Agency and Artefacts: A cognitive semiotic exploration of design

Juan Mendoza-Collazos

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (compilation)

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This thesis investigates the role of artefacts in relation to human agency and design within a cognitive semiotics framework. It deals with questions such as What is agency? What are artefacts and how does agency relate to them? What kind of intentions are involved in the activity of designing? What is human-specific with respect to agency and design? How can the origins and evolution of design be explained?
Addressing these questions, the thesis proposes a layered model of agency for explaining the relations between different grades of agentive complexity. The model is also useful for empirical studies of agency such as those of neuroscience. The thesis contends that the activity of design is a key feature of human agency. Thus, it delves into the cognitive processes of design, proposing the notion of enhanced agency as the prosthetic incorporation of artefacts into the agentive capabilities of the agents. The thesis also explores the origins and evolution of design and proposes a stage-based model in which the progressive complexity of the artificial world is parallel to the increasing complexity of enhanced human agency.
The thesis rejects human exceptionalism which places humans as ontologically unique and biologically discontinuous with the rest of the living world. At the same time, it recognizes that only human agents have the power to stop the current environmental obliteration. This can be done by recognizing the potential of human agency, instead of diluting it into abstract networks; highlighting its differences and similarities instead of equating human agency with inert matter or anthropomorphizing the agency of other animals. This also highlights the moral responsibilities of human agency.
Paper 1 explores the origin and evolution of design: an activity in which agency is present in the intentional adaptations of the material world for the benefit of human purposes. Delving into the evolutionary emergence of design helps understand the relevant cognitive processes underlying this activity and their relationship with other key semiotic resources such as mimesis, pictorial representations and polysemiotic communication. Paper 2 addresses the current debate on the role of materiality for human cognition and the status of artefacts as agents, critically reviewing the concept of material agency. Paper 3 is based on an empirical study consisting of contextually situated observations of the process of design of artefacts in Amazonia. This paper proposes the notion of enhanced agency, the prosthetic incorporation of artefacts into the agentive capabilities of the agents. Paper 4 investigates how intentions are involved in the cognitive processes of design. Paper 5 proposes a layered model of agency with the goal of explaining the relations between different grades of agentive complexity. A further goal was to apply a proper cognitive semiotic approach to third-person studies of agency, specifically those of neuroscience.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Centre for Languages and Literature
  • Zlatev, Jordan, Supervisor
  • Sonesson, Göran, Assistant supervisor
  • Cabak Rédei, Anna, Assistant supervisor
Award date2022 Dec 17
Place of PublicationLund
ISBN (Print)978-91-89415-51-5
ISBN (electronic) 978-91-89415-52-2
Publication statusPublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Defence details
Date: 2022-12-17
Time: 10:15
Place: SOL:s hörsal
External reviewer
Name: Morten Toennesen
Title: professor
Affiliation: Universitetet i Stavanger

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Design
  • Philosophy
  • Other Humanities not elsewhere specified
  • Other Engineering and Technologies

Free keywords

  • Agency
  • enhanced agency
  • agency hierarchy
  • derived agency
  • material agency
  • intentionality
  • prior intentions
  • intentions in action
  • pictorial representations
  • artefacts
  • tool-making
  • design theory
  • design semiotics
  • design research
  • phenomenology
  • cognitive semiotics
  • agentive semiotics
  • semiotic hierarchy
  • 4E cognition
  • bio-cultural evolution
  • philosophy of design
  • philosophy of technology


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