TopicsPhilosophy of Technology On Artifacts
Basic cognitive characteristics of artifact design

As the amount of cognition oriented analysis of technological design is rather limited, in this section references will also be made to a couple of applicable contributions in the Cognition Basis of Science. [Carruthers 2002] In his contribution Human Evolution and the Cognitive Basis of Science Steven Mithen, defines as basic characteristics of science, [Mithen 2002: 24] (with the remarks that, these are not philosophical definitions and that not all of these are necessarily essential):

1. Detailed observations of the natural world;

2. The generation of hypotheses with the potential of falsification;

3. The notion of causation;

4. The use of tools to extend human perception and cognition;

5. The accumulation of knowledge;

6.The use of metaphor and analogy to facilitate scientific thought and to aid communication.

Most of these are, indirectly (as technology makes use of scientific knowledge) and directly, applicable as characteristics of technology, with the exception of element 2. Falsification is applicable in a completely different way: the application of hypotheses or ideas will be falsified in practice, by testing during the design process, and after that by experience, whether or not the resulting artifact proves to be satisfying in actual use.

Based on these characteristics Mithen analyses the findings of prehistorical research and concludes that Neanderthaler and probably also earlier hominoid already showed characteristics 1 and 3 of these characteristics. Homo Sapiens between 50 000 and around 8000 years ago shows three cognitive foundations for science (and technology), the use of material culture to extend human perception and cognition, the accumulation of knowledge through time, and the use of metaphor and analogy.

(CS 3.3.1) The general assumption is that the capabilities to perform the basic functions for artifact design remained basically the same over these last 8000 years, be it that the performance might have been stimulated and improved by cultural development.

The notion of tacit knowing} has been coined by Michael Polanyi. [Polanyi1966) It is not restricted to designers. Sch\pol on argues that this can be recognized by many other professionals such as lawyers, and even accountants. [Schön 1983: 52). (Indeed every one who worked with financial professionals accountants, financial controllers etc. for the first time will be amazed by the speed how they find their way in large number of figures, and get at the significant information for example in complex balance sheets.)

Although direct empirical evidence that our brains integrate tools as extensions of our own bodies is quite recent, the understanding of this being the case is much older. Michael Polanyi used the example how a stick can be used to probe a cave and form an impression of the internal shape without seeing it or directly feeling it. More specific in relation to scientific and technological knowledge, Polanyi introduced the notion of tacit knowledge to indicate the large amount of implicit, non-linguistic knowledge that plays an essential role in human activities. [Polanyi 1966] The example of face recognition is often used to indicate this kind of knowledge, but also recognition of plants and minerals are good examples. We recognize familiar faces immediately in a large crowd, but we are not able to describe a face by the use of language. However, we are able to recognize a face from a photo, a painting and even from the minimal sketch or a caricature. In other words as Polanyi formulates it: we know more than we can say. (id: 4) Such tacit knowledge has a holistic character, it cannot be simply reduced to components. Polanyi refers to Gestalt psychology and to skills with the combination of knowing what and knowing how

True knowledge of a theory can be established only after it has been interiorized and extensively used to interpret experience. [id.: 21]

It is that interiorized knowledge that forms the base for playing with concepts where this knowledge is integrated.

With the example of the stereo viewer where our brains make a three dimensional image of two two-dimensional pictures, Polanyi argues that integration of available knowledge is done (partly?) without us being aware of it.

In his overview Tacit Knowledge and Engineering Design Paul Nightingale gives a number of references with empirical evidence that support Polanyi's view that much of our learning and problem solving ability is tacit. [Nightingale2009] As for example  Damasio states: it is quite obvious that the basic tacit capabilities developed in an earlier stage in evolution than the higher cognition and linguistic capabilities. [Damasio 1999: 30-31]

The acquisition process

It is generally accepted that embedded cognition and tacit knowledge are typically not acquired by book learning, but these will be based on what Dewey indicated as inquiring action. Gedenryd makes a division into exploration and experimentation. [Gedenryd 1998: 123-130]


\noindent Exploration, kind of (un)structural playing around, without a specific purpose, prediction or expectation, will not only provide the knowledge and understanding of the characteristics of the component or artifact, but as Gedenryd states with a refers to Dewey: to make changes which will elicit some previously unperceived qualities, and by varying conditions of perception shake loose some property which as it stands blinds or misleads us. Sch\"on characterises this kind of activity as: This is much of what an infant does when he explores the world around him.

Materials, and artifacts as components, with their forms and characteristics will be explored to acquire knowledge, or in colloquial language get a feeling.

\noindent Gedenryd defines experimentation as more powerful than exploration, in design it is the main method for testing and working out ideas. He argues, with reference to a case description in Schön's The reflective practitioner, that, in architecture, drawing en sketching are not just recording the end product of design, but these are tools to verify the feasibility of the ideas.
More in general, experiments show the limitations of simulations in the head, by interactive experimentations in the world. Experiments in the world can reveal the unanticipated consequences of ideas.

