Biological Theory

, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 100–108 | Cite as

A Pluralist Approach to Extension: The Role of Materiality in Scientific Practice for the Reference of Natural Kind Terms

  • Ann-Sophie BarwichEmail author
Thematic Issue Article: Natural Kinds: New Dawn?


This article argues for a different outlook on the concept of extension, especially for the reference of general terms in scientific practice. Scientific realist interpretations of the two predominant theories of meaning, namely Descriptivism and Causal Theory, contend that a stable cluster of descriptions or an initial baptism fixes the extension of a general term such as a natural kind term. This view in which the meaning of general terms is presented as monosemantic and the referents as stable, homogeneous, and unchangeable, however, does not reflect the various practices involved in the investigation of research materials and the related application of general terms in scientific practice. By drawing on the taxonomic diversity, particularly of structure-based classifications in chemical databases, this article illustrates the limited utility of such a concept of extension. Research materials often exhibit a plurality of material dimensions that, within different research contexts, allow for various and often equally significant taxonomic demarcations. In light of this, the extension of a general term cannot be uniquely determined by a supposedly independent nature of the referent but is relative to the model context under which the materials are investigated. This significance and plurality of the model context, I claim, needs to be mirrored in an account of meaning that is supposed to reflect scientific reality. On this account, the aim of this article is to present an alternative perspective on the concept of extension to accommodate the diverse material practices that determine the application of general terms in science.


Biology Classification Chemistry Extension Meaning Olfaction Philosophy of science Reference 


  1. Barnes B (1982) On the extensions of concepts and the growth of knowledge. Sociol Rev 30:23–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bloor D (2005) Toward a sociology of epistemic things. Perspect Sci 13:285–312CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Cartwright N (1999) The dappled world: a study of the boundaries of science. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  4. de Vries H (1909) The mutation theory: experiments and observations on the origin of species in the vegetable kingdom. Open Court, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  5. Devitt M (2008) Resurrecting biological essentialism. Philos Sci 75:344–382CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dupré J (1995) The disorder of things: metaphysical foundations of the disunity of science. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  7. Dupré J (2001) In defence of classification. Stud Hist Phil Biol Biomed Sci 32(2):203–219Google Scholar
  8. Dupré J (2002) Humans and other animals. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  9. Eco U (1979) A theory of semiotics. Indiana University Press, BloomingtonGoogle Scholar
  10. Eco U (1983) Semiotics and the philosophy of language. Indiana University Press, BloomingtonGoogle Scholar
  11. Ellis BD (2001) Scientific essentialism. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  12. Ellis BD (2002) The philosophy of nature: a guide to the new essentialism. McGill University Press, QueensGoogle Scholar
  13. Ereshefsky M (2001) The poverty of the Linnaean hierarchy: a philosophical study of biological taxonomy. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  14. Ereshefsky M (2007a) Species, taxonomy, and systematics. In: Gabbav DM, Thaggard P, Woods J (eds) Philosophy of biology. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp 403–428CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Ereshefsky M (2007b) Foundational issues concerning taxa and taxon names. Syst Biol 56:295–301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Feyerabend PK (1962) Explanation, reduction, and empiricism. In: Feigl H, Maxwell G (eds) Scientific explanation, space, and time. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp 28–97Google Scholar
  17. Giere RN (2006) Scientific Perspectivism. Science and Its Conceptual Foundations Series. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  18. Hacking I (1983) Representing and intervening: introductory topics in the philosophy of natural science. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Harper R, Bate-Smith EC, Land DG (1968) Odor description and odor classification: a multidisciplinary examination. Churchill, LondonGoogle Scholar
  20. Hastings J, Magka D, Batchelor C, Duan L, Stevens R, Ennis M, Steinbeck C (2012) Structrue-based classification and ontology in chemistry. J Cheminform 4(8). doi: 10.1186/1758-2946-4-8
  21. Hjelmslev L (1961) Prolegomena to a theory of language. University of Wisconsin Press, MadisonGoogle Scholar
  22. Hull DL (1965) The effect of essentialism on taxonomy—two thousand years of stasis (I). Brit J Philos Sci 15:314–326CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hull DL (1990) Science as a process: an evolutionary account of the social and conceptual development of science. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  24. Kitcher P (1984) Species. Philos Sci 51:308–333CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kitcher P (1993) The advancement of science. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  26. Klein U, Lefèvre W (2007) Materials in eighteenth-century science: a historical ontology. MIT Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  27. Kripke S (1980) Naming and necessity. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  28. Kuhn TS (1962) The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  29. Ladyman J (2009) Structural realism versus standard scientific realism: the case of phlogiston and dephlogisticated air. Synthese 180:87–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. LaPorte J (2004) Natural kinds and conceptual change. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  31. Morgan M, Morrison M (1999) Models As mediators: perspectives on natural and social science. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Needham P (2002) The discovery that water is H2O. Int Stud Philos Sci 16:205–226CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Nersessian N (1984) Faraday to Einstein: constructing meaning in scientific theories. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, DordrechtCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Ohloff G (1971) Relationship between odor sensation and stereochemistry of decalin ring compounds. In: Ohloff G, Thomas AF (eds) Gustation and olfaction. Academic Press, New York, pp 118–183Google Scholar
  35. Ohloff G, Pickenhagen W, Kraft P (2011) Scent and chemistry: the molecular world of odors. Wiley-VCH, ZurichGoogle Scholar
  36. Psillos S (2012) Causal descriptivism and the reference of theoretical terms. In: Raftopoulos A, Machamer P (eds) Perception, realism, and the problem of reference. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 212–238CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Putnam H (1975) The meaning of “meaning”. Minnesota Studies in the philosophy of science. Lang Mind Knowl 7:131–193Google Scholar
  38. Putnam H (1977) Is semantics possible? In: Schwartz P (ed) Naming, necessity and natural kinds. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, pp 102–118Google Scholar
  39. Radder H (ed) (2003) The philosophy of scientific experimentation. Pittsburgh University Press, PittsburghGoogle Scholar
  40. Rheinberger H-J (1997) Toward a history of epistemic things: synthesizing proteins in the test tube. Stanford University Press, StanfordGoogle Scholar
  41. Rheinberger H-J (2005) A reply to David Bloor: Toward a sociology of epistemic things. Perspect Sci 13:406–410CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Riggs PJ (1996) Natural kinds, laws of nature and scientific methodology. Kluwer, DordrechtCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Searle JR (1958) Proper names. Mind 67:166–173CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Searle JR (1983) Intentionality: an essay in the philosophy of mind. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Temmerman R (2000) Towards new ways of terminology description: the sociocognitive approach. Benjamins, AmsterdamGoogle Scholar
  46. Van Fraassen B (1980) The scientific image. Oxford, University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Egenis, University of ExeterExeterUK

Personalised recommendations