The Critique of Impure Reason: Foucault and the Frankfurt School

In “The Critique of Impure Reason: Foucault and the Frankfurt School,” Thomas McCarthy compares the critical philosophy of Michel Foucault and the Frankfurt School thinkers (represented in the essay by Jürgen Habermas) before tracing the evolution of Foucault’s thought. Since our principle aim in reading this essay was to get a sense of a couple of schools of ideology critique, I will focus my summary mainly on those components of the work, leaving McCarthy’s argument unchallenged. Regardless of whether his claims are true, he gives a clear concise, introduction to the goals and methods of two major strains of ideology critique. Further, there are many interesting theoretical points that I will have to leave undeveloped in this paper, in order to focus more fully on the points most pertinent to ideology critique. I invite you to explore those points in your questions and in class discussion, if they interest you.

I. A Comparison of Foucault and the Frankfurt School

 McCarthy’s main goal in this section is to show that the critical philosophy espoused by Foucault actually has a fair amount of its content in common with that of the Frankfurt thinkers. He goes on to argue, essentially, that the points at which Foucault’s critique is inadequate are those at which it diverges from Habermas’.

Both theoretical approaches follow from the Kantian tradition, but they seek to alter and radicalize it. These changes are necessitated by what McCarthy calls the “impurity” of reason—it is sociohistoricaly located, embodied, and sensuous, and cannot, therefore, be adequately assessed through the introspective methods used by Kant (437). These analyses, then, blur the distinction between theory and practice. Since reason is no longer the faculty of a universal, autonomous subject, but rather of people, in the world, it is just as intimately a part of what we do as it is of what we know. Thus, to criticize a manner of thinking is, in part, to criticize a manner of acting (438). Of course, both schools need to get create a certain distance between themselves and the practices that they take as their subjects, which they do through genetic and functional accounts of the birth of practices that we currently take for granted (439). This latter point is the beating heart of an ideology critique. Ideology critique seeks to the flaws and contingencies in the conceptual background against which we think and act. This can, as McCarthy points out, lead us to see ways in which things that we have taken for granted came into being contingently, and are used to prop up existing power structures, a realization which can lead to social change—the goal of the critiques put forth by both Foucault and the Frankfurt theorists (440).

This seems like a good point at which to put forth a question about the point of ideology critique: is the goal of the critique to make societal institutions more reasonable, in the classical sense, or to amend our concept of reason? Both Foucault and Habermas opt for the latter, while certain strains of Marxist thought (so, hardly regressive or conservative theories) have taken the former approach.

We turn now to the two major points of disagreement that McCarthy identifies between Foucault and Habermas.

A) Power

McCarthy’s claim here is that Foucault grants power ontological primacy in his critique. We are all situated, always, everywhere, and forever, in networks of power relations that shape the ways in which we think and determines what is right, as well as the ways in which we determine what is true (445-446). This claim is typical of the early writings of Foucault, and in his later career he grants more explanatory weight to individual action. The view that McCarthy attacks here is insufficient (as we will see at greater length is section II of this paper) in that it abstracts the empirical individual from the picture entirely, turning all actions into undifferentiable exercises of power, when other concepts might serve to explain them better.

B) The Subject

Continuing the theme of the previous subsection, Foucault replaces the idea of the autonomous subject with that of a holistic network of power relations (447-448). We have already, and will again evoke the problems with this line of thinking. A notable problem, that I think can be seen in modern political discourse, is that a holistic system like the one that Foucault described early in his career eliminates the possibility of individual (i.e., as an action of an autonomous subject) resistance (449). This has obvious deleterious effects for those who, like us, are interested in instituting reforms. On the other hand, in his genealogy, Foucault does not want to give an exact account of who has power, what they are thinking, their motivations, etc. Rather, he wants to trace the effects of ideas over time, showing how they calcified into our current way of doing things. This seems like a sensible way to avoid such charlatanism as The Secret Relationship. It would seem sensible, then, to do as Foucault did himself and search for a way to balance the explanatory strengths of the genealogical approach with the need to make room for choice.

(To be clear, the Frankfurt theorists leave more room for resistance by the autonomous subject—which is partly why McCarthy prefers them)

II. From ontology of power to aesthetic life

In the second half of the essay, McCarthy sketches two more moderate theories advanced by Foucault later in his career that offer potential ways out of the ontological quagmire we discussed above.

A) Power v. Domination

Under the first of these conceptions, Foucault makes a distinction between power and domination. The latter of these concepts is (somewhat confusingly) what we would ordinarily call “power;” that is, asymmetrical, irreversible societal advantages given to certain people. The former he defines as “’…strategic games between liberties’ in which ‘some people try to determine the conduct of others’” (455). The role of ideology critique is to dismantle and eliminate dominance relations—power relationships are simply a fact of social life. Our goal as critical theorists is to guarantee a level playing field. I was pretty astonished by this particular passage, not on the basis of the above distinction but because I couldn’t believe that Michel Foucault would be using game theory. Maybe that says more about my stereotypes of French critical philosophy than it does about Foucault. Of course, not all of our relations are strategic—as Habermas writes, through “communicative action,” cooperation, rather than competition, can guide our actions (456). I am with Foucault on this one—can we actually achieve this sort of mutual understanding, and, if so, who’s to say that it isn’t merely a tactic in a larger strategy? Indeed, cooperation itself can be a strategic goal.

B) The Aesthetic Life

In the final stage of his development, Foucault turned to what he calls ethics: the proper relationship with oneself (“care of the self”), which is in turn an indispensible condition for caring for others or, what is the same thing, governing (458). Foucault places this system of ethics in opposition with what he saw as the quasi-juridical form of modern morality. In this way, the care of the self is a technique for escaping from externally imposed constraints. More than that, it is a technique for living a life that is beautiful, a work of art in itself (463). It is hard to say if we are still in the confines of an ideology critique at this point. There does seem to be a work of demystification and emancipation involved in the care of the self, but it is completely individualistic—each of us, in our autonomy, finds a way to live well in our given sociohistorical context. This self-construction is limited, nevertheless, by concerns of justice. In caring for ourselves, we cannot prevent others from doing the same. It does not seem like this needs to reach the same level of formality as Kant’s categorical imperative—a virtue ethical notion would be sufficient.

(I have not had time to really develop Habermas’ points in this paper, so I would encourage you to ask questions about it, if you have them.)

In following the course of Foucault’s development, I was reminded of a passage of “Self-Reliance,” in which Emerson writes, “All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves” (82 in the Houghton, Mifflin edition of Essays: First Series). Most pertinently to the discussion at hand, what good are just institutions and concepts if the people using them are immoral? What is the role of self-improvement in societal reform? Or, from the other side, can one live an aesthetic life without an understanding of the sociohistorical moment? Is an ideology critique an essential stage on the road to self-actualization?

Haslanger (p. 365-405), “Social Kinds: Semantics and Philosophical Analysis”


Haslanger begins this chapter by restating her social constructionist view of gender and race. Plainly, she summarizes:​

“I believe that races and genders are real categories to be defined in terms of social positions. I have come to this conclusion by considering what categories we should employ in the quest for social justice” (365)

These social positions are characterized by “interconnected systems of privilege and subordination” that are generated based on assumptions regarding one’s physical makeup, color, and ancestry.

