A Realist Metaphysics of Race

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I want to announce that I've signed a book contract with Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, to publish a revised and expanded version of my dissertation. My current plan is to send them the manuscript by the end of April, followed by a review process and then revisions to be due by the end of June or early July, which they say will allow them to have it in print by December. The title (for now, although it might change) is A Realist Metaphysics of Race: A Context-Sensitive, Short-Term Retentionist, Long-Term Revisionist Account.

General Overview: There are three main metaphysical positions on race. Anti-realists deny that there are races. Natural-kind positions find sub-groups of homo sapiens with scientific importance and call them races. Social-kind views consider races to exist because of contingent social practices. I argue for a view closest to the third camp, with a few wrinkles. Three distinctives of my approach are:

(a) I self-consciously argue as an analytic metaphysician, taking this to be a work of applied metaphysics in the same sense that looking at questions regarding abortion, just war theory, or the ethics of lying count as applied ethics, and its relation to theoretical metaphysics (what is most commonly called metaphysics among analytic philosophers) is analogous to how applied ethics relates to ethical theory (e.g. utilitarian, deontological, virtue, natural law, or other theoretical approaches, which was what ethics was largely restricted to until the applied ethics revolution of the late 20th century). Part of my aim is to remove the bias against seeing this sort of subject as part of what metaphysicians should be doing.

(b) I argue that race is highly context-sensitive, in more ways than most race theorists mean when they speak of themselves as holding views they call contextualist.

(c) My overall conclusion by the end is that we should not abandon race-talk, race-theorizing, or race-classification, at least not in the short-term. We need to be able to speak of such social realities to address real racial problems. However, we ought to find ways to challenge some of the social forces that work to make racial groups racialized and to form the social realities that surround race, some of which are not the way we should want them to be.

Here is the chapter breakdown:

1. Natural Kinds and the Analogy of Species:

There's a debate in the philosophy of biology about whether species are natural kinds. This chapter looks closely at that debate to argue that it is meaningful to speak of natural kinds, although species are not natural kinds in the strong sense that Aristotle might have taken them to be.

2. Natural Kinds and Race

I look at three conceptions of race as what I call minimalist natural kinds, two from philosophers and one from biologists. Al three views have potential to pick out groups useful for categorizing people according to scientific purposes but all three have problems if we want to identify the groups they point to as the same groups that we ordinarily call races.

3. Classic Anti-Realism

I argue in this chapter against certain of the traditional anti-realist arguments (especially Naomi Zack and Kwame Anthony Appiah), especially emphasizing ordinary use (as opposed to the language of experts) and changes is race-language.

4. Glasgow's Revisionism

Joshua Glasgow develops an anti-realism that takes the groups we call races to exist as social constructions, but he doesn't think those groups should be called races. I resist his arguments and argue that some of his evidence actually support a social kind view like the one I end up adopting.

5. Social-Construction and Biological Constructionism

The contingency of the racial categories, the fact that arbitrary socially-determined facts determine the structure of racial classification, and the instability of racial categories are all good evidence that races are social constructions. I conclude that races are social kinds that take their basis in biologically-identified traits, but the selection of which biological traits we use to identify races are biologically-arbitrary.

6. Races and the Metaphysics of Objects and Groups

My view is that races exist as socially-constructed entities but that they might just as well have existed without being races. Social facts don't bring races into existence but rather make existing groups into races. This chapter looks to contemporary metaphysics to see arguments that nihilists and coincident-entity theorists might make against my view. I argue against those conceptions, but even if those views were correct, much of what I say would still follow.

7. Context-Sensitive Features of Racial Assignment

This chapter argues for context-sensitivity in racial constructions, with fluidity from one context to another even for the same person. Different factors might be relevant in different settings to change which racial labels might apply.This context-sensitivity is much more diverse in terms of ways of being context-sensitive than I find in most of the philosophy of race literature. The particular ways this works will support my eventual revisionism in the next chapter.

8. The Ethics of the Metaphysics of Race

Here I argue that we should use existing racial categories to identify problems within the social constructions of race, rather than seeking to eliminate the categories in any direct way, but we should also make efforts to change the conditions that generate those problematic elements, so we can retain only the unproblematic aspects, and some elements of racial identity-formation can be good.

9. Implicit Bias and the Argument for Elimination

Recent work in psychology and cognitive science shows that our patterns of forming race-judgments rely on a more general pattern in child development that leads to implicit racial bias of an invisible but harmful sort, even among people who are explicitly anti-racist in their reflective views. I argue that there is evidence in the psychology and cognitive science literature that shows that we need to retain our racial categories to address existing implicit bias, but there is also evidence that we should rethink how we speak of racial issues with small children, to reduce the perpetuation of implicit bias in further generations, and this result fits well with (and gives further details to flesh out) the conclusion of the previous chapter.


Excellent! Keep us posted when it comes out, and I'll be sure to buy a copy.

I'm sincerely and strongly hoping that your various Tolkien footnotes make it through into the final printing of the text.

Also: this looks like an interesting read, but I'm not a philosopher myself (and have read very little). Am I going to find it approachable, or at least processable-with-an-enormous-commitment-of-will?

There's only one Tolkien footnote, and I've found a way to condense it and incorporate it into the main text. This publisher uses endnotes, and I have no choice about that. The Tolkien material is not being relegated to an endnote. Fortunately, the publisher also likes to limit the endnotes to cover only citations if possible, and they also allow endnotes at the end of each chapter if we prefer that (and I do). But rest assured that the Tolkien point will be made, if I have anything to say about it.

As for accessibility, I think I write far more accessibly in general than the average philosopher writing for an academic audience. Having this blog for eight years and writing chapters for several pop culture and philosophy volumes have helped me a lot in that regard. I make an effort to explain myself to non-specialists in philosophy, because I'm incorporating material from two diverse fields. Some members of my dissertation committee knew nothing of the philosophy of race literature. Two readers, including my adviser, were not very well-versed in metaphysics literature. There may be places where someone with little philosophical background at all will have to work hard, but the fact that I'm trying to speak to several audiences will help a lot, I think. Also, I'm making an effort in my revisions to increase accessibility without removing anything substantial, in case I didn't do a good enough job before. I want at least most of this to be readable by non-philosophers, even if the primary audience is intended to be philosophers.

From the perspective of someone who's biracial, your research sounds interesting. I do recall you posting about racial theory before, but I didn't know it was your dissertation topic.

Jeremy, thanks for responding. I just now got back to this post, but your answer makes me happy on multiple levels – that the Tolkien point will be made, and that the book should be accessible. I, for one, thoroughly appreciate the attempt to be comprehensible to the non-philosophy majors of the world. Looking forward to it. :)

I'm late in returning to this blog and seeing this post. I'd love to hear how the manuscript is coming and offer my eyes for commentary.

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