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.
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An anonymous referee suggested considering Causal Descriptivism in this criticism. Causal Descriptivism, I believe, will face the same problem for the concept of extension that I criticize in the other two accounts if it is rigidly conceived as unchangeable, homogeneous, and stable.
Objections to “analgesic” as a natural kind term might be answered with reference to Putnam (1977), for whom “acid” constituted a natural kind term.
Ohloff’s rule (1971) defines ambergris odorants by the presence of a decalin structure, i.e., a bicyclic compound, and the requirement that the atom groups in the positions 2, 4, and 1 (marked by a dotted line opposite 2) be axial
For a more historic analysis of the interaction of different material cultures in the disciplinary development of 18th-century chemistry see Klein and Lefèvre (2007).
Philosophical skepticism to treat odorants as natural kinds is nicely met by fragrance chemists’ desire to classify odors into natural kinds, explicitly using this term with reference to the discussion about classification in the philosophy of science. See Harper et al. (1968).
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Barwich, A. A Pluralist Approach to Extension: The Role of Materiality in Scientific Practice for the Reference of Natural Kind Terms. Biol Theory 7, 100–108 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-012-0083-x
- Philosophy of science