Chatter about 'natural kinds'

Tue 06 Sep 2011 09:20 AM

I have played around with Google's Ngram Viewer before. It's a tool which graphs the frequency of words or phrases across time.

Lately, I've been thinking about the origins of the phrase 'natural kind'. The phrase became a philosophical term of art in the mid-19th century, to describe a doctrine of John Stuart Mill's. Although Mill never used the phrase 'natural kind', he wrote of real kinds and real categories. John Venn uses the moniker 'natural kinds' for Mill's real kinds,* and by the 1880s there are articles in Mind with titles like "Mill's Natural Kinds."

The phrase seems to fall into disuse, however, and does not return until the mid-20th century. By graphing the frequency of 'natural kind' plotted against the frequency of 'real kind', it's possible to see matters in even sharper relief. The phrase does fall into relative disuse in the period between (say) 1890 and 1965. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Mill's natural kinds so-called do not even create a serious uptick in the use of the phrase. The background level prior to 1860 does not reflect systematic use of 'natural kind' as jargon, but instead just occasions when authors happened to put the two words together.

I am now wondering if I should work this graph into the book somewhere.

* Ian Hacking claims that John Venn coins 'natural kind' in the technical sense but doesn't give any determinate reason for saying so. I can't find any use predating Venn, which corroborates Hacking's version.


from: John S Wilkins

Tue 06 Sep 2011 04:32 PM

I'm not sure that Venn's use of the term is what is now meant by it. He wrote: "A type that is, in the fullest sense of the words, persistent and invariable is scarcely to be found in nature" (second edition, page 13f). Instead he seemed to think a natural kind was something that is persistently regenerated (i.e., the literal sense of <i>natus</i>).