Haslanger’s “quest for social justice” aims to combat these “systems” by explaining the phenomena of race and gender in terms of language and concepts that help achieve this justice. Haslanger’s ultimate goal is to establish a world void of categorizations of race and gender through this commitment to justice.

Haslanger offers the important clarification that her goal “is not to capture the ordinary meanings of ‘race’ or ‘man’ or ‘woman’, nor is it to capture our ordinary race and gender concepts. I’ve cast my inquiry as an analytical—or what I here call an ameliorative—project that seeks to identify what legitimate purposes we might have (if any) in categorizing people on the basis of race or gender, and to develop concepts that would help us achieve these ends” (366). Essentially, Haslanger isn’t concerned with offering normative conceptions of race and gender, but rather classifications of the two that will move us toward justice in both the “theoretical” and “political” realms.

Haslanger’s overarching purpose in this chapter is to unpack the semantics that inform our perceptions of “socially and politically meaningful concepts” (366). Haslanger wants to figure out exactly what is at stake when one embarks on a philosophical analysis of a concept or concepts.


Haslanger sketches the three main pathways of conceptual analysis or, put specifically, how to answer the question: “What is X?”

  • Conceptual – What is our concept of X? Utilizes a priori methods (i.e. introspection, intuition, etc.) to deliver an answer
  • Descriptive – What kinds does X track or refer to? Does the concept of X characterize a natural kind? Relies on empirical or quasi-empirical methods
  • Ameliorative – What is the purpose of the concept of X? Can the concept of X be improved or supplemented in order to better serve its purpose? Is the purpose of the concept of X good and accurate?

In addition to these 3 core approaches, Haslanger offers an additional one:

  • Genealogy – How is the concept of X embedded in social practices?

The genealogical approach to conceptual analysis illuminates two important points. Firstly, our concepts and social practices are significantly interconnected, as our concepts describe and form our social practices, which then evolve and retroactively mold our concepts. Secondly, a large gap between the socially dominant concept and its intended practice often exists, as “developments on one side can get ahead of or stubbornly resist the other” (368).

To help us perceive the different forms of conceptual analysis, Haslanger extends the example of the notion of being deemed tardy within school districts. Essentially, Haslanger shows that there is a complex web of rules and considerations surrounding what it exactly means to be tardy. Haslanger specifies:

“For example, one morning when we were running especially late, my son Isaac reassured me by saying, “Don’t worry Mom, no one is ever tardy on Wednesdays because my teacher doesn’t turn in the attendance sheet on Wednesday until after the first period” (368).

Within this example, Haslanger reveals the disconnect between the local concept of tardy and its institutional meaning – “tardy” on Wednesdays in Isaac’s specific class (local) seems to be defined as arriving after the attendance sheet is turned, whereas the greater school district (institutional) would distinctly define “tardy” as showing up to school after the 8:25am bell. To say that either conception of tardy is the real or true meaning of the concept is to privilege one side, and this is not Haslanger’s goal. Haslanger’s goal is simply to show that our concept of “tardiness” is embedded differently within various social practices and contexts.

Haslanger’s discussion of the contrast in conceptual meanings between local and institutional contexts gives her room to relay “several different axes (contexts) of comparison that might be relevant” (369):

  • institutional uses v. “local” uses
  • public uses v. more idiosyncratic individual uses
  • what is explicit v. what is implicit in the minds of users
  • what is thought (what we take ourselves to be doing with the concept) v. what 
is practiced (what we’re actually doing with it)
  • appropriate v. inappropriate uses.

Haslanger then draws a distinction between the manifest concept and the operative concept. The manifest concept is the “more explicit, public, and ‘intuitive’ one,” classified by the “institutional” use above. The operative concept, on the other hand, is the “more implicit, hidden, and yet practiced one,” or the “local” concept as mentioned previously (370).


Haslanger continues her discussion by offering that when conducting conceptual analysis, it is possible to guide or “modify” the three basic approaches with regard to genealogy (371).

Conceptual genealogy – A conceptual genealogy of “tardiness” would require input from English speakers situated in a diverse range of contexts over the course of the concepts history. Important question are: “What are the range of meanings? Whose meanings are dominant and why?” (372)

Ameliorative genealogy – An ameliorative genealogy of “tardiness” would seek to evaluate the purpose of the concept of “tardiness” as it refers to certain social practices that have become structured and varied over time. This analysis would also seek to improve the concept to better fulfill its purpose.

However, Haslanger is most concerned with the idea of descriptive genealogy.

Descriptive genealogy – “explores how a term functions in our evolving practices and manages to pick things out” (375). A descriptive genealogy of “tardiness” would begin by considering a paradigm example of tardiness, like the one Haslanger offers above about her son. The aim is to give an account of what type of social kind such a paradigm falls under. Essentially, the goal is to decipher the interplay between the paradigm case and our continually constructed and reconstructed perception of the meaning of “tardiness.”

Haslanger also includes a quick discussion of semantic externalism and how it relates to her genealogical approach to analyzing concepts. Before drawing the connection, she summarizes three main types of externalism.

Natural kind externalism – A kind which has its meaning determined by adherence or reference to a paradigm, “together with an implicit extension to ‘things of the same kind’” (374)

Social externalism – The meaning or concept attached to a term used by somebody is characterized at least partially by the normative usage and practice of the term in his or her local context

These two conceptions of externalism gave rise to a new type of analysis: objective type externalism.

Objective type externalism – terms or concepts point to an objective type, regardless of whether or not we can explicate the shared “essences” of this type, when these terms or concepts have their meanings determined by adherence to a paradigm which joins them “by virtue of the degree of unity among its members beyond a random or gerrymandered set” (374).

So how is this all connected? In short, a descriptive genealogy aims to elucidate the operative (local, implicit, practiced) concept, whereas a conceptual genealogy reveals the manifest (institutional, widely-recognized, explicit) concept. Haslanger is concerned with instances in which the operative and manifest concepts coincide, as we know exactly what we are talking about in these instances. Rather, Haslanger is interested in exploring situations in which our operative and manifests concept do not align, in other words, instances in which the widely-accepted and recognized meaning of a concept is not reflected accurately in our local practice of that concept.


Although I relayed the various approaches to conceptual analysis in my own words earlier, here is a table of the different approaches as defined by Haslanger (376):

Conceptual analyses elucidate “our” (manifest) concept of F-ness by exploring what “we” take F-ness to be.
Conceptual genealogy: elucidate the variety of understandings and uses of F-ness over time and across individuals differently positioned with respect to practices that employ the notion.

Descriptive analyses elucidate the empirical kinds (the operative concept) into which “our” paradigm cases of F-ness fall.
Descriptive naturalism: elucidate, where possible, the natural (chemical, biological, neurological) kinds that capture “our” paradigm cases of F-ness.
Descriptive genealogy: elucidate the social matrix (history, practices, power relations) within which “we” discriminate between things that are F and those that aren’t.

Ameliorative analyses elucidate “our” legitimate purposes and what concept of F-ness (if any) would serve them best (the target concept). Normative input is needed.

