Doing Things with Things
eBook - ePub

Doing Things with Things

The Design and Use of Everyday Objects

Ole Dreier, Alan Costall, Alan Costall

  1. 256 páginas
  2. English
  3. ePUB (apto para móviles)
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eBook - ePub

Doing Things with Things

The Design and Use of Everyday Objects

Ole Dreier, Alan Costall, Alan Costall

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It has been claimed that the natural sciences have abstracted for themselves a 'material world' set apart from human concerns, and social sciences, in their turn, constructed 'a world of actors devoid of things'. While a subject such as archaeology, by its very nature, takes objects into account, other disciplines, such as psychology, emphasize internal mental structures and other non-material issues. This book brings together a team of contributors from across the social sciences who have been taking 'things' more seriously to examine how people relate to objects. The contributors focus on every day objects and how these objects enter into our activities over the course of time. Using a combination of different theoretical approaches, including actor network theory, ecological psychology, cognitive linguistics and science and technology studies, the book argues against the standard notion of objects and their properties as inert and meaningless and argues for the need to understand the relations between people and objects in terms of process and change.

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Intentionality and the Functionality of Things

Chapter 1

The Case of the Recalcitrant Prototype

Beth Preston
In the presumed absence of a creator god, the functions of biological organs are not functions any agent intended them to have. Consequently, theories of biological function must start from the assumption that function can be established without appeal to the intentions of intelligent agents. But the opposite assumption operates with regard to artifact function. The intentions of human agents are commonly regarded as a necessary condition for establishing function. Although it is difficult to show that the intentions of any particular agent are required, it does seem that without human designers, makers, and users in general, there would be no human artifacts, let alone artifact functions (McLaughlin 2001, p. 48). But many theorists also regard the intentions of the designer, specifically, as a sufficient condition for establishing function. In other words, if an agent intends an artifact she designs to have a specific function, then that is the function it has, at least initially. It is this latter claim I wish to examine here. I shall show that regarding designers’ intentions as sufficient generates serious problems for a theory of artifact function. Moreover, there is a viable theory of artifact function that does not appeal directly to the intentions of designers as sufficient conditions. Thus there is ample reason to reject the claim that designers’ intentions are sufficient. But I shall begin by explaining why this claim has so much appeal for function theorists in the first place.

