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CEFISES Seminar: Vincent Cuypers, “Exploring taxonomic disorder: a case study of empirical philosophy of science”
Abstract: Philosophy of science faces increasing calls to use empirical methods to answer its research questions, alongside traditional conceptual work. Or, at least, to improve cooperation with other disciplines studying science, such as history of science, sociology of science, and scientometrics. Empirical research might offer support for descriptive claims about the world that play a role in philosophical research, and might help to bring normative claims closer to the world. Here, we illustrate the usefulness of that approach by referring to how it works out in two research projects that use a diverse toolbox of both conceptual and empirical methods to study disagreement and disorder in biological taxonomy. Taxonomists aim to map the vast diversity of life by describing organisms and classifying them in a hierarchical system of taxa, centred on the notion of ‘species’. However, in doing so, they often disagree, both on the foundational principles of their work, such as on the concept of species itself, and on particular classifications. This confuses the users of taxonomies, for example in biological research, or in nature conservation. We argue that this problem, the problem of taxonomic disorder, is a typical example of a scientific problem in which conceptual questions are joined by practical constraints, thus requiring both conceptual and empirical study to understand in full.