A Finer Grained Taxonomy of Artifactual (Cultural) Kinds18 min read

In a previous post, I reviewed a taxonomy of cultural kinds proposed by Richard Heersmink. Under this classification, there are four families of artifacts: Embodied, perceptual, cognitive, and affective. Perceptual artifacts in their turn could be classified into three distinct “genera”: Corrective, enhancing, or substitutive, depending on the way they interact with our biological perceptual capacities and are used by people. So the resulting taxonomy, using a branching-style diagram to represent a hierarchical classification, looks like this.

Figure 1. A fine-grained taxonomy of artifacts.

However, perceptual artifacts are not the only family of artifacts that decompose into subkinds. In fact, quite a lot of work in the philosophy of technology has gone into coming up with subclassifications of both cognitive and affective artifacts. I review some of this work here and explore its implication for a fine-grained taxonomy of artifactual cultural kinds.

Varieties of Cognitive Artifacts

Heersmink (2013) proposes a more elaborate classification of cognitive artifacts. As previously noted, cognitive artifacts (like the other families of artifacts) are defined as functional kinds. That means that they are individuated by their uses or functions, not by their inherent physical properties or the intentions of the person that designed them (sometimes these are referred to as “system functions” to differentiate them from the originally intended ones, referred to as “proper functions”). As should be evident the primary function of cognitive artifacts is to aid in a cognitive (e.g., remembering, calculating, navigating) task. As such, they can be defined as “(a) human-made, physical objects that (b) are deployed by human agents for the purpose of functionally contributing to performing a cognitive task” (Heersmink, 2013, p. ).

According to Heersmink, cognitive artifacts decompose into two broad genera, which are referred to as representational and ecological. Representational cognitive artifacts are prototypical. They include such things are rulers, notebooks, maps, multiplication tables, spreadsheets, presentation slides, and the like. As such, representational cognitive artifacts are defined as those that have representational properties, with representation being minimally defined as the capacity to stand for something else in a way that can be decoded by an interpreter.

Heersmink then decomposes the representational genus of the cognitive artifact family into three “species,” using Peirce’s now well-known taxonomy of representation based on the type of semiotic relation holding between a representation and the thing represented with respect to an interpreter. Accordingly, representational cognitive artifacts can be indexical, iconic, or symbolic. In an index, the representation is causally linked to the thing represented which allows the interpreter to use the former to represent the latter. In an icon, the representation resembles or is isomorphic with the thing represented which allowing the user to use the former as a proxy for the latter, and in a symbol, the link between representation and the thing represented is established purely by agreement or convention within a semiotic community, allowing a set of users to manipulate the conventional set of symbols for a variety of communicative, encoding, or decoding purposes.

The species of cognitive artifacts taking the form of “indicators” inform the user about the state of some important elements of the task space. Artifacts such as thermometers, scales, barometers, and the like are prototypical indexical cognitive artifacts (note that most of these are actually hybrid perceptual-cognitive artifacts). Iconic cognitive artifacts resemble (either pictorially or via isomorphism) the particular structure or domain represented. Such artifacts as maps, which represent a given spatial domain by combining pictorial rules and isomorphism, are prototypical of the iconic cognitive artifact category, useful for purposes of navigation. Other examples of the iconic category include flow charts, architectural drawings, idealized depictions of natural processes or systems (e.g., Bohr’s atom, a diagram of a typical biological cell), and mechanical models of physical or biological structures (e.g., Rosalind Franklin’s model of the DNA molecule). Finally, symbolic cognitive artifacts include, prototypically, natural languages, but extend to all forms of conventional mappings between a system of external markings and a given semantic domain (e.g., artificial, or computer languages, traffic signs, rules for games such as chess or checkers, and so forth).

The second genera of cognitive artifacts are what Heersmink calls “ecological.” This subkind of cognitive artifacts aid in cognitive function but not by virtue of having representational properties. Instead, ecological cognitive artifacts help the user (usually in terms of memory tasks) by being placed in the actual physical environment (usually exploiting physical location) in helpful ways. For instance, using the same bowl or tray to place the keys helps us remember where they will be in the future. In this case, the bowl or the tray has the functional role of an ecological cognitive artifact, which Heersmink refers to as “spatial-ecological.” The second genera of ecological artifacts facilitate cognitive function due to the particularities of their physical structure. For instance, when reassembling a puzzle, or building a structure from lego-block style pieces, we may exploit the shape of the pieces to figure out a solution to the task of where they go in the completed structure. These are referred to as “structural-ecological” cognitive artifacts.

With these augmentations, our finer-grained taxonomy of artifacts now looks like this:

Figure 2. An even finer-grained taxonomy of artifacts.

