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The Many Faces of Realism about Natural Kinds


The label realist in the debate about natural kinds can imply different things. Many authors in this debate subscribe to views that are in some way realist, but without making clear whether the realism in question specifically attaches to kind categories or something else. The traditional understanding of realism about natural kinds is stated in terms of the mind-independence criterion. However, a recent tendency in the debate is to reject this understanding on the ground of its incompatibility with naturalistic approaches to natural kinds. The aim of this paper is to disentangle different meanings attached to the term realism about natural kinds and examine arguments for rejecting the traditional mind-independence framing of the debate. I recommend the reestablishment of mind-independent realism as a legitimate contender for naturalist approaches to natural kinds by indicating that mind-independent realists have at their disposal all the resources to subscribe to such an approach. I proceed by showing how keeping the traditional distinction between realist and antirealist views in terms of mind-independence allows us to keep track of important distinctions between different accounts of natural kinds which are otherwise blurred. Then I examine the arguments against this traditional framing and conclude that they either (1) rest on a conflation between mind-independence of kinds versus entities belonging to kinds, or (2) unjustifiably presuppose that mind-independent realists do not have resources to uphold a naturalistic view of natural kinds.

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  1. I leave open the possibility that these examples do not really correspond to well-established scientific categories, so the reader can feel free to replace them with other examples of well-established scientific categories of their own choosing.

  2. Note here the important distinction between the mind-independence of facts determining whether the kind is natural and the mind-independence of entities belonging to a kind. This distinction will be discussed in Sect. 3.

  3. It must be emphasized that for authors such as Psillos (1999) scientific realism implies natural kind realism. He defines the metaphysical thesis of scientific realism as follows: “The.

    metaphysical stance asserts that the world has a definite and mind-independent natural-kind.

    structure” (Psillos 1999, xvii). However, typical formulations of scientific realism do not imply natural kind realism (see, for instance, Devitt 2013).

  4. For a recent discussion of the traditional realist position about natural kinds, see Franklin-Hall (2015) and Chakravartty (forthcoming).

  5. These authors claim that their realistic position rules out the possibility that kinds are illusory, fictions or exist only in the mind of the beholder, implying that this is what the antirealist position holds.

  6. Except insofar as we (our thoughts, theories, symbols, etc.) are part of that structure. As we will see in Sect. 3, this point potentially raises some issues regarding whether we can be realists about things which in one way or another depend on us.

  7. In what follows I will, for the sake of brevity, refer only to our interests and the potential interest-relativity of natural kinds. This does not mean, however, that I do not take into consideration the fact that our conceptual schemes and cognitive capacities also influence our classificatory practices. In fact, we can agree that they also partly determine our interests.

  8. Perhaps one can argue that Kitcher and Dupré, similarly to Boyd, have scientific realism in mind. But, if we think about how they present the alternative, that is, the antirealist view, it seems clear that they are not talking about scientific antirealism.

  9. I will not tackle the hard problem of determining what can count as a relevant property. This can be taken as an important challenge for the promiscuous realism as I have formulated it in (1).

  10. Distinguishing between these two readings explains why some authors have been inclined to view promiscuous realism as presupposing some kind of conventionalist, and therefore an antirealist view about natural kinds (see Bird and Tobin 2018).

  11. See, for instance, Root (2000). He argues for the reality of race as a social kind but also claims that on his construal of realism what is real is dependent on how we think and talk about ourselves. For an informative overview of social racial realism, the view that races are real but socially constructed, see Spencer (2018).

  12. Note that the account of historical kinds is not restricted to social kinds, but in this context, it is interesting exactly because it extends the domain of real or natural kinds to social kinds.

  13. One might argue that Millikan is also endorsing mind-independent realism about kinds, but she does not explicitly raise the issue of mind-independence. She discusses the ontology of real kinds and claims that, as a matter of empirical fact, we find huge gaps separating tiny clumps of clots of actual individuals. Historical kinds are, then, clumps formed through processes of replication or reproduction. This position is compatible with mind-independent realism.

  14. While Millikan argues that “[R]elatively few historical kinds furnish subject matter for science” (1999, 56), Godman extends the range of scientifically important historical kinds, especially with regards to human kinds by stating that the criterion of having numerous and interesting properties in common, or having them with high regularity, is too demanding.

  15. However, they stress in the footnote that our interests determine which kinds we attend to, and that they often lead us to categories that do not fulfil requirements for kinds.

  16. Or, you might even consider that mind-dependent entities such as mental states and personality traits can form mind-independent kinds. For instance, we can suppose that there are some basic patterns distinguishing different types of mental syndromes, i.e., that there are common properties unifying certain types of mental states allowing us to unproblematically recognize them as distinct kinds.

  17. He does not frame it directly as a discussion of mind-independent realism about natural kinds, but it might be construed as an argument against the traditional framing of realism.

  18. However, as I stated earlier, it is not straightforward that a mind-independent realist about natural kinds would want to identify such categories as natural kinds. One reason for this, in my view, is that the clustered properties in question are not very stable, or, we at least expect them not to be. Namely, racist beliefs and institutionalized injustices can be changed and with them the properties in question. Taking them to be natural kinds can perhaps have the unwelcome consequence of somehow cementing their status, i.e., assuming a certain inevitability and fixity that does not allow for a change.

  19. The only in principle impediment for a realism about such kinds would be if the racism in the society is so entrenched that even the sociological researchers exploring such categories are biased by such beliefs that they cannot judge the scientific relevance of the categories in question.

  20. I stress here that we might be interested in identifying natural kinds with a subset of our scientific categories because it is plausible to assume that some of our current scientific categories will be refined or replaced by alternative ones with the further development of science.

  21. Another potential problem is that the reason for convergence might be the fact these scientists are presumably all human, and so just for that reason might share interests or abilities that lead them to converge on categories even if they're not mind-independent. To work out this problem the realist can widen the range of epistemic subjects to include the ones that differ from us (see Franklin-Hall 2015 for a similar strategy but in the antirealist camp) or idealized epistemic agents.

  22. One might wonder what roles such categorizations can play in the higher-level sciences. Perhaps the realist might be charged of assuming some form of reductionism by adopting the claim that some basic physical or chemical categories play explanatory roles in higher-level sciences. However, that does not necessarily follow. The realist can claim that such basic categories are of some interest in higher-level explanations, and not that they are the only ones that generate explanatory import. For instance, categories referring to the molecular level might play some role in explaining (some of the) human behavior, but this does not mean that all explanations of human behavior need to invoke such categories.

  23. Promiscuous realism might also be accused not to align well with the naturalistic approach to natural kinds because it captures a wider set of categories than the scientific ones. But, there are other, less promiscuous versions of the abundance view that might be more suitable for the job.


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Many thanks to Laura Franklin-Hall, Anjan Chakravartty, Marko Jurjako, Luca Malatesti, and Predrag Šustar for insightful comments and constructive criticism. This paper is an output of the following projects: ThUMB, funded by the Croatian Science Foundation, (Grant Number IP-2018-01-3378) and KUBIM funded by the University of Rijeka (uniri-human-18-265).

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Correspondence to Zdenka Brzović.

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Brzović, Z. The Many Faces of Realism about Natural Kinds. J Gen Philos Sci (2023).

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