Technical Artefact Theories: A Comparative Study and a New Empirical Approach


Embracing an inter-disciplinary approach grounded on Gärdenfors’ theory of conceptual spaces, we introduce a formal framework to analyse and compare selected theories about technical artefacts present in the literature. Our focus is on design-oriented approaches where both designing and manufacturing activities play a crucial role. Intentional theories, like Kroes’ dual nature thesis, are able to solve disparate problems concerning artefacts but they face both the philosophical challenge of clarifying the ontological nature of intentional properties, and the empirical challenge of testing the attribution of such intentional properties to artefacts. To avoid these issues, we propose an approach that, by identifying different modalities to characterise artefact types, does not commit to intentional qualities and is able to empirically ground compliance tests.

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  1. 1.

    There is a hot philosophical debate on whether artefacts are part of the fundamental structure of reality or whether they are the result of how humans conceptualise reality (Lowe 2014; Thomasson 2007; Hilpinen 1993; Franseen et al. 2014a).

  2. 2.

    A similar work has been done for functions (Borgo et al. 2011; Garbacz et al. 2011).

  3. 3.

    Some qualities may have a complex nature. For instance, colours can be defined in terms of hue, brightness, and saturation. We do not consider this aspect in the paper.

  4. 4.

    Correlations can hold between qualities belonging to different domains, cf. Section 2.2.

  5. 5.

    Gärdenfors assumes that in different contexts the salience of a given property or domain for a concept can change. For simplicity, we do not consider this aspect here.

  6. 6.

    Formulas prefixed by f are used for examples or constraints that are not in our theory.

  7. 7.

    Ontologically, subsumption can be intended as a genus-species relation or, more specifically, as a determinable-determinate relation, see Sanford (2013).

  8. 8.

    Some correlations can universally hold. For instance, Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence links energy and mass through the constant c2, i.e., every individual with a given energy has a given mass and vice versa.

  9. 9.

    We focus hereby on correlations that link only two different domains.

  10. 10.

    We do not discuss quality domains characterising processes. The reader can refer to Masolo et al. (2003) for an ontological proposal that distinguishes the qualities of processes from the ones of objects, and to Warglien et al. (2012) and Gärdenfors (2014) for the representation of events and actions in conceptual spaces.

  11. 11.

    It is possible to take into account procedures to transform the chaotic collection of raw data into a dataset consistent with the knowledge at stake (Masolo et al. 2018).

  12. 12.

    We refrain from introducing a formal definition for this notion of classification, which is possible in FOL but requires several additional primitives.

  13. 13.

    This approach matches well with the idea in Guarino and Stufano Melone (2015) where designers, during the development of a new type, think in terms of prototypes.

  14. 14.

    Decock and Douven (2011) introduce a fuzzy classification in conceptual spaces.

  15. 15.

    Recall that neither empirical nor direct classification under a quality guarantees the object to (ontologically) instantiate such quality; measurement only supports this instantiation.

  16. 16.

    Gärdenfors (2000) proposes to analyze functional properties in terms of affordances.

  17. 17.

    The distinction between layout and non-layout qualities is similar to the one between characteristics and properties in Weber (2014).

  18. 18.

    Axioms (a16) and (a17) do not guarantee that the specification satisfies the requirement; the framework may lack correlations about what layout qualities are necessary to exhibit some properties in the requirement.

  19. 19.

    As noted in Section 2.4, the notion of tolerance is more complex. For instance, while in the qualities , , and are equally judged, expresses a preference for the quality .

  20. 20.

    For a philosophical analysis of manufacturing plans see Houkes and Vermaas (2014).

  21. 21.

    Garbacz (2013) considers additional steps that would constitute an interesting extension of our proposal.

  22. 22.

    Section 4.2 will make explicit the difference with respect to the dual theory of artefacts (Kroes 2012).

  23. 23.

    Gärdenfors (2000, ch.4) discusses alternative models for combining concepts. See also Hampton and Winter (2017) for a recent discussion on concepts composition.

  24. 24.

    We did not introduce an explicit identity criterion for types, therefore the unicity of the compound cannot be guaranteed. In addition, (d16) makes sense only when coherence axioms hold.

  25. 25.

    According to Borgo and Vieu (2009), an artefact (as intentionally selected object) might lack some of the attributed capacities, e.g., it may malfunction. This would mean that the attributed capacities are not selected (by the creator) among the ones that the artefact’s constituent exhibits.

  26. 26.

    Salience-dependent classifications allow for an additional notion of malfunctioning. The lack of some (combinations of) qualities present in the specification, lack that is tolerated by graded classifications, could cause the object to clash with some requirements. In an engineering perspective, this scenario is realistic when the full check of the specification is time or resource consuming.

  27. 27.

    Gärdenfors (2014) only briefly discusses relational concepts concerning roles in events.

  28. 28.

    The ICE-function theory is also based on use-plans, which are not considered here.

  29. 29.

    As said, designers may also assume that requirements are not all equally important, hence, they may distinguish soft requirements from hard ones (salience weights are useful for this purpose) tolerating discrepancies between the specifications and the requirements.

  30. 30.

    Houkes and Vermaas (2014) have a similar position towards the specification, i.e., they assume that the checks of the qualities in the specification are part of the manufacturing process. In this case, one could think that the designers intend the specification more than the requirement. See below for more details on this point.

  31. 31.

    By understanding these checks as the physical embodiments of the goals of the production process, it is possible to establish a link with the previously discussed approaches in Houkes and Vermaas (2014), Kassel (2010), and Kitamura and Mizoguchi (2010).

  32. 32.

    This relation can be modified following what done in Section 2.4 to take into account the salience of qualities. In this case the manufacturing process could lack some low-salient (tests of) qualities.

  33. 33.

    Note that (d24) does not constrain the persistence of v and u. After the end of the checking phase, one could assume that v goes out of existence or that both u and v persist by being physically coincident (but historically different).

  34. 34.

    This information is explicitly encoded using standardised languages in the documentation that supports the designing process and has a high degree of sharability, i.e., the choices of designers are not private as intentional qualities are, they are publicly available.

  35. 35.

    According to Houkes and Vermaas (2014), the layout qualities must be satisfied only at the end of the production process, but the artefacts may loose some physical qualities while keeping their identity.


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Masolo, C., Sanfilippo, E.M. Technical Artefact Theories: A Comparative Study and a New Empirical Approach. Rev.Phil.Psych. 11, 831–858 (2020).

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  • Conceptual spaces
  • Technical artefacts
  • Ontology
  • Product design