TopicsPhilosophy of Technology On Artifacts
Design considered as causal actions first: 2011-10-12
last: 2011-11-09

The question to be answered in this section:

How can we explain / understand the design process?

As worked out in action theory  final cause can de justified as a causal explanation of action. However, this is not sufficient to explain design of functional artifacts. A very valuable input for our analysis is found with Aristotle. He analyzed the artifacts, the things not caused by nature, in terms of four causes: material cause, form cause, efficient cause and final cause. [Aristotle: Physics book II 194-198] These basic causes usually work together, as he explains with the example of the house builder who has knowledge about the form of the house and the matter, the bricks, beams and so forth. [id.: 194a/25] In Metaphysics Aristotle refers to stones, bricks and timbers as a potential house. As defined by covering bodies and chattels and other similar differentia one speaks of an actual house. In case these are combined one speaks of the third kind of substance, which is composed of matter and form. [Aristotle: Metaphysics book VIII-1043a15] Aristotle indicated these combined causes as the cause of unity (see quote and reference).

Aristotle remarked: This then perhaps exhausts the number of ways in which the term 'cause' is used. [id.: 195a1] In other words the meaning of the term cause by Aristotle has no other than what he defined in listing the usage. In a similar way the meaning of cause in this essay is defined by the similar use by Aristotle in that book of Physics. (And the way Heidegger defined his usage)

The following definitions include the interrelation of the causal factors. These interrelations are consistent with Aristotle's cause of unity as mentioned above

 [def] The material of the material cause means: that what can be used to realize the form and the function (final cause),

[def] The form of the form cause can be defined as how the material can be used to reach the goal, (final cause, the intended use of the artifact)

An interesting example directly related to Aristotle's reference to house building can be found in Steven Mithen's Human Evolution and the Cognitive Basis of Science. He refers to the development of a completely new building technique in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic era (PPN). In the PPN-A period small circular dwellings were built. Around 9000 years ago in the so called PPN-B period rectangular buildings, using either mud-bricks or stone were built, frequently with two storeys. [Davis2010: 39]

Here we see the causal relation between material and form. Using tree branches and twigs, building a square form is more difficult, a circular form is more stable and one loses material when one has to cut the material in the length of side. On the other hand, when building with standard sized mud-bricks, a square form makes sense.

As will be worked out in this section, and demonstrated in the examples from agriculture and semiconductors, this model of four different causes still appears to be applicable in understanding technological developments and artifact design. The key capability to realize artifacts, changing the form of material, is quite common in the animal world. The next and most important key capability, the deliberate action to combine materials, seems to be a specific human capability.

Heidegger in his search for the instrumental essence of technology refered to the four causes defined by Aristotle. In Die Technik he analysed the coming in existence of artifacts:

The instrumental approach does not give us the essence. We have to look for the essence of the instrumental. A means to end is what works in the direction of a goal. Where goals are pursued, means are used, where the instrumental masters, there prevails causality. [Heidegger 1962:8]

Then, he refered to the four causalities as introduced by Aristotle: The four causalities bring what is-not into reality. They `occasion' (Ver-an-lassen) the artifact as a kind of revealing.

He used an example of a silver sacrificial chalice (Opferschale). [Heidegger1962}: 8-11) It is not just the silversmith that brings about the chalice. The silver is co-responsible (mitschuld), the chalice is indebted to the silver. But not just to the silver, the silver does not bring about the chalice, it is the aspect (eidos) of chaliceness (schalenhaftem) that as form cause is co-responsible.

For the translation of Heideggers wordings into English I have made use of the translation by William Lovitt as in [Scharff 2003: 252-264]. Some typical Heideggerian terms are added between ().

Causes and knowledge bases

It is quite evident that design activities are related to knowledge. In general knowledge can be related not only to the basic causes like wood and stone with their basic characteristics, the concept of forms like roof and hinge are independent of the material, efficient cause relates to the knowledge of how things perform and final cause relates to knowledge in relation to the goals, but also to combinations of these causes relate to as kind of standard solution knowledge and experience base.

Value as a causal factor

Reconsidering the lines of thought and reasoning in design processes I recognised the above mentioned causal factors, but then I realized I missed one important factor: the cost factor, or to be more precise value as the result between cost and yield (not only in terms of money as will be discussed below). It is striking that, while value is considered to be the difference between ad-hoc tools and artifacts, as mentioned in Views on Artifacts, this aspect has received little attention in philosophy of technology in general and in the various specific reflections on artifacts in particular. A few exceptions with attention to the factor of value are:

Mario Bunge, in his Philosophical Inputs and Outputs of Technology} gives an interesting survey of the interaction of technology and philosophy. He observed that one of the differences between science and technology is the orientation of technology on value, whereas pure science is driven only by its own interest. [Bunge 1979:177]

Ibo van der Poel states even more explicitly:

[v]alue is at the heart of engineering design. Design creates value for companies, users and ultimately, for society. [Poel 2009: 973]

In this subsection I will make it plausible that, to understand the design process, it makes sense to consider value as a kind of additional causal element. To be more precise value should be understood as the net value of an artifact. This means the value minus costs has to be considered as a causal driving factor, not in isolation but like the earlier mentioned causalities usually in combination with those other causalities. Although not mentioned by Aristotle, it seems evident that also with his example of building a house, cost plays a dominant role in the decisions on size and materials. In the example above of the plough development, the replacement of the wooden beam of the ploughs by standard iron bars was related to the cost of the material.
Value is also directly related with the basic causes. In general value is considered to be related to a bearer. A bearer can be any kind of concrete or abstract entity or state of affairs. [Hsieh 2007] In this context the four causalities have to be considered as bearer of positive - and negative (costs)values, but that does not exclude other bearers, such as status. The cost to be considered in this kind of value related causation, should be seen as the total cost of ownership (TCO). This includes not only the initial cost but also the cost to maintain the artifacts function and today we even have to add the cost of demolishing it. With all these considerations it should be clear that cost and value are variable in time. In particular the value might change relatively fast with new technological developments.

