Cultural Kinds, Natural Kinds, and the Muggle Constraint13 min read

Cultural Kinds as Natural Kinds

A key implication of our previous discussion on cultural kinds (see here, here, here, and here). Is that cultural kinds should be thought of as being in the same ontic register as the other kinds studied in the physical and special sciences. These include biological, cognitive, social, biological, cognitive, social, and (of course) physical kinds. All of these should be considered variations of the larger category of natural kinds. This proposal that all the kinds studied in the sciences are natural kinds can be referred to as kind naturalism. This is the idea that there are no such things as non-natural (or worse super-natural) kinds and that any theory that postulates such kinds should be pushed to eliminating them from their ontology.

That cultural kinds are natural kinds may sound counter-intuitive since entire traditions of cultural theory have been built on the contrast between “culture” and “nature” (Descola 2013). In the same way, in the larger conversation in philosophy and social and cultural theory, both “fundamentalist” naturalistic arguments in the physical sciences (Pöyhönen, 2015) and anti-naturalistic arguments in the human and social sciences (Reed, 2011) agree in contrasting culture to nature (or mind versus nature) to make the point that whatever explanatory practices and methods of inquiry work for the study of natural kinds, do not work for the study of cultural kinds. The main implication of this contrast is that cultural kinds are not natural kinds and should be treated differently. 

When analysts make these sorts of anti-naturalistic statements (of the “culture is not…” variety; see Reed (2017)), they seldom mean to imply that cultural kinds are not-natural in the sense of being “supernatural” (Mason, 2016). That is, they don’t think that cultural kinds operate in a magical or spooky realm or that they should not enter into the job of cultural explanation. In most cases, what is actually meant is a more targeted (and principled) contrast; for instance, the traditional idea that cultural kinds are disjoint from natural kinds such as biological kinds, such that if a given phenomenon is accounted for entirely by processes involving biological kinds, then it is not cultural. 

Sometimes, however, what is meant is actually a stronger and more metaphysically loaded statement; for instance, a Cartesian dualist (e.g., such as Karl Popper) might say that culture is essentially mental, and therefore non-physical and that because of this non-physical or non-material status, cultural kinds are not natural kinds, because the mental realm is not part of nature. 

One of the main metaphysical implications of the German methodenstreit (“war of the methods”) of the late nineteenth century was that the natural and cultural (or human) sciences studied disjoint realms using inherently incompatible strategies (e.g., nomothetic subsumption under general laws versus the idiographic description of particulars) because the essence of culture was absolutely distinct from that of the physical world. Culture was the realm of “norms” binding due to their meaning and therefore had “value” for people. The physical world of matter in motion may have been governed by (mechanical) laws, but it lacked both normativity and value-relevance. 

What all these anti-naturalist proposals have in common are gerrymandered (and thus question-begging) definitions of what counts as “nature” or “natural.” For instance, some define the natural as completely “mind-independent” or independent from people’s activity. This move (speciously) yields the result that cognitive, social, and cultural kinds fall in the realm of “non-natural kinds.” But this is too restrictive (and implicit dualist or eliminativist) an approach. For instance, such a stance would leave out even some bona fide biological and physical kinds whose existence (historically) depends on people’s minds and activities, such as synthetic chemical elements or biological species bred by humans (Ereshefsky, 2018)

In this approach, culture, society, minds, and cognition are all part of nature (broadly conceived). Accordingly, cultural, social, and cognitive kinds count as natural kinds. That we can observe systematic relations between kinds, whether causal or constitutive, symmetric, or asymmetric, does not render the cultural side of the relata non-natural. Positions such as “multiple worlds” dualism are rejected as unworkable and metaphysically inflationary (e.g., in terms of postulating two or sometimes three “realms” or “worlds” (Popper, 1978)). The single (natural) world approach is consistent with a broad naturalist tradition in the study of socio-cultural kinds with roots going back to Aristotle and best exemplified in the approach taken by the sociologist Emile Durkheim and his followers (Levine, 1995), American naturalism (a.k.a, pragmatism), as well as contemporary theorists of social ontology (Searle, 2010)

Overall, the cultural-kinds approach is closer to that endorsed by more contemporary philosophical approaches to natural kinds (Khalidi, 2013; Mason, 2016). From this perspective, what counts as natural is not prejudged beforehand, and “nature” is understood broadly to accommodate all the special sciences’ explanatory ontology. 