Haslanger notes that we recognize areas for improvement within our concepts when “manifest, operative, and target concepts” come apart (376). Ignorance and ideology can create divisions amongst what we are considering, what we think we’re talking about, and what kinds we think the concept in question tracks. Haslanger is most interested in cases in which our assumptions about what is natural cause us to mishandle discussions regarding certain concepts. Haslanger defends the philosopher’s goal of “talking about what we should be talking about, and being fully aware of what that is” (377). Ultimately, through her discussion of these different approaches, Haslanger wishes to offer modes of analysis that reveal the “complex forces and structures of social life” that create our manifest concepts of race and gender while simultaneously perpetuating a system of injustice (379).


In Chapter 14 Haslanger initially sets out to consider the debate between constructionists and error theorists with regard to the philosophical analysis of the concept of race.

Error Theorist Position
1. The human species can be divided into small groups of races based on essential, heritable characteristics (racial essences) that unify a group while setting them apart from others. Visibly, these include skin color, hair type, physical features, etc.
2. Races are groups with these “common inherited racial essence” (383)
3. There are no such racial essences
4. There are no races; race does not exist

Appiah contends that there exists a similar idea of racial identity that can accurately be appropriated to people because it is simply a chosen label with which a person identifies (383).

Social Constructionist Position
1. Races are racialized groups
2. A group is racialized “if and only if its members are socially positioned as subordinate or privileged along some dimension—economic, political, legal, social, etc.—(in that context), and the group is “marked” as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of ancestral links to a certain geographical region” (384)

Three questions arise from this discussion and distinction between the two positions:
1. The social constructionist position seems unable to capture what people “have in mind” when they talk about race. Is this troublesome?
2. Does the social constructionist approach make sense for analysis?
3. What are the offshoots of clarifying our concept of race in one way or the other?


In this section Haslanger reiterates the different forms of conceptual analysis I detailed earlier within the summary. Again, these different approaches are conceptual (which she renames the internalist approach due to its usage of a priori methods for answer), descriptive, and ameliorative. Amidst the many different inquiries surrounding the classification of “race,” Haslanger is not concerned with nailing down one, normative conception of what race really is. Rather, Haslanger hopes that the concept that we take ourselves to be using, the concept that best classifies the type we are investigating, and the type we should be investigating all align within our analysis (387).


Manifest concept – the concept one believes they are applying or attempting to apply to a particular case
Operative concept – the concept that best characterizes the distinction in practice
Target concept – the ideal concept that one should be employing

As mentioned before, we are using our concept correctly when the manifest concept falls in line with our practices. Any gaps amongst the manifest, operative, and target concepts signals a necessary revision of the concepts in relation to the case in question.

To illustrate a situation in which gaps arise amongst our concepts, Haslanger offers the example of “Parent-Teacher Conferences” (389). The manifest concept of the term “parent” is that of a biological mother or father. However, in the context of Parent-Teacher Conferences, “Parent” is meant to be synonymous with the child’s main caretaker. Haslanger offers that a girl named Tara had her grandmother show up for the conferences, as the grandmother was her primary guardian. Tara’s grandmother does not fit the manifest concept of “parent,” as she is not Tara’s biological mother, but the grandmother does satisfy the operative concept of “parent” within the context of school and Parent-Teacher Conferences.

Philosophical inquiry helps us to avoid these gaps amongst our concepts because it “helps us develop more detailed, explicit, and adequate conceptions of our concepts” (391).

Sticking with the “parent” example in terms of Parent-Teacher Conferences, Haslanger details the various approaches we could take to help our manifest concept of “parent” align correctly with our social practices.

  1. Descriptivist Approach – Replace the manifest concept of parent with the operative one by replacing “parent” with “primary caregiver.” This appropriate terminology will allow the new manifest concept to match up with our practices.
  2. Ameliorative Approach – Rethink and retool the concept of “parent” and devise a concept of the term that best suits our purposes and practices
  3. Conceptualist Approach – the gaps between “parent” and “primary caregiver” are meaningless because we are engaging in a futile attempt to align two completely different concepts. The best we can do is invent and employ a new concept altogether.

However, consider how the term “parent” has changed and evolved over time as the dynamics of family life have shifted. What is involved in this evolution of the term? Haslanger offers two ways of considering what might be at stake when a concept evolves alongside a changing social context. Firstly, the term “parent” may simply express an entirely different concept than it did in the past, thus, the change is semantic. Alternatively, the concept of “parent” may remain static while the features that characterize the concept have changed, in other words, our understanding of the concept has changed (394).

Knowledge, Human Interests, and Objectivity in Feminist Epistemology

In this paper, Anderson aims to show that

  • The seeming competition between normative values and evidential values in science is unwarranted.
  • Simply justifying a theory based on evidential truth is not enough; we need a justice model that could bring in the “whole truth.”
  • We should integrate some specific feminist normative value—ontological heterogeneity and complexity of relationship—to all stages of science including discovery, justification, application, and critique of science.
  • Such interaction between normative and evidential value would result in a new phase of science where we apply dual justification for theory choice—significance and truth—instead of a single justification based on truth, as Haack argues. This new phase of science with dual justification, Anderson argues, offers a proper model of objectivity.

A. Longino’s argument for taking values into consideration in science:


Contextual Values:

  • “Political, moral and other values taken from the social context in which science is practiced.” (28)
  • External to science

Epistemic or Cognitive Values:

  • Values that are internal to science, and do not have explicit political or moral content. (29)
  • e.g. “accuracy, consistency, fruitfulness, breadth of scope,and simplicity” (29)


  • A situation in which “hypotheses are logically underdetermined by the data cited in their support” (28). So when two sets of hypotheses are equal in logically explaining the datas, our theory choice is underdetermined.
  • Underdetermination happens, such as the dispute between Einsteinian and Newtonian science, and between classical and marginal utility theory in economics (29).

Longino’s argument:

P1 If underdetermination happens in scientific theory choosing, then we resort to background assumptions to justify a certain hypothesis in science. (28)

P2 Underdetermination happens in scientific theory choosing. (28)

C1 We resort to background assumption to justify a certain hypothesis in science.

P3 Values are embedded in background assumptions.

P4 If we resort to background assumptions to justify a certain hypothesis in science, and values are embedded in background assumptions, then values play a role in science. (29)

C Values play a role in science.

“When the data run out, values legitimately step in to take up the “slack” between observation and theory” (29).

Some scientists are willing to accept Longino’s argument, but they only permit epistemic or cognitive values and refuse to consider contextual ones as important to science (29).

Longino’s response to that: the binary between epistemic and contextual interests break down when we focus attention on the grounds for supporting our theories, “we see that epistemic, metaphysical and practical interests” all contribute into the play (30). She especially focuses on practical interests, because she thinks that we all have practical interests in predicting and controlling phenomena (30).

My question about this: Longino goes on to distinguish the contemporary quantitative vs. the Aristotelian qualitative approach to characteristics of objects of study, and claims that the former represents a practical interest in predicting and controlling phenomena, and the latter represents a practical interest in self-understanding and successful communication. For me, Longino creates this practical interest language and puts both approaches in terms of this language, and then claims that every approach has a practical interest. I’m to some extent sympathetic to her, but language creating game still looks like cheating to me, since this argument is very similar to people’s reasons about how everything is political—once we create a political language, then everything is political, even apolitical becomes a political stance.

