A Taxonomy of Artifactual (Cultural) Kinds12 min read

In previous posts, I made a broad distinction between the two “families” of cultural kinds. This distinction was based on the way they fundamentally interact with people. Some cultural kinds do their work because they can be learned or internalized by people. Other cultural kinds do their work not because people internalize them but because they can be wielded or manipulated. For the most part, these last exist outside people (or at least being potentially separable from people’s bodies). We referred to the former as cultural-cognitive kinds (or cognitive kinds for short) and to the latter as artifactual cultural kinds (or artifactual kinds for short).

Most of the cultural stuff that exists outside of people (so-called “public culture”) is either an artifact, whether simple or complex (usually referred to as “material culture”), a systematic or improvised coupling between a person and an artifact (usually mediated by an internalized cultural kind such as a learned skill or ability), or a more extended socio-material ensemble (Hutchins, 1995; Malafouris, 2013), consisting of the distributed agglomeration of artifacts, people, and the knowledge (both explicit and implicit) required to use the artifacts in the setting for particular purposes, whether instrumental, expressive, or performative. Traditional cultural theory in sociology and anthropology tends to embody purpose in internalized cultural-cognitive kinds such as beliefs, goals, and values. However, an argument can be made that nothing embodies purpose (and even teleology) more directly than artifactual kinds designed to accomplish concrete ends (Malafouris, 2013).

Subsequent posts were dedicated to the process via which people internalize cultural-cognitive kinds. These reflections yielded an emergent and intuitive typology within the broad “family” of cultural cognitive kinds. Some cognitive kinds are like beliefs, encoding explicit declarations or propositions. Other cognitive kinds are more like skills or abilities and are difficult to verbalize in explicit form. A third form is in-between, more like concepts, encoding general semantic knowledge (both schematic and detail-rich) of the explicit and implicit aspects of categories. Riffing on a classic distinction in the philosophy of mind and action, we referred to the first kind as “knowlege-that,” the second kind as “knowlege-how,” and the third one as “knowledge-what.” The idea is that this provides an admittedly rough but exhaustive taxonomy of cultural-cognitive kinds as people internalize them.

Given this, it is easy to form the impression that artifactual (public) cultural kinds are an undifferentiated mass. However, recent work in cognitive science and philosophy has endeavored to provide a more differentiated taxonomic picture of the various forms artifactual kinds can take (Fasoli, 2018; Heersmink, 2021; Viola, 2021). In a forthcoming paper in a special issue of Topics in Cognitive Science dedicated to “the cognitive science of tools and techniques,” Richard Heersmink (2021) provides a useful generic typology of artifactual cultural kinds that aims for the same level of generality and exhaustiveness, concerning artifactual cultural kinds, as the knowledge-that/how/what typology concerning cultural-cognitive kinds.

Heersmink (2021) defines an artifact in the broadest sense as “material objects or structures that are made to be used to achieve an aim.” Heersmink differentiates between four broad families of artifacts: Embodied, perceptual, cognitive, and affective. To each type of artifact corresponds a specific set of skills of abilities people develop when they become good and proficient at using them, which Heersmink refers to as techniques (an approach in the same spirit as Mauss, 1973). Thus, there are embodied techniques, perceptual techniques, and so forth.

Artifact/technique is an important distinction, which separates the “cognitive” family of cultural kinds from the artifactual one. However, they tend to be run together in the literature. For instance, Hutchins (1995, p.) refers to the internalized (ability) component corresponding to the use of an external artifact as an “internal artifact.” However, this is confusing and blurs an important analytic line. As Heersmink (2013, p. 468) noted in earlier work,

it is clarifying to make a distinction between technology and technique. A technology (or artifact) is usually defined as a physical object intentionally designed, made, and used for a particular purpose, whereas a technique (or skill) is a method or procedure for doing something. Both technologies and techniques are intentionally developed and used for some purpose and are in that sense artificial, i.e., human-made. However, it is important to note, or so I claim, that they are not both artifactual. Only technologies are artifactual in that they are designed and manufactured physical objects and in this sense what Hutchins refers to as internal artifacts, such as perceptual strategies, can best be seen as cognitive techniques, rather than as internal artifacts. Moreover, given that these cognitive techniques are learned from other navigators and are thus first external to the embodied agent, it is perhaps more accurate to refer to them as internalized cognitive techniques, rather than as internal cognitive techniques.

Being “artifactual,” and thus usable (e.g., made by people but external to people and embodied in material objects but not “internalizable” by people) is diagnostic for artifacts as public cultural kinds. In the same way, being “internalizable,” is diagnostic for cognitive kinds such as skills, know-how, and abilities. This (internalizability criterion) is the distinguishing marker that separates them from artifactual kinds. Both are cultural kinds because they are the historical product of human ingenuity and invention.

