Human uniqueness in using tools and artifacts: flexibility, variety, complexity

Synthese 200 (6):1-22 (2022)
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The main goal of this paper is to investigate whether humans are unique in using tools and artifacts. Non-human animals exhibit some impressive instances of tool and artifact-use. Chimpanzees use sticks to get termites out of a mound, beavers build dams, birds make nests, spiders create webs, bowerbirds make bowers to impress potential mates, etc. There is no doubt that some animals modify and use objects in clever and sophisticated ways. But how does this relate to the way in which humans make and use objects to achieve their goals? To answer this question, this paper first presents a taxonomy of artifacts, identifying four overlapping categories, namely embodied, perceptual, cognitive, and affective artifacts. It then discusses definitions of animal tool-use, arguing that we need a more liberal approach, one that goes beyond the use of tools that are embedded in occurrent perception-action cycles. This paper ends by analysing how instances of animal tool and artifact-use can be classified according to the four identified categories, concluding that some animals use embodied, perceptual, cognitive, and affective artifacts. In this sense, humans are thus not unique in the kinds of tools and artifacts we use. What is unique, however, is our unprecedented flexibility and openness to deeply incorporate a large variety of complex tools and artifacts into our embodied, perceptual, cognitive, and affective systems.

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Richard Heersmink
Tilburg University


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