Now Longino can say that practical interests, which are highly connected with political and moral values, play a role in science. She then defines two specific feminist theoretical virtues that are representative of the contextual values we need to take into consideration:

  • Ontological Heterogeneity: “a preference for ‘splitting’ over ‘lumping’—for emphasizing the qualitative diversity and individuality of subjects of study and the distinctions among properties commonly classified together” (30)
  • Complexity of Relationship: “a preference for dynamic, interactive causal models that emphasize multiple causes of phenomena over single-factor linear or reductionist models” (31)

Longino further argues that if anything, taking political and moral values into consideration would only strengthen the conception of objectivity in science because our new values make inquirers accountable to others’ observations and criticisms while maintaining the empiricist adequacy standard of the theory. (32)

My question about this: as we advocate for the need to take heterogeneity and complexity into consideration, will these values become the new epistemic (constitutive) values in science over time? In that case, will they acquire a position of power that would supposedly obscure other values?

B. Haack’s Critique of Politically Value-Laden Science

Basically, Haack believes that values and evidences are competitive to each other. “Either theory choice is guided by the facts, by observation and evidence, or it is guided by moral values and social influences, construed as wishes, desires or social-political demands” (33). Therefore, she thinks that politically value-laden science is dangerous and dishonest because it lets value totalize theory choice.

Haack’s argument:

  1. Significant truth is the sole aim of theoretical inquiry.
  2. Whether a theory is justified depends only on features indicative of its truth, not its significance.
  3. One shows that a theory is (most probably) true by showing that it is (best) supported by the evidence.
  4. A theoretical proposition is supported by the evidence only if there is some valid inference from the evidence (in conjunction with background information) to it.
  5. Value judgements take the form “P ought to be the case.”
  6. There is no valid inference from “P ought to be the case” to “P is the case” (or any other factual truths).
  7. There is no valid inference fro value judgements to factual truths (5,6).
  8. Value judgements can provide no evidential support for theories (4,7).
  9. Value judgements can play no role in indicating the truth of theories (3,8).
  10. Value judgements can play no role in justifying theories (1,2,9).

C. Anderson’s Defense of a Longinoian Value-Laden Theory against Haack’s Critique

Anderson starts by recognizing that before her, critiques of Haack’s argument have been taking issues with premise (6), claiming that Haack’s argument “covertly relies on a background metaphysical assumption that the universe is not governed by teleological laws” and that “ought” might be interpreted as “can” which implies capabilities (34).

However, Anderson believes that a stronger criticism of Haack’s argument could be achieved by poking holes at premises (1) and (2). She claims that the justification of a theory depends on both its truth and significance. Moreover, she argues that not all values are totalitarian values that conflict with truth-seeking. Feminists only try to incorporate important moral and political values that would not interfere with evidential truth and would function as a second axis of theory justification. Haack’s worry about dishonesty would not happen because dishonesty is simply not an important moral value.

My question would be: so then do we get to choose what moral and political values are important? So who do “we” represent? Will these values be universal? Anderson clearly has heterogeneity and complexity in mind because they offer the most potentials (as we’ll see in a second), but I’m also wary of the tremendous authority that “we” claim to have. Thoughts?

D. Anderson on How Values Play a Role in Justification of Science

Anderson starts by noting that many scientists are willing to concede that values play a role in discovery and application of science, but refuse to admit that values influence the justification of science. Anderson then shows that values are important in justification of science for two reasons: first, a true theory might well be biased, so we need a justice model to ensure impartiality; second, contextual values in scientific inquiry guide theoretical classification, so we justify a theory by choosing a theoretical classification that corresponds with our contextual values.

I. Justice and Justification

Anderson distinguishes between telling some truth and telling the “whole” truth, and argues that a theory that tells some truth satisfies the truth criteria but can still easily be biased or distorted because it is not telling the “whole” truth. We need to incorporate the value of justice into standards of theory choice to ensure impartiality. (Example of the Jewish Slave Owner) (37-38)

Anderson further distinguishes between impartiality with value-neutrality. She claims that value-neutrality is not desired because it might present every small fact about the phenomenon in question and “bury the significant truths in a mass of irrelevant and trivial details” (39). On the other hand, impartiality makes sure that we present the evidence according to the goals and context of our theoretical inquiry. The whole truth under impartial lens “consists of a representative enough sample of such truths that the addition of the rest would not make the answer turn out differently” (40).

Question: This is sort of vague, how do we make sure that the truth in front of us is indeed the whole truth? Maybe we need to be fallibilistic?

II. Contextual Values Guide Theoretical Classification

Anderson argues that we classify our objects of scientific study differently according to our contextual values in our theoretical inquiry, in turn, we choose the theory that uses the specific theoretical classification related to our contextual values.

She gives an example about medicine: We classify organisms based on whether they cause disease in human or not. This classification is tremendously connected to our interest in human health.

She gives another example about gender test: The Terman-Miles M-F test only allows two options “masculine” and “feminine,” which reveals a gender binary value at the background. In contrast, the BSRI test does that more open choices: besides male and female, it has androgyny and gender undifferentiated as choices. The classification in BSRI test reveals a value for heterogeneity.

These examples show that the specific contextual values that we adhere to influence drastically our theoretical classification. If we subscribe to feminist virtues, every step in science will look differently.

Small question for this section: at some point she talks about pure vs. applied science, and blurs the line between them. I’m wondering if pure science is really illusory though. As a math major who hangs out with pure math, I am kind of reluctant to think that all math inquiries are interest-laden. It’s just fun!

E. What The Two Feminist Theoretical Virtues Can Do in Science?

Anderson recognizes that the two virtues: Ontological Heterogeneity and Complexity in Relationship are clearly feminist but are not exclusively feminist because other disciplines share these virtues also. These virtues would drastically change how we approach science from classification to method, and allow us to criticize science in a powerful way.

First of all, these virtues provide us concrete standards of good science, to name a few:

1. “[H]eterogeneity and complexity represent a desirability of human flexibility, autonomy, and creativity…[B]ecause these are valuable potentialities, it is important that our conceptual schemes be able to represent us as having them, if indeed we do” (50). In other words, it is important that we leave room for potentialities in our conceptual scheme (for example, classification) in case that empirical facts fill the gap.

2. The virtues of heterogeneity and complexity require a more qualitative research method that values open-ended, face-to-face interviews rather than a restrictive and distanced one. (51)

Secondly, the above-mentioned standards of good science allow us to criticize science in a more powerful way. If a certain scientific theory does not match the above standards, we can push for a more significant revision.

F. Conclusion

In short, Anderson argues for taking value into consideration in science, and specifically provides two feminist virtues as candidates of important moral and political value that science needs to incorporate. She envisions a revision of scientific justification which requires dual standards—significance and truth.

