This is my first post in a series on the metaphysics of race. There is a list of all the posts in the series, with links.
I've wanted for a long time to do a blog series on the metaphysics of race, which is my primary area of research. This is what I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on, which has now been published as a book and has entered the current discussion among philosophers on race. I've been teaching this issue since 2004, and I've finally gotten to a point where I have a set of readings that I really like for introductory classes, and the main content I teach has coalesced into a stable form that I am using every semester now instead of trying something, getting frustrated by it, and not trying it again for a few semesters. I'm finally getting around to turning it into a blog series, because the covid-19 distance learning required me to type up my class lectures into a presentable form, so I now have a set of written materials that I can convert into a bloggable format. So here we go.
There are a number of philosophical issues related to race, but the topic here is the metaphysics of race, which just means looking at the nature of what (if anything) race is. In philosophy, metaphysics is just the nature of reality. It looks at questions about what kinds of things there are and what we can say about them. Metaphysics includes whether God exists, what kind of being God is if God does exist, whether we have immaterial souls that could survive death, whether we have free will and if so what free will even is, whether free will is compatible with being predetermined or with an omniscience being knowing what we will do, whether time travel is possible, the nature of space and time, whether a computer or AI can understand or be conscious, what it means for one thing to cause another thing, and lots of other important questions worth thinking about philosophically. Is a hole, a ditch, or a dent a real thing? Or is it just the absence of certain things or some other thing being formed in a certain way? Is there something about the nature of reality that explains why moral truths are true? These are all metaphysical questions.
But metaphysics also includes a number of questions that we sometimes classify under social philosophy, such as what it means to fall under the category of being a man or being a woman. Questions of sex, gender, gender identity, and gender expression are metaphysical questions (ones with serious ethical implications, but whether a transwoman is a woman is a metaphysical question, and which pronouns we should use for a transgender person or how we should treat such a person are ethical questions; some questions of social philosophy are metaphysics, and some are ethics, and what you say about some of those questions might affect what you say about others). What it means to have a disability and whether that means something is missing or distorted that ought to be present but is not involves metaphysical questions. Are all differences mere differences, or is there some aspect of reality that makes certain differences worse in some sense? Are there certain ways of being that are worse or better than other ways of being? These are all metaphysical questions about the social realm, involving questions about the nature of the categories we use, such as sex, gender, or disability.
So what about race? We can ask what sort of thing races are, assuming they even exist. Are there even such things as races? If so how would we figure out what kind of things they are? Those are the fundamental questions in the metaphysics of race.
There have been three main approaches to this question since philosophers started applying their concepts to the subject, which wasn’t all that long ago. The first attempt in recent times that I’m aware of by a philosopher was the early 1990s by Kwame Anthony Appiah, although others had used philosophical categories to answer this question long before that, and philosophers of earlier times did explicitly raise this question. In the most famous cases, they did so through lenses that most of us would now consider pretty distorted. Before Appiah, English-speaking philosophy as a whole would probably not even have seen this as a philosophical question and certainly would not have wanted to treat it as metaphysics. Even now, it's probably not going to be found in most lists of metaphysical questions, although most philosophers now recognize it to be a genuinely philosophical question. But most would see it not as a fundamental question of metaphysics but as a question of applied metaphysics, the same way theories about what morality is all about would be ethical theory and then questions about abortion might be applied ethics. But if you go back a couple hundred years, the 20th century exclusion of questions of race from philosophy would seem strange. Immanuel Kant was perhaps the most influential philosopher in continental Europe in his time, and he spent many pages writing about race. Indeed, many historians of the race concept place him as one of the most important thinkers to have developed the modern concept of race.
The three main approaches metaphysicians of race today present are the biological realist view, the social realist view, and the anti-realist view. Biological realism and social realism about races both accept the existence of races as real entities, but they disagree on what sort of thing they think races are. Biological realists take races to be naturally occurring, biological categories. Social realists think there are no such biological races, but they think races are real nonetheless. They are instead social entities, created by social forces and determined by such things as how we as a society end up classifying people. By contrast, anti-realists just think racial language doesn’t refer to anything at all. It’s a mistake to think there are races to begin with.
So I will proceed to look at each of these views. I will start with what I call the classic biological approach, which was the main view until about early-mid 20th century. The discovery of DNA and subsequent thought about species and sub-species basically eliminated the class biological approach among those who understood and were influenced by science. Anti-realism dominated for most of the second half of the 20th century and was perhaps the most prominent approach among the first philosophers to go back to including this issue in their discussions, but late 20th century arguments for a social realist view, which takes to be real but not biological, eventually led to that view dominating both in the social sciences and in philosophy once philosophers went back to looking at the question. A few biological approaches developed in the 1990s but didn't catch on, but a new one developed in the last 20 years that has become a viable view at this point, and we will see how that new biological approach relates to social realism (and why the two might even be compatible). But next up is the classic biological racial realist position.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.