Hilary Kornblith pushes for the view that knowledge ought to be viewed as a natural kind. Briefly stated, this means that knowledge is out there in the world merely waiting to be discovered and categorized by science. Its a neat move that I initially found interesting, if not quite a significant departure from traditional epistemology. I’d like to share a selection of a draft that I had offering some potential objections to viewing knowledge as a natural kind.
“…Another potential worry is the relevant nature of the natural kinds. Some examples of what could potentially count as a natural kind are not particularly controversial, gold, mammal, fish, star, etc. Those natural kinds are intuitively plausible as not depending on any relation of humans wills or desires. Yet a move like Kornblith’s, putting knowledge in the same category as those natural kinds, is somewhat of a stretch given the dependence of the definition of knowledge on human whims and wills. Knowledge, it could be said, is a human artifact. It is a creation of humans and as such is highly dependent on the desires of the creators.
While Kornblith states that he is not a reductionist, it might still be helpful to make the reductionist analogy for while prima facie examples of natural kinds like gold are within the realm of chemistry and physics, something like knowledge has been in the domain of philosophy. If one adheres to the reductionist line, then in principle concepts of knowledge could be reduced down to physical states. In that way, knowledge could be a natural kind indeed. But herein lies the rub, natural kinds such as gold are not subject to human wants or desires, they exist independently of humans volitions, yet kinds higher up on the reductionist ladder are subject to more and more subjective judgments. Just going halfway up the reductionist ladder to the fields of sociology, economics and history shows how there are great controversies within those fields regarding their studies of kinds. Certainly economics has a great deal of dissonance within the literature regarding the state of affairs of national output, law of demand, inflation and other hot topics. Seldom is there the sort of agreement found in economics about the fundamentals of discipline as there are in say classical physics. Admittedly, this may merely be a function of the time of the existence of the discipline. Modern physics is a project that started with Newton, while modern economics only started in the late 19th century. Yet there might be something more foundational at play and that perhaps is the study matter itself. As one proceeds up the reductionist ladder, the sciences become less ‘hard’ and more ‘social’ and thus their subject matter increasingly becomes focused on individual and aggregated human interactions. Fields like economics attempt to emulate the mathematical rigor of the hard sciences, even at times requiring more mathematics than biology, but despite that economics still deals with human behavior, itself predictably unpredictable.
A discipline such as philosophy, which is even higher still on the reductionist ladder, is much further removed from the clear and distinct natural kinds of physics and chemistry. This is a modus vivendi argument that pressures Kornblith on the perhaps disingenuous analogies that he states comparing finding rocks and finding knowledge; the jump from rocks, geology itself rooted in chemistry, to knowledge skips over various fields well respected, economics, history, etc. Kornblith does state that he is not a reductionist, but that makes his position all the more heterodox even among naturalists! This issue itself is worthy of further investigation as his own isolation from peers in epistemology, while not necessarily an indicator of being incorrect, gives reason to suspect that his beliefs are mistaken. In a sense, Kornblith tries to have his cake and eat it too.”