Race: Normative, Not Metaphysical or Semantic

“The semantic strategy makes discussions over the correct account of race hostage to issues in the philosophy of language and metaphysics about which there is little agreement.” (p. 548)


With his article, ‘Race’: Normative, Not Metaphysical or Semantic, Ron Mallon makes the case that the dominating philosophical conversations concerning race have been limited in their fruitfulness by the involvement of the semantic strategy. While the semantic strategy “seems to offer an avenue by which to settle disputes between skeptics, naturalists, and constructionists,” Mallon argues that it is ultimately “obfuscating and ineffective.” By his account, the semantic strategy is problematic because it creates the illusion that there is great metaphysical disagreement amongst the primary approaches to understanding race when in fact the positions of skepticism, constructionism, and naturalism agree on many metaphysical points. Furthermore, the acceptance of the semantic strategy impedes the ability of our philosophical inquiry to “resolve the question of how we ought to use ‘race’ talk.” Mallon goes about his criticism of the semantic strategy and endorsement of a normative one by first illuminating the defining premises of each primary approach to race theory so as to make clear the extent of their shared metaphysical foundations. Having accomplished this he goes on to argue why metaphysical and semantic concerns should take a back seat if we are to succeed in arriving at a useful conclusion regarding the manner in which we ought to treat race and race talk.


Mallon first establishes the arguments of the semantic strategy:

  1. “First, there is the metaphysical assumption that the world has such and such metaphysical features”
  2. “Then, there is the semantic assumption that some or another particular theory of reference is correct for racial terms or concepts”
  3. “Finally, it is concluded that racial terms or concepts appropriately refer (or fail to refer) to some or other metaphysical features of the world.” (p. 527)


He then identifies the three conclusions that he will argue for:

  1. That much of the apparent metaphysical disagreement over race is an illusion. “Skeptics, constructionists, and naturalists share a broad base of agreement regarding the metaphysical facts surrounding racial or racialized phenomena that suggests their views are complementary parts of a complex view incorporating biological, social, and psychological facts.”
  2. That the illusion of metaphysical disagreement is “sustained by the use of the semantic strategy” – specifically by “different assumptions about the appropriate theory of reference for race terms or concepts.”
  3. That the semantic strategy is problematic, and that race theory “ought not to rely on finding the correct theory of reference to determine the appropriate use of ‘race’ talk.” (527-528)


Having done this he then presents the structure of his remaining project:

  1. Discuss racialism, the “widely rejected view that there are racial essences.”
  2. Discuss Racial Skepticism
  • Discuss Racial Constructionism
  1. Discuss Racial Population Naturalism
  2. Argue for and sketch out the broad basis of agreement that these views share, which make them “compatible parts of a single metaphysical picture of racialized phenomena.”
  3. Argue that the semantic strategy should be abandoned in race theory and replaced by “a complex evaluation of a host of practical, normative considerations.” (528)


The Ontological Consensus

This is the term that Mallon uses to describe the shared assumption of all the theories he is examining that racial essences do not exist. The belief in racial essences and in race existing as a natural kind is referred to as racialism and its rejection is “nearly universal among academic racial theorists.” While he notes that there is disagreement about whether racial classifications might be useful, “there is widespread agreement that races to not share such biobehavioral essences.”

Mallon’s example of a potential case in which racial classifications could be useful is in “medical diagnosis.” We discussed this possibility in our last class. Can we think of other cases in which racial classifications could be useful? Can we get rid of ‘race’ while still recognizing medical tendencies that we currently describe as existing along racial lines?

Racial Skepticism

Racial Skepticism holds that the Ontological Consensus that racial essences do not exist entails the further conclusion that race does not exist. This conclusion is based on the argument that because racial essences don’t exist, ‘race’ fails to refer. The two dominant philosophical traditions of understanding reference are:

  • Ideational account
  • Referential account

The ideational account groups together descriptivist theories of reference, which hold that:

  1. A term or concept is associated with a description
  2. The term of concept refers to the unique thing that satisfies the elements of the description
  3. If no unique thing satisfies the elements of the description, then the term or concept does not refer.

Descriptivist theories are now believed by many to be mistaken. The alternative is a causal-historical theory (referential account):

  1. A kind term is introduced to pick out some unified kind of thing.
  2. If the term successfully picks out a kind when introduced, it continues to pick out that same kind as the term is passed on to others (regardless of whether or not the thing satisfies the description associated with the term.)
  3. If there is no single kind of thing successfully picked out by the term, then the term does not refer.

In this case, causal-historical theories “refer in virtue of a causal-historical link between the original use of the term to identify a kind and later uses.” (531) This opens the possibility that “racial terms might refer to something other than a biological essence, even if people once believed races were characterized by biological essences.” (532)


What should serve as the referents of racial terms and concepts, if this is correct?

  • Biological populations

Such biological populations are critically dependent on reproductive isolation.


Is reproductive isolation a satisfactory way to define biological populations? Do we think that such isolation exists or has existed? What degree of isolation is sufficient in order for us to identify a biological population? (Zack insists that the isolation must be absolutely complete.)


Mismatch arguments:

A mismatch argument holds that a true extension of a term or concept would be very different from what is expected about the extension.

If we accept that reproductive isolation constitutes biological populations, but such reproductive isolation does not exist among what we ordinarily identify as racial groups, then these groups would not count as races. However other communities (Amish) might satisfy the condition and thus should be considered races.

In addition to such an extensional mismatch, there is also an argument of import mismatch. This claims that ordinary use of racial terms “implies the social and psychological importance” of the group picked out and that there is no reason to expect biological populations to carry this sort of importance.

The essential point is that there is a mismatch between what “ordinary users expect out of racial concepts and what they get.”(533)


Racial Constructionism

Constructionists typically worry that racial skepticism neglects to incorporate certain things that are causally or socially important. Mallon also notes that racial skepticism in the hands of political conservatives can be used in supporting an agenda that prevents racial justice.

This is a very interesting notion. Does racial skepticism present a way to seemingly engage in thoughtful race discourse, while really avoiding getting one’s hands dirty so to speak? Does racial skepticism offer the privileged white male, for example, a tidy way to avoid the guilt or burden or his privilege so that he might continue enjoying it?


Mallon discusses three sorts of constructionism:

  1. Thin constructionism (Mills)
  2. Interactive kind constructionism (Hacking)
  3. Institutional constructionism (Root)


Which of these do we think offers the best account of the way in which race might be socially constructed? How would a constructionist best respond to the semantic strategy employed by racial skeptics?

Mallon notes the response of Paul Taylor, that racial descriptions “associated with racial terms may be satisfied by the objects produced by the causal interaction of persons and racial labels.” (537) Mallon provides a quote that nicely sums this up:

“Why cant we just say that the processes of racial identification and ascription bring races into being?” (quoting Taylor, pg. 537)


Racial Population Naturalism

Theorists who support this account of race hold that “from the fact that there are no racial essences, it does not follow that race is not a natural kind.” The main claim of the sort of population naturalism that Mallon examines is that “races may be biological populations characterized by at least some important degree of reproductive isolation.” (538)


This position defends a certain possibility, but not without due consideration that it is not at all clear if any contemporary population exhibits “the appropriate reproductive isolation” that is demanded by the theory.


What do we deem appropriate reproductive isolation, and what must be its evolutionary significance?


