Skip to main content

Instrumental Artefact Functions and Normativity

  • Chapter
  • First Online:
Norms in Technology

Part of the book series: Philosophy of Engineering and Technology ((POET,volume 9))


Artifacts are inherently practical things, intended to be used to achieve certain kinds of ends. This is, after all, what we mean when we speak about artifactual functions that things of this sort are good for something or, to put the matter differently, that things of this sort are good for something—that is, that the function bearer is good at achieving certain related classes of ends. To possess a function is to be suited for certain specified things.

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

Access this chapter

USD 16.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Softcover Book
USD 109.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info
Hardcover Book
USD 109.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions


  1. 1.

     In this dire circumstance, we may well think that the marooned incompetent should try to learn how to steer on his own, if need be, but that is another matter and his failure to teach himself ­steering is not comparable to the sailor’s failure to steer when he already knows how.

  2. 2.

    That’s not to say that functional knowledge never results in new desires. At least some advertising aims to create consumer desires by providing functional knowledge (“It slices! It dices! It bathes the room in the soothing aroma of fresh peaches!”). We want—and are persuaded to want—­artefacts because of their functions. Nonetheless, this relationship between artefact functions and desires is tangential to our investigation here, though it may well be central to an account of innovative engineering. See also the discussion of maieutic ends in engineering in Hughes (2009b).

  3. 3.

    Of course, bolt cutters have other functions, such as cutting through chain link fences, but let us grant that removing padlocks is a function of bolt cutters.

  4. 4.

    More precisely, bolt cutters provide a (possibly weakly) sufficient means. For a discussion of ­syllogisms involving sufficient means, see Audi (2006) or Railton (1997). The syllogisms we ­discuss below are primarily derived from the latter.

  5. 5.

    Following von Wright (1963), we adopt the convention that means are actions, such as using an artefact, and ends are states or conditions one may desire to attain.

  6. 6.

    In unusual circumstances, one may find functions that apply to particular tokens rather than a broader type. We are here interested in type-level instrumental functions, however, since they are more relevant for exploring artefact normativity. See Hughes (2009a).

  7. 7.

    In this respect, our account is similar to Millikan’s relational functions. See Millikan (2002, 1984).

  8. 8.

    For a development of instrumental functions in a more formal setting, see Hughes (2005).

  9. 9.

    Of course, not every artefact type has a formal specification, but we nonetheless presume that there is a sense of normal token available for each type—more precisely, for each function. Carpenter’s hammers are for pounding nails. They vary widely in their specifications, but in every case, they have a handle roughly perpendicular to a head. The head should be strong enough to strike an object without fracturing or coming loose from the handle. A hammer which fails to satisfy these basic restraints is certainly not a normal carpenter’s hammer and is unlikely to serve its function of pounding nails well.

    In this and other cases, one may infer what features are relevant for “normalcy,” by analyzing how the type is expected to realize its function. A token with the requisite features is normal, and one without is not. As one might expect, designers, engineers, and others with deep technical knowledge will have a more precise grasp of what counts as a normal token than everyday users.

  10. 10.

    These factors, taken together, may be used to determine a preference on means and hence determine which mean is optimal, in the sense of Audi (2006), though this would require some effort.

  11. 11.

    And the function of interest, in the case of types with multiple functions.

  12. 12.

    First discussed in (Hughes 2005) and presented in greater detail in (Hughes 2009a).

  13. 13.

    Franssen (2006) gives an account of malfunction that effectively includes both negative and positive senses: “‘x is a malfunctioning K’ expresses the normative fact that x has certain features f and that because of these features, a person p has a reason not to use x for K-ing.” If a car emits too much pollution, then this is a reason not to use the car, and so it is malfunctioning in Franssen’s sense.

  14. 14.

    Note that if normal tokens are expected to always realize the functional goal, which may be the case with some particularly simple artefacts, then a single failure would indeed indicate that the token at hand is not as reliable as normal tokens and hence is malfunctioning.

  15. 15.

    If a normal token realizes its goal with reliability less than one, then no finite number of failures will prove beyond doubt that the token is malfunctioning, though the longer the sequence, the greater the probability that it is due to malfunction rather than statistical happenstance.

  16. 16.

    We omit one possibility: the end which I am pursuing is not a functional goal for any artefact type T.


  • Audi, Robert. 2006. Practical reasoning and ethical decisions. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cummins, Robert. 1975. Functional analysis. Journal of Philosophy 72(20): 741–765.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Floridi, L., and J.W. Sanders. 2004. Levellism and the method of abstraction. The final draft of this paper is available as IEG Research Report 22.11.04. See∼floridi/pdf/latmoa.pdf

  • Franssen, Maarten. 2006. The normativity of artefacts. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 37: 42–57.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Houkes, Wybo. 2006. Knowledge of artefact functions. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 37: 102–113.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hughes, Jesse. 2005. Means-end relations and artefactual functions: A sketch. Presented at the Norms, Reasoning and Knowledge in Technology workshop, Boxmeer, the Netherlands. Available at∼jesse/papers/index.html

  • Hughes, Jesse. 2009a. An artefact is to use: An introduction to instrumental functions. Synthese 168(1): 179–199.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hughes, Jesse. 2009b. Practical reasoning and engineering. In Philosophy of technology and ­engineering sciences, ed. Dov M. Gabbay, Anthonie Meijers, Paul Thagard, and John Woods, 375–402. Elsevier B.V. North Holland, in Amsterdam.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hughes, Jesse, Peter Kroes, and Sjoerd Zwart. 2005. A semantics for means-end relations. Presented at SEP 2005. Available at∼jesse/papers/index.html

  • Millikan, Ruth Garrett. 1984. Language, thought and other biological categories. The Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Millikan, Ruth Garrett. 1989. In defense of proper functions. Philosophy of Science 56: 288–302.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Millikan, Ruth Garrett. 2002. Biofunctions: Two paradigms. In Functions: New essays in the ­philosophy of psychology and biology, ed. André Ariew, Robert Cummins, and Mark Perlman, 113–143. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Neander, Karen. 1991. The teleological notion of function. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74: 261–301.

    Google Scholar 

  • Railton, Peter. 1997. On the hypothetical and non-hypothetical in reasoning about belief and action. In Ethics and practical reason, ed. G. Cullity and B. Gaut, 53–79. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vermaas, Pieter E., and Wybo Houkes. 2006. Technical functions: a drawbridge between the intentional and structural natures of technical artefacts. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 37: 5–18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • von Wright, Georg Henrik. 1963. Practical inference. The Philosophical Review 72(2): 159–179.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wright, L. 1973. Functions. Philosophical Review 82: 139–168.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jesse Hughes .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2013 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Hughes, J. (2013). Instrumental Artefact Functions and Normativity. In: de Vries, M., Hansson, S., Meijers, A. (eds) Norms in Technology. Philosophy of Engineering and Technology, vol 9. Springer, Dordrecht.

Download citation

Publish with us

Policies and ethics