The only restriction is what the philosopher Michael Wheeler (2005, p. 5) refers to as the Muggle constraint, which is a natural accompaniment to the “one world” thesis (Searle 2010). This is, namely, that whenever an entity enters into an explanatory account, such an entity’s causal effects cannot work via mysterious means not accounted for by standard processes and mechanisms studied in natural science. In Wheeler’s words, “one’s explanations of some phenomenon meets the Muggle constraint just when it appeals only to entities, states, and processes that are wholly nonmagical in character. In other words, no spooky stuff allowed.” 

As we have seen, some bundles of ontic claims about cultural kinds do render culture spooky (e.g., culture as an entity with no physical location) and should be rejected because they run afoul of the Muggle constraint. Thus, insofar as cultural kinds are explanatory, and we point to cultural entities and processes in our explanatory efforts, and these entities behave in non-magical and non-spooky ways, then culture counts as a natural kind (Rotolo, 2020). This is the proper sense of “natural” that makes the most sense of the varied explanatory practices across the sciences.

How to be a Naturalist About Cultural Kinds

As we noted in the original discussion, the most useful thing about clarifying our ontic commitments is that they render our core disagreements transparent. There is no clearer example of this than when it comes to the issue of naturalism (versus non or anti-naturalism) in cultural theory. Here, specifying the package of ontic claims about cultural kinds that we endorse is useful in delineating the divide (or point of productive disagreement) between naturalistic and non-naturalistic cultural analysis (Sperber, 1996)

While proponents of the latter approach are open to postulating that at least some components of culture do not have to have a  realization in some kind of physical structure or medium, the former insists that culture must be composed only of entities that have (or could in principle have) such a realization (Sperber, 1996). As noted, non-naturalistic characterizations of cultural kinds are unlikely to be made ontologically intelligible without committing the analyst to the postulation of scientifically implausible, ontologically ghostly realms where the presumed non-physical entities reside. 

One way analysts committed to some form of naturalism but who also want to “save” some of the core concepts of idealistic culture theories can propose what philosophers Robert McCauley and William Bechtel (2001) refer to as heuristic identities. A heuristic identity (ontic) claim says that this type of thing is identical to this other type of thing for purposes of theorizing and scientific discovery, wherein the first type is the metaphysically suspect kind, and the second type is the more respectable naturalistic kind. So one coherent way to be naturalists about cultural kinds is to say a cultural kind that had been conceptualized as “non-material” in the idealist tradition of cultural theory is actually type identical to another kind that has a relatively non-controversial material basis (even if the details of that basis have not been completely worked out yet).

For instance, following the heuristic identity procedure, we can say that something like “concepts” or “ideas” are (type) identical to patterns of connectivity and activation across populations of neurons in the human brain (Blouw et al., 2016). This makes ideas physically realizable and would then lend specificity to the ontic claim that culture, in this “idealist” sense, is partially composed of ideas or concepts. This heuristic identity can then feed into our overall conceptualization of what “culture” is. For instance, heuristically identifying “ideas” or “concepts” with patterns of activation in neuronal assemblies in the human brain and culture itself (specified, compositionally, as conceptual or ideal) with a collection of such patterns would entail the ontological claim that “culture” is not a (complex or systematic) “thing” or “whole” but simply a “collection of collections” (D’andrade, 2001), or the distribution of patterns of connectivity and activation across populations of neurons in the brains of human populations (Sperber 1996). 

Note that heuristic identity claims are both, as their name implies, heuristic (they are tools for theorizing and discovery) and provisional (open to revision in light of new scientific evidence or theoretical advances). That said, one important implication of the argument that cultural kinds can be naturalized is that they are brought into the larger fold of natural kinds. As such, a naturalistic approach entails that cultural, social, biological, and physical kinds are natural kinds (Mason, 2016), even if they are studied by different disciplines using distinct methods of inquiry. 

Because naturalism entails that cultural kinds are physically realized somehow, it follows that physical realization is not a criterion to distinguish “culture” from “not culture.”A hammer or a screwdriver is a cultural kind, but so is an internalized schema for a hammer and a screwdriver (Taylor et al., 2019). If we are to develop principled ways to distinguish cultural from other kinds, we have to abandon unproductive metaphysical dualisms separating “ideal” and “material” realms and focus instead on other more interesting diagnostic properties.


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