Natural Kinds

The Origins of ‘Natural Kinds’: Keeping ‘Essentialism” at Bay in the Age of Reform

Gordon McOuat

Intellectual History Review 19(2) 2009: 211-230

Essentialism-here refers to the idea that for any specific thing there is some absolutely necessary element(s) present thus allowing for a percise definition.

Natural Kinds-groups of entities that share a set of necessary and sufficient properties and exist in some real sense as a unified class. The classic example of a natural kind is the “electron” in physics.

This paper argues that contrary to standard historical perspectives on the historical relationship between essentialism and natural kinds–namely that essentialism is the seeded form of natural kinds leading to the classification of species as a natural kind–they are in fact counter-weighted such that the development of the concept of natural kinds coincided with a strategic decline of the concept of essentialism.

So how did this work?

Essentialism is criticized by philosophers of science as the scientific objective of discovering essences then developing percise definitions. While such may in fact be the objective, the actual practices of scientists (specifically of naturalists in the Darwinian era as is the focus of this paper) does not reflect this goal. Rather, naturalists sought to avoid the rigidity of essentialist ideology because it was divisive, limiting, and counter productive. Hence the rise of the concept of natural kinds.

Natural kinds–the grouping of entities according to an apparent shared set of commonalities shifts the onus of classification onto the beholder ( and away from the concept of something being firm, absolute and separate). This  allows the observer to draw on on “convention, tradition, and intuitive knowledge” (220).  Without the strict adherence to definition and logic as in the ideology of essentialism, the door is then open to allow for dynamism and fluidity in characterizing the natural world–thought by many to be a more accurate representation.

The problem that arose is that the understanding of natural kinds–species–becomes subject to the experts or those who know and hence becomes somewhat of a closed and protected system. Challenges to the system–which becomes important insofar as ideology within the natural sciences is connected to broader social-organizing practices and ideology–is very difficult.

This paper concludes by defining natural kinds as a type of boundary object that although is not strictly defined, is familiar enough to fit in a various contexts. It is fluid enough to accommodate a variety of concepts and firm enough to create coherence among diversity.


1. The author suggests that this issue is fueled by religion. Yet religious traditions at that time and place held humans as a species above the natural world at least to the extent that humans are spiritual and intellectual–so why did the philosophers/scientists of the day turn to the natural sciences to ground social and political thought?

2. If, as the author suggests, there have never really been any true essentialism, why do so many people believe there was and why did/does it have such an influence–much literature on the issue. On what is this debate founded?

3. Why do we look for absolutes? Clear definitions? Why this incessant need to know? Why not accept uncertainty?

4. Want to know more about boundary objects. How do they work? Evaluation criteria?

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