Saturday, May 14, 2005

Classification

John Wilkins has a great post on William Hamilton on classification. I've been toying with the idea of eventually posting a summary of William Whewell's philosophy of classification; in part, because I also find interesting the importance 19th-century philosophers place on classification. He suggests that the drop of interest may have been due to views on relations; which is an interesting idea that I hadn't considered before. My own thought on this point has been that the drop of interest in part has something to do with the depreciation of naming. It always strikes me how often 19th-century philosophers of science reflect on the importance of naming things well; both John Herschel and Whewell, for instance, treat it as a very important part of scientific progress. And in a sense it's not difficult to see why; just by casually looking around they could see several cases in which concern about names had contributed to science in important ways. Lavoisier, for instance, became the father of modern chemistry because he wanted to improve chemical nomenclature for easier use in application and discovery; to do this, he had to find the right classification, which meant he had to construct certain sorts of experiments and find the right way to interpret them, etc. Naming and classification go together. But there's a sense in which proper naming (and the classification required for it) is only exciting when you see them actually set a chaos in order; when they aren't really paying attention to that, philosophers tend to have a sort of nonchalance about naming, as if it were purely a matter of attaching labels to things -- i.e., it contributes nothing to our knowledge. (And, of course, simply labeling something doesn't contribute to our knowledge; but while one can simply label things, very often naming is much more than labeling, and classification is a good example of this.) But that's all a vague speculation. I'll have to think about this suggestion about relations, since it seems like it might be a more powerful way of looking at the issue.

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