system and material culture is relatively recent. The central objective of this paper is to show why the cognitive archaeologists’ account of the relation between human cognition and material culture as exemplified by the classical-phenomenological example of the blind person’s use of a stick needs to be critically reviewed in the light of philosophical-(post)-phenomenological research and new empirical findings on tool use and prosthesis. There are three sections in this paper. In the first section, certain distinctive features of cognitive archaeology, which are important for the following discussion, are mentioned in brief. The second section consists of an exposition of Don Ihde’s account of embodiment relations—typical examples of which include the blind person’s use of a stick—with particular emphasis on the aspect of what Ihde calls “quasi-transparency”. Possible reasons behind the cognitive archaeologists’ indifference to the said aspect are pointed out. In the third section, the difficulties involved in analysing the case of the blind person’s stick are discussed in the light of recent empirical research on bodily extension (by means of artefacts) and prosthesis (incorporation of artefacts into the body). The paper ends with some critical comments on the cognitive archaeologists’ interpretation of the relation between the blind person and his stick and explains why their interpretation requires revision in view of current findings on tool use and prosthesis.

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  1. The term “technical artefact” is widely used by philosophers of technology to denote any tangible, that is, materially constituted product of human intellectual and physical activities consciously conceived, manufactured or modified in response to some need, want or desire, to produce an intended result. For a detailed view on technical artefacts, see Kroes and Meijers (2006) and Kroes (2012).

  2. The term “material culture” refers to a broad range of objects including works of art. This study, however, focuses only on technical artefacts which form a special kind within material culture. Since technical artefacts constitute a large part of material culture, what we describe as human–artefact relation can be included into the broader class of (human) cognition–material culture relation.

  3. The terms “tool”, “artefact” and “technical artefact” are used in this paper interchangeably.

  4. This computational view conceptualizes human mind primarily as a storehouse of passive internal representational structures and computational procedures capable of receiving and manipulating external sensory information.

  5. What Ihde refers to as “human–technology relations” (Ihde 1990) or “human–machine relation” (Ihde 1979) is not different from what we call “human–artefact relation” in this paper.

  6. For a detailed discussion, see Gallagher and Meltzoff (1996).

  7. A fourth possible category could be internal prostheses, such as cardiac stents or pacemakers that are literally taken into the body. But they are not examples of embodiment relations and therefore are not useful for our present purposes.

  8. For details, consult Cooper (1990).

  9. See, for example, Preston (1998).


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Correspondence to Manjari Chakrabarty.

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Chakrabarty, M. A philosophical study of human–artefact interaction. AI & Soc 32, 267–274 (2017).

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  • Artefact
  • Material culture
  • Quasi-transparency
  • Embodiment relation
  • Bodily extension and bodily incorporation