(This post is part of a weekly series for Know Thyself 2019, a 365 day journal project. Start here!)
Humans are differentiated from other animals by our extensive use of tools. Yes, other animals use tools, but the use is relatively rare, and the tools are basic. What counts as a tool for an otter might just be the use of a rock to smash shellfish from their shells. A rock and a jackhammer are hardly comparable, though. Comparing basic animal tools to complex human tools is like comparing communicative animal cries to human language. Viewing the comparison that way, it’s clear that human tools are in a special category.
What is a tool, anyway?
Defining features of objects that count as tools:
- The object is manipulated in order to change the form, position, or condition of another object or organism
- The object is carried or maintained for future use
- The object is used to extend or supplement one’s own body
- The object is used to suit a purpose
Basically, a tool is an object that I’ve physically altered in some way with my body, and I’m using it in a way that indicates that I’m doing so a future purpose in mind. A tool is an object that gets me something I want in the near or far future.
Animals and humans use tools for survival and play. Crows use tools to dig larvae out of rotting logs. Dogs pick up objects and carry it for future entertainment.
Philosophically, what is a tool?
When you look at all the ways that animals use tools, it’s tempting to want to focus only on the similarities to human use of tools and minimize the differences. But human use of tools is different for reasons other than complexity and use in far future. While animal use of tools is limited to play and survival, human tools have symbolic meaning. We get attached to them emotionally, and they have complex abstract purposes.
Humans attributed symbolic significance to tools that has nothing to do with their actual purpose. A tool is a symbol of power over the environment and provides humans mental satisfaction. People like to collect tools that they hardly ever use. Why? One reason is because collecting tools is collecting power. Looking at your tools, even if you don’t use them, is a way of measuring your power in the physical world. It’s no wonder some people become attached to their tools and don’t want to sell or give away even the ones that they never use!
Another symbolic use of tools is creativity. Human beings like to create tools in order to express their mental states and emotions. Even if there is a perfectly suitable tool already available, someone may create his or her own version, simply in order to express him or herself. Last week I saw someone on a homemade recumbent bike. I’m sure the bike took hours to design and build and required expensive tools and material to build it. It couldn’t have been cheaper than buying a used recumbent bike. But clearly, it was symbolically significant to its creator.
What about magic wands, dream catchers, and ghost traps? These are interesting tools because their purpose is never fulfilled. The purpose of these tools is completely abstract and they in actuality serve no purpose than their creation and possession. This is another unique use of tools by human beings – no animal fashions tools like these!
What is unique about human use of tools is that they often serve a mental purpose in addition to the physical purpose. Instead of changing the physical world, they change our internal world, manipulating our emotions and symbolizing our strengths and ideals.
- Do you agree that animal use of tools and human use of tools is different?
- What tools do you use most often at home?
- What tools do you use most often at work?
- Traditionally, some tools are associated with men and some with women. Create two lists: men’s tools and women’s tools.
- Does using tools make you feel any emotions?
- Do you collect anything, and can it be considered a tool in light of the “defining features”?
- Do tools symbolize anything for you? (You can ask yourself: how would I feel if someone had more than me? How would I feel if someone took them from me? How would I feel to know that there are better versions out there that I don’t have?
How to Get the most out of Know Thyself 2019:
Don’t rush through the questions. Do one question every day, leaving space to add thoughts later as you learn and evolve. The journal is designed to help you develop a consistent, daily practice of self-reflection.
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