Essence and natural kinds: When science meets preschooler intuition

Oxford Studies in Epistemology 4:108-66 (2013)
  Copy   BIBTEX


The present paper focuses on essentialism about natural kinds as a case study in order to illustrate this more general point. Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam famously argued that natural kinds have essences, which are discovered by science, and which determine the extensions of our natural kind terms and concepts. This line of thought has been enormously influential in philosophy, and is often taken to have been established beyond doubt. The argument for the conclusion, however, makes critical use of intuitions, and I note that the intuitions are of the sort had by preschool children, and that they are traceable to a deep-seated cognitive outlook, which is often called “psychological essentialism.” Further, if we did not have such a cognitive outlook or implicit belief set—a belief set which is in fact in place by at least age 4—then we would not have the relevant philosophical intuitions. In light of this, I consider the question of whether natural kinds actually have scientifically discovered or discoverable essences, and whether these putative essences could determine the extensions of our terms and concepts as Kripke, Putnam, and many others have supposed. In fact, a number of philosophers of biology and chemistry have argued that biological and chemical kinds do not have such essences, yet these arguments—particularly in the case of chemistry—have not been assimilated by philosophers more generally. The reason for this poor assimilation is, I suggest, that the Kripke/Putnam view is just so intuitive. But this fact, I argue, is due to a deep-seated cognitive bias, rather than to any special insight into the nature of reality.



    Upload a copy of this work     Papers currently archived: 83,980

External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server

Through your library

Similar books and articles

A Multiple Realization Thesis for Natural Kinds.Kevin Lynch - 2010 - European Journal of Philosophy 20 (3):389-406.
Natural kinds and freaks of nature.Evan Fales - 1982 - Philosophy of Science 49 (1):67-90.
Natural Kinds: (Thick) Essentialism or Promiscuous Realism?Nigel Leary - 2007 - Philosophical Writings 34 (1):5 - 13.
What if reality has no architecture?Bence Nanay - 2011 - The Monist 94 (2):181-197.
Putnam's traditional neo-essentialism.Neil E. Williams - 2011 - Philosophical Quarterly 61 (242):151 - 170.
Essences and natural kinds.Alexander Bird - 2009 - In Robin Le Poidevin (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Metaphysics. Routledge. pp. 497--506.
Why Hacking is wrong about human kinds.Rachel Cooper - 2004 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 55 (1):73-85.
Do the Life Sciences Need Natural Kinds?Thomas A. C. Reydon - 2009 - Croatian Journal of Philosophy 9 (2):167-190.


Added to PP

360 (#39,866)

6 months
19 (#87,098)

Historical graph of downloads
How can I increase my downloads?

Author's Profile

Sarah-Jane Leslie
Princeton University

Citations of this work

Social Structures and the Ontology of Social Groups.Katherine Ritchie - 2018 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 100 (2):402-424.
Water is and is not H 2 O.Kevin P. Tobia, George E. Newman & Joshua Knobe - 2019 - Mind and Language 35 (2):183-208.
Modality is Not Explainable by Essence.Carlos Romero - 2019 - Philosophical Quarterly 69 (274):121-141.
Debunking Arguments in Metaethics and Metaphysics.Daniel Z. Korman - 2019 - In Alvin Goldman & Brian McLaughlin (eds.), Metaphysics and Cognitive Science. Oxford University Press. pp. 337-363.

View all 40 citations / Add more citations

References found in this work

Naming and Necessity.Saul Kripke - 1980 - Philosophy 56 (217):431-433.
Naming and Necessity.S. Kripke - 1972 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 45 (4):665-666.
Alief and Belief.Tamar Szabó Gendler - 2008 - Journal of Philosophy 105 (10):634-663.

View all 61 references / Add more references