Art vs Nature: The Ontology of Artifacts in the Long Middle Ages

A special issue of Philosophies (ISSN 2409-9287).

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (30 June 2022) | Viewed by 20752

Special Issue Editors


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Guest Editor
Department of Philosophy, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden
Interests: medieval philosophy; environmental philosophy; metaphysics of artifacts

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Guest Editor
Department of Philosophy, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden
Interests: medieval philosophy; environmental philosophy; metaphysics of artifacts

E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
Newman Institute, 753 09 Uppsala, Sweden
Interests: medieval philosophy; environmental philosophy; metaphysics of artifacts

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues, 

What is an artifact? What distinguishes artifacts from natural things? What is the difference between artifacts and social constructs? While the world we live in is increasingly artificial, such questions about the ontological status of artifacts have become hotly debated in contemporary philosophy. It is often claimed that the Modern era is inseparable from a new way of conceiving the physical universe and the place of human beings in nature. Prior to the modern ambition of “conquering nature” and the alliance between experimental science and technology, the Middle Ages witnessed technological inventions and social transformations that deeply influenced the divide between nature and culture. Although many studies have been devoted to the concept of nature in the Middle Ages, no comprehensive study has been dedicated to the medieval reflections on the status of artifacts. Yet, the status of artifacts is a frequently discussed theme in medieval philosophy. Being at the center of different related problems, it is of primary importance for understanding the new conception of the world that eventually arose at the dawn of the Modern period. Indeed, the case of artifacts was a topic classically discussed in relation to the definition of nature. Since an artifact is—by definition—a non-natural object, the medieval discussions around the status of artifacts reflect the evolution of the categories of motion, finality and intentionality that were part of the concept of “nature”. Usually defined as accidental wholes, artifacts were generally regarded as less fundamental than the substances from which they are made, on the basis that artifacts are mere reconfigurations of material substances arranged by human beings. However, a new tendency to consider “natural things” themselves as mere arrangements of material parts toward the end of the Middle Ages contributed to blur the distinction between artificial and natural things and entailed a new approach to these concepts. Due to the dominant religious framework of the Middle Ages and the familiar analogy of God as a craftsman, the status of artifacts also involved an analysis of the essence of creation and the different modes of producing something. Besides, the divide between artifacts and nature stimulated reflections on the role of culture and conventions in the production of artifacts. From this point of view, tools, works of arts but also more abstract social objects like money were part of the “construction of social reality” that underwent radical changes in the Middle Ages and that philosophers had to theorize. The aim of this Special Issue is dedicated to the ontology of artifacts in the long Middle Ages, which includes Arabic and Byzantine philosophy and stretches into early modern philosophy, is twofold: on the one hand, it will make possible a better appreciation of the rich discussions that led to a new way of conceiving the world; on the other hand, it is hoped that the studies presented here will contribute to the ongoing debates on artifacts by highlighting the original but yet poorly studied theories designed in the Middle Ages on this topic.

Prof. Dr. Henrik Lagerlund
Dr. Sylvain Roudaut
Dr. Erik Åkerlund
Guest Editors

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Keywords

  • artifacts
  • nature
  • final causes
  • god
  • design
  • metaphysics
  • medieval
  • modern
  • science

Published Papers (8 papers)

