Some thoughts on Reference and Natural Kinds
I wrote the following after my metaphysics class in which we are reading and discussing Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity:
Everything collapses under scrutiny. When we theorize about something we are attempting to locate a boundary that separates one thing from what it is not. The harder you push though, the more fuzzy the boundaries become. You see things you didn’t notice before, get more detail, or see things where you thought there were none. At the end of this perhaps the only claim you can make is “it is what it is.” This claim can mean different things at different levels of scrutiny. On one level, to pick out one thing, gold for instance, it may be enough to say “it’s shiny.” This will allow you to pick some gold out of a pile of dirt so long as that’s all you’re concerned with for the moment. Obviously this level of specificity is below that of most of our vernacular speech, because we can think of other shiny things, or gold that isn’t shiny, etc. Fools gold is an obvious counterexample. So we add more detail to allow us to deal with gold on a deeper level. A certain degree of malleability. Now we can tell the difference between gold and pyrite. At some point we get atomic number 79. That’s where science is now, but maybe we will discover that there is another thing with that atomic number, some division between different types of gold, or something. Which one does “gold” refer to? One? Both? It doesn’t matter, because in the end “gold” is just a word. It is functionally attached to a concept that has evolved over the course of history and will continue to evolve, but the designator itself is not connected to the actuality of the thing. We can always know, gold is gold, but, be we have to remember that “gold” is not that thing. Our usage of the word has to change according to what we know about the thing, and at a certain level of scrutiny, we will always be able to find a case in which the designation doesn’t quite hold. The best we can do is attempt to describe new situations accurately, and our language will adapt to accommodate the new information. That’s what has happened, and it will continue to happen. Metaphysics as a form of inquiry is really just the process of elucidating the epistemology behind our conscious interpretation of what is. What is has always been what it is, but our knowledge of it has morphed and changed, as has our knowledge about that knowledge. We can’t get too attached to words and concepts, but at the same time, we can’t really move about in the world without them. Theories about the relationships between words, concepts, and things, are themselves subject to the same concerns. Their value lies in their functionality, not their truth, and they are necessarily distinct from the world they describe. That they break down if pushed to their limits is to be expected.