Skip to main content
Log in

A Taxonomy of Cognitive Artifacts: Function, Information, and Categories

  • Published:
Review of Philosophy and Psychology Aims and scope Submit manuscript


The goal of this paper is to develop a systematic taxonomy of cognitive artifacts, i.e., human-made, physical objects that functionally contribute to performing a cognitive task. First, I identify the target domain by conceptualizing the category of cognitive artifacts as a functional kind: a kind of artifact that is defined purely by its function. Next, on the basis of their informational properties, I develop a set of related subcategories in which cognitive artifacts with similar properties can be grouped. In this taxonomy, I distinguish between three taxa, those of family, genus, and species. The family includes all cognitive artifacts without further specifying their informational properties. Two genera are then distinguished: representational and non-representational (or ecological) cognitive artifacts. These genera are further divided into species. In case of representational artifacts, these species are iconic, indexical, or symbolic. In case of ecological artifacts, these species are spatial or structural. Within species, token artifacts are identified. The proposed taxonomy is an important first step towards a better understanding of the range and variety of cognitive artifacts and is a helpful point of departure, both for conceptualizing how different artifacts augment or impair cognitive performance and how they transform and are integrated into our cognitive system and practices.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. This definition is sufficiently broad as to include less prototypical cases of artifacts such as domesticated animals (e.g., guide dogs) and genetically modified organisms (e.g., biofuel producing algae). Guide dogs and biofuel producing algae are intentionally modified (or trained) by humans to perform a particular function, i.e., guiding blind people or producing biofuel. Thus the material of which (cognitive) artifacts are made can be biological or non-biological and in some cases (cognitive) artifacts may even be alive, e.g., in the case of a guide dog.

  2. Although this is different in the Roman numeral system, see Zhang and Norman (1995).


  • Atkin, A. 2008. Icon, index, and symbol. In The Cambridge encyclopaedia of language sciences, ed. P. Hogan, 367–368. Cambridge University Press.

  • Brey, P. 2005. The epistemology and ontology of human-computer interaction. Minds & Machines 15(3–4): 383–398.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brooks, R. 1999. Cambrian intelligence: The early history of the new AI. MIT Press.

  • Carrara, M., and P. Vermaas. 2009. The fine-grained metaphysics of artifactual and biological functional kinds. Synthese 169(1): 125–143.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Clark, A. 1989. Microcognition: Philosophy, cognitive science and parallel distributed processing. MIT Press.

  • Clark, A. 2003. Natural born cyborgs: Minds, technologies, and the future of human intelligence. Oxford University Press.

  • Clark, A. 2004. Towards a science of the biotechnological mind. In Cognition and technology: Co-existence, convergence, and co-evolution, ed. B. Gorayska and J. Mey, 25–36. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

  • Clark, A. 2008. Supersizing the mind: Embodiment, action, and cognitive extension. Oxford University Press.

  • Clark, A., and D. Chalmers. 1998. The extended mind. Analysis 58: 10–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dipert, R. 1993. Artifacts, art works, and agency. Temple University Press.

  • Donald, M. 1991. Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Harvard University Press.

  • Dourish, P. 2001. Where the action is: The foundations of embodied interaction. MIT Press.

  • Harris, C.B., P.G. Keil, J. Sutton, A.J. Barnier, and D.J.F. McIlwain. 2011. We remember, we forget: Collaborative remembering in older couples. Discourse Processes 48(4): 267–303.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Haugeland, J. 1991. Representational genera. In Philosophy and connectionist theory, ed. W. Ramsey, S. Stich, and D. Rumelhart, 61–89. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  • Heersmink, R. 2012. Mind and artifact: A multidimensional matrix for exploring cognition-artifact relations. In Proceedings of the 5th AISB Symposium on Computing and Philosophy, ed. J.M. Bishop and Y.J. Erden, 54–61.

  • Heersmink, R. 2013. Embodied tools, cognitive tools, and brain-computer interfaces. Neuroethics 6(1): 207–219.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hilpinen, R. 2011. Artifact. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 23 February 2012, from

  • Hollan, J., E. Hutchins, and D. Kirsh. 2000. Distributed cognition: Toward a new foundation for human-computer interaction research. Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction 7(2): 174–196.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Houkes, W., and P. Vermaas. 2004. Actions versus functions: A plea for an alternative metaphysics of artifacts. The Monist 87(1): 52–71.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Houkes, W., and P. Vermaas. 2010. Technical functions: On the use and design of artefacts. Springer.

