On natural and relevant kinds

A number of people question why I used the phrase “natural kinds” to describe what I’m talking about when I talk about categorization. My brief explanation runs something like this:

In giving an account of things, sometimes it’s possible to divide things up in pretty much any way and have it work out. Other times, we inherit or impose category schemes that make it hard or impossible to give a successful account. Still other times, our taxonomy especially allows for successful enquiry— that is, it works but proceeding with a substantially different taxonomy would not have. By natural kind I mean kinds that figure in the latter sort of taxonomy.

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On giving up many small things

Last year I attended the annual Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology Conference hosted in Dallas and organized by Matt Brown.1

I got great feedback on my presentation, which ultimately grew into a paper. I hung out with old friends and made new ones.

So I submitted an abstract again this year. Today, I received an e-mail indicating that my paper was accepted along with an e-mail saying that the conference was canceled. The cancelation was inevitable, of course, but Matt had delayed officially canceling the conference until verdicts had been reached. This way would-be presenters can list the acceptance on their CV. It’s a classy move— I don’t need the line on my CV, but students and junior scholars might do.2

My missing the conference this year is not a terrible imposition, really, since I missed it for eight years before attending at all. It is a small sacrifice, in the grand scheme of things— but these accumulate like rain drops on the tin roof that is my inability to land a metaphor.

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Inflate and explode, analyze or explicate

Over at The Splintered Mind, Eric Schwitzgebel identifies what he calls the inflate-and-explode maneuver. Abstractly, the move is this: “Assume that things of Type X must have Property A, and then argue that nothing has Property A.”

Schwitzgebel is especially interested in the case of consciousness. On many accounts, one is supposed to have infallible access to the contents of one’s consciousness. However, one doesn’t have infallible access to anything. Having thus inflated consciousness with the pompous swell of infallibility, one blows it up— there is no such thing as consciousness!

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Putnam correspondence

Over on my website, I’ve posted an e-mail exchange I had with the late Hilary Putnam in 2011-12. The text of it has been knocking around on my hard drive, and it’s apt to get lost if I don’t put it somewhere. So posting it is as much for my own record keeping as for anything else.

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The Springtime in Paris View of natural kinds

In March 2014, I attended a workshop on natural kinds in Paris. Other attendees included Matt Slater, Muhammad Ali Khalidi, and Thomas Reydon. It seemed to me that, although we disagreed about many of the details, we shared a core conception of natural kinds.1 I mooted the idea of writing a consensus statement. We could give it a flashy name, refer to in our writing, and then maybe other people would start using the phrase too.

Today, while moving the last papers out of my old office, I came across an outline from the conference. Here I’ve quoted it exactly, including the all-caps title.2 Despite agreement from at least some of the others, nobody else assented to sign on.


  • NKs should be understood by way of scientific classification
  • they are natural to the extent that the world constrains classificatory categories3
  • metaphysical depth is attained by starting superficially and, by considering evidence, making contingent a posteriori claims of greater depth
A game store in Paris.

Reheated cabbage about planets

Popular Science has a recent item about whether Pluto is a planet, prompted by a short paper from the NASA New Horizons team (Runyon, et al.). The paper argues for redefining ‘planet’. In the Popular Science article, Sara Chodosh tries to show “why this matters”. The back-and-forth about Pluto, she writes, is a sign that “we’re still learning”. But the problem is that the short paper doesn’t make any new arguments or reflect any new findings. Continue reading “Reheated cabbage about planets”

Bat speak

Some friends pointed me to a Smithsonian article about recent research on fruitbat vocalizations. The upshot is that fruitbats gripe at each other in lots of different ways.

[N]early all of the communication calls of the Egyptian fruit bat in the roost are emitted during aggressive pairwise interactions, involving squabbling over food or perching locations and protesting against mating attempt.

Using algorithms, researchers were able to discern differences in bat griping depending both on who the target bat was (who was being griped with) and the context (what the griping was about).

I have argued that, for a domain of enquiry that includes meerkats in their natural environment, different meerkat alarm calls and the classes of threats which elicit them comprise natural kinds (see ch4). That admits six kinds, because there are three different calls and three corresponding classes of threats.

There’s no reason why the argument doesn’t generalize. For fruit bat groups in their environment, there may well be natural kinds corresponding to distinct classes of vocalizations and to the classes of objects picked out by those vocalizations. But what if it turns out that bat reference to individual other bats uses sounds functioning in the fashion of proper names? Suppose there’s an individual bat that the other bats pick out with a specific squeeky sound, something like “leeko leeko leeko”. Does that individual bat count as a natural kind?

One might think the answer has to be no, because kinds and individuals are different ontological categories. I’m not tempted by that, however. As I argue, species might turn out to be continuous individuals (in their fundamental ontology) but still count as natural kinds (see ch6).

Nevertheless, the category for the specific bat leeko could only be a natural kind for the domain including that specific bat population. And it might lack enough general importance to be a natural kind for a domain that includes all the Egyptian fruit bat populations across both space and time. So my account doesn’t require the answer to be yes.

Moreover, it’s not clear to me from the recent report whether the distinctions between bat vocalizations are clear and sharp enough to count as natural kinds. As always, the answer will depend on the details.