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

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Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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).

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Heersmink, R. A Taxonomy of Cognitive Artifacts: Function, Information, and Categories. Rev.Phil.Psych. 4, 465–481 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-013-0148-1

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