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Research

15 pages, 292 KiB  
Article
Nature, Artifice, and Discovery in Descartes’ Mechanical Philosophy
by Deborah Jean Brown
Philosophies 2023, 8(5), 85; https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies8050085 - 14 Sep 2023
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 2070
Abstract
It is often assumed that in the collapse of the Aristotelian distinction between art and nature that results from the rise of mechanical philosophies in the early modern period, the collapse falls on the side of art. That is, all of the diversity [...] Read more.
It is often assumed that in the collapse of the Aristotelian distinction between art and nature that results from the rise of mechanical philosophies in the early modern period, the collapse falls on the side of art. That is, all of the diversity among natures that was explained previously as differences among substantial forms came to be seen simply as differences in arrangements of matter according to laws instituted by the “divine artificer”, God. This paper argues that, for René Descartes, the collapse occurs on both sides. Natures are artefacts of God, and human artefacts, under some conditions, can be classified as natures or, at least, continuous within nature. Drawing on developments across both horticulture and engineering in the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as Descartes’ mechanical philosophy, this paper explores challenges to the Aristotelian nature/art distinction. The question then is what, in the advent of this collapse, are human artificers doing when they construct artefacts? Are they replicating God’s powers by creating new natures, or are they doing something else, and if so, what might that be? It is argued that we should view human invention for Descartes not as creating new natures so much as discovering them. These findings have consequences for how we interpret Descartes’ use of the term “nature” in relation to automata and other artefacts produced by human hands. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Art vs Nature: The Ontology of Artifacts in the Long Middle Ages)
21 pages, 1253 KiB  
Article
Clocks, Automata and the Mechanization of Nature (1300–1600)
by Sylvain Roudaut
Philosophies 2022, 7(6), 139; https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies7060139 - 9 Dec 2022
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 2826
Abstract
This paper aims at tracking down, by looking at late medieval and early modern discussions over the ontological status of artifacts, the main steps of the process through which nature became theorized on a mechanistic model in the early 17th century. The adopted [...] Read more.
This paper aims at tracking down, by looking at late medieval and early modern discussions over the ontological status of artifacts, the main steps of the process through which nature became theorized on a mechanistic model in the early 17th century. The adopted methodology consists in examining how inventions such as mechanical clocks and automata forced philosophers to modify traditional criteria based on an intrinsic principle of motion and rest for defining natural beings. The paper studies different strategies designed in the transitional period 1300–1600 for making these inventions compatible with classical definitions of nature and artifacts. In the first part of the paper, it is shown that, even if virtually all medieval philosophers acknowledged an ontological distinction between artifacts and natural beings, these different strategies demonstrate a growing concern about the consistency of the art/nature distinction. The next part of the paper studies how mechanical clocks, even before the Scientific Revolution, served as theoretical models for applying mechanistic views to different objects (be they cosmological, physical or biological). The epistemological function of clocks appears to stem from different factors (like the specific manufacturing of late medieval clocks as well as the evolution of 16th-century mechanics) that are listed in this second part of the paper. These factors, combined with the definitional issues raised by automata, explain that clocks became the symbol of a new approach to natural philosophy, characterized by the collapse of the art/nature distinction and the “mechanization of nature”. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Art vs Nature: The Ontology of Artifacts in the Long Middle Ages)
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9 pages, 274 KiB  
Article
Suárez’ Minimal Realism of Artifacts
by Erik Åkerlund
Philosophies 2022, 7(6), 133; https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies7060133 - 25 Nov 2022
Viewed by 1854
Abstract
The article places Francisco Suárez (1548–1617) and his position on the ontological status of artifacts against the Medieval philosophical background. It is concluded that Suárez is an artifact realist. However, Suárez’ realism concerning artifacts is of a minimalist kind. Inscribing himself into the [...] Read more.
The article places Francisco Suárez (1548–1617) and his position on the ontological status of artifacts against the Medieval philosophical background. It is concluded that Suárez is an artifact realist. However, Suárez’ realism concerning artifacts is of a minimalist kind. Inscribing himself into the realist tradition, Suárez affirms that an artifact has an “artificial form”, a ‘forma artificialis’. However, this form is not a thing in its own right, but rather has the status of a mode. Further, the artificial form is not a mode of substance, but rather of quantity. Hence, Suárez can rightly be called a minimal realist concerning artifacts. In an additional section, the role of the exemplar in the production of an artifact is explored. Suárez counts the exemplar among the efficient causes, and so, the exemplar in the mind of the artisan is one of many efficient causes that together produce and determine the artifact. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Art vs Nature: The Ontology of Artifacts in the Long Middle Ages)
20 pages, 331 KiB  
Article
A Vitalist Shoal in the Mechanist Tide: Art, Nature, and 17th-Century Science
by Jonathan L. Shaheen
Philosophies 2022, 7(5), 111; https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies7050111 - 8 Oct 2022
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 2112
Abstract
This paper reconstructs Margaret Cavendish’s theory of the metaphysics of artifacts. It situates her anti-mechanist account of artifactual production and the art-nature distinction against a background of Aristotelian, Scholastic, and mechanist theories. Within this broad context, it considers what Cavendish thinks artisans can [...] Read more.
This paper reconstructs Margaret Cavendish’s theory of the metaphysics of artifacts. It situates her anti-mechanist account of artifactual production and the art-nature distinction against a background of Aristotelian, Scholastic, and mechanist theories. Within this broad context, it considers what Cavendish thinks artisans can actually do, grounding her terminological stipulation that there is no genuine generation in nature in a commitment to natural and artistic production as the mere rearrangement of bodies. Bodies themselves are identified, in a conceptually Ockhamist manner, with their figures, so that the resulting theory of mere rearrangement is Scholastically respectable. The paper also offers literal interpretations, focused narrowly on the philosophical content of her theories of art and artifacts, of her claims that art concerns only “nature’s sporting or playing actions”, that its products are “deformed and defective”, and that they are “at best …mixt or hermaphroditical." Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Art vs Nature: The Ontology of Artifacts in the Long Middle Ages)