Andreasen’s model is more tightly constrained by evolutionary significance, and thus less hopeful for application in the contemporary setting. As Mallon describes, Andreasen thinks human races once existed, but she “is agnostic” about whether or not they still do. Kitcher on the other hand, permits that races might exist as populations that exist in reproductive isolation only in the present. Because Kitcher does not bind himself to evolutionary relevance, or duration of time during which a population must be reproductively isolated, he “is far more optimistic that contemporary racial groups comprise biological populations.” (540)


Mallon posits that the dispute between racial skeptics and population naturalists is best understood as “a dispute over whether whatever human populations there were or are should be labeled by ‘race’ talk.” (543) Thus the dispute seems to be a semantic issue.

The strength or weakness of these population naturalist positions aside, did anyone else find it slightly uncomfortable to be considering human races with the same mechanisms used to describe animal species? As Mallon warns at the start of this section, there is a history of the premise of a biological basis of race being employed in arguments that have served to create or preserve oppressive social practices. Does this history present any obstacle to one who wishes to argue for the legitimacy of racial population naturalism?


Expanding the Ontological Consensus

In this section Mallon divorces the metaphysical facts from questions about ‘race’ talk in order to make clear the wide agreement amongst the race theories at hand. He draws up quite the laundry list of common positions. Do you agree that there is clear agreement on all 8 of the points he lists?


Mallon goes on to insist that if this metaphysical agreement is correct, disputes between constructionists, naturalists, and skeptics should be seen not as primarily metaphysical but primarily semantic. This finally leads Mallon to his ultimate conclusion, that the semantic strategy should be abandoned in race theory if we are to make progress in understanding the way we do and the way we ought to engage in ‘race’ talk. It seems Mallon is of the opinion that the use of the semantic strategy has created a confusing commotion and a stage of philosophical race discussion in which there is much ado about nothing. By removing the semantic strategy and putting metaphysical concerns on the back burner, instead approaching the issue of race and ‘race’ talk from a practical, normative position, we create an environment in which these important discussions are more likely to be fruitful.


Mallon concludes with a refrain that by this point is familiar: metaphysical and semantic concerns are both best left behind. Instead, one ought “to acknowledge the widespread metaphysical agreement and ask, with Sally Haslanger, what do we want our racial concepts, terms, and practices to do?” (551)


How might we answer this final concluding query? What do we want our racial concepts, terms, and practices to do?


Other questions to consider:

What if any are the points of metaphysical disagreement amongst naturalists, constructionists, and skeptics?


Much is made of “reproductive isolation.” Should reproductive isolation be treated as an “all or nothing” affair, or should it be permitting of degrees as Kitcher suggests?


Do we agree that our philosophical interests are best served by adopting a normative approach to theory of race and ‘race’ talk?


Transgender//Transrace—Dolezal, Destabilization and the four Quadrants

“It’s not a costume. I don’t know spiritually and metaphysically how this goes, but I do know that from my earliest memories I have awareness and connection with the black experience.” Rachel Dolezal – Vanity Fair, July 19th.

This past summer, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, was outed by her parents as having attempted to ‘pass’ as black. Modifications of her hair, skin appearance and speech pattern have all been mentioned. After the media storm, she lost her position and suffered much public humiliation. Born in 1977 in Montana, to a family whose heritage, Dolezal was shown, after genealogical testing, to have only have Czech, German, Swedish and Dutch ancestors in the last four centuries. Her parents adopted several black children who she was raised with as her siblings and she attended the HBCU Howard University. However, even one of her brothers has referred to what she did as ‘black-face’, and whilst at Howard University she sued the establishment for discrimination against her—as white. The predominant view in the media was that she had been deceitful and benefitted from co-opting a disenfranchised identity. As her Vanity Fair interviewer Allison Samuels put it quite potently, “this was a new type of white woman: bold and brazen enough to claim ownership over a painful and complicated history she wasn’t born into.”

Not long before, the transgender icon, Caitlyn Jenner, graced the cover of Vanity Fair in what was perceived to be a watershed moment in the mainstream acceptance of the trans narrative. Not too unsurprisingly, questions were raised over why one trans (gender) was deemed legitimate but the other  trans (racial) was not. Rogers Brubaker’s paper, tries to elucidate the arguments that appeared on all sides of the question. His is a survey paper, explicitly written “as an intellectual opportunity rather than a political provocation.” (p.2)

He starts off by elaborating the contemporary context in which such a debate could arise, which he describes as being characterized by:

(1) A “massive destabilization of long taken-for-granted categorical frameworks” (p. 2) linked in many ways to the theories of social construction which our seminar is built on. Such a destabilization leads to the overthrow of traditional binaries and the emergence of ’superdiversities’. However, “challenges to prevailing categorical frameworks have been less dramatic in the domain of race and ethnicity,” than in sex and gender.

(2) The enlargement of the space for choice. Individualism and choice is a central tenet of Western Modernity—especially in the struggle for many women’s rights. The vocabulary and logic of choice is becoming a part of our official and unofficial interactions with both gender and race (think job applications/yes means yes legislation/tinder/pgp’s, etc.).

(3) The increased policing of identity claims. With social categories destabilized, and the ideology of choice reinforced, there arise “concerns about unregulated, fraudulent, opportunistic, exploitative, unnatural, or otherwise illegitimate identity claims.” (p. 8) These include claims that transgender women are not really women since they do not “have the history of being born and located in this culture as a woman.” (Raymond 1979) Germaine Greer, an established feminist author has sparked controversy just this week by saying that she did not consider transwomen to be women. Applied to the idea of race, this policing has taken historical form through brutal policing of the boundaries of acceptable ‘whiteness’.

From this discussion emerge two contrasting visions of identity. One where there is a pre-existing essence that one obeys and adapts one’s body until the world responds to them as they see themselves. “This is notably the case for many transgender people.  In this mode of trans discourse, one’s basic identity is not chosen, but given.” (p. 9) This somewhat essentialist definition is used both to ‘justify’ and ‘challenge’ such disruptions of social categories. A potential conundrum from this vision would be the thus ascribed ‘black’ individual who has ‘african ancestry’ but doesn’t know it. (p. 10) A second vision of identity would be closer tied to choice and involves having no set essence but rather is selected or created.

Into this context, where such themes were already hotly debated, came the case of Rachel Dolezal. Without taking an explicit position, Brubaker’s work is in drawing up clear analytical distinctions between the various stand-points that appeared in the aftermath of the scandal. Positions one and three assume a parallel between the categories of race and gender and thus apply a syllogism to judge the validity of both Jenner and Dolezal’s claims at once. Positions two and four assume a difference between the categories of race and gender.

Position one states that both race and gender are essentialist and therefore Jenner is not a woman and Dolezal is not black. By assuming that Dolezal’s being black was patently absurd, conservatives sought to prove that Jenner’s trans identity was similarly wrong. By refusing to be defined by “newcomers to the category” (p. 13) radical feminists like Burkett refuse to recognize transwomen as being women in the same sense. The comparison to race is thus made and the syllogism elaborated before it was even made flesh by Dolezal: The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people … is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.” (p. 13)

Position two states that race is essential but gender is voluntary, thus Jenner is a woman but Dolezal is not black. This was most popular in liberal circles and goes in two ways. “While gender voluntarist boundary work at the frontier between quadrants 1 and 2  (A) presumed the illegitimacy of Dolezal’s change of race, and sought to explain the legitimacy of Jenner or others changing their gender, racial essentialist boundary work at the frontier between quadrants 2 and 3 (B) presumed the legitimacy of changing one’s gender, and sought to explain the illegitimacy of Dolezal’s change of race.” An example of A would be Khadija White who states “To conflate trans folks with Dolezal gives credence to the deepest, most malicious lie there is about transgender identity and queer sexuality – that they are deceitful.” An example of B would be Jody Armour who states “Michael Brown couldn’t be transracial, when you walk into prisons and jail cells, you see cellblocks brimming with bodies that are conspicuously black. Those black bodies had no choice in how they were perceived.” In brief, Dolezal optionally wore ‘blackness’ whilst transwomen ‘are’ women. One was chosen and illegitimate, the other genuine.

