What I should call my natural kinds

Sat 23 Oct 2010 08:51 PM

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.


from: moti

Sun 24 Oct 2010 07:02 AM

I'm not sure about these two options. As you point out, each has its disadvantages. So I'd like to make a suggestion.

It seems to me that what's crucial to your view of natural kinds is that it make sense to talk about a particular natural kind only within a particular theoretical framework (e.g., elementary particle physics). If so, then perhaps "internal kinds" would be an apt name, a la Carnap's internal/external distinction.

from: P.D.

Sun 24 Oct 2010 09:50 AM


"Internal kinds" raises the wrong associations for me: For Carnap, an external question is settled by the adoption of a framework rather than by empirical enquiry; although natural kinds are relative to domains of enquiry on my account, which natural kinds there are and even whether there are any natural kinds in a domain is a contingent matter that has to be discovered. For me, "internal" also evokes the internal realism of Putnam and Ellis which defines truth to be ultimate explanatory adequacy; I'm not committed to a theory of truth.

from: Matt Brown

Mon 25 Oct 2010 09:21 AM

"Pragmatic Realism" also brings to mind Putnam (of a more recent vintage), and that's probably the association that would be most often picked up amongst natural-kinds folk, rather than connotations of Peirce and Dewey. It may be apt, as something like the worry people have about screwy natural kinds (a bullet you're willing to bite, I think) has been raised for Sosa in his paper on "Putnam's Pragmatic Realism." (There, Sosa's worry is about "explosive realism.") Anyhow, that might be worth a look. Despite all the mess, I am (obviously) fond of such a name.

I didn't know the word "zetetic," so that's nice to know. But I agree w/ your worries about it.

What about "contextual?" As in, "contextual natural kinds" or "a contextual account of natural kinds" or "contextualism about NK."

from: P.D.

Mon 25 Oct 2010 07:38 PM

Hmm... I hadn't realized that 'pragmatic realism' was just a Putnam-speak synonym for 'internal realism'. That poisons it for me, because I don't want people to think that I have a specific theory of truth lurking in the back of my account.

'Contextualism' is a bit of jargon that means something, but I am not entirely sure what it means. I suspect it will trigger a lot of associations for people, but I have no idea what they would be.

from: Matt Brown

Tue 26 Oct 2010 07:19 AM

I think "pragmatic realism" might be a substantive revision of rather than a synonym for "internal realism." But that may not make it less poisonous.

As far as I understand, contextualism just means that something you might have thought was universal is now indexed to contexts. So, e.g., epistemic contextualism is the view that "S knows that P" is either incomplete, or shorthand for, "S knows that P in context C." Amongst certain subpopulations of epistemologists, C is understood in terms of shifting features of a conversation or of practical factors, but I think that's just a feature of local philosophical practice.

from: Greg

Tue 26 Oct 2010 10:56 AM

How about 'inquiry-relative' realism about natural kinds?

Or in the same general area: 'interest-(/purpose-/goal-)relative' realism natural kinds?

I'm personally partial to 'Purpose-driven' realism, since that could then be abbreviated to 'P.D. Realism' -- which has obvious advantages...

from: P.D.

Thu 28 Oct 2010 06:51 AM

One other rhetorical point has occurred to me: If the label is of the form "Q-ism about natural kinds" for some Q, then I can speak about the resources of Q-ism or what a Q-ist might say; convenient turns of phrase. If the label is "R-ic natural kinds" for some R, then it looks as if I'm talking about some ersatz natural kinds rather than the real thing.

My current inclination is towards "pragmatic naturalism with respect to natural kinds". It allows me to talk about the pragmatic naturalist view, and so on; it is not a term of art for anybody's precise position; insofar as it is used, it describes a cluster of issues that arise in Dewey. All positive associations