Acting with artefacts

A.J.K. Pols

Research output: ThesisPhd Thesis 1 (Research TU/e / Graduation TU/e)

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Technical artefacts are ubiquitous in modern society, and we act with them all the time. Philosophical action theory, however, has rarely examined the role technical artefacts play in the action process. This has left various interesting phenomena under-investigated, like the sensation that some artefacts extend our bodies while we act with them, and the influence artefacts can exert on both individual and collective agents. The main question I ask in this dissertation is therefore: What is an action with an artefact, and how do artefacts influence agents and agency?The methodology I use in this dissertation is mostly conceptual analysis, though I draw heavily upon studies in the (neuro)psychology of action and tool use and studies in artefact design in order to generate results that are practically applicable. This dissertation also contains a more extensive case study where I examine the responsibility of engineers and users for the use of a traffic calming measure.The dissertation is structured as follows. In the first part of this dissertation I address the first part of the main question: what is an action with an artefact? Specifically, I start by developing a ‘standard view’ of what an action with an artefact would be and defend it against objections based on the problem of the time of a killing. I then proceed to criticise this standard view and propose an alternative. In particular, I argue against Davidson’s claim that all actions are bodily movements and argue for the possibility of (basic) actions with artefacts. Finally, I show how a clear notion of actions with artefacts can unify the concepts of affordance used in ecological psychology and design science. I do this by building a model, the nested affordances model, that can ground and specify design recommendations.In the second part of the dissertation I address the second part of the main question: how do artefacts influence agents and agency? Previous accounts of this influence, like those of Latour and Verbeek, explain this influence by extending concepts like ‘intention’ and ‘agency’ to artefacts or artefact-human systems. I offer an alternative account of this influence in terms of artefacts altering our reasons for action that does not depend on such an extension. I then show that artefacts can also influence agency in a more radical way, namely, by influencing us in our capacity as bounded practical reasoners. I argue that the distinction between artefacts that can influence our capacity for practical reasoning and those that cannot allows us to distinguish artefacts that are especially morally problematic with regard to human enhancement from those that are not. Next, I apply these insights about the influence of artefacts on agents and agency to the field of collective, rather than individual, action. Particularly, I argue for a revised notion of joint commitment that is strengthened by including applying intentional, social and technical strategies to maintain this commitment. In this way, artefacts can influence not only individual but also group agents and agency. Finally, I zoom out from action theory and the artefacts themselves to address the issue of designer and user responsibility for actions done with artefacts. I do so by showing how responsibility can be transferred from designer to user by connecting Houkes and Vermaas’s use plan theory of artefact use and design to Fischer and Ravizza’s theory of responsibility.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences
  • Meijers, Anthonie W.M., Promotor
  • Houkes, Wybo, Copromotor
  • Nickel, Philip J., Copromotor
Award date20 Sept 2011
Place of PublicationEindhoven
Print ISBNs978-90-386-2525-6
Publication statusPublished - 2011


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