Aristotle on Artificial Products

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Book Chapter


In the contemporary discussion of artifacts, philosophers grapple with what is known as the continuum problem—the problem of drawing a clear distinction between what is and what is not artificial. They begin with the standard definition of artifacts as “objects made intentionally, in order to accomplish some purpose.” But this definition turns out to be rather vague; instead, it raises a number of questions. For example, if chairs and beds are the obvious instances of artifacts, then are nonhuman animal products (such as spider webs and beaver dams) also artifacts? Is it possible for nonhuman animals to ‘intend’ and create something? And why should intentionality be the essential defining feature of artifacts? For instance, if a concrete path constructed for the purpose of walking from one building on a college campus to another is an obvious example of an artifact, what about a path unintentionally created in a grassy field by students repeatedly walking along the same line from one building to another? What about a path created by an elephant herd? Do not all these paths serve exactly the same purpose? What about the degree of modification? For instance, if a glass paperweight with a beautiful design is an obvious example of an artifact, then what about a rock that is used as a paperweight? Does the naturally occurring rock become an artifact by simply taking it inside one’s house to use for a specific purpose? And, what about some other things that are created by human beings, such as sawdust, a musical performance, a society, or a state? Are they all artifacts?

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