Central and East European
Society for Phenomenology

Conference | Paper

The Things that Make Us. Thinking Sociality through a Phenomenology of Artefacts

Fabio Tommy Pellizzer

Thursday 2 December 2021

12:50 - 13:30

Zoom 1-1

Phenomenology offers very important tools to theorize sociality and to describe the manifold facets of social life. Whilst the emphasis on lived-experience and inter-subjectivity characterizes many approaches, in this paper I wish to explore a different path, asking whether and how a phenomenology of social world can be accomplished via a phenomenology of artefacts, and then how such an approach allows a better understanding of symbolic and cultural variability.

As I will show in the first part, the emphasis (in disciplines like archaeology and paleoanthropology) on “material culture” indicates that sociality as we know it has developed through a more and more complex relation with artefacts. Things extend and shape both range and form of the inter-subjective life, refracting the experience of others through the prism of materiality, projecting sociality into complex and highly variable paths. I will consider concrete examples of artefacts like signs, commodities, and ritual objects, and ask if phenomenology is able to explain their constitution and role with regard to social life. What artefacts are for us is always more than what they are in a basic sense. Archaeologists suggest that this “more”—e.g., values, meanings—emerges precisely in our concrete and inter-subjective engagement with things and materials (exchange of commodities, personalization of tools, “expressive” use of materials and things as colors and seashells). This idea of material culture poses a great challenge for philosophers and can be fruitfully addressed by phenomenology.

The hypothesis, presented in the second part of the paper, consists in focusing on human capacity of making and recognizing artefacts as things that have an impact on minds. Thus, I distinguish between two attitudes: 1) the use of tools, as things that have an impact on the world and, therefore, on minds; 2) the use artefacts, as things that have an impact on minds and, therefore, on the world. To explain the constitution of artefacts, I will first build upon the Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenology and highlight the “indicative structure” of perceptual objects and tools as constituted through “pre-delineations,” “indications” of meaning, and within “referential contexts.” Then, I will ask if this view can account for artefacts like commodities, signs, and ritual objects. I call attention to a phenomenological feature of our experience of artefacts, i.e., the fact that they exhibit concrete, material “indications” of other minds. This “social salience” of artefacts will be discussed by reference to our use of signs (as described, for example, by Heidegger) and then by borrowing insights from ethnology, paleo-anthropology, and cognitive archaeology. The idea is that artefacts are not just constituted by indications or pre-delineations (as tools or perceptual objects); they are also (and essentially) made of concrete indications, i.e., material patterns of handiness that display human intentionality, making this available to individual and groups, exchangeable and transmittable between different generations and communities.

In the conclusion, I will consider some examples of artefacts, and suggest how a phenomenological approach can help understanding social complexity and symbolic variability.