Variation in Natural Kind Concepts
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Since Kripke's and Putnam's work in the 1970's, most philosophers have assumed that our natural kind concepts are externally individuated. However, both psychologists and philosophers have questioned this assumption, partly on empirical grounds. One strand of such criticisms is that there may well be systematic variation in how subjects apply natural kind terms either across persons or across times, and that we should therefore be prepared to accept that natural kind concepts are not as universally shared, or temporally stable, as many philosophers have been assuming. Yet, it is far from clear exactly what kind of variation in subjects’ application of natural kind terms would seriously cast doubt on the view that natural kind concepts are externally individuated. In this paper, we will take a detailed look at this question, building on the dispositionalist meta-internalist perspective in meta-metasemantics that we have developed in earlier work. We will look at what kinds of speaker responses are relevant for evaluating externalist views, and review existing empirical research on natural kind concepts against this background. We will argue that the existing studies do not call for dramatic revisions to the externalist mainstream, and conclude by exploring some possible new directions for the experimental study of natural kind terms and concepts.