Thoughtful things : an investigation in the descriptive epistemology of artifacts

G. Romano

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    In this work, I investigate the ability to conceptualize artifacts, an ability that appears to be unique to human beings. To this effect, I lay out a number of requirements for an account of artefact conceptualization: we need to explain how people judge whether an item is an artifact or not; how they distinguish artifacts from natural items; why and how they recognise artefacts by their functions; why and how they conceptualise artifacts in terms of intentionality; and how our cognitive apparatus makes possible all of these apparently universal, but unique human capabilities. Before examining how do human beings approach artifacts perceptually and conceptually, I need to refute skepticism regarding general investigations concerning artifacts. Therefore, I start by arguing against anthropologist-philosopher Dan Sperber, who claims that the class of artifacts is insufficiently homogeneous to warrant such a general investigation. Sperber’s criticisms turn out to be partially founded, because the characterizations that are provided by some disciplinary and interdisciplinary areas of research on artifacts prove unsatisfactory. Still, his arguments leave room for an investigation like mine. I go on to review philosophical research about artifacts, mainly in analytic metaphysics and ontology. There, a sound conceptual determination of "artifact" is sought, but the results are abstract and formal definitions which do not satisfy the requirements I laid out. Philosophical analysis needs to be complemented with research that is more considerate towards the empirical findings concerning artifacts, namely, cognitive sciences, and especially cognitive neurosciences and cognitive psychology. Such a descriptive epistemology of artifacts looks into the mechanisms and processes of human mentalization of these objects. A survey of existing cognitive studies reveals their limitations with respect to the requirements; they need to go hand in hand with philosophical reflection to provide a complete account of the human understanding of artifacts. The philosophical reflection that I think best fits the cognitive inquiries results from Daniel C. Dennett’s theorizing about the practice of interpretation. I therefore propose a reformulation and integration of the interpretationalism of Dennett with the recent research in cognitive psychology about artifact categorization and conceptualization. Using this theoretical and methodological apparatus, I advance a hypothesis about how humans understand artifacts: the human cognitive machinery is outfitted with a specific mechanism for recognizing the relation of functionality. This mechanism enables human beings to identify many items, both natural and artifactual, as being for something. This recognizeability of forness is a primitive and universal cognitive invariant of the human species; it is complemented with a capacity to realize that functionality can be recognized by other human beings, which allows people to identify artifacts in contrast with natural items. Thus, the conditions for identifying artifacts are a special kind of functional cognition joined with the (metaintentional) capacity to ascribe functional knowledge to others. I show that this hypothesis satisfies my requirements and develop some of its implications and theoretical consequences.
    Originele taal-2Engels
    KwalificatieDoctor in de Filosofie
    Toekennende instantie
    • Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences
    • Meijers, Anthonie W.M., Promotor
    • Houkes, Wybo, Co-Promotor
    • de Vries, Marc, Co-Promotor
    Datum van toekenning23 dec. 2009
    Plaats van publicatieEindhoven
    Gedrukte ISBN's978-90-386-2108-1
    StatusGepubliceerd - 2009

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