The BJPS Popper Prize 2020

We are delighted to announce that the BJPS Popper Prize for 2020 has been awarded to Jessica Laimann, for the article ‘Capricious Kinds’, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 71, pp. 1043–68.

The BJPS Popper Prize is awarded to the article judged to be the best published in that year’s volume of the Journal, as determined by the Editors-in-Chief and the BSPS Committee. The prize includes a £500 award to the winner(s). More information about the prize and previous winners can be found here.

Below is the citation from the Editors-in-Chief.

‘Capricious Kinds’, Jessica Laimann

‘Capricious Kinds’ asks whether so-called human kinds—such as gender kinds and kinds of psychological disorder—are amenable to the sort of investigation successfully used to study kinds in the natural sciences. Laimann frames the discussion as a consideration of Ian Hacking’s sceptical views, according to which human kinds are interactive, thus unstable, and thus not natural, which leads Hacking ultimately to the view that the human sciences require a methodology deeply different from that of the natural sciences. Laimann argues against both Hacking’s view and influential responses to it, convincingly demonstrating that many participants in the debate have fixated on the wrong feature of human kinds: their instability. Laimann sees this instability as a red herring. Instead, what’s distinctive of human kinds is their hybrid nature: they have both a biological, or otherwise analytically crisp, component, as well as a social, normative dimension; they have a dual nature comprising both a ‘base kind’ and a ‘status kind’, the latter a function of the significance humans give the kind and of how that influences the treatment of instances of the kind.

On the hybrid view, a human kind can be either stable or unstable, depending on how its two components interact. Both cases carry epistemic costs and can present advantages as well. Somewhat unexpectedly, instability can make it easier to recognize the distinct contributions of a hybrid kind’s components, while stability can obscure their relative contributions. In the case of gender kinds, for example, the association between social roles and biological base kinds can be reinforced by social mechanisms, leading to a high degree of local stability, which results in failed predictions concerning how members of the base kinds will behave beyond the local environment. Moreover, ignorance of the relative contributions of the hybrid kind’s components can lead to misguided research programmes, for instance, the attempt to find biological determinants of behaviour associated with gender roles.

Laimann concludes on a cautiously optimistic note. While the investigation of human kinds does face distinctive challenges, perhaps to such an extent that it is misleading to classify them as natural kinds, the fruitful investigation of human kinds does not call for a wholly different methodology.

Wendy Parker & Robert Rupert
British Journal for the Philosophy of Science