Simon J. Evnine (University of Miami): The metamorphosis of artifacts

The efficient cause, for Aristotle, is the principle of motion and change for what it brings into existence. Intriguingly, Aristotle says that the efficient cause of something often coincides with its formal cause (what it is) and its final cause (its purpose or characteristic life form). In previous work (Making Objects and Events: A Hylomorphic Theory of Artifacts, Actions, and Organisms), I have developed an account of artifacts that attempts to do just to this insight of Aristotle’s – the insight, to put it in more contemporary terms, that one cannot give an account of what an artifact is (to what artifactual kind it belongs) independently of how it comes to exist and what its function is. An artifactual kind K is associated by definition with a certain function F (as a chair is for sitting on). A K comes to exist when a maker imposes the concept K on some matter, by working on that matter with the intention that it should come to constitute a K.

In the present paper, I wish to consider a certain kind of change, a metamorphosis, that artifacts can be subject to, if one thinks of them in the way I have indicated. On my account, artifacts are ideal objects – not in the sense that they aren’t real, but that they are essentially tied to intentions with which they are made and, in some sense, carry the marks of those intentions in their essence. Such objects, therefore, are likely sites of ideological contest. When some user, or users, treat an object made by the imposition of one set of concepts onto matter as if it were something different, their intentions exert an ontological force on the object, jostling with the marks of the original creative intentions. If successful, they will transform, or metamorphose, the objectinto something new.  Ideological contest can have an ontological reflection.

Two different, though related, cultural arenas where this kind of analysis may be illuminating are cultural appropriation and what is referred to as ‘queering.’ With regard to the latter, Sara Ahmed (What’s the Use? The Uses of Use) describes a variety of practices under the heading of ‘queer use.’ In queer use, artifacts associated with oppressive power structures are made use of in unintended ways as a way of subverting those structures. Here, the ontological transformation I am envisaging has a positive character. In cultural appropriation, it has a negative character and objects are ontologically debased by being used ‘against the grain.’


This lecture was given on Thu, 1 July 2021, 14:40 (UK time) as part of the workshop Change and Changemakers in Ancient Philosophy. The workshop is a collaborative initiative of the Change and Changemakers Network (Siegen) together with the Mereology of Potentiality Project (Oxford).