Slater on planets and mallards

Mon 24 Jun 2013 08:51 AM

Matt Slater has written a review of my book for Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews. It's dated 28june, but it went up on their website today.

In his book, P. D. Magnus avoids the mismatch between scientifically significant categories and natural kinds by articulating an account of natural kinds that starts with the categories that figure in scientific enquiry. It's a difficult task to offer an account of a highly contested philosophical concept that is at once utterly novel and deserves to be taken seriously, but I think Magnus has done this. Is his account successful? Ultimately, I am not persuaded -- and I suspect others will balk too -- but I have certainly profited by grappling with his approach.

The review says nice things about my book, but it is also the kind of review I like to read. It isn't just about the book and what the author says in it. Rather, it offers a critical view of the issue and situates the book in recent discussions. It also treats the book as a bit of philosophy worthy of criticism. This contrasts with the veneer of rhetorical objectivity which bad reviews have.

In short: This review talks about what's in my book, informed explicitly by Matt's viewpoint. Matt's not convinced, but he's a stubborn guy.

Two other points.

1. I really like this sentence.

The subtitle of Magnus's book -- 'From Planets to Mallards' -- understates the scope of his treatment (and acceptance) of natural kinds. 'From Muffins to Meerkat Yelps' would be equally apt...

For context, note that Matt is the author of "Pluto and the Platypus: Tales of an Odd Ball and an Odd Duck".

2. I'm acknowledged for "offering comments on an earlier draft of this review", but I hasten to add that he hasn't pulled any punches on account of our exchange. The only real change, I think, was a clarification about the relaxed version of the restriction clause which allows indispensibility to be a matter of degree. Matt leaves out an open question about what my view might be but leaves in his worry about it, namely that figuring out what would be indispensible (even more or less) requires evaluating obscure counter-factuals.


from: Greg

Tue 25 Jun 2013 06:26 AM

I also thought it was a good review. (I must admit I haven't read your book yet -- reading the review strengthened my already-strong resolve to do so.)

Some follow-ups:

1. From the review (and perhaps from dimly-remembered conversations?), it sounded like your criteria would make (what are often called) social kinds into natural kinds too (at least, if there are social science taxonomies that achieve more inductive and explanatory success than other taxonomies). Is this correct?

2. What do you think about what happens when the best taxonomy in one domain says X exists, but the best taxonomy in another domain says X does not exist? Is there no domain-independent notion of existence? (Alternatively, is there a strict one-to-one correlation between domain and taxonomy? A no-overlap principle like this would seem to me prima facie at odds with scientific practice...)

3. How are the domains carved? And what happens if there is some disagreement about what subject belongs to which domain?

4. Most importantly: was the 'pain' / 'baguette' pun intentional? With you, I assume everything that could be construed as a pun was intentional.

I really should read the book before asking 1-3, but I was curious. But you can just tell me to hurry up and read the book.

from: P.D.

Tue 25 Jun 2013 06:29 PM

Greg: Here are replies to your questions.

1. Yes.

2. I'm not sure what kind of example you have in mind. There are certainly cases where the taxonomy of one domain includes a kind that's absent from the taxonomy of some other domain. But that's not the same as the taxonomy of the latter explicitly saying that the kind does not exist.

3. I tend to be rather permissive in what I'm willing to count as a domain. There can be disagreement about what we should care about, and I see that as disagreement about which domains are worth enquiring into. That is a practical matter, rather than an ontological one.

4. I don't really remember. Knowing me, I am inclined to say that it probably was deliberate. But I might have just liked the sound of it.

Also, hurry up and read the book already!