A prickly example [or] Cholla at ya' later 
I began working on several papers when I arrived in Pittsburgh. They have spiraled out of control and - gathering mass like the proverbial snowball - are on their way to being a book manuscript. The draft now totals up to about 50K words.

Even in a book, there are nice bits that do not fit in. One of these is about T.E. Wilkerson, an essentialist who insists that biological species are characterized entirely by intrinsic and essential properties. When he first advocated this position (in the 1980s) John Dupré replied with standard examples of how the biological world does not line up as neatly as the periodic table. Rather than adjusting his metaphysics to better fit the science, Wilkerson bites the bullet and spins out a wacky view according to which only genetic individuals constitute proper kinds.

Wilkerson does not actually seem to look at biology, and instead takes all of his examples from Dupré. For example, "Americans easily distinguish between prickly pears and chollas, but the distinction corresponds to no taxonomic division."* It is nice to note, although I don't see a sensible place to do so in the book, that biologists have changed the taxonomy to acknowledge just this distinction.


* 'Species, essences and the names of natural kinds', The Philosophical Quarterly, January 1993, p. 4

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Metaphysics grad conference 
The UAlbany philosophy grad students have announced the theme and date for this year's grad philosophy conference. This is their 4th annual conference.

These conferences are pretty much entirely student organized, and they have worked well. The students (both ours and the ones who come to give papers) seem to get a lot out of it. I have attended most of the papers in past years and plan to do so again. It's a good way to spend a day.

The keynote this year will be Ted Sider (NYU). The CFP is below the fold.
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Montreal, ho! 
I leave tomorrow for the PSA in Montreal. In between deep thought and bottomless beer, I'll be giving a paper. So I posted a draft.

It's a brief discussion of Eric Barnes' Paradox of Predictivism, focusing especially on arguments that (a) successful prediction is some reason to trust experts and (b) anti-realists have a hard time making sense of this.

Update Nov8: Oops. I forgot to put the actual PDF on the server. It's actually available now.

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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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