Prima facie, many entities have social functions: for instance, a university arguably has the function to educate students. Some objects are at least partly characterized by their intended or actual social function. And in referring to an object’s social function, we can sometimes explain its identity and persistence conditions: it is commonly assumed that newspapers have the function to inform people in a timely manner. And the decline of newspapers is often explained by the alleged fact that they cannot compete with information provided by the Internet. And so, it appears that due to a change in context, newspapers do not fulfill their function as well as they once did.

The commitments that go together with such descriptions and explanations are not, however, well understood. In order to better understand social functions, some key issues must be addressed: the relation between social and biological functions, the nature of functional explanations in the social sciences, the metaphysics of social objects as well as the normative dimension of well- and malfunctioning, etc.

The aim of this project is to further discussions about social functions within philosophy. Specifically, we aim to outline a theory of social functions that takes into account normative, ontological, and historical aspects in the relevant philosophical debates. The project brings together philosophers from the Universities of Basel, HU Berlin, Duisburg-Essen, Marburg, and Münster, with expertise in the philosophy of biology, the philosophy of science, feminist philosophy, the history of philosophy, metaethics, and metaphysics.