Position three states that both identity segments are voluntary and therefore Jenner is a woman and Dolezal is black. UPenn Political Scientist Adolph Reed Jr suggests that we should consider the possibility of the trans-race category since the arguments against Dolezal refer to biology in a troubling way that echoes racial essentialism. Furthermore, we cannot “know that Dolezal may not sense that she is ‘really’ black in the same, involuntary way that many transgender people feel that they are ‘really’ transgender?” (p. 15)

Position four states the inverse of position two and thus Jenner is not a woman but Dolezal is black. Unlike position two, very few commentators occupied this space, despite the  “widely shared sense that differences of sex and gender are deeper and more fundamental than those of race.” (p. 15)

The conclusion of Brubaker’s survey paper is that the Dolezal affair triggered “a large-scale exercise in vernacular comparative sociology” that was sadly “subordinated to efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal.” (p.21) But ultimately, the support for his second position suggests that though gender identity seems “more deeply bound up with…socially defined sex categories” than race is with what Haslanger would call ‘color’, “gender identity is at the same time more autonomous from the socially classified sexed body than racial identity is from the socially classified racial body”. (p.22) Popularly, at least, one can be trans-gendered but not trans-racial.

Melissa Moschella: Rethinking the moral permissibility of gamete donation

In this article, Moschella’s argues against the dominant philosophical view that there is nothing morally wrong with gamete donation—a view which rests on the following two premises:

  1. Parental obligations are triggered primarily by playing a causal role (as agent cause) in procreation, not by genetic ties.
  2. Parental obligations are transferable—that is, there is no moral wrong being done by the genetic parents as long as they transfer their responsibilities to someone else who can fulfill the child’s needs.

Moschella attempts to disprove both these premises. She shows that genetics—not procreative causation—is the primary cause of parental obligations, and that these obligations are not transferrable, even to competent individuals who are not the genetic parents.

Moschella gives the following definition for genetic parent:

“A is a genetic parent of B if (i) A passes on genetic information to B, (ii) A’s physical genome is passed on to B, and (iii) A’s physical genome was reshuffled once (usually mixed with the genome of a different individual) to constitute B.” (423)

Her first premise assumes an animalist account of human identity. This means that she considers personal identity a biological property of human beings. The main relevant implication of this is that a person has a single, continuous identity from conception to death. That is, “continued existence of the same human organism is a necessary and sufficient condition for continuity of identity.” (424) This is important because it means that a genetic parent’s ties to its child are also continuous.

Next, Moschella argues in favor of her second premise—that forming personal relationships with people causes one to have special obligations—which she calls personal obligations—to those people. By Moschella’s definition, a personal relationship is “a relationship in which the parties relate as unique and irreplaceable individuals, not merely fulfilling a function which anyone with the relevant competencies could fulfill.” (426) She provides the following two examples to explain the difference between personal and non-personal relationships on page 426:

  1. My relationship with a bank teller as such, for instance, is not personal insofar as it is not based on any unique characteristics of that person, and any other equally competent teller (or a well-functioning automatic teller machine) could meet my needs equally well.
  2. My relationship with a friend is personal insofar as it is based on unique personal characteristics proper to that person, which means that there are things that person, and only that person, can ‘‘do’’ for me.

The main point of this distinction is that personal relationships create personal obligations—ones that are not transferrable—while they do also create non-personal obligations. For example, a professor does not have a personal obligation to proctor a test himself. This obligation is transferable to any other competent professor. On the other hand, a professor does have a personal obligation to meet with his advisees. He cannot merely direct them to other qualified and competent professors for advice because that obligation is based on certain unique qualities that only that professor has. Personal relationships give rise to personal obligations because they are based on unique characteristics, so “there are things that person, and only that person, can ‘‘do’’ for me” (426)

Moschella proceeds to argue that there is a personal relationship between a child and its genetic parents, and that this personal relationship comes with certain personal obligations. This relationship is personal because it is based on unique characteristics. The genetic parents are unique in that they are the biological causes of the child. Additionally, the permanence of this relationship makes it an important identity-constituting characteristic for the child because “Not to be related to my genetic parents in this regard is, simply, not to be me—indeed, it is not to exist at all.” (430)

According to Moschella, the presence of a unique personal relationship inherently gives rise to personal obligations, but what is the importance and extent of these obligations? To figure this out, we must think about how children are personally dependent on their genetic parents. In other words, what are the things that only genetic parents can do for a child? Moschella claims that knowing and loving their children as the genetic parents and letting their children know and love them is something that only genetic parents can do. While others may be able to love them, this cannot replace the unique love that comes from the genetic parents.

Why is this unique love so important? Because children do not miss being loved by someone with which they do not have a personal relationship. They do miss being loved by people who they have personal relationships with. Children always have a permanent personal relationship with their genetic parents. Thus, the love of genetic parents is irreplaceable—just as a friend’s love would be irreplaceable—but the personal relationship that makes a genetic parent’s love irreplaceable is non-contingent. In order to be able to provide their children with love and receive love in return, the child and parent must know each other well. Thus, spending a lot of time with the child is essential for fulfilling this obligation.

There are exceptions to this rule. For example, in cases where the parents are not competent enough to raise the child, they may transfer that obligation. However, the obligation of love does not transfer. Instead, the parents must be able to tell the child that they gave him up because of their love for him. Since the obligation is to the child, the circumstances must be such that the child accepts and agrees with this explanation at all points later in his or her life.

This exception, however, never applies to gamete donations because genetic parents are creating the child with the intention of giving it up to someone else. In other words, the child is not being created and then given up for its own well-being out of love. Rather, it is created with the specific intention of being given up for ulterior gain—whether it be monetary gain or helping an infertile couple have a child. Additionally, the creation of a child cannot be done for the benefit of that child because there is no child to benefit before its creation. Creation of a child can only be intended as a benefit for someone else—treatment which is incompatible with love. Thus, gamete donation is inherently immoral because it involves genetic parents creating a child without the intention of fulfilling their personal obligation of loving it and allowing it to love them.

Social Construction: Myth and Reality

In this chapter, Haslanger argues that feminists and race theorists ought to employ a form of social construction “that is compatible with important forms of realism, an objectivism about kinds, and naturalism” (183). According to Haslanger, this form of social construction best serves the goal of locating “the (often obscure) mechanisms of injustice and the levers for social change” (184). In defending these claims, she covers much of the same ground we have already covered in the course: the distinctions between sex/gender and color/race, social kinds, natural kinds, etc. I think it is most interesting to analyze this chapter in light of our recent discussions of cyborgs and feminist metaphysics.

