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Creating Artifactual Kinds

Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI,volume 365)


The aim of this chapter is to assess how two widespread types of theory on the nature of artifact kinds (i.e., functional and intentional theories) address the creation requirement, which demands an account of the appearance of genuinely new artifacts resulting from intentional creative processes. It attempts to show that both types of position do not satisfy this requirement. Functional theories that refer to a causal reproductive history cannot account for the nature of newly created artifact kinds, because artifacts belonging to these kinds do not have ancestors. Intentional theories that make the emergence of a new artifact kind dependent on the possession of a new concept of that artifact kind face a dilemma: either they have to excessively weaken the conditions for possessing a concept of an artifact kind or they need to concede that the constitution of the newly created kind cannot depend completely on such a concept. We conclude the chapter by arguing that if any account which treats artifacts as products of intentional creations cannot be separated from adopting a stance on what artifacts really are, then there are four aspects that must be taken into account for satisfactorily dealing with the ontology of artifacts.


  • Artifact concepts
  • Artifact normativity
  • Artifactual novelty
  • Creation requirement
  • Functional account
  • Historical-intentional account

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  1. 1.

    Although both theories can be combined in a single and complex one, we will treat them separately. Our purpose is not to delve into the philosophical advantages of having a unified account of the nature of artifacts; our interest lies rather on diagnosing how the intuitions that give rise to these two different theories face the challenge of meeting the creation requirement. In this sense, both theories play the role, so to speak, of ideal types in approaching questions regarding the nature of artifacts. As the vocabulary we are employing suggests, theories addressed in this chapter do attempt to account for the nature and identity of individual artifacts in terms of the primary kinds they belong to. A metaphysical explanation of artifact kinds has implications for delineating identity conditions of individual artifacts. And vice versa, a theory that specifies identity conditions for artifacts helps to see some significant points in developing an ontology of artifact kinds. Anyway, these issues are not directly addressed in this chapter.

  2. 2.

    Under the heading of “contemporary culture,” many different cultures are included. Contemporary technological society is dominated by this neophilic compulsion. However, there are social groups whose particular cultures seem to be resistant to this neophilic compulsion, for example, the Mennonite culture. In this more traditional culture, artifactual lineages are more stable; the variability is less intense; nevertheless, they confront, though not so often, the same situation of new created artifacts.

  3. 3.

    A radical novelty is not an absolute novelty. Our judgment about what constitutes a radical novelty always presupposes a background of previous artifacts against which that radical novelty emerges. For a discussion of the incoherence of the notion of absolute novelty, see Briskman (1980, p. 95).

  4. 4.

    Briskman (1980) discusses the conditions that a novel product (scientific or artistic) must satisfy to be a new creation. Although it is Briskman’s aim to provide an answer to the question how creativity is possible, these conditions could be applied to characterize novel artifacts that are the result of human creative activity. Roughly speaking, we would have the following formulation: a novel artifact is a creative one if (a) it is valuable novelty (i.e., it solves a problem), (b) it conflicts with the background available solutions (tradition), and (c) it meets existing standards of acceptability (Briskman 1980, p. 97). This formulation can be challenged by noting that a genuine new artifact subverts condition (c); such an artifact engenders in a way new normative criteria. Condition (c) seems to be a conservative one, and it can be an obstacle to fully understand the appearance of genuine new artifacts. However, it is neither our aim to provide a theory of creativity nor to discuss Briskman’s conditions.

  5. 5.

    A weak version of the novelty condition suggests that we should understand the appearance of a new artifact that shows new properties in terms of a set of objects of the same lineage. These new properties may include new functional realizations, a different material structure, or a combination of both.

  6. 6.

    We take CR as a requirement to be imposed on theories of artifact kinds that is specific to artifacts. Our reading of CR claims that any candidate theory on the nature of artifact kinds and individual artifacts that causes trouble for understanding novel artifacts, or that precludes the possibility of novel artifacts, or that makes them mysterious is flawed.

  7. 7.

    Baker (2007) has defended a form of constitutivism that accounts for the coming into existence of both new artifacts and new primary kinds. She suggests that we can “understand ontological novelty as the evolution or introduction at some time or other of objects of new primary kinds – e.g., the first organisms or Galileo’s first telescope” (p. 234), and she adds, “[a] new primary kind (natural or artifactual) is a genuine novelty whose evolution or introduction makes the world ontologically richer” (p. 234). Baker’s view is articulated as a way of dealing with any kind of eliminative attempt in the field of everyday objects. Our discussion of the coming into existence of a new artifact assumes that the eliminative strategy is not a viable option on this point.

  8. 8.

    It is obvious that novelty is a matter of degree and that probably our judgments of novelty are influenced by many different social and cultural factors that compose a background of recognition and a ground for adapting our taxonomies and practices of identifying kinds. Not all differences with previously existing artifacts constitute a genuine novelty in the sense that is meant in our argument, that is, as involving the need to identify the artifact under new conditions of appearance, persistence, and extinction. We are not committed here to the idea that these phenomena need to be understood in such strongly ontological terms; our intuition, simply put, claims that any metaphysics of artifacts and artifactual kinds has to take into account the fact that each newly created one is an element of the artifactual reality. Therefore, as part of its reflection on the nature of existing kinds, a metaphysical theory has to deal with newly created artifacts.

