<<Note: Potential conflict in terminology - the term Artefact is defined both in the Trialogical Glossary as well as in the User Stories and Use Cases Glossary>>

Definition according to the Trialogical Glossary

An artefact is an aspect of the material world that has been modified over the history of its incorporation into goal-directed human action. By virtue of the changes wrought in the process of their creation and use, artefacts are simultaneously ideal (conceptual) and material. They are ideal in that their material form has been shaped by their participation in the interaction of which they were previously a part and which they mediate in the present (Cole 1996). (Source: WP5 - Glossary)

A hybrid entity that simultaneously has conceptual and material characteristics, i.e. a physical object which is simultaneously a carrier of ideas (Source: Trialogical Glossary in the KP-Lab Description of work – modified from the entry “knowledge artifact”).

In material artefacts (like cups, tables) material characteristics are more prominent whereas in conceptual artefacts (like scientific theories) immaterial and conceptual aspects are more important. This kind of a continuum of various forms of artefacts is in line with Wartofsky’s (1979, 201-209) distinction between primary, secondary, and tertiary artefacts. Primary artifacts are tools and practices directly used in human labor and other activities. Secondary artifacts, in turn, are “symbolic externalizations” or “objectifications” of primary artifacts. These artifacts are models or representations of types of activities involved in the primary ones used in preserving and transmitting the acquired skills, modes of action or practices of production. The tertiary artifacts are derived and abstracted from secondary artifacts so that they no longer have a direct representational function; they are important sources of change and transformation because they represent visions, anticipated changes and possibilities that may be used to change the world.

Definition according to the User Stories and Use Cases Glossary

An Artefact is one of the node types defined in the shared space. It:

  • represents a unit of content (a file saved in the content repository/database of the system, for example a .pdf document) and its metadata
  • can be named anything

Picture: A visual representation of an artefact node from the shared space interactive mock-up

A comment: I think this definition is more like a definition for the “knowledge artefact”, and this resolves at least most of the potential conflict refered above. But I did not change this definition yet. Or what do you think about this?

--Sami Paavola, 11-Aug-2006


Wartofsky, M. (1979). Models: Representation and Scientific Understanding. Dordrecht: Reidel.


It might be discussed if it is necessary that also conceptual artefacts have material characteristics (I think that it is less controversial to say that all material artefacts have conceptual aspects involved in them because all artefacts are modified by human beings and they incorporate conceptual aspects within them). According to Bereiter conceptual artefacts are Popper’s World 3 objects, that is, they are cultural products where ideal and immaterial things are emphasized (according to this, for example, in the theory of natural selection, the conceptual content of this theory is central not material manifestations of it). But I would argue that also in conceptual artefacts the material characteristics have an essential role and meaning. In order to make a difference to Popper’s World 2 objects (that is, mental states) we have to understand that conceptual artefacts have thing-like characteristics. Conceptual artefacts can be developed and modified with cultural and social means; they are publicly available, and a basis for this is that they have material characteristics besides conceptual (and immaterial) characteristics.

--Sami Paavola, 11-Aug-2006

I suggest to make a distinction between 3 (or possible 4) types of artefacts. Each of them may have further specialisations. They are modelled after Popper's three (ideal) worlds, where 1. correponds with World 1, etc.

1.) Physical artefact (such as books, cups, tables and pottery)
1.1) Computational artefact (everything to do with computers, it can be further specialised into hardware, software, design artefacts, GUI, and more)

2) Cognitive artefact
2.1) Internal representation (mental states)
2.2) External representation (a physical artefact that supports mental processing, like a pencil aids human reasoning)

3) Conceptual artefact , see separate Glossary item

One could further argue that computational artefacts qualify as a type on its own, e.g. a World 4 object. Furthermore, they can be named differently. For example material could replace physical, and digital replace computational, etc.. I have tried to be consistent with existing uses of these terms.

Finally, it has been pointed out by Sami and Vassilis that the three types are ideal and that in reality most artefacts embody aspects of each of the three types (having physical, cognitive, conceptual characteristics). That is probably true, but again some artefacts will be more associated with one of the types than the two others, and for those situations it makes sense to distinguish them.

Here are some examples:

  • The chair I sit on is to me primarily a physical artefact
  • The idea of "natural selection" (Darwin, 1859) is primarily a conceptual artefact
  • A book of phone numbers (e.g. yellow pages) is primarily a cognitive artefact

Here are some examples of hybrids:

  • If I was a chair designer or a student of architecture, the chair I sit on it would mean more to me than a thing to sit on. I might say it embodies certain ideas, coming out of a certain tradition within architecture, etc.
  • The idea of natural selection needs physical qualities to be communicatable (e.g. it may be associated with a certain book we have read in biology, or a certain island that Darwin did his pathbreaking discoveries, etc.)

--Anders Morch, 30-Aug-2006

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This page (revision-34) last changed on 18:24 25-Mar-2017 by Patrick Ausderau.
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