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> Classification of Functions

Classification of Functions


Finally, switching back from examples to elaboration, I'd now like to present my classification of the various functions that objects have. It's certainly not exact or complete, but I do think it contains some worthwhile ideas. So … what kinds of functions do objects have?

  • Practical. Most manmade objects have some practical function. I have a chair so that I can sit in it; I have a bread knife so that I can slice bread.
  • Potential. As an object is used less frequently, and at less predictable times, its function shifts from practical to potential. A fire extinguisher is pure potential, unless there's a fire; a Christmas tree stand is marginally practical. The mat in my closet that I used ten years ago to keep my rug from slipping on the hardwood floor has no practical function at the moment, but it could have one again in the future … that's the kind of potential I'm talking about.

    When you have an object that has no present practical function, like that mat, you can weigh the cost (in space) of keeping it against the cost (in time and money) of finding another one later. If there's some probability that you'll never need it, that's also a factor.

    I have some file folders that I use to keep track of ideas … movies I might like to rent, restaurants I might like to try, and so on. I don't look in the restaurant folder much, so it has more of a potential function, but I look in the movie folder fairly often, which I guess means that it has the practical function of keeping track of potential actions.

  • Archival. The phone bills, credit card statements, and other similar things that I keep filed away have an archival function. Of course, the reason I keep them is that I might want to refer back to them some day, so archival function is really just a subclass of potential function … but it's common enough that I think it's worth discussing separately.

    When I buy an appliance, or a used DVD, or whatever, I'll usually save the receipt and the packaging until I'm sure I won't need to return the object. That's a kind of temporary archival. I only save my tax returns for a few short years, so that's temporary too … but then everything is temporary at long enough time scales. What is that saying I'm thinking of? Oh yeah, it's this one, from Fight Club.

    On a long enough time line, everyone's survival rate drops to zero.

  • Aesthetic. A good painting or piece of music has an aesthetic function. To me, that's the primary function of art, to appeal to the senses.

    There are other things that exploit the senses, that push buttons … for example by being cute. I'd say such things have an aesthetic function too, even though what they're doing may not provide any benefit, and so isn't exactly a function.

  • Sentimental. An object has a sentimental function if it stirs up feelings and memories … in other words, if it has associations. Almost any object has some associations, so sentimental function is a matter of degree. Imagine you've just gotten a present from a good friend, and it's a nice thought, but totally useless. Or, imagine a child has just given you a picture that ve drew especially for you. Those are the best examples of pure sentimental function that I can think of.

    The idea of sentimental function is actually pretty subtle, and is probably the key to de-sentimentalization. Without it, you look at an object and think that it has sentimental value, and you're stuck. With it, you think that the object has the function of creating particular sentiments, and then it's natural to ask if there's anything else that could perform the same function.

If you'd like to think further about objects and their functions, I can recommend a nice exercise. Wander around your home or office and look at random things, and for each thing, ask yourself, “Why is this here? Why not get rid of it?”. Each reason you don't want to get rid of an object corresponds to a function that the object performs.


  See Also

  De-Sentimentalization (2)
  Modern Form, The
  Some Thoughts

@ May (2007)