A significant part of the processing of the acquired knowledge can be unconscious. Marc Slors refers to a number of quotes from famous scientists about the moments of their discoveries. [Slors 2010] These quotes suggest that the solutions to tremendously complex problems apparently `just come to them', without conscious effort. Slors states that although the thought processes that lead from what these scientists already know to their discoveries were completely unconscious, it is not to be denied that these processes were only possible due to years of stage setting} including numerous conscious} episodes.

Rationality, Judgment and Decision making
Among the key processes in artifact design are a cluster of processes indicated as theoretical rationality, practical rationality, judgment and decision making. In daily life and in philosophy there is some overlap in the meaning of these indications. The majority of the philosophical activities on these subjects have their focus on ethics. Although ethics should play and often plays a role in artifact design, it is not a main element in the basic design process considered here. It will be included as an element in the overal value judgement(see 4.5).

Theoretical Rationality

It is quite common to divide rationality into theoretical - and practical rationality. The definition of Mele seems to be consistent with most other authors:

[t]theoretical or epistemic rationality is concerned with what is rational to believe, or with certain rational degree of belief. [Mele 2004]

This seems to relate to conscious activities only. However, as analysed both in the examples of  and the references above, interiorized and tacit knowledge play a substantial role in artifact design.

Practical Rationality
The view, among philosophers, of what should be understood by practical rationality is more diverse. It is generally understood that it relates to the desires of, the judgment of and decision to choose certain alternatives. Many authors state that the two rationalities are more or less strongly interrelated. These discussions are strongly related to the kind of discussion domain, with ethics as the most important domain. The element of deliberation plays a role in most of the domains. In artifact design it is an element exercised by every one who is involved in structuring one's thoughts. Almost every design activity today is team work. This deliberation is also a main element in the communication processes of the team involved.

In relation to action-theoretical-approaches practical rationality is concerned with what is rational to do, or to intend, or to desire. [Mele 2004: 30]
It takes a distinctly normative question as a starting point. Practical rationality thus is not concerned with matters of fact but with matters of value, reasons for desire.

The actual judgment of all aspects in the decision making process, finally appears not to be a pure rational process, as illustrated by the famous case of Damasio with patient Trefor. [Damasio 1994: chap 3] Mr Trefor had a tumour removed from his brain. After that operation he failed to function properly at home and at his work. However, he passed all standard cognition tests. In the last test he realised an above average score with his capability to react to social situations and account for the reasons and consequences of certain decisions, including the potential consequences. In other words his practical rationality capability showed good results. However, as he himself said `yet I would still not know what to decide'. With the removal of the brain parts that also relate to emotional activities he had lost that particular capability to weigh the values of the alternatives and to make decisions. Part of that weighing can be done rationally, but as various incompatible values are involved it requires more, or rather, a different capability to compare and value each alternative in a proper way to come to decisions. A significant part of this process is performed at a sub-conscious level, as is also demonstrated by various experiments with sub-conscious influences. Human beings are very capable of giving rational explanations, reasons for their behaviour, be it notoriously not very reliable.


(C3.4.1.)} The development of artifacts can be understood as the results of countless numbers of transitions, small design changes. Only a small number is observable as realised artifacts, but most are intermediate results in the mind of designers and design teams.

(C3.4.2.)} Existing artifacts form the input of the design process, not in isolation, but in combination with all kinds of related information including what Houkes and Vermaas called the use plan}. The use plan} is a notion to indicate the understanding 'how to use the artifact to perform its function in supporting a users action'.

(C.3.4.3.)}There is no basic difference in this process between the historical developments and the design processes of individual designers and design teams.

(C3.4.4)} Two different conceptual approaches in the analysis of artifact design can be observed. There is the analytical oriented approach where artifact design is considered as based on rational reasoning. This approach is applicable in case of routine design with relatively small modifications of existing artifacts and in case combinations of existing artifacts. In these cases prescribing methodologies are applicable.

But as various authors argued and demonstrated, conceptual and more innovative design steps often require a more integral process of understanding based on interiorized tacit knowledge. The capability of this way of designing requires an innate base, that can not be learned, but when this base is available it can be further developed by training and experience.

 The above made observations can be summarised in a diagram as given below.\fn{This is an extension of the diagram given by Bryan Lawson. [Lawson1980}: 149)}

figure 5.2 creative process \normalsize

Remark: The judgment activity in the diagram includes both the rational deliberation and the unconscious weighing of incommensurable values.

How the complex, partly unconscious, transformation processes can be understood will be the main subject of the section  .

Philosophygarden        of Hans Tromp