16 August 2009

Hammer in the Head

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:15 am

An artifact is an object that’s been intentionally designed and built by humans. From a purely material standpoint an artifact is neither more nor less real than a naturally-occurring object. Usually, though, humans recognize the difference between nature and artifice. People tend to use artifacts for purposes intentionally built into them by the artificer; e.g., when I want to hammer something I look for a hammer. The hammer emits information signaling its designed-in utility, and this information is received by the human would-be hammerer. But since necessity is the mother of invention, I could also pick up a rock I happen to find out in the field and use it for hammering.

The rock isn’t an artifact, but it affords hammering. Is the rock’s hammer-ness an emergent property of the rock itself, or is it a property of the way I perceive the rock? Do I pick up information emitted by the rock that wasn’t designed into it, or does my intentional mental state actively construct hammer-ness, which I then impose on the rock? It would seem that both operations are in play. The rock is a material object that conveys higher-order information to humans about its utility for hammering. It’s certain that found objects like rocks were the first human tools — that’s why they call it the Stone Age. Hard, heavy, but not too heavy: the same information is conveyed by the naturally-occurring rock as by the specially-designed hammer. The history of human artifice entails the progressive shaping of naturally-occurring materials in ways that enhance their natural utility. Tool use and tool construction progress in parallel. This all seems non-controversial enough.

The found rock is a hammer by happenstance; that thing in the toolbox called “hammer” was designed and built for hammering. The rock was a rock even before I picked it up and used it to pound something; the hammer wasn’t a hammer until it got made into a hammer. But does the rock convey its hammer-ness to every thing and creature it encounters, regardless of whether they ever intentionally want to hammer something? Or is the idea of hammer-ness an abstract artifact in its own right, a thought about a particular kind of intentional agency that was invented by humans sometime in prehistory, such that the rock’s hammer-ness didn’t exist until the idea of hammer-ness was imposed on it?

My cat doesn’t get it: the rock and the hammer are just two hard and heavy physical objects occupying space in his environment. Even for me, the rock’s hammer-ness doesn’t occur to me until I need to pound something and I don’t have a hammer handy. Why do I think about using the rock for hammering rather than some tuft of grass or the cat? Because the rock possesses the physical properties of hardness and heaviness that work best for hammering. These properties exist in the rock independent of my thinking about them. But when I need something to pound with, I receive the rock’s already-existing hardness and heaviness as information about the rock’s hammer-ness.

My cat never intentionally thinks about hammering anything, and so he never gets the message from the rock. On the other hand, my cat can use his paw to swat things, in effect wielding his paw as a hammer. Early humans probably used their fists for pounding before they ever started using rocks.

Before I picked it up, the rock might have been resting in roughly the same place for ten million years. Did it acquire its hammerish properties only recently, after a hammer-wielding species evolved on the planet? No: the rock’s hardness and heaviness — features that make it useful for hammering — already existed in the rock before anybody thought of using it as a hammer. The rock has always had hammerish properties, ever since erosion pried it loose from the mountainside, turning it into a separate object, and gravity and the mountainside used the rock to hammer the pebbles, earth, plants, and small creatures it encountered as it rolled down to its resting place.

My fist, the rock, the hammer: the information about these three objects’ hardness and heaviness can be quantified and written down on a piece of paper. This hammer-ness information originates in these objects, is already part of them. What’s in my head but not in my cat’s head is the ability to receive and interpret that information relative to my intention to hammer something. When I pick up a rock with the intention of pounding something with it, I recognize information already embedded in the rock and interpret it with respect to my own intentionality.

All of this is well known and generally accepted. At the same time we see the renewed enthusiasm for a “flat ontology,” where the rock and the artifactual hammer are equivalent as objects and where the cascading rock’s crushing of objects in its path is equivalent to my intentionally picking up the rock in order to pound something with it. Maybe that’s why I’m inclined more toward psychology than to ontology. Intentionality, hammer-ness in the head, extraction of hammerish affordances in found objects, conscious design and construction of artifacts: each of these distinctly human activities emerged from its counterpart in the non-human world. But the separation of the distinctly human from the prehuman still strikes me as remarkable. And while humans still occasionally face the risk of being crushed by rocks tumbling down mountainsides, it’s largely a human-crafted environment in which we spend most of our lives and in which we exercise our distinctly human tricks.

What appeals to me is to think about psychology not exclusively according to empirical and therapeutic/analytic paradigms,  but also in ontological terms. I have far less background and experience to operate at this level, but the prospect energizes me.



  1. “For example, if a carpenter, while doing some work, finds his Hatchet of excellent service, then this Hatchet has thereby attained its end and perfection; but if he should think: this Hatchet has rendered me such good service now, therefore I shall let it rest, and exact no further service from it, then precisely this Hatchet would fail of its end, and be a Hatchet no more.”

    “Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being”


    Comment by kvond — 16 August 2009 @ 8:24 pm

  2. A nice concise statement. So for Spinoza, hatchet-ness resides in use rather than in the object? For Heidegger, hatchet-utility is the essence of the object-in-the-world, whereas regarding the hatchet as an object stripped of its usefulness isn’t to get to the thing in itself but to abstract it artificially from its essential toolness. For Harman, the hatchet’s usefulness is only a surface interactive property of the object’s image, having nothing to do with the essence of the object. It’s hard for me to understand how, for an object that’s been purposely crafted to be used as a tool, its usefulness wouldn’t be at least part of its essence.


    Comment by john doyle — 16 August 2009 @ 8:47 pm

  3. I hate to abuse you by passing you to another one of my very wordy posts, but this post compares Spinoza’s Hatchet to Heidegger’s Hammer, and Harman’s version of it:



    Comment by kvond — 16 August 2009 @ 8:50 pm

  4. You’re ahead of me again, kvond. I’ll check it out.


    Comment by john doyle — 16 August 2009 @ 9:00 pm

  5. You folks are always way ahead! The minute you decide something needs bludgeoning, you need a tool. When you take up a tool, it becomes a part of your tool useness; at all other times it’s just a a rock, or a hammer, or your fist, or your imagination. In other words, a tool is only a tool when it is used as a tool, or thought of as a tool. Even then, it does not cease to be whatever it is in its own self, but at that particular point, it also becomes useful to someone as a tool: “I receive the rock’s already-existing hardness and heaviness as information about the rock’s hammer-ness” just about sums it up.

    Tools are after all extensions of our own creativities. We seem to have contemplated our way all the way from those first rocks, to wooden mallets, to claw and ball peen hammers, and finally to fully automatic, computer controlled, robotic bludgeons that we no longer physically operate.


    Comment by sam carr — 17 August 2009 @ 6:42 pm

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