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Research project "The Dual nature of Artefacts"

Further research


Welcome to the website of the international research program 'The Dual Nature of Technical Artifacts' supported by the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO). This program is part of a larger research initiative called Philosophical Foundations of Modern Technology. Researchers working on this program are united in the Technè Group.

The Dual Nature research is conducted by the philosophy department of Delft University of Technology in collaboration with the departments of philosophy of the University of Buffalo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Virginia Tech and, Eindhoven University of Technology. The program started at April 2000 and runs till the end of 2006.

One of the starting points of this program is that we habitually employ two basic conceptualizations to describe reality. Firstly, we see at least part of the world as consisting of physical objects, which we describe by means of the concepts of natural science such as position, velocity, spatial dimension and other physical magnitudes. And secondly, we discern agents, which we describe by means of intentional concepts such as thoughts, wishes, will and belief.

In philosophy it is a classical question how these two descriptions – the description by means of the natural scientific or physical conceptualization and the description by means of the intentional conceptualization – are related to one another. The most notorious case in which these two descriptions are simultaneously applicable is the case of man itself, hence the well known mind-body problem. But also when describing technical artifacts we simultaneously use these two basic conceptualizations: technical artifacts are physical objects that are described by physical concepts (the tungsten wire has a length of 15 millimeters) and by intentional concepts such as technical functions (the tungsten wire has the function of emitting light). Moreover, both conceptualizations are indispensable for technical artifacts: if an artifact is described by only physical concepts, it is in general unclear which functions it has, and if an artifact is only described functionally, it is in general unclear which physical properties it has. A description of technical artifacts thus uses both conceptualizations and in that sense technical artifacts have a dual (a physical and an intentional) nature.

The Dual Nature of Technical Artifacts is a program intended to investigate this philosophical observation in a broad way. The two main research areas the program concentrated on are the following:

  • The special relationship between structure and function of technical artifacts
    • This area also includes an investigation into the designing of technical artifacts: how do designers bridge the gap between function and structure.
  • The intentionality of technical functions and their non-standard epistemology
    • This area also includes the use of technical artifacts and the social aspects of functions.



The international research program Philosophical foundations of modern technology is an initiative of the Technè Group, consisting of philosophers, engineers and scientists committed to philosophical problems of modern technology.[1]With this initiative the Technè Group is attempting to develop an internal and empirically informed philosophy of technology by analyzing and clarifying the basic concepts and conceptual frameworks employed in empirically adequate descriptions of the design and production of technical artifacts.


Up till now, the philosophy of technology has been dominated mainly by metaphysical analyses of technology (under the influence of Heidegger) and by critical reflections on the consequences of science and technology for the individual and for society. These metaphysical, ethical and cultural studies by and large treat modern technology itself, i.e. the design and making of modern technical artifacts, as a black box, and can in this sense be called an external philosophy of technology. With the program Philosophical foundations of modern technology the Technè Group aims at opening up this box and at taking into account the genesis of technical artifacts. This black box turns out to hide a rich and complex content. We thus take the position that philosophers interested in understanding the nature of modern technology and its implications for the individual and society cannot neglect this richness and complexity without running the risk of oversimplifying their object.

For the Technè Group opening this black box implies that philosophy of technology should take as its starting point empirically adequate descriptions reflecting the actual engineering practice. In our opinion, this empirical turn in the philosophy of technology is a conditio sine qua non for the philosophy of technology if it intends to be taken seriously in present-day discussions about technology. This does not mean that its primary focus should be on empirical problems, for that would turn it into an empirical science. Its focus should be on conceptual problems, more in particular, on the clarification of basic concepts and conceptual frameworks employed in empirically adequate descriptions of parts or aspects of technology. Such a turn would be comparable to what has happened in the philosophy of science in the last decades. Inspired by the work of Kuhn, many studies in the philosophy of science have been carried out in recent years in order to develop a better understanding of the actual practice of scientists, particularly their experimental work in laboratories. Just as more emphasis on detailed case studies and on relevant work of historians of science have enriched the philosophy of science, so the philosophy of technology could profit from a similar change.

Aim of the program

It is a general observation about and in philosophy that though we are immersed in a world of technical artifacts, we still lack a thorough philosophical account of technical artifacts and the process of producing them. This lack of an adequate philosophical analysis of artifacts may even be generalized to the analysis of what we call ‘technology’. Technology has been regarded variously in philosophy as a collection of artifacts, as a form of human action, as a form of knowledge and as a social process. These widely different conceptions indicate that the philosophy of technology is a field of inquiry that does not yet have a fundamental set of concepts and categories with which to analyze its main subject. It is the aim of this program to develop such a philosophical foundation and to show how the different conceptions that have been given so far are interconnected. The notions of technical function and design, both basic notions of engineering practice, are considered to be central to this undertaking:

The aim of the program is to analyze and develop basic concepts and categories that are necessary for understanding modern technology, first of all the central notions of technical function and engineering design, and to integrate them into a coherent conceptual framework.

