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My Absent Career 7: Whately and an epiphany

Last updated on 1 Jan 2023

My time at Queensland initially was among the best of my life, although I did miss my kids a lot. I moved up for a year before the family arrived (pre-divorce), and lived in a really nice part of Brisbane (it would be churlish to say, the only really nice part of Brisbane) called West End. I took a lovely river ferry every day to the University.

At UQ I spent my time doing research, and only research. It was heaven. I tracked down every mention of what species were supposed to be during the period from around 1200 on (with a cursory overview of classical and medieval sources as well). I was being paid to live, eat and think philosophy of biology in a historical fashion. A few remarks on this might be worthwhile.

In my experience of analytic philosophy, too many philosophers I read or heard dealt with argument from the “classics” (basically the western canon of Greeks, a few Romans, Descartes, and the 16th century Brits onwards) as if they were Oxbridge Dons wearing tweed. But in my history classes I was taught to treat people and cultures of the past in their own terms first. In biblical studies, this was called the Historical Critical Method of interpretation. In modern history, it is seen as the opposite to Whiggism, which is effectively what that approach of the philosophers effectively was: reading the past in the terms of the present.

So, as I was preparing my book Species: A History of the Idea (the subtitle stolen from Peter Bowler; I changed it to the much more germane The evolution of the idea for 2018) I consciously, if naively, applied critical historiography. When writing my PhD thesis, I had written the usual philosophical pap on species, and I thought to myself, “Hull left a two millennia gap in his history of the concept of species. I’ll just do a couple of chapters to fill that out some.” I hear you all sniggering out there. I am sniggering along. Silly Wilkins.

So the postdoc was devoted to figuring out what species meant not only to the late classical and medieval thinkers, but to Plato and Aristotle themselves, and to find out whether the essentialism story held up. Reader, it didn’t. Turns out (and I have written this many times, but you can get a short summary in my 2023 Understanding Species due in June from Cambridge Uni Press) that the purveyors of the essentialism story had confused logical uses of the word with biological (and geological, and theological…) uses.

The Oxbridge scholars here were in fact educated at Humboldt University of Berlin and at Yale, but the ahistoricity of this was evident with very little effort. What triggered this realisation for me was a passage out of the text, first published in an encyclopaedia article and later as a book that went through at least nine editions: Elements of Logic, by Richard Whately, which was what triggered the English world’s interest in so called “traditional logic”, and which led rather directly to aspects of formal logic as we know it:

 There is one circumstance which ought to be noticed, as having probably contributed not a little to foster this error: I mean, the peculiar technical sense of the word “species” when applied to organized beings.

It has been laid down in the course of this work, that when several individuals are observed to resemble each other in some point, a common name may be assigned to them indicating [implying, “or, connoting””] that point — applying to all or any of them so far forth as respects that common attribute — and distinguishing them from all others; as, e.g. the several individual buildings, which, however different in other respects, agree in being constructed for men’s dwelling, are called by the common name of “house:” and it was added, that as we select at pleasure the circumstance that we choose to abstract, we may thus refer the same individual to any one of several different species and again, the same species, to one genus or to another according as it suits our purpose; whence it seems plainly to follow that genus and species are no real things existing independent of our thoughts, but are creatures of our own minds.

Yet in the case of species of organized beings, it seems at first sight as if this rule did not hold good; but that the species to which each individual belongs, could not be in any degree arbitrarily fixed by us, but must be something real, unalterable, and independent of our thoughts. Caesar or Socrates, for instance, it may be said, must belong — different as

they may be — to the species Man, and can belong to no other; and the like, with any individual brute, or plant: e.g. a horned and a hornless sheep every naturalist would regard as belonging to the same species.

On the other hand, if any one utters such a proposition as “this apple-tree is a codlin;” — “this dog is a spaniel,” — “Argus was a mastiff,” to what head of predicates would such a predicate be referred ? Surely our logical principles would lead us to answer, that it is the species; since it could hardly be called an accident, and is manifestly no other predicable. And yet every naturalist would at once pronounce that mastiff is no distinct species, but only a variety of the species dog. This however does not satisfy our inquiry as to the head of predicables to which it is to be referred. It should seem at first sight as if one needed, in the case of organized beings, an additional head of predicables, to be called “variety” or “race.” 

The solution of the difficulty is to be found in the consideration of the peculiar technical sense [or  “second intention”] of the word “species,” when applied to organized beings: in which case it is always applied (when we are speaking strictly, as naturalists) to such individuals as are supposed to be descended from a common stock, or which might have so descended; viz. which resemble one another (to use M. Cuvier’s expression) as much as those of the same stock do. 

Now this being a point on which all (not merely naturalists) are agreed, and since it is fact, whether an ascertained fact or not) that certain individuals are or are not, thus connected, it follows, that every question whether a certain individual animal or plant belongs to a certain species or not, is a  question not of mere arrangement, but of fact. But in the case of questions respecting genus, it is otherwise. If, e.g. two naturalists differed, in the one placing (as Linnaeus) all the species of bee under one genus, which the other subdivided (as later writers have done) into several genera, it would be evident that there was no question of fact debated between them, and that it was only to be considered which was the more convenient arrangement. If, on the other hand, it were disputed whether the African and the Asiatic elephant are distinct species, or merely varieties, it would be equally manifest that the question is one of fact; since both would allow that if they are descended (or might have descended) from the same stock, they are of the same species; and if otherwise, of two: this is the fact, which they endeavour to ascertain, by such indications as are to be found.

For it is to be further observed, that this fact being one which can seldom be directly known, the consequence is, that the marks by which any species of animal or plant is known, are not the very  differentia which constitutes that species. Now, in the case of unorganized beings, these two coincide; the marks by which a diamond, e.g. is distinguished from other minerals, being the very differentia that constitutes the species diamond. And the same is the case in the genera even of organized beings: the Linnaean genus “felis,” e.g. (when considered as a species, i.e. as falling under some more comprehensive class) is distinguished from others under the same order, by those very marks which constitute its differentia. But in the “Infimae species” (according to the view of a naturalist) of plants and animals, this, as has been said, is not the case; since here the differentia which constitutes each species includes in it a circumstance which cannot often be directly ascertained (viz. the being sprung from the same stock,) but which we conjecture, from certain circumstances of resemblance; so that the marks by which a species is known, are not in truth the whole of the differentia itself, but indications of the existence of that differentia; viz. indications of descent from a common stock.

Whately, Elements of Logic, 1826 Bk IV, Chap. V. — Of Realism., Section 1.
§ 1. 

This is clearheaded, aware of the natural history of the day, and absolutely sure that the definition of species is Cuvier’s, distinct from that of logicians. This is the first time I have quoted this in full.

However, I later learned that Real Historians do not write intellectual history (or history of ideas as it was sneeringly called in my undergraduate years). This accounts for the paucity of citations from historians and the superfluity of citations from scientists themselves that my book has. I stand by the method of critical historiography for this sort of thing. Ideas are not concrete objects, but neither are they Platonic essences. They do have a history and it is well worth tracing it.

One Comment

  1. Hemidactylus Hemidactylus

    I do have your The evolution of the idea version as purchased in Kindle format.


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