Incubating ideas 
Part of life at the Center is the weekly reading group, where a fellow offers a work-in-progress paper for discussion. I have found this to be rewarding, both when my paper was discussed and when we have discussed others. This week, nobody who was yet to present had anything to offer. So John Norton suggested that we discuss our creative methods - how we get ideas for papers.

His motivation, it turns out, was two-fold. First, he wanted to think about how organized life at the Center might better support the creative life of visiting fellows. It can be tempting to think that the best thing to do is hide in the office and work, but there are diminishing returns on such a method. Second, he wanted to think about how one might help graduate students in the early days of dissertation writing.

In preparing for the meeting, I wrote up some of my thoughts. Here they are, slightly revised in light of discussion.
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What I should call my natural kinds 
As I've mentioned before, I have been working lately on natural kinds. A key part of my position is that a kind can only be a natural kind relative to a domain of enquiry. This is often implicit in the way people talk about natural kinds, as when they say that species is or is not a natural kind for biology. Philosophical accounts of natural kinds, on the other hand, typically drop the for biology and presume that any natural kind must be a natural kind simpliciter. I deny this.

So, on my account, `PHI is a natural kind' is importantly incomplete. The complete schema is `PHI is a natural kind for PSI'. To be a complete thought, there must be a specified domain of enquiry. Often, this can be provided by context. If someone ejaculates `Leptons are a natural kind' in a conversation about particle physics, PSI is taken to be particle physics. In a conversation about cryptography, the same ejaculation will seem either false (because leptons aren't a necessary posit for cryptography), irrelevant (a straggler that wandered in from a different conversation), or confused (because the speaker does not realize that natural kinds are domain specific).

This forms the core of a fallbilist but non-sceptical account of natural kinds. In the present draft, it would be helpful to have a short monicker for my position.

Earlier this semester, a number of people tried to talk me out of putting my account in terms of `natural kinds' at all. Bert Leuridan suggested `naturalized kinds', and Jim Woodward suggested `unconventional kinds'. One thing I argue for is that the account I give is really the philosophically interesting thing in the conceptual neighborhood of natural kinds, however, so there is rhetorical value to retaining that epithet and adding some modifier.

Here are two possibilities. Opinions on them or other suggestions are welcome.

the pragmatic realist account


One option is to call my view `pragmatic realism about natural kinds'. This has certain virtues. Making natural kinds a relation to a topic of enquiry has struck many people as a pragmatist move, and I think of my work as being in the tradition of Peirce and Dewey. Natural kinds (in a domain) are contingent features of the world, so where we know about natural kinds my view is a kind of realist position.

Despite being apt in these ways, `pragmatic realism' has definite defects. Even though I have been influenced by the pragmatist tradition, lots of people understand that tradition in very different ways than I do; my present project is not a historical one, and I am not concerned just now to redeem my heroes from such misreadings. Many authors use the phrase `pragmatic kind' as an antonym for `natural kind', and on that reading a pragmatic account is opposed to a realist account. And realism itself is a cluster of issues about which many people have strong opinions. I don't want my account to be assimilated to tired debates about the no-miracles argument.

the zetetic account


Kareem Khalifa suggested that I could call my view `the zetetic account of natural kinds'. The word `zetetic' means related to enquiry, and so the label is apt. The word is also somewhat archaic, which makes it distinctive and novel. Also, since it is not a term of art for philosophers, it won't lead people to assimilate my view too quickly to irrelevant preconceptions they might have.

The same alien quality is also a demerit. The biggest mark against the label, however, is that there was a group of ancient sceptics who were called the zetetics. They were just called that because of all their questioning, so at one level it is not any worse than using the word `enquiry' in a country where the National Enquirer is a gossip tabloid. Yet someone who doesn't know the word at all might look `zetetic' up in the dictionary and see the alternate definition as a sceptic. Since my view is non-sceptical, this would be bad.

Do either of those options seem like good ones? Or perhaps there's a better appellation that I haven't considered yet?

Feedback is welcome.

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What I said about natural kinds 
I gave a lunchtime talk at the Center on friday. I chose the title (What to say about natural kinds) over the summer, and I had figured out the details of what to say about them. I only have a hodgepodge of written fragments and outline, so I haven't posted anything here.

John Norton posted a donut page about it, however, which gives his summary of how it went. The narrative is illustrated by many photos, most of them me gesturing in various ways.

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Cuts back home 
The trick about tenure, which protects faculty members from being let go when the budget gets lean, is that it doesn't apply at the level of academic programs. So a university can let several tenured faculty go at once by axing an entire academic unit such as a department. The technical term is retrenchment.

SUNY Albany, my home institution, is dropping the axe on French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theatre. No new students will be admitted to those majors, and operations will quickly wind down. The university community got an e-mail on Friday, announcing (among other cost cutting measures) a move to "suspend all new admissions to [the] five program areas." It did not say how faculty would be handled; lots of students take foreign language courses without majoring in one.

Today news of retrenchment at UAlbany has spread further. Coverage at Inside Higher Ed says:
Ten tenured faculty members in language programs were told Friday that they would have two years of employment in which to help current students finish their degrees, but that they would then be out of their jobs, according to several who were at the meeting. About 20 adjuncts and several others on the tenure track but not tenured are also at risk of losing their jobs, potentially even earlier, although details are not available.

IHE seems to just be talking about languages, so cuts in Theatre probably push the numbers higher.

John Protevi does a bit of philosophizing on the criteria by which programs were selected, arguing correctly that a program with few majors might still be of great value to the university. Students in other majors should be taking languages even if the aren't majoring in them.

I'm getting most of my news about it indirectly, and I don't have anything clever to add. Given the news of the day, however, I didn't want my previous glib post about UAlbany to be at the top of the front page of my blog.

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SUNY or later 
For logistical reasons relating to my sabbatical in Pittsburgh, I only today received my letter of appointment from SUNY central dated July 29 and effective Sept 1. It was marked CONFIDENTIAL, so the staff in Albany put the whole letter in another envelope and mailed it to me here.

There were sheets of cotton bond in the envelope. The first was simply congratulations from the SUNY Chancellor on my recent reappointment. The second was a duplicate copy which I was expected to sign and return. Ack!

[Insert caricature of me as the comic strip character Cathy, pulling my hair out]

One frantic phone call later: The acceptance letter is just a formality. I do need to sign and return it, but it is not time sensitive. The paperwork with a deadline was the payroll form I signed back in August. Whew!

A small footnote: My institution is officially the University at Albany, State University of New York. This is often shortened to UAlbany. Nevertheless, people that I meet when I travel inevitably write it down as SUNY Albany. It has been my habit to correct them.

Looking at today's letter, the Chancellor's letterhead has a list of all the SUNY campuses in fine print at the bottom. "University at Albany" is first on the list. However, the typed part of the letter, where it is addressed to me, is directed to the "State University of New York at Albany." If SUNY central can't keep it straight, then perhaps I shouldn't bother either!

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