Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wilkins on Classification and the Periodic Table

It might be thought that classification in the special and historical sciences is occasionally atheoretical, but that in the general sciences, physics and chemistry, it is derived from Theory. But in fact one of the most exemplary cases of empirical classification that led to Theory is in these sciences: the periodic table.
Wilkins is singing my song: description and classification lead to theory. That, of course, is what happened in biology, as Wilkins mentions later. Without three of four CENTURIES of describing and classifying prior to him, Darwin wouldn't have had the basis on which to float his theory of evolution.

Mendeleev even expressly noted that he was taking a Lockean or even operationalist approach:
. . . by investigating  and  describing  what  is visible  and  open  to  direct  observation  by  the organs of the senses, we may hope to arrive, first at hypotheses,  and afterwards at theories, of what has now to be taken as the basis of our investigations. (quoted in Kultgen 1958: 180)
Subsequent to the adoption of the table by chemists, there arose a program to improve and explain the “periodic law”. As Scerri says, once scientists have a classification, they seek an underlying cause of the regularities (as Darwin did).
Literary studies needs to take a cue from biology and chemistry and get our descriptive house in order.

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