Proper Function and System Function

There are three distinguishable roles human agents may play with regard to artifacts – designer, maker, and user. As commonly understood, the designer specifies the characteristics of the artifact to be made; the maker does the actual construction work; and the user subsequently puts the artifact to use. These roles are not mutually exclusive. A single individual may play any combination or all of them with regard to a specific artifact. But they can also be played by completely different individuals – indeed, by individuals who do not communicate or are unaware of each others’ existence, and whose intentions are thus independent.1 Unfortunately, writers on artifact function typically use terms like ‘creator,’ ‘producer,’ or ‘maker’ in a way that is ambiguous with regard to the designer and maker roles. But as we shall see, it is clear that in fact it is the intentions of designers in particular that are in question in theories of how artifact functions are established. Thus sorting out this issue depends on distinguishing these roles.
On the other hand, an important feature of these roles, and one that will come into play in the course of the argument, is that many activities are borderline or fuzzy with regard to classification in terms of them. For example, designers often make scale models, or make and try out specific parts of the artifact during the design process in order to see whether certain materials are suitable, or certain devices safe and effective, or whatever. More importantly for present purposes, users often use artifacts creatively. This may involve using something for a novel purpose – using a screwdriver to remove staples, for instance. Or it may involve some modification of the artifact to suit it for the novel purpose – filing down a key to make it more effective as a cutting instrument, for instance. Similarly, makers often construct creatively, departing from the instructions of designers in order to improve the artifact, or to continue construction in the absence of specified materials or needed tools. For example, cooks continually tinker with recipes to suit them to their own tastes, or substitute ingredients when specified ingredients are unavailable, prohibitively expensive, and so on. Phenomena like these show that although the roles of designer, maker, and user are distinguishable – even clearly and unequivocally distinguished in many cases – they are not rigorously distinct.
There is another important feature of these roles I will be leaving out of account in this paper. It is also possible – indeed, common – for groups rather than individuals to fill these roles. This is clearly the case for users, who typically form loose communal groups. But production, too, is typically collaborative, even in non-industrial contexts, and design is often collaborative, perhaps particularly in industrial contexts. Moreover, there are important social and communicative relations among the individuals or groups filling the various roles. For example, designers may seek user input or maker advice during the design process, or users or makers may offer or even demand this. In short, these roles as actually practiced are thoroughly social in character. This raises a different problem for the intentionalist view of artifact function because it requires an account of collective intentions. But I will abstract from this important issue in framing my argument, because the question of whether designer intention is sufficient for the establishment of artifact function does not depend on whether the intention in question is individual or collective, but only on what relation it bears to the artifact. So when I speak of ‘the designer,’ for instance, I will be referring to the role in abstraction from the concrete collective or individual ways in which it may be carried out in practice.
It is also important to distinguish between proper functions and system functions (also sometimes called causal role functions). A proper function is what a thing is supposed to do – usually understood in the case of artifacts as what it is designed to do. A system function is a contingent purpose a thing may serve on occasion without having been designed to do so. For example, the proper functions of spoons are stirring and transporting food. Among the system functions a spoon may serve are use as a percussive musical instrument, as a unit of measure for cooking ingredients, as a dibble for transplanting seedlings, as an opener for cocoa tins, and so on. Biological traits also have both proper functions and system functions. For example, the human hand has the proper functions of grasping and gripping, but it can be used in various ways as a weapon.
The best-known account of how system functions are established comes from an early paper on functional analysis by Robert Cummins (1975). According to Cummins, a function is established in terms of the capacity or disposition a thing has to perform a specific role in the context of a system. A system is a configuration of components interacting in an orderly way such that the performance of the whole can be explained in terms of the performances of the components. In the case of biology, the system is usually the whole organism, or one of its subsystems, such as the circulatory system. In the case of artifacts the system is usually a suite of related artifacts and the practices involved in using them. For example, the proper function of beer is as a beverage for humans. But there is a practice among home gardeners of pouring beer into saucers and then setting them out in the garden as slug traps. The system function of the beer in this context of organized social practices and artifacts is slug bait.
It is important to note that this account of how system functions are established does not require an appeal to the intentions of intelligent agents. A function is established solely in virtue of having a role in a containing system, whether or not that role was ever intended by anybody. This is an important positive feature of Cummins’ account in its application to biological function, where an appeal to intentions is ruled out. But it also suggests an account of artifact function that does not require an appeal to intentions. In this connection it should be noted that Cummins’ account can allow for indirect appeal to intentions of agents in the case of artifacts. For example, in the case of beer as slug bait there are in fact intentions of beer users involved in sustaining the relevant gardening practices. But the important point is that were these practices the practices of a race of intentionless garden robots, the beer would still have the system function of slug bait. It is the system and the role of the artifact in the system that is essential.
The best known account of how proper functions are established comes from the work of Ruth Millikan (1984, 1993) – indeed, ‘proper function’ is her term. On Millikan’s theory, proper functions can be established either directly or derivatively. A thing has a specific performance as its direct proper function if it is reproduced from ancestors which successfully engaged in that performance, and which survived and proliferated because of this (1984, p.28), i.e., if there is a selection history for the performance. Thus the human hand has the direct proper functions of grasping and gripping because the successful use of their hands for these purposes contributed to the ability of our ancestors to survive and reproduce. Similarly, the direct proper functions of a spoons are stirring and transporting food, since historically it is in virtue of such successful stirring and transporting that spoons have been maintained and reproduced.
When something has a direct proper function that it accomplishes by producing some other thing, the produced thing inherits a derived proper function from the producing thing, even though it has not itself undergone selection for this function (1984, pp.41-3). Thus if a chameleon contains a mechanism the direct proper function of which is to change the chameleon’s skin color to camouflage it from predators, the skin coloration this mechanism produces on any particular occasion has the derived proper function of camouflaging the chameleon. Similarly, if a spark plug has the proper function of initiating combustion by producing a spark, the spark has the derived proper function of initiating combustion.
As in the case of system function, this account of direct and derived proper functions does not require any appeal to intentions of agents. Direct proper functions and the derived proper functions that depend on them are established by a history of selection and reproduction. In the biological realm selection and reproduction are causal processes so an appeal to the intentions of directing intelligent agents is neither required nor desired. In the case of artifacts, the intentions of human agents in fact implement both selection and reproduction indirectly. But if a race of intentionless robots were responsible for the same history of selection and reproduction, the artifacts would have the same direct and derived proper functions. It is the selection history that is essential, not the intentions of the agents or the robots involved.
The relationship between proper functions and system functions is a controversial one in the recent philosophical literature on function. They are regarded by some as rival theories, one of which is wrong and must be discarded. Davies (2001) argues, for instance, that all proper functions are really system functions. Attempts are made by others to unify these two concepts of function either by subordinating one of them to the other (Walsh and Ariew 1996) or by subordinating both to an overarching conceptual framework (Kitcher 1993). Yet other, more pluralistically minded theorists insist that these are distinct concepts of function with different domains or ranges of application (Godfrey-Smith 1993, Millikan 1989, Preston 1998). I hold this last, pluralist view, and I assume it for the purposes of this paper. The central point to be borne in mind is that on the pluralist view proper function and system function are distinct but equally important conceptions of function, applicable to distinct but equally important functional phenomena. In this connection it should also be noted that on the pluralist view, as well as on some of the other views, system functions may become proper functions over the course of time. For example, if breweries start to make and market beer specifically for use as slug bait, and it is regularly bought and used by gardeners for that purpose, it will acquire slug bait as a proper function in addition to its original proper function as a beverage.2 But what I have to say does not depend on settling any of these issues. The basis for my argument is just that if you recognize a theoretical distinction between proper function and system function, then holding the view that artifact function is established by designers’ intentions is problematic.3