Value should include not only the direct economic effect of the application of the artifact over its economic life cycle. Beth Preston refers to the example of uniforms, not serving as clothes only, but these have specific concurrent secondary functions. [Preston2009: 215] Uniforms indicate that the person wearing it belong to a certain group and or practices a certain function. In a similar way one can recognize that a house or a building in general represents a certain status, it can also include the function of being an investment. In general aesthetical aspects and ethical considerations are to be taken into account of the nett value.

The aesthetics add value

Although the value of functional artifacts is primarily determined by the way and efficiency to provide the use plan}, also the appearance can contribute to its value. Heidegger's example of the sacrificial chalice can be seen as a good example. The choice for silver and the decorations made by the silversmith add value to match the requirement of the sacrificial purpose of the artifact. Aesthetic aspects play an important, and often a dominant, role in the design of almost all functional artifacts today. In this context we see 'design' used as an adjective. Even for production equipment in factories we see aesthetical, industrial design being used to give the equipment an attractive appearance.

The ethical aspects

Since the middle of the last century the strong growth of technology has been, more systematically, brought in relation to ethics. As Bunge formulated: technology needs some ethical bridling. [Bunge 1979:179] Moral decision making is value oriented. Ibo van der Poel refers to an interesting example where environmental considerations lead to the decision to close the Eastern Scheldt estuary not by a fixed dam, but by a more open, and more expensive, barrier that can be closed in case of storm floods. [Poel 2009: 1001] It is not easy to measure ethical value in terms of cost. Therefore a number of ethical aspects are made explicit through requirements in the form of, preferably international, standard norms. For example, safety aspects of equipment and tools shall confirm to international safety standards. Environmental considerations stopped, by such norms, the usage of certain chemicals in cooling equipment.

Incommensurable values

Although the consequences of the basic causation often might be expressed in an applicable currency, this is in general difficult or impossible in particular in case of major innovation steps, and in an early stage of the design phase. This means that decisions will be based on weighing incommensurable values. As mentioned, with some of the examples in appendix 3 and 4, often so called early adopters bring a new trend in artifacts into usage even in case the direct economic advantage for them is questionable or even negative. In such case elements like the status of being advanced} have to be considered as intangible value. This point of decision making in case of incommensurable values will be an issue discussed, but not really solved, in chapter 5.


The basic causes (final cause, form cause, material cause, efficient cause and the value cause) can be considered as somehow, somewhere being in the mind as essential elements in the artifact design process. With:

The material of the material cause means: that what can be used to realize the form and the function (final cause),


The form of the form cause can be defined as how the material can be used to reach the goal, (final cause, the intended use of the artifact)

As indicated, in the example of semiconductor and system developments, material can also be a virtual design element as a subsystem in a larger configuration.
It should be noted that the final-, form-, material, and efficient cause here are used only as causes in cognitive action processes. This is a much restricted use than Aristotle's' general and metaphysical use.

As argued above tangible and intangible values play a cognitive causal role in functional artifact design.

The diagram in the figure below updates the reference model of section DITT  with the results of above.

xx causal model 

The analysis made in this subsection did not cover the aspect of what could be called distributed cognition. In many cases in the past and almost always today, the design of artifacts is teamwork. For the mainly causal and cognitive analysis made in this essay it is less relevant whether certain steps from one artifact to an improved version have been made by the same actor, the same team, or by a sequence of actors and teams. In addition to that seeing an existing artifact designed elsewhere and recognizing its shortcomings often leads to improvements.

Causes vs conditions of artifact design

The four causalities are directly related to the artifact design and realization. In other contexts one considers population growth, shortage of energy, floods, a war situation, etc. to cause the need for artifacts and thus artifact design. This is an indirect relation to the artifact itself. These situations  "created" the conditions to stimulate and direct the design of the artifact, not the artifact itself. The basic causations can be recognized directly when analysing the artifact and its use plan in relation to the the design process.

Communication, information exchange of invented improvements elsewhere, as it is common today, formed an important factor in the start up phase of modern technology, with for example since the beginning of the 19th century specific agricultural magazines and newspapers as indicated in the examples of agricultural artefacts.

The various aspects of what is indicated with communication are usually identified under the umbrella of Social Construction of Technology (SCOT). These communication aspects include not only the common ground of the community of designers and users but also the effect of new input from elsewhere as indicated in the descriptions of the examples.

Hans Jonas, noticed that since the early human artifacts, revolutionary inventions occurred more by accident than by design. Historically, short periods of fast improvements were followed by hundreds or even thousands of years of stable usage with only small improvements.

On the whole (not counting upheavals), the great classical civilizations had comparatively early reached a point of technological saturation, an optimum in equilibrium of means with acknowledged needs and goals and had little cause later to go beyond it.[Jonas 1979]

Jones identified modern technology by its restless nature. The driving force of the direct need to solve essential problems, is replaced by autonomous progress, not only of technology and science, as a cultural condition.

The considerations given above can be visualised in a reference model diagram


Philosophygarden        of Hans Tromp