Resource for Hegel + CHAT Symposium, April 2013

Artefacts and Mediation

The cultural life which is constitutive of human beings is possible only because human actions are always mediated by the use of artefacts. Human actions are directed to an object, or goal, but never directly. We always use some artefact to achieve the goal in a human way. The object appears to us through the artefact, through the action with the artefact. That is, our actions are mediated by the use of artefacts.

Artefacts are material products which have ideal properties because they are incorporated in human activity; that is, they have human significance. They are usually also products of human labour, but not necessarily. As a natural material object, an artefact is first of all a product of Nature, which has been turned to a human purpose.

Hegel recognised three kinds of artefact: tools (which include cultivated land and domestic animals as well as tools, buildings, machines and so on), words (and all kinds of semiotic devices and symbols as well as both the spoken and written word, and natural phenomena such as the stars) and the human body. Our bodies, like other artefacts are natural material objects which, for better or for worse, have been shaped by human activity.

Without the use of artefacts, human actions would be nothing more than atoms bouncing around in a vacuum; every action would be isolated and individual. The use of artefacts provided to us by those around us, produced and generally understood by the entire community, and passed down to us from previous generations – this is what connects us all together in a species, a culture and a community; it is what makes us truly human.

We say that artefacts mediate our actions because we place them in between ourselves, our will, and our object. Our actions are therefore “artefact-mediated actions.”

Although artefacts are “ideal” in the sense that we ascribe social significance, or meaning, to them and they are adapted to serve social purposes, they remain material objects. Even the spoken word, which is nothing more than a pressure wave in the air which dissipates in a couple of seconds, is just as much a material object as a battleship, a landscape or a banknote. Because they are material objects, as well as having culturally-determined ideal properties, they are Universal. Everyone can see or hear or touch them. Even if we all ascribe a different significance to an artefact, it is the same material object for anyone. It is the universal moment of any action. Even though spoken words last only as long as the action of uttering the word, in general, artefacts have a more or less eternal existence because they are part of the material universe. We can read the hieroglyphics drawn by an Egyptian scribe 3,000 years ago. We might not understand the significance of them, but we can see and touch them, and in fact, it has proved possible to reconstruct life in ancient Egypt to a great extent simply by studying the artefacts they left behind them. So it is thanks to the enduring, material properties of artefacts that human purposes endure and may be acted out again and again and continued down the ages. Equally, because artefacts are material, they are interconnected with the entire universe, and in using them in human action we remain ourselves always both a force of nature, obedient to its ways, as well as free beings able to pursue our own ends.

Our thinking is mediated by artefacts just as our behaviour is mediated by artefacts, because our actions are artefact-mediated. Our use of artefacts is incorporated into our thinking from the very moment we begin to use artefacts (including our own limbs and hands) and it is fair to say that the material forms of artefacts we use pervade our every thought. Because these artefacts are material, and come to us as the inheritance of our whole community, we say they are Universal.