Typology reconfigured: From the metaphysics of essentialism to the epistemology of representation

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The goal of this paper is to encourage a reconfiguration of the discussion about typology in biology away from the metaphysics of essentialism and toward the epistemology of classifying natural phenomena for the purposes of empirical inquiry. First, I briefly review arguments concerning 'typological thinking', essentialism, species, and natural kinds, highlighting their predominantly metaphysical nature. Second, I use a distinction between the aims, strategies, and tactics of science to suggest how a shift from metaphysics to epistemology might be accomplished. Typological thinking can be understood as a scientific tactic that involves representing natural phenomena using idealizations and approximations, which facilitates explanation, investigation, and theorizing via abstraction and generalization. Third, a variety of typologies from different areas of biology are introduced to emphasize the diversity of this representational reasoning. One particular example is used to examine how there can be epistemological conflict between typology and evolutionary analysis. This demonstrates that alternative strategies of typological thinking arise due to the divergent explanatory goals of researchers working in different disciplines with disparate methodologies. I conclude with several research questions that emerge from an epistemological reconfiguration of typology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)51-75
Number of pages25
JournalActa Biotheoretica
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jun 2009


  • Classification
  • Epistemology
  • Essentialism
  • Methodology
  • Natural kinds
  • Realism
  • Typology

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