§1. Natural Classes


203. Many have been the attempts at a general classification of the sciences. Dr. Richardson's little book upon the subject P1) is quite incomplete, only enumerating one hundred and forty-six systems. They are naturally many, because not only are their purposes various, but their conceptions of a science are divergent, and their notions of what classification is are still more so. Many of these schemes introduce sciences which nobody ever heard of; so that they seem to aim at classifying, not actually existent sciences, but possible sciences. A somewhat presumptuous undertaking is that of classifying the science of the remote future. On the other hand, if classifications are to be restricted to sciences actually existing at the time the classifications are made, the classifications certainly ought to differ from age to age. If Plato's classification was satisfactory in his day, it cannot be good today; and if it be good now, the inference will be that it was bad when he proposed it.

This business of classifying sciences is not one to be undertaken precipitately or off-hand. That is plain. We should not begin the execution of the task until we have well considered, first, what classification is; and secondly, what science is. . . .

204. The first question then, that it seems well to consider (remembering that classification is one of the topics of logic to be dealt with more scientifically in its proper place, and that I can here only skim the surface of it) is, What is meant by a true and natural class? A great many logicians say there is no such thing; and, what is strange, even many students of taxonomic sciences not only follow this opinion, but allow it a great part in determining the conclusions of botany and zoölogy. The cause of their holding this opinion has two factors; first, that they attach a metaphysical signification to the term natural or real class, and secondly, that they have embraced a system of metaphysics which allows them to believe in no such thing as that which they have defined a real or natural class to be. Far be it from me to wish to close any avenue by which truth may be arrived at; and if botanists and zoölogists come to the conclusion that botany and zoölogy must rest upon metaphysics, I have not a word of objection to make. Only I can tell them that metaphysics is a most difficult science, presenting more pitfalls for the uninformed than almost any, which a mere amateur at it would be foolish to fancy that he could escape. Therefore, if botany and zoölogy must perforce rest upon metaphysics, by all means let this metaphysics be recognized as an explicit branch of those sciences, and be treated in a thoroughgoing and scientific manner. Having devoted many years to it, I am entitled to my opinion upon a metaphysical question, although it may be a mistaken one; and my opinion is that it is a shallow and sciolistic metaphysics which declares a »real class,« in the sense which those writers attach to the term, to be an impossible thing. At the same time, I am unable to see any need at all in positive science for considering such metaphysically real classes. To my apprehension the business of classification has no concern with them, but only with true and natural classes, in another and a purely experiential sense. For example, if I were to attempt to classify the arts, which I shall not do, I should have to recognize, as one of them, the art of illumination, and should have occasion to remark that lamps form a true, real, and natural class, because every lamp has been made and has come into being as a result of an aim common and peculiar to all lamps. A class, of course, is the total of whatever objects there may be in the universe which are of a certain description. What if we try taking the term »natural,« or »real, class« to mean a class of which all the members owe their existence as members of the class to a common final cause? This is somewhat vague; but it is better to allow a term like this to remain vague, until we see our way to rational precision. In the case of lamps, we know what that cause is: that instinct which enables us to distinguish human productions and to divine their purpose informs us of this with a degree of certainty which it were futile to hope that any science should surpass. But in the case of natural classes the final cause remains occult. Perhaps, since phrases retain their sway over men's minds long after their meaning has evaporated, it may be that some reader, even at this day, remains imbued with the old notion that there are no final causes in nature; in which case, natural selection, and every form of evolution, would be false. For evolution is nothing more nor less than the working out of a definite end. A final cause may be conceived to operate without having been the purpose of any mind: that supposed phenomenon goes by the name of fate. The doctrine of evolution refrains from pronouncing whether forms are simply fated or whether they are providential; but that definite ends are worked out none of us today any longer deny. Our eyes have been opened; and the evidence is too overwhelming. In regard to natural objects, however, it may be said, in general, that we do not know precisely what their final causes are. But need that prevent us from ascertaining whether or not there is a common cause by virtue of which those things that have the essential characters of the class are enabled to exist?

205. The manner of distribution of the class-character will show, with a high degree of certainty, whether or not it is determinative of existence. Take, for example, the class of animals that have legs. The use of legs is clear to us, having them ourselves. But if we pass the animal kingdom in review, we see that in the majority of branches there are no such organs of locomotion; while in the others they are present throughout some whole classes, and absent throughout others; and in still others are sometimes present, sometimes absent. With such a distribution, this mode of locomotion may be so connected with the possibility of a form, that two animals of the same order could not differ in respect to using legs; but it is evident that animals having legs do not form a natural group; for they are not separated from all others in any other important particular. We thus get a tolerably clear idea of what a natural class is: it will amply suffice for our present purpose; though we can hardly hope that it will turn out to be logically accurate. We also see that, when an object has been made with a purpose, as is, of course, the case with the sciences, no classes can be more fundamental nor broader than those which are defined by the purpose. A purpose is an operative desire. Now a desire is always general; that is, it is always some kind of thing or event which is desired; at least, until the element of will, which is always exercised upon an individual object upon an individual occasion, becomes so predominant as to overrule the generalizing character of desire. Thus, desires create classes, and extremely broad classes. But desires become, in the pursuit of them, more specific. Let us revert, for example, to lamps. We desire, in the first instance, merely economical illumination. But we remark that that may be carried out by combustion, where there is a chemical process kindling itself, or heat may be supplied from without in electric lighting, or it may be stored up, as in phosphorescence. These three ways of carrying out our main purpose constitute subsidiary purposes.P1) So if we decide upon electric lighting, the question will be between incandescent and arc lighting. If we decide upon combustion, the burning matter may itself become incandescent, or its heat may serve to render another more suitable thing incandescent, as in the Welsbach burner. Here is a complication which will ordinarily be advantageous, since by not making the same thing fulfill the two functions of supplying heat to produce incandescence and of incandescing upon being heated, there is more freedom to choose things suitable to the two functions. This is a good example of that sort of natural class which Agassiz called an order; that is, a class created by a useful complication of a general plan.


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