Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 63–77 | Cite as

Can abstractions be causes?

  • David M. Johnson


The Empiricist or Lockean view says natural kinds do not exist objectively in nature but are practical categories reflecting use of words. The Modern, Ostensive view says they do exist, and one can refer to such a kind by ostention and recursion, assuming his designation of it is related causally to the kind itself. However, this leads to a problem: Kinds are abstract repeatables, and it seems impossible that abstractions could have causal force. In defence of the Modern view, I suggest we can think of kinds as — or as like — ecological niches existing in nature, which are causally effective by virtue of the fact that they predictively determine (some) properties of the things that happen to occupy them.

Key words

Natural kinds abstractions causality ecological niches 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Attenborough, D.: 1979,Life on Earth: a Natural History, Little, Brown and Co., Boston and Toronto.Google Scholar
  2. Ayers, M. R.: 1971, ‘Locke versus Aristotle on Natural Kinds’,Journal of Philosophy 78, 247–272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Block, N., ed.: 1983,Readings in Philosophy of Psychology, Volume 1, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  4. Boyd, R.: 1983, ‘Materialism without Reductionism: What Physicalism Does Not Entail’, in N. Block (ed.) 1983, pp. 67–106.Google Scholar
  5. Burge, T.: 1982, ‘Other Bodies’, in A. Woodfield (ed.) 1982, pp. 97–120.Google Scholar
  6. Chaitin, G. J.: 1988, ‘Randomness in Artithmetic’,Scientific American July, 80–85.Google Scholar
  7. Churchland, P. M.: 1985, ‘Conceptual Progress and Word/World Relations: In Search of the Essence of Natural Kinds’,Canadian Journal of Philosophy 15, 1–17.Google Scholar
  8. Davidson, D. and G. Harman, eds.: 1972,Semantics of Natural Language, Reidel Press, Dordrecht.Google Scholar
  9. Descartes, R.: 1968,The Philosophical Works of Descartes, Volume 1, translated by Haldane and Ross, Cambridge University Press, New York.Google Scholar
  10. Dobzhansky, T.: 1935, ‘A Critique of the Species Concept in Biology’,Philosophy of Science 2, 344–355.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dobzhansky, T.: 1970,Genetics of the Evolutionary Process, Columbia University Press, New York.Google Scholar
  12. Donnellan, K. S.: 1977, ‘Speaking of Nothing’, in S. P. Schwartz (ed.) 1977a, pp. 216–244.Google Scholar
  13. Evans, G.: 1977, ‘The Causal Theory of Names’, in S. P. Schwartz (ed.) 1977a, pp. 192–215.Google Scholar
  14. Fodor, J. A.: 1985, ‘Fodor's Guide to Mental Representation: the Intelligent Auntie's Vade-Mecum’,Mind 94, 76–100.Google Scholar
  15. Fodor, J. A.: 1988,Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind, MIT Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  16. Ghiselin, M. T.: 1987, ‘Species Concepts, Individuality, and Objectivity’,Biology and Philosophy 2, 127–143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gould, S. J.: 1980a,The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History, W. W. Norton and Co., New York and London.Google Scholar
  18. Gould, S. J.: 1980b, ‘Sticking up for Marsupials’, in Gould 1980a, pp. 289–295.Google Scholar
  19. Hanson, N. R.: 1958,Patterns of Discovery, Cambridge University Press, London and New York.Google Scholar
  20. Hull, D. L.: 1987, ‘Genealogical Actors in Ecological Roles’,Biology and Philosophy 2, 168–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hume, D.: 1739,A Treatise of Human Nature, L. A. Selby-Bigge (ed.), Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1960.Google Scholar
  22. Kant, I.: 1781,Critique of Pure Reason, translated by N. K. Smith, Macmillan & Co., London, 1958.Google Scholar
  23. Kitcher, P.: 1987, ‘Ghostly Whispers: Mayr, Ghiselin, and the “Philosophers” on the Ontological Status of Species’,Biology and Philosophy 2, 184–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kripke, S. A.: 1971, ‘Identity and Necessity’, in M. K. Munitz (ed.) 1971, pp. 135–164.Google Scholar
  25. Kripke, S. A.: 1972, ‘Naming and Necessity’, in D. Davidson and B. Harman (eds.) 1972, pp. 253–355.Google Scholar
  26. Locke J.: 1690,Essay concerning Human Understanding, in two volumes, John Yolton (ed.), J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London and New York, 1967, 1968.Google Scholar
  27. Mayr, E.: 1987, ‘The Ontological Status of Species: Scientific Progress and Philosophical Terminology’,Biology and Philosophy 2, 145–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Munitz, M. K., ed.: 1971,Identity and Individuation, New York University Press, New York.Google Scholar
  29. Ockham, W. of: 1962,Philosophical Writings, selected, edited, and translated by Philotheus Boehner, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., Edinburgh.Google Scholar
  30. Putnam, H.: 1975a,Mind, Language and Reality: Philosophical Papers, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, London and New York.Google Scholar
  31. Putnam, H.: 1975b, ‘The Meaning of “Meaning”’, in H. Putnam 1975a, pp. 215–271.Google Scholar
  32. Putnam, H.: 1977, ‘Is Semantics Possible?’ in S. P. Schwartz (ed.) 1977a, pp. 102–118.Google Scholar
  33. Schwartz, S. P., ed.: 1977a,Naming, Necessity, and Natural Kinds, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.Google Scholar
  34. Schwartz, S. P.: 1977b, ‘Introduction’, in S. P. Schwartz (ed.) 1977a, pp. 13–41.Google Scholar
  35. Simpson, G. G.: 1961,Principles of Animal Taxonomy, Columbia University Press, New York.Google Scholar
  36. Van Valen, L.: 1976, ‘Ecological Species, Multispecies, and Oaks’,Taxon 25, 233–239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Wiggins, D.: 1980,Sameness and Substance, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  38. Wiley, E. O.: 1980, ‘Is the Evolutionary Species Fiction? — A Consideration of Classes, Individuals, and Historical Entities’,Systematic Zoology 29, 76–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Wiley, E. O.: 1981a,Phylogenetics, Wiley, New York.Google Scholar
  40. Wiley, E. O.: 1981b, ‘The Metaphysics of Individuality and its Consequences for Systematic Biology’,Behavioral and Brain Science 4, 302–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Woodfield, A., ed.: 1982,Thought and Object: Essays on Intentionality, Clarendon Press, Oxford.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • David M. Johnson
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyYork UniversityNorth YorkCanada

Personalised recommendations