  • Hutchins, E. 1995. Cognition in the wild. MIT Press.

  • Hutchins, E. 1999. Cognitive artifacts. In The MIT encyclopedia of the cognitive sciences, ed. R.A. Wilson and F.C. Keil, 126–128. MIT Press.

  • Kirchhoff, M.D. 2011. Extended cognition and fixed properties: Steps to a third-wave version of extended cognition. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 11(2): 287–308.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kirsh, D. 1995. The intelligent use of space. Artificial Intelligence 72: 31–68.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kirsh, D. 2006. Distributed cognition: A methodological note. Pragmatics and Cognition 14(2): 249–262.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kirsh, D. 2009. Problem-solving and situated cognition. In The Cambridge handbook of situated cognition, ed. P. Robbins and M. Aydede, 264–306. Cambridge University Press.

  • Kirsh, D., and P. Maglio. 1994. On distinguishing epistemic from pragmatic action. Cognitive Science 18: 513–549.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kornblith, H. 1980. Referring to artifacts. Philosophical Review 89(1): 109–114.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kroes, P. 2012. Technical artefacts: Creations of mind and matter. Springer.

  • Menary, R. 2007. Cognitive integration: Mind and cognition unbounded. Palgrave McMillan.

  • Nersessian, N.J. 2005. Interpreting scientific and engineering practices: Integrating the cognitive, social, and cultural dimensions. In New directions in scientific and technical thinking, ed. M. Gorman, R. Tweney, D. Gooding, and A. Kincannon, 17–56. Erlbaum.

  • Nersessian, N.J., E. Kurz-Milcke, W.C. Newstetter, and J. Davies. 2003. Research laboratories as evolving distributed cognitive systems. In Proceedings of the 25th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, ed. R. Alterman and D. Kirsh, 857–862.

  • Norman, D. 1991. Cognitive artifacts. In Designing interaction: Psychology at the human-computer interface, ed. J.M. Carroll, 17–38. Cambridge University Press.

  • Norman, D. 1993. Things that make us smart: Defending human attributes in the age of the machine. Basic Books.

  • Peirce, C.S. 1935a. The collected papers of Charles S. Peirce vol 2. Harvard University Press.

  • Peirce, C.S. 1935b. The collected papers of Charles S. Peirce vol 3. Harvard University Press.

  • Peterson, D. 1996. Introduction. In Forms of representation: An interdisciplinary theme for cognitive science, ed. D. Peterson, 7–27. Intellect Books.

  • Preston, B. 1998. Why is a wing like a spoon? a pluralist theory of function. The Journal of Philosophy 95(5): 215–254.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Preston, B. 2009. Philosophical theories of artifact function. In Philosophy of technology and engineering sciences, ed. A. Meijers, 213–234. Elsevier.

  • Preston, B. 2013. A philosophy of material culture: Action, function, and mind. Routledge.

  • Robbins, P., and M. Aydede (eds.). 2009. The Cambridge handbook of situated cognition. Cambridge University Press.

  • Sutton, J. 2006. Distributed cognition: Domains and dimensions. Pragmatics and Cognition 14(2): 235–247.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sutton, J. 2010. Exograms and interdisciplinarity: History, the extended mind and the civilizing process. In The extended mind, ed. R. Menary, 189–225. MIT Press.

  • Theiner, G. 2013. Transactive memory systems: A mechanistic analysis of emergent group memory. Review of Philosophy and Psychology 4(1): 65–89.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Von Eckhardt, B. 1995. What is cognitive science? MIT Press.

  • Zhang, J., and D. Norman. 1995. A representational analysis of numeration systems. Cognition 57: 271–295.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


I would like to thank my supervisors John Sutton and Richard Menary, Peter Woelert, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. I would also like to thank Sadjad Soltanzadeh for inviting me to present this paper at a colloquium at the Centre for Applied Ethics and Public Philosophy (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University in Canberra as well as the audience, particularly Steve Clarke.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard Heersmink.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Heersmink, R. A Taxonomy of Cognitive Artifacts: Function, Information, and Categories. Rev.Phil.Psych. 4, 465–481 (2013).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: