This is the third post in my series on the metaphysics of race. If you want to start at the beginning, you can go right to the introduction to the series, or you can go to the full list of posts with links.
The next view on our list is anti-realism. In metaphysics, an anti-realist view is just a view that denies the existence of something. An anti-realist about immaterial souls thinks there are no such things as immaterial souls. They think such souls are not real. An anti-realist about morality thinks morality doesn't exist. So an anti-realist race denies that there are any race. To be clear, this is not the same as rejecting biological races, because you could think races exist but are not natural kinds. Anti-realists reject races of any sort. There just aren't any races.
Why would someone hold such a view? Isn't it obvious that people fall into different categories along racial lines? Well, remember from the last post that people thought races to be biological kinds or natural kinds. Then science turned out to seem not to allow for such biological races. If races are biological kinds, and there are no such biological kinds, then there are no races. That is the most fundamental metaphysical argument for anti-realism about races, although as we will see there are other arguments (and not all of them are metaphysical).
Anti-realism about race is the denial that anything in biology matches up with our social classifications of race, and therefore there are no races at all. The language we use to talk about races isn’t really talking about anything at all. It’s all a mistake. There are no races, and we don’t refer to any existing entities when we talk about race. One response to this argument is to see races as social constructions or social kinds. We will come to that view. Another is to try to defend racial categories as biological but not in the classical biological realist view from the last post, and we will get to that also. But I want to look at the arguments given here first for not believing in races at all.
The Argument from False Views
This view usually relies on the notion that our social groupings do in fact treat races as biological categories, but they don’t turn out to be biological categories. If that’s right, then our common understanding of races is wrong, and there are no groups that match up with what we think races are. If we think races are biological, but there are no biological races, then the things we call races don’t exist.
Here is one worry about some of these arguments, though. A false belief about something that has social reality doesn’t make the social reality non-existent. Our categories of attorneys, political libertarians, and licensed motor vehicle operators are not biological categories. Even if races are not biological, could they be more like those categories? Those categories don’t involve such false beliefs, whereas our category of race might, so that’s one difference. But other social categories involve false beliefs, and we don’t take the thing in question to be non-existent. We didn’t reject heat when we stopped taking it to be some substance that warms things up but instead took it to be faster motion among particles. We just revised our understanding of what heat is. We did reject a concept that people had about heat that they called caloric, which was supposed to be the substance that heats things. We rejected any such substance, so we said caloric doesn’t exist. But we kept heat. We don’t talk about caloric anymore. We do talk about heat. And we talk about race. So if we reject biological races, is race more like heat or more like caloric? The fact that we do talk about it suggests that it's more like heat.
We also revised our notion of an atom, once we concluded that the things we’d been calling atoms were in fact divisible. Atoms were supposed to be indivisible. That’s even what the Greek word means. We’d been calling them atoms long enough that revising our language would have been too much of a change, so we just reconsidered the nature of the things we’d been calling atoms, and we no longer think of atoms as indivisible. We still believe the things we called atoms exist. We just no longer think of them as impossible to be broken into smaller parts. Similarly, we might think the things we were calling races do exist, but they’re not the biological kinds people once took them to be. They’re social kinds. So the arguments against races might not be arguments against races but arguments against biological races.
The Argument from Vague Boundaries
Another kind of argument against race comes from difficulties in figuring out where the boundaries are and figuring out where difficult cases fit in. Naomi Zack is a philosopher who worries especially about this. She has ancestry from several different backgrounds – black, white, Native American, Hispanic/Latina, and perhaps some more that I’m not even aware of. So what race is she? It doesn’t seem like she belongs to a race at all. Does she belong to multiple races, just one race, or none at all? Her own answer is none at all, but that’s because she thinks no one belongs to any races. But part of her argument against racial categories is that she doesn’t think hard cases like her make sense.
Is this a good argument? Aren’t there lots of categories where we have no trouble believing that there is such a category, even if it’s hard to figure out what to do with borderline cases? For example, football and basketball are clearly sports. Golf and bowling seem much less central to what we consider sports, but most people would include them. What about croquet or mini golf? What about chess? Now we’re stretching it a bit, right? Is high-stakes poker a sport? But clearly attending a concert is not a sport. Nor is texting someone. There are clear cases, and there are borderline cases, but there are also things that are definitely not sports. So the existence of borderline cases that are not so clear does not invalidate the category. There are things that are clearly sports, things that are clearly not sports, and things we're not so sure about. That's not evidence against the existence of sports. It's evidence that the boundaries of what counts as a sport are unclear or vague.
