John S. Wilkins and Malte C. Ebach: The Nature of Classification: Relationships and Kinds in the Natural Sciences: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2014, pp., vii + 197, Price £60/$100.00

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 37 (4):477-479 (2015)
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John Wilkins and Malte Ebach respond to the dismissal of classification as something we need not concern ourselves with because it is, as Ernest Rutherford suggested, mere ‘‘stamp collecting.’’ They contend that classification is neither derivative of explanation or of hypothesis-making but is necessarily prior and prerequisite to it. Classification comes first and causal explanations are dependent upon it. As such it is an important (but neglected) area of philosophical study. Wilkins and Ebach reject Norwood Russell Hanson’s thesis that classification relies on observation that is theory-laden and deny the need for aetiological assumptions and historical reconstruction to justify its arrangement. What they offer instead is a significant (albeit controversial) contribution to the philosophical literature on classification, a pre-theoretic natural classification based on the observation of patterns in data of ready-made phenomena. Their notion of ready-made phenomena rests on a conception of tacit knowledge or know-how. This is evident in their distinction between strong Theory-dependence and na ̈ıve theory-dependence. Their small t-theory-dependence permits patterns of observation that facilitate know-how but does not rely on a domain-specific explanatory theory of their aetiology. Wilkins and Ebach suggest classification differs from theory building in that it is passive (whereas theory building is active). Classification is possible just because it does not require the sieve of theory to capture classes that are ‘‘handed to you by your cognitive dispositions and the data that you observe’’ (p. 18). Finding regularities sans-theory is just something we do and can do without any prior theory about the underlying causes or origins of the resultant regularities. Luke Howard’s classification of clouds serves as an exemplar of a passive, theory-free classification system and the periodic table and the DSM help to illustrate this type of non-aetiological patterning. A recurrent theme is the nature of naturalness. For Wilkins and Ebach, the conception of naturalness is not one that is based on the generation or discovery of natural kind categories popular in both the traditional metaphysics of Mill and Wittgenstein as well as updated notions within philosophy of biology such as Boyd’s Homeostatic Property Cluster kinds. Instead, Wilkins and Ebach define the naturalness of classification as the falling into hierarchical patterns, aligning the search for natural arrangement with the aim of systematics, and as something that is grounded in a cognitive task or activity. However, they leave the question of realism v. antirealism open. ‘‘In natural classification...we must have real relations no matter how we might interpret ‘real’’’ (p. 70). There is tension with regard to their ontological commitments as they vacillate between constructive, operationalist, and realist approaches. Wilkins and Ebach initially define real as that which is causal and important (pp. 70–71), and later as that which ‘‘depends in no way upon a mind or observer’’ (p. 122). This makes their claim that there was ‘‘no real theory involved [in the pre-Darwinian classifications of Jussieu and Adanson]’’ (p. 64) difficult to interpret. Cont’d…….

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Catherine Elizabeth Kendig
Michigan State University


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