General description of the program

The program approaches technology from two different perspectives, i.e., technology as a process and technology as a product. The former refers to the activity of designing, developing and producing technical artifacts, the latter to the technical artifacts that result from this activity.

The subprogram The nature of engineering thinking focuses on the conceptual frameworks that engineers use when designing artifacts and solving design problems. These frameworks are different from the ones used in science. While science is about representing the world, technology is about designing, making, and using artifacts that change the world. One way to look at the differences is by emphasizing that the process of design results in a physical description of the artifact and a functional description, where the latter also contains a set of instructions on how to use it. Such a component related to human action – often a user’s manual – is an integral part of design.

The subprogram The dual nature of technical artifacts focuses on technical artifacts, particularly on their ontology and epistemology. It starts from the observation that technical artifacts have a twofold nature: They are (i) designed physicalstructures which realize (ii) intentionality-bearing functions. This duality is related to the fact that we employ two basic conceptualizations of the world in our thinking, speaking, and acting. On the one hand, we see the world as consisting of physical objects interacting through causal connections. On the other hand, we see it as consisting of agents (primarily human beings), who intentionally represent the world and act in it. Both conceptualizations are necessary for characterizing technical artifacts. Technical artifacts are, prima facie, always physical objects, but they are also objects which have a certain function. Looked upon as merely physical objects, they fit into the physical or material conception of the world. Looked upon as functional objects, however, they do not. The concept of function never appears in physical descriptions of the world; it rather belongs to the intentional conceptualization. This is shown, for one thing, by the fact that attributions of function lend themselves to normative judgments -artifacts can perform their function well or badly -and normative statements make sense only within the intentional conceptualization.

It is a fundamental problem exactly how the intentional and the physical conceptualization are related. If functions are seen primarily as ‘added to’ the physical substrate, or as realized in physical objects, then the question remains how these functions are related to the mental states of human individuals -which, after all, form the core of the intentional conceptualization. If functions are seen primarily as patterns of mental states, on the other hand, and exist, so to speak, in the heads of the designers and users of artifacts only, then it becomes somewhat mysterious how a function relates to the physical substrate in a particular artifact. Given this state of affairs, the general aim of the research program is to develop a coherent conceptual framework for describing technical artifacts, which takes due account of their dual nature.

In order to realize this general aim, various topics related to the dual nature of technical artifacts are studied in conceptual and empirical detail. The following list gives an impression. We aim at an in-depth conceptual analysis of the notion of technical function as it is used in engineering practice; an exploration of the possibilities of a taxonomy of technical functions; comparing this account with the accounts of function given in other areas, especially biology and the social sciences; an account of the relation between technical function and physical structure, particularly the sense in which the physical structure constrains the technical function; an account of the process of designing technical artifacts, and of the way the structural description of the artifact as physical object and the functional description of the object as intentionally formed artifact are combined during this process (how do engineers succeed in bridging this gap?); an exploration of the possibilities of a rational reconstruction of designing technical artifacts, and particularly of the evaluation of design; an examination of how technical explanations in design are related to the various types of explanation that are traditionally distinguished in the philosophy of science.

Furthermore, we aim at developing an account of the intentional aspects of technical functions; analyzing the conceptual relation between the intentions, beliefs, and desires of designers and users on the one hand, and technical functions on the other; investigating of how designers communicate their intentional states to potential users; analysis of the normative judgments that apply to the functioning of artifacts, as well as the origin of this normativity; exploring the kind of social constraints involved in the design and use of technical artifacts; and clarifying in what sense(s) technical artifacts (telephones, cars) are different from such social artifacts as laws, universities, and money.

These issues also raise more general philosophical questions, in particular epistemological and ontological ones. In what sense is knowledge of functions different from knowledge of physical structures? Is it necessary to develop a separate epistemology of function attributions? Do technical artifacts have functional part-whole relations which are different from structural ones? Is the artifactuality and functionality of artifacts a relational property, and if so, what are its relata (individuals, social groups, other artifacts)? What are the identity criteria for technical artifacts, and what type of ontological commitments are involved in describing and using artifacts?

Final remarks

These topics and questions show that a focus on the design and production of technical artifacts introduces a host of philosophical problems -problems that so far have been addressed only marginally or not at all in the philosophy of technology. For us it is obvious that a proper philosophical analysis of many of these topics can be performed only on the basis of empirically adequate descriptions of engineering design.

