The Nature of Naming and the Naming of Nature


What practice could be more humdrum and mundane than providing species with a name? According to the Bible, Adam simply named animals “by their own names”. Alas, the actual practice of pinning names to species is not that straightforward. It is marked by perpetual uncertainty about what exactly is being named. Since hypotheses about the true boundaries of species change constantly, multiple names may end up being used for what turns out to be a single species, or, conversely, one name for multiple different species. Since the mid-nineteenth century, expert taxonomists have minimized this risk of nomenclatural confusion by adopting methods based on an innovative logic of naming—one that firmly ‘anchors’ names to taxonomic groups and prevents changing taxonomic perspectives from setting names ‘adrift’. However, these methods do not satisfy the demands of present-day Big Data Biology. Today, names serve a pivotal role in large-scale databases that empower the integration of data from a variety of sources. But since these sources often endorse incongruent taxonomic perspectives, the ‘integration’ of data associated with any given name can easily go wrong. New methods of explicating name-nature relationships are needed to mitigate this threat of confusion, which not only affects biological science, but can also impact policy decisions about species conservation. This project will show that in confronting these current challenges we can benefit from a better understanding of the past. To this end, I will develop an integrated historical-philosophical account of taxonomic naming systems. I will begin by articulating how contemporary philosophical discourse on naming and reference can be informed by an understanding of the methodological hurdles, sociopolitical interests, logical desiderata and changing scientific practices that have shaped taxonomic naming. Then I will draw on this account in a joint effort with scientists to design tools for making taxonomic naming future-proof.


Scientific article

  • J Witteveen(2017): Making Sense of Biology in the Data Age The Quarterly Review of Biology pp. 292 - 95 ISSN: 0033-5770.
  • J Witteveen(2018): Objectivity, Historicity, Taxonomy Erkenntnis pp. 445 - 463 ISSN: 0165-0106.
  • J Witteveen(2018): Typological thinking: then and now Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution pp. 121 - 131 ISSN: 1552-5015.


Project number


Main applicant

Dr. J. Witteveen

Affiliated with

Universiteit Utrecht, Faculteit Geesteswetenschappen, Departement Filosofie en Religiewetenschappen

Team members

Dr. J. Witteveen


16/04/2017 to 31/12/2019