Varieties of Affective Artifacts

Like cognitive artifacts, affective artifacts also decompose into various subkinds (see Piredda, 2020, for an extended treatment of affective artifacts). A useful typology of such variations has been recently proposed by Marco Viola (2021). According to Viola, affective artifacts are worldly objects that are used and manipulated by people in order to elicit, facilitate, enhance, regulate or otherwise affect emotions in systematic ways. Because emotion, as a cognitive kind, is itself not unitary (unsurprisingly, people disagree as to which aspect of the process of experiencing an emotion is most pivotal for defining the kind), affective artifacts divide into distinct subkinds, corresponding to the distinct components or aspects of emotion. Viola, drawing on work by Scarantino and de Sousa (2021), differentiates three broad traditions of about the core ontic properties of emotion: (1) An intellectualist tradition emphasizing appraisals and evaluations as the core properties of the kind, (2) an experientialist tradition emphasizing feelings (sometimes conceptualized as the perception of bodily states as in Damasio (1994)) as the sine qua non of emotion, and a motivational tradition emphasizing downstream behavioral outcomes and dispositions (e.g., fighting, fleeing) as the main demarcating criterion. Accordingly, different kinds of affective artifacts emerge as partners in the coupling between these different aspects of the emotional response and some worldly scaffolding.

Accordingly, Viola proposes the existence of three subkinds of affective artifacts. We have evaluative artifacts, feeling artifacts, and motivational artifacts. Evaluative artifacts are those worldly objects that help us come up with appraisals and evaluations of situations that trigger emotions. In accord with the intellectualist tradition at the heart of this conception of emotions, which sees judgments and appraisals as necessary components of emotions, evaluative artifacts help us judge that such and such is the case or that this is happening right now, has happened in the past, or has a non-negligible chance of happening in the future. Interestingly, because the primary function of evaluative artifacts is indeed a traditionally “cognitive” one (in the sense of such functions as remembering, identifying, categorizing, and the like) then evaluative artifacts are a specialized type of cognitive artifacts involve in emotional judgment and appraisal. Thus, evaluative artifacts are such things as notebooks, photo albums, or other external information-keeping devices (exograms) that help us form specific evaluations relevant to emotional appraisals about past, present, or future events. They may also include iconic depictions such as “fetus posters” made popular by the anti-abortion movement, or the pictures of oil-covered seagulls used by environmental activists.

As Piredda (2020, p. 554) notes, affective artifacts are those that have “the capacity to alter the affective condition of an agent, thus contributing to her affective life.” These are artifacts “with which the agent entertains a constant and persistent affective relationship” (p. 555), and which, in case of their loss or destruction, “would alter our affective condition” (ibid.). As such, feeling artifacts seem to be the ones that most closely meet this definition, as they are used by people to alter, regulate, inhibit, or enhance the subjective aspect of emotion, usually experienced as feelings with a given phenomenal quality. In this respect, feeling artifacts, in contrast to evaluative ones, are those affective artifacts that are directly causally linked, via their use or manipulation, to the person’s emotional experience. Evaluative artifacts, by way of contrast, can only indirectly affect emotional experience via their effect on judgments or appraisals. In this respect, feeling artifacts come closer to the emotionally-laden objects that have been the subject of work on the “extended self” in anthropological approaches to consumption and consumer culture theory (Belk, 1987; Campbell, 1987; see Piredda, 2020, p. 555) (e.g., Viola gives the example of a handbag and Piredda that of a teddybear). However, musical performances and other aesthetic objects (e.g., photographs, paintings, movies) are also common and experientially pervasive feeling artifacts (Piredda, 2020, p. 553), being wielded by people in myriad ways to elicit a number of distinct affective states and subjective feelings (DeNora, 2000).

Motivational artifacts are those worldly tools and scaffolds that facilitate the behavioral component of emotion; thus while evaluative artifacts are geared toward intellectualist judgment, and feeling artifacts hone in on subjective experience, motivational artifacts are calibrated toward direct action. Thus, for every of the core emotions, such as anger, disgust, happiness, fear, pride, shame, guilt, and so forth, there should exist a class of artifacts that serves to enhance and facilitate the behavioral component of that emotion. Thus, for something like disgust or shame, artifacts that help cover or insulate the person from other people’s gaze or direct touch count as motivational artifacts. The whips used by certain monastic cells to self-flagellate in the case of a break of behavioral codes serve to enforce and enhance the behaviors associated with guilt, as does the Catholic confessional.  Weapons, an artifact par excellence with a long evolutionary history among hominins, are used to enhance and facilitate the behavioral component of anger and dominance. Hiding places, caves, and other protective settings can function as ecological artifacts that can play a facilitative role in the behaviors associated with fear and flight from dangerous situations.

Augmented with this new set of distinctions, our branching diagram for a taxonomy of artifactual cultural kinds now looks like this:

Figure 3. An even finer fine-grained typology of artifacts.

