A book by Dr. Joseph LaPorte of the Hope College philosophy faculty is the starting point for an international conference meeting in the United Kingdom in October.
The three-day conference "Nature and its Classification" in Birmingham will open on Friday, Oct. 12, with presentations and discussion focused on LaPorte's book "Natural Kinds and Conceptual Change." The remaining two days of the event will feature presentations by other scholars concerning the conference theme.
The event is one of two international scholarly gatherings in Europe in which LaPorte has been invited to participate in October because of his work. The week before, on Friday-Sunday, Oct. 5-7, he will be participating in a workshop for scholars in Turku, Finland, that is examining natural kinds as well.
LaPorte noted that philosophers have been interested in the topic for some decades.
"Natural kinds and issues surrounding them lie somewhere at the intersection of various problems philosophers are dealing with," he said. "These issues have to do with natural laws - are there any, how are they characterized, do they just pertain to kinds, and what kinds of kinds; dispositions - what is it for an entity or kind to be disposed to act one way rather than another; explanation - what counts as a good explanation of an event, say; and so on."
The issues, LaPorte noted, cross into the study of conceptual change over time, as well.
"The perennial study of natural kinds on the part of scientists raises philosophical questions about the nature of scientific progress," he said. "In what sense can we say earlier speakers were talking about the same sort of thing present-day speakers are talking about when they discuss Panthera tigris, or jade, so that scientists are making progress on the same topic?"
The conference in the United Kingdom has been organized by the universities of Birmingham, Bristol and Nottingham as part of a three-year "Metaphysics of Science" project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the United Kingdom. Its broad topic is natural kinds as they appear across the literature in metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. Scholars are anticipated from nations including Australia, Canada, England, Sweden and the United States.
The workshop in Finland is an interdisciplinary gathering that will be combining viewpoints from both philosophy and psychology with discussion on interconnections between the two. The participants include scholars from Estonia, Finland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
LaPorte's primary research interests are the philosophy of biology, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of language and metaphysics, with areas of concentration including the nature and origin of knowledge and the philosophy of religion. His book examines the way that scientific inquiry refines the way that things in the natural world are understood, which in turn raises questions about how science progresses as future inquiry becomes based on the new understandings.
"Natural Kinds and Conceptual Change" was published in 2004 by Cambridge University Press. LaPorte's work on the project was supported in part through a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for 2000-01. He received a second fellowship from the NEH for 2005-06, for another project that is currently in progress, "Rigid Designation, Identity and Necessity for Properties."