The Recalcitrant Prototype

Because direct proper functions are established through an historical process of selection and reproduction, the first instance of what will later become a functional trait itself has no proper function. For example, suppose a chance mutation causes a single moth to have a color that is particularly good as camouflage from predators. This first moth – I shall refer to it as the prototype moth – has an advantage in survival and breeding, as do its offspring which (let us say) inherit the camouflaging coloration. On Millikan’s theory, the mutated color of the prototype moth does not have the direct proper function of camouflaging it from predators; that is only the effect it has at this initial stage. Only after some indeterminate number of generations of selection and reproduction can we say the coloration has the direct proper function of camouflaging these moths from predators.
Some theorists (e.g., McLaughlin 2001) regard this inability to ascribe proper functions to apparently fully operational prototypes as a serious failing of Millikan’s theory and other theories like it. But there are a couple of considerations that take the edge off this criticism. First, even if prototypes do not have proper functions, if the operations they perform fit successfully into roles in existing systems, they have system functions (Millikan 1989, 175). For example, the coloration of the prototype moth in our example above has a camouflaging, protective role in the predator-prey system. Similarly, a can opener of novel design that succeeds in opening cans plays a successful role in our food storage and retrieval system. It is important to note that not all prototypes will have such a system function, though. Having a system function depends on having a current capacity to fill a system-defined role. So if a mutation produces a prototype trait which does not fit into such a role, or which does not fulfill it successfully, the prototype will have no system function. For example, if the sole predators of our moths are bats hunting entirely by echolocation, there will be no role in the predator-prey system for the new coloration to play. On the other hand, if the predators are sighted and the new coloration does nothing to camouflage the moth from them, the new coloration will not have the relevant capacity. In either case, the new coloration will fail to have a system function. And of course this can happen with artifacts as well – imaine a machine invented by a visionary medieval machinist to open cans, although there are none to open; or a modern prototype can opener which simply does not work.
So appealing to system function to solve the prototype problem will still leave some prototypes with neither direct proper functions nor system functions. This is acceptable to some (although by no means all) theorists in the case of biological function, where some mutations produce changes that are indifferent or harmful to the possessor from the point of view of selection, and to which we might therefore be reluctant to assign any kind of function at all. But in the case of artifact prototypes, even the anachronistic or non-working ones were intended by their producers to have a function, so there is a strong impetus to ascribe that intended function to them. Moreover, there is a strong impetus to ascribe proper function rather than merely system functions to prototypes because the intentions of their producers are construed as establishing what the prototype is supposed to do, whether or not it actually does it. So most theorists will simply not be satisfied with the appeal to system function in the case of artifact prototypes.
There is a specific application of Millikan’s theory of proper functions which offers an alternative. Millikan holds that intentional states of agents have direct proper functions – desires have the direct proper function of getting themselves fulfilled, for example. Some desires are desires to accomplish this result by producing something else. For example, I may desire to open cans by producing a machine to do the job, and this machine then has the derived proper function of opening cans (1984, 49; 1999, 205). This is true even if it is a unique prototype – a can opener of completely novel design, for instance. And it is true even if the prototype does not work. Thu...


  1. Cover Page
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Contents
  5. List of Contributors
  6. List of Figures and Tables
  7. Introduction
  8. Part I Intentionality and the Functionality of Things
  9. Part II Things in the World of the Child
  10. Part III Transformation and Things
  11. Part IV Organisation and Things
  12. Name Index
  13. Subject Index