Acta Biotheoretica

, Volume 57, Issue 1–2, pp 51–75 | Cite as

Typology Reconfigured: From the Metaphysics of Essentialism to the Epistemology of Representation

  • Alan C. Love
Regular Article


The goal of this paper is to encourage a reconfiguration of the discussion about typology in biology away from the metaphysics of essentialism and toward the epistemology of classifying natural phenomena for the purposes of empirical inquiry. First, I briefly review arguments concerning ‘typological thinking’, essentialism, species, and natural kinds, highlighting their predominantly metaphysical nature. Second, I use a distinction between the aims, strategies, and tactics of science to suggest how a shift from metaphysics to epistemology might be accomplished. Typological thinking can be understood as a scientific tactic that involves representing natural phenomena using idealizations and approximations, which facilitates explanation, investigation, and theorizing via abstraction and generalization. Third, a variety of typologies from different areas of biology are introduced to emphasize the diversity of this representational reasoning. One particular example is used to examine how there can be epistemological conflict between typology and evolutionary analysis. This demonstrates that alternative strategies of typological thinking arise due to the divergent explanatory goals of researchers working in different disciplines with disparate methodologies. I conclude with several research questions that emerge from an epistemological reconfiguration of typology.


Classification Epistemology Essentialism Methodology Natural kinds Realism Typology 



Ingo Brigandt, Laura Nuño de la Rosa García, Ric Otte, Francisco Vergara-Silva, and Rasmus Winther gave me stimulating criticism and numerous suggestions on an earlier draft of this paper, all of which dramatically improved the final version. Their assistance should not be interpreted as an endorsement of my argument.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA

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