Presenter: Gregory Bamford

The two main views of artifact function in philosophy of design are the traditional common sense view of function as intended effect and the etiological or evolutionary view which, based on a biological analogy, forms part of a project for a unified account of function. The intentionalist view is relatively undeveloped and, partly as a consequence, the evolutionary view has had something of an easy ride. Versions of the latter face several problems: do novel types and failed types of artifacts not have functions? How are we to account for an artifact that is not a copy or reproduction of any other artifact and is not itself meant or practically able to be copied, like the Sydney Opera House or a bottle of Hill of Grace Shiraz? Is there enough teleology in the biological account to stretch to artifacts? These problems point to the need for a better account of what it is to design or select (and make) the objects we ascribe functions to, for which the resources of the intentionalist view are useful. A mistaken presupposition of critics of this view is that the intentions of individuals are to be taken as sufficient for explaining function. But consider the humble fire escape. The historian, Sara Wermiel (2003), describes it as a “publicly constructed artifact”, one that was “called into being” by legislation. Fire exits have or have had many interesting properties: no effective market demand, manifest inadequacy, exits need not be used as exits to be reproduced for the purpose, and the uses or the goals users have for them have often been in conflict, though not typically over what their function is. An adequate account of the function of the device is based on production rather than consumption, but referring only to the intentions of individual producers will not do the job.


Forgan Smith Building (1),
St Lucia campus