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Artefacts (U.S. spelling: Artifacts) are material objects or processes which are products of human activity and/or are used by and incorporated in human actions, including both tools and signs.


‘Artefact’ is derived from the Latin arte (acquired skill) + facere (to make). The important distinction between products of nature and products of labour has been a central problem of political economy since the work of Adam Smith in the mid-18th century. Marx and Engels, following Benjamin Franklin (1705-1790), saw the production of tools as central to the evolution of the human species, and many have held the use of symbols to be the essential human trait. So, it has long been widely recognised that both kinds of artefacts are central to human development. However, it was only in the development of CHAT that ‘artefact’ took on a special philosophical/psychological meaning.


Artefacts are material objects or processes which are products of human activity and/or are used by and incorporated in human actions (but not the actions or activities themselves). Artefacts are therefore both material and ideal, in that they are obedient to the laws of physics, etc., but serve human social means and human ends.

The category of artefact includes tools ('technical tools', such as computers, motor cars, spoons), features of the humanised environment (such as landscape, buildings, roads) and the human body and the various prosthetics we use as extensions of our body, as well as such natural formations as the moon and constellations which are vested with meaning in human activities such as navigation. Also included as artefacts are symbolic objects and ‘psychological tools’ such as maps, books, email messages, signage and so on, and prototypically, the spoken word.

Note that the fact that spoken words are entirely ephemeral does not undermine their status as artefacts. The material properties of an artefact mean that the billions of reproductions of a word may be identified as the ‘same’ word, and thereby share the same ideal properties, acting as signs for the same concept(s). The same applies to common objects, such as the artefacts which are excavated by archaeologists, who are able to reconstruct the role of an artefact in human activities which have long since passed away. It is human activity which invests an artefact with meaning and use-value, and while the material properties of the artefact may provide the substrate for the ideal properties, those ideal properties themselves are products of the use of the artefact in activity, not the physical or chemical properties as such.

Vygotsky was insistent on the functional distinction between an artefact’s use as a tool (which are used for the control of material objects and processes) and its function as a sign (‘psychological tools’ which are used to control the mind and behaviour)

“The most essential feature distinguishing the psychological tool from the technical one is that it is meant to act upon mind and behavior, whereas the technical tool, which is also inserted as a middle term between the activity of man and the external object, is meant to cause changes in the object itself. The psychological tool changes nothing in the object. It is a means of influencing one’s own mind or behavior or another’s. It is not a means of influencing the object. Therefore, in the instrumental act we see activity toward oneself, and not toward the object.” (LSVCW, v. 3, pp. 85-90).

A ‘psychological tool’ is not some formation of the mind or mental object, but like any artefact, a material object or process, but one which is used for ‘psychological purposes’. This means that the distinction between technical and psychological tools is not a dichotomy, but is rather a distinction in how an artefact is used. Vygotsky explains that:

“psychological tools and their complex systems: language, different forms of numeration and counting, mnemotechnic techniques, algebraic symbolism, works of art, writing, schemes, diagrams, maps, blueprints, all sorts of conventional signs, etc. ...” (LSVCW v. 3, pp. 85-90).

Psychological tools have profound significance for the development of the mind because:

“By being included in the process of behavior, the psychological tool modifies the entire course and structure of mental functions.” (LSVCW, v. 3, pp. 85-90).

The word ‘artefact’ does not include forms of activity or practices which have been ‘objectified’ in the sense that they have become standardised or institutionalised. Such standardised practices may indeed mediate actions, and are frequently referred to in psychological and sociological literature as ‘tools’, but they are not artefacts in the meaning of the word in CHAT. Usually, the institutionalisation or standardisation of forms of practice involves the creation of artefacts such as manuals, laws, journal articles and the coining of new words or terminology used in written and spoken language. But activities and actions are not artefacts; actions are mediated by artefacts, and it is these artefacts which are chiefly responsible for the stability and coherence of such practices, but it is important to distinguish between the artefacts and the actions which are mediated by the artefacts. When we utter a word or make a gesture, this is understood as the action of using a standardised material form (the sound of the word or the form of the gesture). The sound-object or gesture is an artefact, but the action of using it is an ‘artefact-mediated action’. It is important to distinguish between the action and the mediating artefact; one and the same meaning can be enacted with different signs, and one and the same sign can be used to enact different meanings. When an Activity becomes so standardised as to be ‘fossilised’, it remains an Activity, but is often referred to as a practice or an institution. The standardisation of an activity is a type of objectification, but is still distinguished from the production of tools and it is important not to blur the distinction between Actions, Activities and the Artefacts which are used to mediate Actions.

Whereas Vygotsky emphasised the role of psychological tools, the objectification of human powers in material objects (i.e., tools) transforms the labour process and consequently also plays a profound role in the development of consciousness. See A. N. Leontyev on how the production and use of tools lies at the foundation of the development of human consciousness (something which Marx had emphasised in the past).

“Every object made by man – from a hand tool to the modern electronic computer – embodies mankind’s historical experience and at the same time also embodies the mental aptitudes moulded in this experience. This point comes out even more clearly perhaps in language, science, and works of art. ...
“The child does not adapt itself to the world of human objects and phenomena around it, but makes it its own, i.e. appropriates it. ...
Appropriation ... is a process that has as its end result the individual’s reproduction of historically formed human properties, capacities, and modes of behaviour. In other words it is a process through which what is achieved in animals by the action of heredity, namely the transmission of advances in the species’ development to the individual, takes place in the child.” (Leontyev, 2009, 384)


Ilyenkov, E. V. (1977). The Concept of the Ideal.

Leontyev, A. N. (2009). The Origin of Human Consciousness, The Development of Mind, pp. 181-244.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1930). The Instrumental Method in Psychology, LSVCW, v. 3, pp. 85-90.

-- AndyBlunden - 12 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r12 - 19 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden

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