And a lot of our categories are like this. Is there a sharp line between the tall things and the not tall things? Is there a clear boundary between the things that are red and the things that aren't? Is there one grain of sand that makes a difference between a pile of sand and something that is not a pile of sand? Of course not. There are difficulties with vagueness in philosophy. I took a whole graduate seminar on the topic. But it's a much more pervasive problem about our language, our logic, and our categorizations in general. It's not something particular to race categories. Unless we want to use vagueness to reject a whole bunch of things that we normally have no problem with, we shouldn't be using it to reject the existence of races.
That doesn’t mean all the hard cases of racial classification should be easy. And it doesn’t mean there are races. But it does mean that the existence of unclear cases is not a good reason for questioning the existence of races.
Changing Race Criteria
Zack also points to the fact that the criteria for race membership can change from place to place or over time even in the same place. It might even turn out that several rules for how we assign people to races contradict each other. She thinks that that’s actually true about race classification in the United States. I’m not so convinced that any one practice of racial classification is internally inconsistent, but there are certainly practices of race classification that conflict with each other, and some of them operate at the same time as each other but for different purposes (and often by different people, e.g. the standards of the KKK, the standards of colleges in terms of affirmative action categories for admission, and the ordinary beliefs of most people may all be operating in a given city block, but different people are still using different standards for different reasons).
Does this mean there are no things that we can call races? Or does it just mean that there might be different kinds of things that we could call races? I don’t see how it rules out the second. Especially once we see the social kind view, we will see how there can be several kinds of races all at once, and we just mean different things by the terms we use at different times. But on that view, all of them exist, just like the categories of college students, Uber drivers, convicted felons, and professional athletes all exist, and we might sometimes mean different things by those terms at different times. For example, laws might change about what counts as a felony, and it might be retroactive to make a former felon no longer a felon. Similarly, laws can change about what race someone is classified as for federal purposes, and states might have different classifications for the same people.
What many philosophers have sometimes offered as a better approach to rejecting a category is to use the notion of reference. A term refers to something. When you use a word, you do have in mind something that you mean, but sometimes you can refer to something even if you get the facts wrong about what you are thinking is true about it. For example, you might point to someone across the room and say, “That woman over there in the blue shirt is really tall.” If it turns out it’s not a woman but a man with long hair that you mistakenly thought was a woman, you have still referred to him, even though you thought you were speaking of a woman. You pointed directly at him, and that successfully pinpointed who you meant, even though you misgendered him.
Similarly, maybe you somehow got the idea that hoverboards actually hover from watching the Back to the Future movies from the 1980s, where they had hoverboards from the future that actually did hover. So when your friend says they got a hoverboard, you pictured them riding a skateboard-looking thing that hovers over the ground. Then you ask them what color their hoverboard is, and they tell you it’s black. So you now add more detail to your picture of the hoverboard actually hovering. It's a black skateboard with no wheels that hovers. When you ask them about their hoverboard that you falsely think will hover, do you successfully refer to it, even though you got something important wrong about it? It seems so. When they answer that it’s black, it does seem that they have answered your question and have succeeded at communicating. You still have a wrong idea about it, but they communicated something true about it, and you understand that statement just fine.
So it doesn’t seem like getting the nature of a hoverboard wrong prevents you from referring to it. Similarly, why should we think getting the nature of races wrong (thinking of them as biological categories) would mean there must be no races to refer to? They could be something other than what we wrongly think they are, and it would still be meaningful to talk about them. In fact, even if we get the nature of races wrong, it seems we still have a relatively good idea of which people are in which ones. Isn’t that group of people then the one refer to when we use racial terms? If so, then anti-realism seems to be making a mistake. Races might not be what we thought they were, but it doesn’t follow that there is no such thing as races. We might just be getting it wrong about what they are if we think of them as biological categories.
The One Human Race View
I should say something also about a related but distinct view. Some people present a view that in some ways is like anti-realism, but it doesn't deny the existence of any races. It denies the existence of multiple races. It holds that there is one human race. Everyone is all part of the same race. In one sense, this is certainly not anti-realism. Anti-realists think there are no races, and this view thinks there is exactly one race. But it's like anti-realism in denying the races that we ordinarily believe in. None of those races exist, according to this view.
The problems with anti-realism also appear for this view. The arguments for anti-realism are not good arguments, and the reasons they give for thinking there are no races will also fail if they are put to show that there is only one race. And if there are reasons to think we communicate just fine by using racial terms, since we succeed at communicating when we use such terms, then the same argument works against the One Race view as well.
