Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 569–586 | Cite as

Naming and contingency: the type method of biological taxonomy

  • Joeri WitteveenEmail author


Biological taxonomists rely on the so-called ‘type method’ to regulate taxonomic nomenclature. For each newfound taxon, they lay down a ‘type specimen’ that carries with it the name of the taxon it belongs to. Even if a taxon’s circumscription is unknown and/or subject to change, it remains a necessary truth that the taxon’s type specimen falls within its boundaries. Philosophers have noted some time ago that this naming practice is in line with the causal theory of reference and its central notion of rigid designation: a type specimen fixes the reference of a taxon name without defining it. Recently, however, this consensus has come under pressure in the pages of this journal. In a series of articles by Alex Levine, Joseph LaPorte, and Matthew Haber, it has been argued that type specimens belong only contingently to their species, and that this may bode problems for the relation between type method and causal theory. I will argue that this ‘contingency debate’ is a debate gone wrong, and that none of the arguments in defense of contingency withstand scrutiny. Taxonomic naming is not out of step with the causal theory, but conforms to it. However, I will also argue that this observation is itself in need of further explanation, since application of the type method in taxonomic practice is plagued by errors and ambiguities that threaten it with breaking down. Thus, the real question becomes why taxonomic naming conforms to the causal theory in the first place. I will show that the answer lies in the embedding of the type method into elaborate codes of nomenclature.


Taxonomy Nomenclature Type method Type specimen Necessity Contingency Causal theory Rigid designation Codes of nomenclature 



Earlier versions of this paper were presented at ISHPSSB 2013 in Montpellier, PBUK 2014 in Cambridge, and Utrecht University. I am grateful to these audiences for helpful feedback. Two anonymous reviewers, Matt Haber, Michael Devitt, and (especially) Kim Sterelny provided many thoughtful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the HumanitiesUtrechtThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of Philosophy and Religious StudiesUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands

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