The Technè Group
February 2001


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Researchers who have been involved in the Dual Nature of Technical Artifacts program are:

Jeroen de Ridder

Delft University of Technology

Randall Dipert

State University of New York at Buffalo

Maarten Franssen

Delft University of Technology

Wybo Houkes

Eindhoven University of Technology

Peter Kroes

Delft University of Technology

Anthonie Meijers

Eindhoven University of Technology

Marcel Scheele

Pieter Vermaas

Delft University of Technology

Kees Dorst 

Eindhoven University of Technology

Louis Bucciarelli 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Davis Baird

University of South Carolina

Ann Johnson

University of South Carolina

Joe Pitt

Virginia Tech

Sven Ove Hansson

Philosophy, KTH Stockholm

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  • Kroes, P. A. and A. W. M. Meijers, eds., (2000). The Empirical Turn in the Philosophy of Technology, Volume 20 of Research in Philosophy and Technology, Amsterdam: JAI/Elsevier Science.
  • Kroes, P. A. and A. W. M. Meijers (2002). The dual nature of technical artifacts: Presentation of a new research program. Techné6 (2), 4-8.
    • This is a presentation of the Dual Nature program in a special issue of Techné guest edited by Sven Ove Hansson and including commentaries on the Dual Nature program by Carl Mitcham, Davis Baird and Daniel Rothbart.
  • Houkes, W., P. E. Vermaas, K. Dorst, and M. J. de Vries (2002). Design and use as plans: An action-theoretical account. Design Studies23, 303.320.
  • Vermaas, P. E. and W. Houkes (2003). Ascribing functions to technical artefacts: A challenge to etiological accounts of functions. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science54, 261.289.
  • Houkes, W. and P. E. Vermaas (2004). Actions versus functions: A plea for an alternative metaphysics of artifacts. Monist87, 52.71.
  • Scheele, M. and P. Vermaas, eds., (2003). Handelingsontwerpers: Een Wijsgerige Visie op Ingenieurswerk. Best: Damon.
    • This is a book in Dutch containing contributions by
      Scheele, M. and P. Vermaas, Inleiding, 7-11.
      Kroes, P. and A. Meijers, Technische Artefacten, 15-27.
      Houkes, H. and P. Vermaas, Gebruiksplannen, 29-43.
      Vermaas, P., Functies, 45-54.
      De Ridder, J., Ontwerpen, Creativiteit en Gebruiksplannen, 55-67.
      Houkes, W., De Ingenieur weet raad, 71-81.
      Scheele, M., Plannen, Communicatie en Gebruikers, 83-96.
      Franssen, M., Normatieve Oordelen over Artefacten het Gebruik Ervan, 97-110.
      Brumsen, M., Gebruiksplannen en Verantwoordelijkheid, 111-120.
  • Scheele, M. (2005). The Proper Use of Artefacts: A Philosophical Theory of the Social Constitution of Artefact Functions, Volume 1 of Simon Stevin Series in the Philosophy of Technology. (PhD thesis)
  • De Ridder, J. (2007). Reconstructing Design, Explaining Artifacts: Philosophical Reflections on the Design and Explanation of Technical Artifacts, Volume 4 of Simon Stevin Series in the Philosophy of Technology (PhD thesis).

Results of the Dual Nature program have been presented and commented upon in a special issue of Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science guest edited by Peter Kroes and Anthonie Meijers:

  • Kroes P. and A. Meijers (2006) The dual nature of technical artefacts. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 1-4.
  • Vermaas, P. E. and W. Houkes (2006). Technical functions: a drawbridge between the intentional and structural natures of technical artefacts.Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 5-18.
  • Hanson, S.O. (2006). Defining technical function.Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 19-22.
  • Scheele, M. (2006). Function and use of technical artefacts: social conditions of function ascription.Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 23-36.
  • Preston, B. (2006). Social context and artefact function. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 37-41.
  • Franssen, M. (2006). The normativity of artifacts. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 42-57.
  • Dancy, J. (2006). The thing to use. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 58-61.
  • Vermaas, P. (2006). The physical connection: engineering function ascriptions to technical artefacts and their components. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 67-75.
  • Mumford, S. (2006). Function, structure, capacity. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 76-80.
  • De Ridder, J. (2006). Mechanistic artefact explanation. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 81-96.
  • McLaughlin , P. (2006). Mechanical philosophy and artefact explanation. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 97-101.
  • Houkes, W. (2006). Knowledge of artefact functions. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 102-113.
  • Morton, A. (2006). Finding the corkscrew. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 114-117.
  • Houkes, W. and A. Meijers (2006). The ontology of artefacts: the hard problem. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 118-131.
  • Baker, L.R. (2006). On the twofold nature of artefacts. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 132-136.
  • Kroes, P. (2006). Coherence of structural and functional descriptions of technical artefacts. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37,137-151.
  • Dipert, R.R. (2006).Coherence and engineering design. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science37, 152-158.

Further research
Several of our current projects can be considered as a successor of the succesfull "dual nature project", for example:

(still under construction)


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[1]1]The Technè Group started working on joint projects in 1998 at the workshop The Empirical Turn in the Philosophy of Technology held in Delft, the Netherlands. Since then, we have met at two more meetings and formulated the present research program. Currently involved in the Technè Group are Maarten Franssen, Wybo Houkes, Peter Kroes, Marcel Scheele, Pieter Vermaas (Delft University of Technology), Kees Dorst, Anthonie Meijers (Eindhoven University of Technology), Wendy Newstetter (Georgia Institute of Techology), Louis Bucciarelli (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Randall Dipert (State University of New York at Buffalo), Davis Baird (University of South Carolina), and Joseph Pitt (VirginiaTech).


Naam auteur: bjespersen
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