The full branching representation now includes the two cognitive subkinds (and their subdivisions) as well as the three affective subkinds.

Cross-Taxonomy Linkages

One advantage of a hierarchical taxonomy is that it can allow us to easily see linkages between distinct taxonomical proposals. For instance, Colombetti (2020) provides a taxonomy of what she refers to as “affective material scaffolds.” These represent a wider class of entities than affective artifacts proper (as they may include non-artifactual objects and parts of the physical world), although the great majority of examples discussed by Colombetti are artifacts. Thus, we can say that artifacts are “prototypical” of the larger category of affective material scaffolds, just like feeling artifacts seem to be prototypical of the larger category of affective artifacts; in fact, most of the examples that Colombetti discusses are equivalent to Viola’s feeling artifacts.

Importantly, Colombetti makes a partial link between her typology and that of Heersmink for cognitive artifacts, in particular with respect to Peirce’s tripartite classification of representational relations. Thus, we have affective artifacts that can affect our emotional state because they are causally linked to another object. In this way, “they remind one of some past event, person or situation of which the object in question was a consequence,” the typical example being mementos or objects other people give to us as reminders of themselves or the relationship. Other affective artifacts regulate, elicit, enhance, or canalize emotion via their iconic resemblance to affectively-laden objects (pictures, paintings, photographs). Finally, symbolic affective artifacts can influence our emotional life their conventionally agreed-upon linkages to states, events, or situations. For instance, receiving a diploma can elicit pride and a sense of achievement, despite the fact that the diploma is only conventionally linked to the status it confers. Most religious and ritual symbols that are used to regulate and elicit emotions, feelings, and “moods” (in Geertz’s sense) also count as symbolic affective artifacts.

Colombetti also argues that there non-representational affective artifacts that do their emotional work via non-semiotic mechanisms; these are strictly parallel to Heersmink’s “ecological” cognitive artifacts, but Heersmink’s subcategories (spatial and structural) are not useful for specifying affective artifacts proper. To do this, Colombetti proposes two distinct types of non-representational affective artifacts, what she refers to as psychoactive and sensory.  Psychoactive affective artifacts are substances that affect our emotional mood directly. This includes the entire category of drugs, mood enhancers, and psychotropic substances (alcohol, coffee, opioids, marihuana, and the like). Sensory affective artifacts perform their emotional work via their concrete sensory qualities, which can come through via any modality. Note that in this respect, both iconic and indexical affective artifacts can be “sensory” in this respect (a painting can be representational and also carry concrete sensory qualities, as can a piece of music). Thus, a given affective artifact can alter, enhance, or regulate our emotional state via both representational and non-representational pathways at the same time.

A taxonomy of artifacts suitable enhanced with Colombetti’s linkages to Heersmink’s typology can be represented as follows:

Figure 4. Fine-grained typology of artifacts with cross-taxonomical links.


As noted, one advantage of the hierarchical representation is that we can see linkages between distinct taxonomies. Thus, as noted, Viola’s Evaluative Affective artifacts are a subtype of cognitive artifact. The dotted line connecting cognitive and the evaluative (affective) artifacts, indicates that the latter are a specialized subtype of the former. This implies, for instance, that there may be both representational and ecological versions of evaluative affective artifacts (as indicated by the respective dotted lines), which is not directly discussed by Viola but is an implication of the argument. In the same way, it is clear that the bulk of the category that Colombetti refers to as “affective material scaffolds” are taken up by what Viola refers to as “feeling artifacts.” These, as argued by Colombetti, then decompose into representational and non-representational species, with the three varieties of representational affective artifacts discussed earlier, and the two varieties of non-representational affective artifacts introduced by Colombetti. One thing that becomes clear given the taxonomy, is that there is no reason to restrict the subkind of “psychoactive” artifacts to the affective genus. There are a variety of substances that are used by people to enhance, correct, or regulate their cognitive capacities (e.g., increase alertness, attention, concentration, and the like). As such, there are such things as psychoactive cognitive artifacts (indicated by the red dashed line).


Belk, R. W. (1988). Possessions and the Extended Self. The Journal of Consumer Research, 15(2), 139–168.

Campbell, C. (1987). The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. Basil Blackwell.

Colombetti, G. (2020). Emoting the Situated Mind: A Taxonomy of Affective Material Scaffolds. JOLMA: The Journal for the Philosophy of Language, Mind and the Arts, 1(2).

DeNora, T. (2000). Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge University Press.

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

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

Scarantino, A., & de Sousa, R. (2021). Emotion. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/emotion/

Viola, M. (2021). Three Varieties of Affective Artifacts: Feeling, Evaluative and Motivational Artifacts. Università degli Studi di Torino. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/348235100

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