topicsPhilosophy of TechnologyOn Artifacts

Methodological considerations

This section clarifies the basic structure of reasoning in the other sections  and adds some remarks about and justifications of the chosen methodology.

The section How Designers Work  gives a short analyses of the development of artifacts in order to define a reference model for design processes as the basis for further analyses. This includes the use of the notion use plan as introduced by Houkes and Vermaas. Then the way of working of designers is analysed with the role of required capabilities.

Exploring the cognitive processes related to design runs in basic restrictions. The main problem is that we, human beings, are quite restricted to analyse our own cognitive processes. As among others Thomas Metsinger explains, this is fundamental because the brains evolved to act in the fastest and most efficient way to survive. Monitoring how the brain works internally would not contribute to survival, in contrary, it would slow down operational processes and cost extra energy. [Metzinger 2009]

Three different approaches to analyse the cognitive processes can be considered, as summarized below.

Observation of capabilities

Nancy J. Nersessian summarizes, with various references in her contribution for The Cognitive Basis of Science, three different methods to be distinguished in the analysis of the cognition processes of Science. [Nersessian 2002] The same distinction seems to be applicable in the cognitive oriented analysis of artifact design.

1. In vivo studies are studies based on observations in natural settings. For the study of real breakthrough scientific discoveries this would be just luck when such a study project would coincide with such a discovery. The same is true for real breakthroughs in design. In both cases smaller steps can be observed by anyone, preferably with an understanding of the design aspects. Such as one of the team members with an eye for such processes. Some examples are given in example: semiconductor development

2. In vitro studies try to analyse the capabilities required for design activities in specific test environments. The number of reports is quite limited, but Donald Schön describes an interesting example as will be summarized in How Designer Work.

3. Sub specie historiae analysis tries to catch the basic cognitive processes by analysing historical developments. As she mentions, underlying the use of the cognitive historical method is a continuum hypotheses. [Nersessian 2002: 135] This hypotheses assumes that the cognitive practices employed in science (and in technology), did not change over time and these are extensions of the kind cognitive practices humans employ in coping with their environment and problem solving of a more ordinary kind.
The example sections give examples of transitions in historical developments of some functional artifacts.

Although the possibilities to analyse the basic cognitive process are limited, the examples appear to be useful to support the analysis of action causality made in section causal factors

Observation of incapabilities

In a way the observations of limitations and incapabilities are the most valuable because they can be very useful to identify specific functions that cannot be easily identified as subfunctions of complete functional capabilities. Two kinds of incapability situations can be distinguished: innate- and trauma caused incapabilities.

Examples of innate incapabilities are mentioned  with the observation mentioned by Donald Schön and in the examples of semiconductor developments with the example of analog circuit design and with the example of the functional digital design. Unfortunately these examples have not been analysed in more detail, they only give a rough indication of the missing capability.

More details are available in some examples of the trauma caused incapabilities, because in case of the change caused by trauma, the missing function is more clear and subject of medical, neurological investigations. Among the best known examples are the ones analysed and published by Antonio R. Damasio such as that of Patient Elliot. As this one concerns a capability that is also essential in design processes it will be taken as a main example in section How designers work.

Empirical neuro scientific evidence

A completely different approach is not based on the observation of capabilities but on views of the neural processes. New measurement methods already did yield information about cognitive processes while monitored by functional-MRI brain scans. Results of these methods probably will increase our understanding of design processes in futere.

The section causal facors analyses the causation aspects of action theory applied on design actions. The historical concept of causation will be reviewed. In the area of design actions the currently common meaning of causation, the mechanical causation as Hume identified with one billiard ball colliding with an other, falls short in explanation power for theory of actions in general and even more specific in understanding design processes. The versatility of causal concepts derived from Aristotle's four causations will be illustrated with a couple of examples mainly from two distinct domains, namely design of agricultural - and electronic artifacts as described in example sections. The model of causation, could be based on evidence, namely the results of the design processes as these can be observed with real artifact developments and interpreted as causal factors. That does not imply that these causes can always really be one to one related and reduced to basic mental (neural) states/processes yet, if at all.

It goes beyond the scope of this sections to work out the similar causal factors and cognition processes of animals like chimpanzees and elephants when they select and even adapt the size of a stick, respectively tree branch for a certain purpose. Other interesting examples could be found with nest building of birds and bevers. The basic shape concepts might be innate, but the birds and the bevers have to select and judge the material for its purpose.

As will be concluded:
Pragmatism and Phenomenology can form a consistent, partly complementary, base for cognition oriented philosophical analysis in this case of the design of functional artifacts.

There are fundamental limitations to get a reductionist understanding of the mental processes, different methods and views have to be combined, in a pragmatic phenomenological analysis to improve the understanding of design processes.

Philosophygarden        of Hans Tromp