Embodied artifacts are the “prototypical” of the category since they show up mainly as tools we use to get stuff accomplished. In philosophy and social theory, “Heidegger’s hammer,” and Merleau-Ponty’s “blind person’s cane” are the standard examples. Enumerating specific exemplars of the category is of course an endless task, as it includes any material object that can be used to accomplish a goal (e.g., pencils, shovels, fly swatters, brooms, skateboards, keyboards, etc.). It also includes using objects not designed for a given function to accomplish a particular goal (as when we use a hammer as a doorstop). While the “proper function” of a hammer is to drive nails through a surface, it can also be used for a myriad of improvised goals, and the same goes for pretty much every embodied artifact. Concerning the person-artifact interface, the critical phenomenological transition with regard to embodied artifacts happens when we become proficient at using them after repeatedly interacting with them (or more commonly being taught by an expert user how to use them). This results in internalization, via either socialization or enculturation, of artifact-specific skills or abilities facilitating person-and-artifact couplings. Once this coupling is established, the artifact or tool becomes transparent. It is experienced as a natural extension of the body. Following Heidegger, artifacts that have achieved this level of transparency are referred as “equipment” (Dreyfus, 1984).

Perceptual artifacts are used to correct, enhance, extend, and in some cases substitute our natural perceptual abilities. Reading glasses or hearing aids are a standard (corrective) example and telescopes or binoculars a standard (enhancing/extending) example. Merleau-Ponty’s blind man’s cane can be thought of as an embodied artifact that becomes a perceptual artifact via cross-modal substitution; tactile information comes to play the functional role for non-sighted persons that visual information plays for sighted people via the mediation of the artifact. In some cases, perceptual artifacts can be engineered so that they can make available to us aspects of the world that are naturally inaccessible to us (e.g., lightwaves in the infrared range of the spectrum). This is a type of enhancement that goes beyond amplifying the usual range of our standard perceptual techniques.

Naturally, cognitive artifacts have received a tremendous amount of attention in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind (Clark, 2008). Heersmink defines them as “…human-made, material objects or structures that functionally contribute to performing a cognitive task” (Heersmink, 2021, p. 10). Cognitive artifacts have even been used as “intuition pumps,” to show how cognition and cognitive activity can be thought of as (sometimes) occurring “outside the head,” using artifactual vehicles (e.g., a notepad or an abacus) used by people to perform cognitive tasks such as remembering and calculating (Clark & Chalmers, 1998), yielding the hypothesis of “extended cognition.” Independently of their role in this particular line of investigation, cognitive artifacts are central to the study of culture. Cognitive artifacts such as calculators, maps, multiplication tables, computers, and the like are ubiquitous in our everyday lives, facilitating a virtually open-ended range of cognitive, navigational, and calculative activities that would be either very difficult or impossible to do without them.

Affective artifacts refer to “material…objects that have the capacity to alter the affective condition of the agent” (Piredda, 2019, p. 550). Under this definition, affective artifacts are pervasive and may even precede cognitive artifacts in human evolution (Langer, 1967). They include most of the human-designed implements for the production of expressive and aesthetic symbols (e.g., music, visual arts, poetry, and the like) such as musical instruments, as well as the product of their use such as aesthetic objects and performances. Language (typically a cognitive artifact), when used in particular ways to evoke affect and emotion, becomes an affective artifact. When used to evoke feeling and emotion in a ritual or aesthetic performance, or when the voice is used for a similar purpose in singing, people’s bodies and their effectors can become the affective artifact par excellence.

As Heersmink notes, these taxonomic distinctions do not imply that many artifacts end up being hybrids, performing multiple functions at once. Thus, many perceptual artifacts (e.g., a microscope) also perform cognitive functions. Cognitive artifacts (such as a family photograph) may bring up emotionally charged autobiographical memories, thus performing affective functions. Merleau-Ponty’s blind man’s cane, as noted, is both an embodied and a perceptual artifact. Artifacts can also be linked in chains, such that one kind of artifact helps us use another one. The most coupling is embodied artifacts and cognitive artifacts; for instance, mice and keyboards help us interact with computers as cognitive artifacts. Most artifacts as used in everyday dealings consist of such hybrids or multiple chains of artifact families.


Clark, A. (2008). Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford University Press,.

Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The Extended Mind. Analysis, 58(1), 7–19.

Dreyfus, H. L. (1984). Between Technē and Technology: The Ambiguous Place of Equipment in Being and Time. Tulane Studies in Philosophy, 32, 23–35.

Fasoli, M. (2018). Substitutive, Complementary and Constitutive Cognitive Artifacts: Developing an Interaction-Centered Approach. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 9(3), 671–687.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. MIT Press.

Heersmink, R. (2013). A Taxonomy of Cognitive Artifacts: Function, Information, and Categories. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 4(3), 465–481.

Heersmink, R. (2021). Varieties of artifacts: Embodied, perceptual, cognitive, and affective. Retrieved May 23, 2021, from https://philpapers.org/archive/HEEVOA.pdf

Langer, S. K. K. (1967). Mind: an essay on human feeling. Johns Hopkins Press.

Mauss, M. (1973). Techniques of the body. Economy and Society, 2(1), 70–88. (Original work published 1935)

Malafouris, L. (2013). How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. MIT Press.

Piredda, G. (2020). What is an affective artifact? A further development in situated affectivity. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 19(3), 549–567.

Viola, M. (2021). Three Varieties of Affective Artifacts: Feeling, Evaluative and Motivational Artifacts. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00266



One comment

  1. Pingback: A Finer Grained Taxonomy of Artifactual (Cultural) Kinds – Culture, Cognition, and Action (culturecog)

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