International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

twitter 2015
     facebook 2015


MONDAY, JULY 6  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-R520
Organized session / diverse format
Norms, kinds, and biological practice

Thomas Reydon (Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany)


Matthew Barker (Concordia University, Canada)
Marc Ereshefsky (University of Calgary, Canada)
P.D. Magnus (University at Albany, United States)
Matthew Slater (Bucknell University, United States)
Thomas Reydon (Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany)

Philosophers of science have long been searching for an account of kinds and classification that does justice to the plurality of classificatory practices in the various sciences. Especially in the biological sciences considerable differences between classificatory practices can be found, for example between classifications of microbes and “macrobes”, between classifications of plants and animals, or between classifications in different research contexts, for example ecology and evolutionary biology.

This session aims at presenting recent advances in formulating such accounts, as well as assessing the directions in which further research should be going. In doing so, it discusses concrete biological cases such as the kinds polygenomic organism and living thing, type specimen methodology, frog and spider taxa proposed for classificatory revision within integrative taxonomy, and microbial classification. The session takes the form of a panel of four speakers plus a commentator. All five participants are working on accounts of classification and kinds with close attention to biological practice, and the four speakers are currently working on the topic in teams of two.

Thomas Reydon will set the stage by asking why the philosophy of biology (and of science more generally) needs an account of natural kinds in the first place. He examines the various aims of biological classifications, and in what ways philosophical accounts of kinds might come closer to providing a faithful picture of actual classificatory practice in the biological sciences. This involves examining which criteria any acceptable account of natural kinds should meet. Marc Ereshefsky points out that while philosophers tend to posit monistic theories of natural kinds, many successful classificatory practices in science are inconsistent with such monistic theories of natural kinds. According to Ereshefsky, given the diversity of epistemic aims scientists have for positing classifications we need a non-monistic account of natural kinds that is sensitive to the diversity of classificatory practices in science. Nevertheless, such an account should not merely say that any group of entities highlighted by a scientific classification is a natural kind. Consequently, we need a pluralistic theory of natural kinds that has a normative component. Ereshefsky proposes a pluralistic account of natural kinds, based on Laudan’s normative naturalism.

Matthew Slater examines classificatory practices to distill from them several specific classificatory norms that they explicitly or implicitly imply. Scientists’ appeals to norms are motivated by both empirical and extra-empirical factors, and Slater argues that good arguments for classification claims must appeal to both factors. This raises questions about the extents to which different classificatory norms are rationally evaluable. Matthew Barker addresses these questions with an eye to how empirical and philosophical methods should coordinate when answering them. He argues that there are different types of classificatory norms, including both epistemic and pragmatic, and clarifies how these operate in parallel within a layered view of rational evaluability. On this view, if an epistemic norm helps justify a classification claim, then some pragmatic norm does too. And if a pragmatic norm itself receives any further justification, then pragmatic appeal to further goals of ours is among the further justifiers. This leaves open that successful justification for a classification claim may have empirically derived epistemic parts to it, but insists that in such cases the success of the justification must depend on pragmatic parts too. Science typically provides any empirically derived epistemic parts of justifications; philosophy can and should help with the pragmatic parts by clarifying classificatory norms, our goals, and relations between these.

P.D. Magnus closes by giving an overall commentary on the four talks and opening the discussion between the panel and the audience.