NATURE OF CLASSIFICATION

"Classification is a halfway house between the immediate concreteness of the individual thing and the complete abstraction of mathematical notions" Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 1925: 43.

Wilkins, J.S. & Ebach, M.C. (2013). The Nature of Classification: Relationships and Kinds in the Natural Sciences. Palgrave Macmillan [Book website].

For over a century, it has been philosophical orthodoxy to regard classification as a matter of convenience and as arbitrary, a moment in the scientific method that was mere stamp collecting, as Ernest Rutherford called it, rather than being derived properly from theory. It is our contention that to the contrary, natural classification is an important and constant moment in scientific development, and that much of science is inexplicable without it.

The Nature of Classification Project (with John S. Wilkins, University of Melbourne) aims to present a philosophical discussion of classification in the natural sciences that moves away from Rutherford’s physics-centrism, and shows that theory building and theoretical-dependent observation is not all that is going on in sciences, not restricted to biology, but including all the sciences including physics itself.

Wilkins & EbachThe relation of Quinean scientific ontologies and Ramsayfication to natural classifications will be considered as well as, and argue for the notion that classifications are either based on analogies derived from some shared formal model of phenomenal domains, or on homologies of common (historically contingent) causes, and that much confusion derives from conflating these two types.

The epistemic warrant afforded by classifications of both kinds will also be discussed, and will be related to various sciences through cases studies, including in biological taxonomy, of course, but also geology, mineralogy, psychology, sociology, chemistry, and even physics itself.

The position that will be defended is that classification is not a necessary step in some privileged sequence of methodological heuristics, but it is necessary in every science that classifications be undertaken in the absence of overarching and well-established exhaustive theories for that domain, which is the case in nearly every science. In other words, not all objects of a science are theoretical objects.

The project will address what the act of classification consists in, logically and practically, and how this relates to issues of semantics, natural kinds, and other ontological inferences.

The The Nature of Classification: Relationships and Kinds in the Natural Sciences will be published with Palgrave Macmillian Press, in 2013. Please visit John Wilins's blog, Evolving Thoughts, for more updates and excerpts.