  9. 9.

    In standard versions of theories about the nature of artifacts, providing an account of the nature of an artifact involves referring this artifact to a determinate kind. Among other things, this accounts for the fact that the identity and persistence conditions of artifacts are given by their belonging to an existing kind. We should make explicit our view on the reality of artifactual kinds: for us, this use of the terminology of “kinds” only reflects how different instances of a same kind can inductively provide information about other members of the same kind (i.e., the epistemological sense). We will not make any explicit commitment to the existence of real kinds of artifacts in our argument. This terminology is very slippery when applied to cultural and artifactual products of human making. How we usually categorize these objects is governed by criteria that are often in open conflict. It could be that there are only individual artifacts and our groupings in kinds are the result of conventional practices. Still, there are artifacts that are genuinely new and that is the fact that we do not want the reader to lose sight of – and this is sufficient for our argument to run.

  10. 10.

    Etiological accounts could have at hand a possible way out of this tension. They can move towards linking the acquisition of proper functions to agents’ intentions. This move could help them distinguishing between accidental and proper function and to use this distinction for ascribing functions to malfunctioning and genuinely new artifacts. However, as Vermaas and Houkes (2003, p. 282) remark, this move does not seem to help them at the end: “[a]scribing a function to an artefact just because it is the product of a desire that has the proper function to get itself fulfilled using the artefact seems all too easy: it provides no way of deriving conditions on the physical structure of the artefact which justify that it can perform the ascribed function.” In the end, etiological accounts seem to be paying a high price for accounting for the “novelty aspect” in cases of genuine new artifacts.

  11. 11.

    An exaptation refers to a trait that evolves for a different function than its actual one or for none in particular. An exaptation occurs when an artifact’s systemic function becomes an artifact’s proper function.

  12. 12.

    Preston’s argument (2003, pp. 606–608) is articulated around the following issues: (a) designer’s intentions do not embody a different cognitive structure than user’s intentions; (b) user’s intentions show the same degrees of creativity as the designer’s ones; (c) user’s intentions also involve the intentional transformation of the artifact’s materials for performing a function; and (d) both the average designers’ intentions and the average users’ intentions do not mark the distinction between proper and accidental functions. For a detailed discussion of what she calls “the case of the recalcitrant prototype,” see Preston (2006).

  13. 13.

    Even if the details of Preston’s theory cause trouble for understanding novel artifacts, there are other theories that one could imagine to face this challenge. One of them, for example, would just be that functions are systemic functions. On this view, the functions of a novel artifact could be understood along the following line: the function of x is what x does (Kitcher 1993); therefore, there is a new function that is performed, where function equals something that is done. Another theory would be disjunctive, i.e., functions are either proper functions (etiological) or systemic functions (non-etiological). Of course, this last type of theory would have to adopt different theories for standard artifacts and newly created artifacts. However, a demand for uniformity may not be an issue here, given that there seems to be a relevant difference in view: the function of a well-know artifact is historical in a way that the function of a novel artifact isn’t. Nonetheless, these two theories would make it impossible for us to account for the normative dimension of the function of the new artifact. (Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing this point.)

  14. 14.

    This fifth condition captures our ordinary intuition about how to distinguish between someone who intentionally produces an artifact and someone who merely gets some result by toying around without any previous idea about what she is trying to make.

  15. 15.

    This intention cannot be understood as a transparent one. To employ Thomasson’s words: “as a bald intention to make ‘one of these’ (pointing to a sample)” (2007, p. 58).

  16. 16.

    We thank an anonymous referee for suggesting to us this option. It is clear that inventors can have more or less clear concepts about what they are trying to bring about, but we think that it is also true that it is difficult to see in what sense these concepts, insofar as they just gather those features stipulated by the creator, delineate the very existence of an artifactual kind (abstract or concrete). Obviously, they imagine a possible artifact, but this raises different (and also interesting) ontological problems.

  17. 17.

    Probably, if it is true of an artifact in this sense, it is just by chance.

  18. 18.

    An interesting question is about whether and how one could delineate a space of possibilities of artifacts that resemble a logical space of concepts. It is true that part of our work as designers and makers is to explore a space of technical possibilities that probably grows from our understanding – that is of the concepts – of the artifacts already existing in our cultural world. But this does not say yet anything about the plausibility of the notion of possessing a sortal concept of an artifactual kind merely through the grasping of a certain possibility already given in this space of artifactual possibilities.


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 A previous version of this chapter was presented at a seminar on the metaphysics of artifactual kinds, organized at the Delft University of Technology. Comments and questions have helped us to sharpen and clarify our ideas and arguments. Fernando Broncano has read previous versions of this chapter. We thank him for his valuable and insightful suggestions. We also thank the editors for searching criticisms. This research was funded by the Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación (Spain) (FFI2009-12054). It also received partly financial support by CONICET (Argentina).

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Correspondence to Jesús Vega-Encabo .

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Vega-Encabo, J., Lawler, D. (2014). Creating Artifactual Kinds. In: Franssen, M., Kroes, P., Reydon, T.A.C., Vermaas, P.E. (eds) Artefact Kinds. Synthese Library, vol 365. Springer, Cham.

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