peirce and artifacts: long, delete if uninterested

From: Mike Cole (
Date: Thu Dec 23 2004 - 15:17:51 PST

Now to the question of artifacts and Pierce, beware the quagmire of
cole's aging mind.

Don began us on this path by writing:

In a rash moment I once suggested that Peirce's concept of sign might
elucidate the concept of artifact in CHAT. That may be because I never
had a very clear idea of artifact
(never mind object!).

Here is a shortened version of what I wrote about the concept of
artifact in Cultural Psychology, chapter 5, with some commentary to
highlight its relevance in this discussion, or at least, in engaging
the issue as raised by Don.

an artifact is an aspect of the material world that has been modified
over the history of its incorporation in goal directed human action.
By virtue of the changes wrought in the process of their creation and
use, artifacts are simultaneously ideal (conceptual) and material.
They are manufactured in the process of goal directed human actions.
They are ideal in that their material form has been shaped by their
participation in the interactions of which they were previously a part
and which they mediate in the present.
Defined in this manner, the properties of artifacts apply with equal
force whether one is considering language/speech or the more usually
noted forms of artifacts such as tables and knives which constitute
material culture. What differentiates the word "table" from an actual
table is the relative prominence of their material and ideal aspects
and the kinds of coordinations they afford. No word exists apart from
its material instantiation (as a configuration of sound waves, hand
movements, writing, or neuronal activity), whereas every table
embodies an order imposed by thinking human beings. (I quote D'Andrade
to the effect that a table is an idea reified in a different medium).
The dual material-conceptual nature of artifacts discussed by the
Russian philosopher, Evald Ilyenkov (1977, 1979), who based his
approach on that of Marx and Hegel. In Ilyenkov's system, ideality
results from "the transforming, form-creating, activity of social
beings, their aim-mediated, sensuously objective activity" (Quoted in
Bakhurst, 1990, p. 182). From this perspective, the form of an
artifact is more than a purely physical form.
(Bakhurst, 1990, p. 182): "Rather, in being created as an embodiment
of purpose and incorporated into life activity in a certain way--being
manufactured for a reason and put into use - the natural object
acquires a significance. This significance is the "ideal form" of the
object, a form that includes not a single atom of the tangible
physical substance that possess it."
This view also asserts the primal unity of the material and the
symbolic in human cognition. This starting point is important because
it provides a way of dealing with the long standing debate (about
whether) culture (is) located external to the individual, as the
products of prior human activity or should it be located internally as
a pool of knowledge and beliefs?
… The concept of artifacts as products of human history that are
simultaneously ideal and material offers a way out of this debate. At
the same time, as I hope to demonstrate, it provides a useful point of
contact between cultural-historical psychology and contemporary
anthropological conceptions of culture in mind.

The Russian cultural-historical psychologists used a triangle to
picture the structural relation of the individual to environment that
arises pari parsu with artifact mediation (see Figure 5.1).
Simplifying their view for purposes of explication,
        [Insert Figure 5.1 here]
the functions termed "natural" or "unmediated") functions are those
along the base of the triangle; the "cultural" ("mediated") functions
are those where the relation between subject and environment (subject
and object, response and stimulus, etc.) are linked through the vertex
of the triangle (artifacts).
There is some temptation when viewing this triangle to think that when
cognition is mediated, thought follows a path through the top line of
the triangle that "runs through" the mediator. However, the emergence
of mediated action does mean that the mediated path replaces the
natural one just as the appearance of culture in phylogeny does not
replace phylogeny by culture. One does not cease to stand on the
ground and look at the tree when one picks up an axe to chop the tree
down; rather, the incorporation of tools into the activity creates a
new structural relation in which the cultural (mediated) and natural
(unmediated) routes operate synergistically; through active attempts
to appropriate their surroundings to their own goals, people
incorporate auxiliary means (including, very significantly) other
people, into their actions, giving rise to the distinctive, triadic
relationship of subject-medium-object.

        I am not sure how to give a better answer than this, Don. Peter Jones
will tell you that Ilyenkov and I have it all wrong. I came with the
idea of fusing material and ideal in artifacts, and artifacts
(understood to include secondary and tertiary forms, a la Wartfosky)
while teaching communication and then was thrilled to discover from
David that the idea had been thought of before by Ilyenkov – maybe, if
a professional philosopher had the same idea it actually had some
merit! I continue to believe it.

I am not sure how this relates to the icon/index/sign/symbol/meaning
issues. Clearly there are different forms of mediators/artifacts and
the distinctions seem worthwhile to me in various contexts. The
context I am worrying about now is the phylogenetic origins of homo
sapiens and ape/human differences. I am re-reading Luria and
Vygotsky's early book on the history of behavior in this regard as
well as a ton of stuff in hominization and primate literatures as well
as human developmental psych stuff I am more familiar with. Noble and
Davidson's Human Evolution, Language, and Mind is being particularly
stimulating with a clear discussion of sign/symbol differences and
their relation to meaning. If there is interest I can try summarizing
some of their ideas here.

Two thoughts to end this already too long, too incomplete note.

1. Leslie White, who I quote some in Cultural Psychology, has lots of
interesting things to say about these issues, but the phrase that
keeps recurring to me is that symbol using humans, encountering,
talking about, or thinking about water may have in mind (refer to?) a
physical substance that, to humans, feels wet, quences thirst, etc. or
they may think of "life everlasting." Hard to think of a bonobo
engaging in that sort of action.
2. Whenever I want to illustrate that dual material/ideal nature of
language (no one seems to be able to remember that it has any
materiality at all!) I ordinarily begin to speak Russian, asking if
anyone in the room can understand what I am saying. For those who
cannot, it is clear that the odd physical packages of sound do not
loose their materiality and that they are artifacts in the literal
sense given above. But where did the ideality disappear to?

Where, where did the ideality come from in the first place? From
having those sound package mediating joint activity. So that to share
meaning is to share a common history with the artifacts of language.
Never totally share, of coure, but never fully understand either. When
there are Russian speakers in the room, the conversation is enriched
by talking about the multiple forms of history of mediation that can
create meaning for the purposes at hand.

I think the words of a human language can functions as both signs and
symbols, the difference resting in the range of meanings that they can
be recruited to enable in different circumstances, but this is
probably either too vague or wrong.

Again, thanks for your help, one and all.

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