An Inferentialist Semantics for Natural Kind Terms

Dissertation, Georgetown University (1999)

Michael Wolf
Washington and Jefferson College
My dissertation is concerned with natural kind terms; its most basic goal is to provide a semantic account of the role these play in scientific discourse. Since my broad semantic approach follows Sellars and Brandom in looking to the pragmatically articulated inferential role of sentences rather than their relation to the world, I manage to set aside metaphysical questions regarding the nature of kinds. I begin with an account of the central role played by natural kind terms in theoretical explanation. I show how natural kind terms are essential to the explanatory function of scientific laws as inference licenses of a certain sort. I turn then to the curious fact that natural kind terms occur in multiple grammatical positions: as parts of attributive predicates and as apparently singular referents . This latter role is at times one that seems to involve a quantificational attribution to all members of the kind, but at other times is more robust . My account demonstrates the utility of just such ambiguity to the role played by kind terms in explanation. I go on to account for a number of other puzzling features of natural kind term usage and to explain the distinction between natural kind terms and other sortals on grounds of their distinctive pragmatic significances. I conclude by laying out how my view can be extended to give a semantics for other sorts of kind terms . This allows us to draw a substantial distinction between gerrymandered kind terms and those that our theories should genuinely commit us to, while acknowledging that the entire natural/social divide among the kind terms stands or falls with our ability to show that there is an important fundamental distinction between different sorts of theories
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