But I think this view also has a further problem. It fundamentally misunderstands what races are supposed to be. Races are supposed to be sub-categories of a species, not the species itself. You can't very well reject races because we got their nature wrong and then retain one race and in the process again get the nature of a race wrong. It's inconsistent to reject races from this biological argument and then to say that there is one race by identifying that one race with a species. Before the modern concept of race came along, people might have used the term that way. Tolkien, fond of archaic use of language, used it that way to distinguish the race of Man from the races of Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, Orcs, and Ents. I found a passage from Jonathan Edwards, writing before the modern concept of race had infiltrated the American colonies, where has something like this. But the word "race" has not really been used to refer to the human species since that time, outside of fantasy literature influenced by Tolkien or writers steeped in pre-modern reflections on these things. So the One Race view seems to me to get the word as wrong as Classical Biological Racial Realism does. There is one human species, sure. But to take the human species to be a race, in the sense that the English word "race" is normally used, is to make a major semantic error. That's not what the word refers to in ordinary use.
They Do Exist but Aren't Races
They anti-realist view that I think has the most going for it is Joshua Glasgow's view., most prominently defended in his 2009 book A Theory of Race, which in my view was a game-changer in this debate in terms of how anyone needed to talk about this issue. Glasgow argues that there are no races, but the reference argument I gave above convinces him that there are groups that we refer to when we use racial terminology. When we talk about black people, say, there is a group of people (with admittedly vague boundaries when it comes to mixed race and so on) that our terms refer to. He just then insists that such groups are not races. His view has changed a little since then, and maybe I'll get to his current view in a later post, but I want to think about the view he defended in his book right now.
Suppose he is right that races have to be biological entities, but there are no such entities. It doesn't follow that the groups we have been calling are races do not exist, as I have argued above. But on his view, then, these groups are not races. I have resisted that above, and our next post will get into some more reasons why we might resist that. But I should note that Glasgow has basically conceded most of what makes the anti-realist view distinctive. He is saying that there is such a group as black people, another group as white people, and another group that consists of Asians. He is accepting that those groups are real, which is what anti-realism wanted to deny.
And I should say that this is what anti-realists have retreated to at this point. They don't deny the existence of the groups that people call races. They just don't call them races. You will still get what I will now call the classic anti-realist view, but many who have questioned the existence of races take this approach now. Kwame Anthony Appiah, who was the first philosophers to begin looking at this question since the early 20th century, famously defended anti-realism in several works. But he has retreated to the view that there are racial identities that we falsely call races but that do exist. Another anti-realist, Lawrence Blum, denies that there are races but calls the groups that everyone calls races by another name -- racialized groups. The groups exist, and we have racialized them, meaning that we think about them as races, even though in his view they are not races.
One response to Glasgow (and any similar position) is that the approach is willing to admit to the group but just failing to use the term everyone else uses. It’s like refusing to call atoms by that name, once it’s clear that they are divisible, all the while recognizing that they exist. But we did continue to use the name, because we referred to them as atoms in a way independent of the theory that led to thinking they were indivisible. We referred to them as atoms because they explained chemical interactions, and that reasoning still worked to allow us to refer to them, even if we had gotten their nature wrong.
It reminds me of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, who mislabeled emotions as not being emotions because it didn’t fit well with their definition of emotions. They were so convinced that emotions are all bad that they had trouble dealing with some that seemed not to be. Anger is bad in some of its clearest case, so they were fine with that, but what about righteous indignation, which looks just like anger but is motivated by moral concern and recognition that terrible things are being done? The Stoic response was to say that certain things that we call emotions are not really emotions but just good feelings, because they’re compatible with good reasoning, and by their definition emotions are not compatible with good reasoning.
What's going on here is that the Stoics gave a bad definition of emotions. Someone came up with a counterexample, which should normally get them to admit they had a bad definition, and that should lead them to offer another one, one that allows some good emotions. But they stubbornly resisted redefining the term in a way that fit with how emotion-language is actually used. So they point to these good feelings and accept them as fine but refuse to call them emotions. Later philosophers, such as Cicero and Augustine, had a lot of fun pointing out how absurd the Stoics were on this question. They were simply getting their own language wrong and confusing everyone, since everyone knew full well that righteous indication is an emotion. It led people to think that Stoics really did believe all emotions are wrong. They didn't. They just believed that a narrower set of emotions is entirely wrong, while other things everyone calls emotions are not really emotions. So they said this extreme-sounding thesis that no one understood without reading them very carefully, and it could all have been avoided by using language the way everyone else did. The similar lesson with race-language is simply to use it the way everyone does, which means defining it in a way that Glasgow prefers not to do, at least in his book. (He has backed off on this in more recent work, but his current view is complex and relies on notions that we will get to in the next post about social kinds.)
It is for reasons along those lines that many philosophers today think races are not nonexistent biological entities but still are some existing thing. But what existing entities would they be? The most common answer is that they are socially defined entities like philosophers, college students, atheists, electricians, licensed motor vehicle operators, and football players. We’ll turn to the social kind view of race next time.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.