18 pages, 307 KiB  
Article
The Medieval Problem of the Productivity of Art
by Kamil Majcherek
Philosophies 2022, 7(5), 101; https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies7050101 - 9 Sep 2022
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 3272
Abstract
This paper is focused on one of the key questions constituting the medieval debate about the ontological status of artefacts, which has to do with the productivity of art. We ordinarily speak about artefacts, such as statues or chairs, as produced by their [...] Read more.
This paper is focused on one of the key questions constituting the medieval debate about the ontological status of artefacts, which has to do with the productivity of art. We ordinarily speak about artefacts, such as statues or chairs, as produced by their artificers, and Aristotle describes art in general as a productive habit. In the first part of the paper, I look at how the proponents of the realist view of artefacts argue that the productivity of art can only be explained if we endorse their view, on which by producing an artefact an artificer brings about a new thing in the world, which is distinct from the natural things used in its production. I then turn to the reductionist account of artefacts and examine how its proponents want to show that the productivity of art can be preserved without positing that an artefact must be a new thing in the world, distinct from its natural components. In the final part of the paper, I look at one of the further corollaries of this debate, which has to do with the connection between the productivity of art and natural change. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Art vs Nature: The Ontology of Artifacts in the Long Middle Ages)
16 pages, 293 KiB  
Article
Getting Real: Ockham on the Human Contribution to the Nature and Production of Artifacts
by Jenny Pelletier
Philosophies 2022, 7(5), 90; https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies7050090 - 23 Aug 2022
Cited by 4 | Viewed by 2019
Abstract
Given his known predilection for ontological parsimony, Ockham’s ontology of artifacts is unsurprisingly reductionist: artifacts are nothing over and above their existing and appropriately ordered parts. However, the case of artifacts is notable in that they are real objects that human artisans produce [...] Read more.
Given his known predilection for ontological parsimony, Ockham’s ontology of artifacts is unsurprisingly reductionist: artifacts are nothing over and above their existing and appropriately ordered parts. However, the case of artifacts is notable in that they are real objects that human artisans produce by bringing about a real change: they spatially rearrange existing natural thing(s) or their parts for the sake of some end. This article argues that the human contribution to the nature and production of artifacts is two-fold: (1) the artisan’s cognitive grasp of her expertise and her decision to deploy that expertise are the two efficient causes necessary to explain the existence of an artifact, and (2) the purpose that the artisan had in mind when she decided to make an artifact fixes the function(s) of the artifact such that an artisan’s purpose is the final cause necessary to explain what an artifact is. Artifacts indeed exist, owing what they are and that they are to intelligent and volitional human activity, which Ockham never denies. The article submits that a myopic focus on Ockham’s indisputable reductionism does not exhaust what is metaphysically interesting and relevant about artifacts. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Art vs Nature: The Ontology of Artifacts in the Long Middle Ages)
12 pages, 292 KiB  
Article
A Byzantine Metaphysics of Artefacts? The Case of Michael of Ephesus’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics
by Marilù Papandreou
Philosophies 2022, 7(4), 88; https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies7040088 - 11 Aug 2022
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 1976
Abstract
The ontology of artefacts in Byzantine philosophy is still a terra incognita. One way of mapping this unexplored territory is to delve into Michael of Ephesus’ commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Written around 1100, this commentary provides a detailed interpretation of the most [...] Read more.
The ontology of artefacts in Byzantine philosophy is still a terra incognita. One way of mapping this unexplored territory is to delve into Michael of Ephesus’ commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Written around 1100, this commentary provides a detailed interpretation of the most important source for Aristotle’s ontological account of artefacts. By highlighting Michael’s main metaphysical tenets and his interpretation of key-passages of the Aristotelian work, this study aims to reconstruct Michael’s ontology of artefacts and present it as one instance, which is perhaps exemplary, of the Byzantine ontology of artefacts. In particular, the study shows that this commentary holds a definite position on the nature of artefacts, according to which they are neither substances nor hylomorphic compounds. Indeed, artefacts lack a form altogether and their forms exist only in thought. As a result, Michael’s commentary provides an ontological interpretation of artefacts as accidental beings, i.e., as matter which acquires a mere property as opposed to a substantial form. While such an interpretation shows originality when compared to the Aristotelian text, it also indicates adherence to the reading established by Alexander of Aphrodisias, despite important departures concerning the status of natural forms. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Art vs Nature: The Ontology of Artifacts in the Long Middle Ages)
12 pages, 244 KiB  
Article
Abelard and Other Twelfth-Century Thinkers on Social Constructions
by Andrew W. Arlig
Philosophies 2022, 7(4), 84; https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies7040084 - 30 Jul 2022
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 2176
Abstract
This article aims to supplement our understanding of later developments within European universities, that is, Scholastic thought, by attending to how certain pre-Scholastics, namely, Peter Abelard and other twelfth-century philosophers, thought about artifacts and social constructions more generally. It focuses on the treatment [...] Read more.
This article aims to supplement our understanding of later developments within European universities, that is, Scholastic thought, by attending to how certain pre-Scholastics, namely, Peter Abelard and other twelfth-century philosophers, thought about artifacts and social constructions more generally. It focuses on the treatment of artifacts that can be cobbled together out of Abelard’s Dialectica. The article argues that Abelard attempts to sharply distinguish the world of things from the world of human-made objects. This is most apparent in his treatment of creation and human acts of making. Yet there are places in his thought where we see some hesitancy. Many of Abelard’s peers seem to have drawn on the reasons why Abelard hesitates, and they blur the line between human-made objects such as houses and substances such as rocks and humans. Others seem to go further than Abelard—perhaps inspired by some of the thoughts that Abelard also entertains about social constructions such as days and speeches—and assert that even houses are merely convenient fictions. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Art vs Nature: The Ontology of Artifacts in the Long Middle Ages)
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