Final Causes and Natural Classes

  • Menno Hulswit
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series book series (PSSP, volume 90)


Though Peirce’s theory of natural classes is often mentioned in contemporary philosophy of science and metaphysics (Ian Hacking for example gives Peirce a prominent place in the tradition of natural kinds1), it has not as yet been studied thoroughly. Accordingly, the presentation of Peirce's theory is often only partially correct, and sometimes even misleading. Perhaps the main reason for the absence of a thorough study is that Peirce's theory of natural classes is intimately related to his theory of final causation,2- a concept which in contemporary philosophy is avoided for being a mystifying idea which neither agrees with the methods nor with the results of modern science. In the previous chapter I have tried to show that this is a biased view, due to a number of false presuppositions that were clearly recognized by Peirce a century ago. In this chapter it will be shown that Peirce's theory of natural classes is intimately linked to his conception of final causation.


Natural Kind Biological Species Class Character Natural Classification Natural Classis 
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  1. 1.
    Hacking 1991.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Only this can explain that Haack, in an otherwise brilliant paper on Peirce’s &quote;Scholastic Realism,&quote; could write about the relationship between natural classes and final causation: &quote;I am unable to judge whether Peirce’s suggested characterization could be made acceptable&quote; (Haack 1992, 50, note 45). Similarly, Beverly Kent, in her extensive book on Peirce’s &quote;Logic and the Classification of the Sciences,&quote; ignores the importance of final causation for the item of natural classifications because &quote;Peirce was often obscure, if not actually mystical, in some of his writings on final causation within the context of natural classification&quote; (Kent 1987, 229, note 11). A notable exception of someone who does recognize the importance of final causation for natural classifications is Helmut Pape (1989, 1993). Pape’s discussion, however, concerns primarily Peirce’s idea of a natural classification of the sciences, rather than his idea of natural classes.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In Kripke’s own words: &quote;Given that gold does have the atomic number 79, could something be gold without having the atomic number 79?... consider a possible world... in which, let us say, fool’s gold or iron pyrites was actually found in the areas which actually contain gold now... Would we say... that in that situation gold would not even have been an element (because pyrites is not an element)?... One should not say that [this substance] would still be gold in this possible world though gold would then lack the atomic number 79. It would be some other stuff.... It [is] necessary and not contingent that gold be an element with atomic number 79&quote; (Kripke 1980, 123).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Van Brakel 1992, 243-4.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Successively: Haack 1993a, 134; 1992, 29 and 1992, 25.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    For example in Peirce’s earliest text about natural kinds, which we have discussed in section 3.2 (W 1:416; 1866); also in his MS 421; c. 1893-5.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    &quote;An important character is obviously one upon which others depend, that is, one the inclusion of which in a definition renders true general propositions concerning the object defined possible; and the more such propositions a character renders possible, the more important it is&quote; (W2: 443; 1867).Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    The insight that Peirce borrowed his idea that generals are possibles from Duns Scotus, I owe to Mauer 1983, 8.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    For Peirce’s Century Dictionary Definition of 'essence,' see W5: 417; 1886.Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    The most important part of this text was also published in EP II, section 9 (pp. 115-132), entitled &quote;On Science and Natural Classes.&quoteGoogle Scholar
  11. 16.
    Hilary Putnam has made the same observation: &quote;it sounds strange to be told that a human being is not identical with the aggregation of the molecules in his body. Yet on a moment’s reflection each of us is aware that he was not that aggregate of molecules a day ago. Seven years ago, precious few of those molecules were in my body. If after my death that exact set of molecules is assembled and placed in a chemical flask, it will be the same aggregation of molecules, but it won't be me.&quote; (Putnam 1975, 235)Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    For this evolution from Peirce’s early nominalist sympathies toward his mature commitment to scholastic realism, see Fisch 1986.Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    Though Peirce does not speak of essential qualities in his 1866 paper, he does speak about 'properties which are implied' in the definition of the natural class (W 1:418).Google Scholar
  14. 20.
    For explanations of Peirce’s Natural Classifications of the Sciences, see Kent (1987) and Pape (1989, 1993). Pape explicitly deals with the relationship between final causation and natural classifications.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    Peirce has a second argument for his idea that chemical elements were not subject to evolution: &quote;The irregularities of biological classification are the traces of the geological vicissitudes through which the earth’s surface has passed. There is no trace of anything analogous to this in the chemical classification.&quote; (MS 421; 1893-5)Google Scholar
  16. 24.
    This also agrees with Hacking’s interpretation. According to Hacking, that which makes something a Peirce-kind is &quote;its role in a systematic interconnected web of laws of nature&quote; (Hacking, 1990, 120-21). Hacking’s formulation contains both a mistake and an important insight. His description is misleading inasmuch as his expression &quote;laws of nature&quote; suggests that Peirce’s notion of law is restricted to what we nowadays consider to be the (fundamental) laws of nature. Haack’s reference to habit-like behavior is much more appropriate. However, Hacking’s description contains an important insight that is lacking in Haack’s description. A Peirce-kind is not only characterized by the sum of its habits, but also, and even more so, by a systematic connection of habits. This is provided by the final cause to which the members of the class owe their existence.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Menno Hulswit
    • 1
  1. 1.Heyendaal InstituteUniversity of NijmegenThe Netherlands

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