On page 198, Haslanger defends her “critical realist” stance by arguing in favor of a version of realism. She presents an anti-realist error theory of race, according to which statements involving race are all false, because no races exist. She writes that “on the face of it, this is not a happy result, for if we are going to understand the effects of slavery and long-standing racism in this country we need to have the resources to describe its systematic effects on racial groups.”

This seems like a good example of a feminist philosopher introducing contextual values into metaphysical debate and theory choice. In light of Monday’s discussion, what do we think of this move? Are Haslanger’s political views interfering with what should be a value-free analysis, or is this a healthy case of contextual values supplementing constitutive values, rather than replacing them?

Haslanger’s overall project in this chapter is to establish metaphysical theory that is conducive to the promotion of justice – to changing the world. However, the theory she defends seems rather conservative in light of Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. Can a metaphysics committed to realism, objectivism, and naturalism succeed in undermining oppressive social structures? Or must we radically re-envision the boundaries of reality in order to effect social change? Does Haslanger or Haraway better serve the feminist cause?

Finally, I still don’t think that we adequately addressed Tim’s concerns about how a metaphysical theory might lead to concrete change in the real world. Hypothetically, Haslanger’s ideas might have an impact if most academic philosophers adopted them. Thinkers from other disciplines might then take notice and incorporate these ideas into their own work. Perhaps these thinkers and their followers might then engage in a “long march through the institutions” in order to effect political, economic, and social change. Is this a plausible scenario? To me, it seems highly unlikely. Is Haslanger kidding herself when she claims to have an interest in social change? Should she stop philosophizing and start protesting, or perhaps run for office?

Family, Ancestry, and Self: What Is the Moral Significance of Biological Ties?

Haslanger frames this chapter as a response to David Velleman’s claim “that it is morally wrong to bring a child into existence with the intention that the child will not have contact with one or both biological parents.” An alternative formulation of this claim would be: “Other things being equal, children should be raised by their biological parents.” (158)

Although Velleman primarily has in mind those who conceive children using anonymous donor egg or sperm, his argument has implications for those who adopt children who will not be acquainted with their biological parents.

Velleman wants to challenge what he calls “a new ideology of the family” according to which children raised away from their biological parents can still have families “in the only sense that matters, or at least in a sense that is good enough” (159).

Haslanger rejects Velleman’s view, claiming that families lacking biological ties can be just as good as those with them.

Velleman’s argument runs as follows:

P1: Acquaintance with one’s biological relatives is a basic good, because in coming to know and define themselves, most people rely on their acquaintance with people who are like them by virtue of being their biological relatives.

P2: People who adopt or create children by donor conception already know (or should know) that their children will be disadvantaged by the lack of this basic good.

C: It is morally wrong (or problematic) to adopt or create children by donor conception.

In support of P1, Velleman identifies two ways in which biological ties help us come to know and define ourselves:

  1. They provide a special kind of self-knowledge based on “intuitive and unanalyzable resemblances.” (168)
  2. They provide access to a narrative within which our actions have meaning.

Haslanger rejects P1 on multiple grounds. First, even if most people do construct their identities through biological acquaintances, it does not follow that this is a good way to define ourselves, or the only good way. She cites empirical evidence that adopted children are able to establish strong personal identities despite their lack of acquaintance with biological relatives.

Second, she questions the claim that biological relatives are essential to self-knowledge. We can learn just as much about ourselves through our encounters with friends, fictional characters, public figures, and custodial families. A focus on similarities to family members can even obscure more important aspects of our identities.

Finally, she argues that since all formulations of personal narratives are speculative, these narratives can just as readily be created independently of biological ties.

Haslanger concludes with a critique of the “natural nuclear family” and bionormativity. She argues that these dominant ideologies are not natural or inevitable, and that, like gender, they may be “implicated in structures and forms of life that are unjust” (180). She concludes that parents have an obligation to provide their children with a route to healthy identity-formation, but that this need not be the dominant route consistent with bionormativity. We may even have a moral obligation to resist the conception of the “natural nuclear family.”

Questions and Comments:

In his defense of biological ties, does Vellener limit himself by focusing on issues of personal identity? Are there other reasons why a child might benefit from being raised by his or her biological parents?

Which definition of “basic good” in figure 5.1 do you think is the most accurate or useful? How much force does Vellener’s argument lose if an acquaintance with one’s biological ties cannot be considered a “basic good?”

Can this debate be settled independently of biology, psychology, anthropology, and social science? Might these issues of healthy human development be fully empirical, as Haslanger suggests on page 164?

Finally, I had a WTF moment on page 179, where Haslanger suggests that the centrality of mother-child relations might be explained by the need of infants to breast-feed. Surely the bond between mother and child is established throughout the entire process of conception, gestation, and delivery, and rests on more than mere convenience!

Doing Ontology and Doing Justice: What Feminist Philosophy Can Teach Us About Meta-Metaphysics


Feminist philosophers challenge structures and systems that support oppression, especially on the basis of gender, both in wider social and political spheres and also within philosophy itself. However, metaphysics has not been so open to feminist insights, because metaphysicians view themselves as being “in the business of elucidating the fundamental structure of reality that grounds everything else” (Mikkola 2). Accordingly, metaphysics should be a value-neutral business, with no room for feminist concerns about oppression and injustice. While some practical values (ie simplicity, accuracy) are necessary, social values and morals “displace attention to evidence and valid reasoning and hence interfere with the discovery of truth” (4). Thus, they can play no role in metaphysical justification or theory choice.

Against this view, Mikkola argues that feminist philosophy “not only makes a difference to the details and content of our ontological theories; doing so makes a difference to our ontological theory choice… [and] provides methodological tools with which we can regiment ontological theories in helpful ways” (2-3).   Metaphysics does not merely list truths, but organizes them based on their significance. Yet, significance is influenced by our interests and goals, and therefore opens the door for the interaction of social, normative values and evidential concerns in metaphysical theory justification (cooperative model of justification).

  • How exactly should we understand significance? Someone might push back by arguing that meeting supposedly value-neutral criteria, like simplicity, is enough to satisfy significance, and can be met without social/moral values. Do even these criteria include implicit social values?
  • How might significance change in relation to deductive/inductive/a priori/a posteriori reasoning?
  • If we include morals in metaphysical reasoning, but then some of those morals rely on metaphysical conclusions, wouldn’t this be circular reasoning? Would that circularity be problematic or not? Does it still reveal significant things about the world?


Feminist Philosophy in Metaphysics: Grounding

Mikkola uses grounding as an example of how feminist philosophy can legitimately and substantially affect a supposedly value-neutral area of metaphysics.

Grounding in metaphysics is:

  • “a non-causal (or a metaphysical) explanatory dependence relation that is asymmetric, irreflexive, and transitive” (6)
  • layered structure of reality – “a relation between (more) fundamental entities and derivative entities” without reduction or supervenience (6)
  • central to metaphysics, asking “what grounds what, ‘thereby limning the structure of reality” (6)
  • is important for social ontology – the motivations for grounding in pure & applied case seems analogous (7) (is this valid move?)
examples: because, in virtue of, explained by, derives from
  • from Haslanger: “S is a woman in virtue of being systematically socially subordinated, where observed or imaged evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction ‘marks’ one as a target for this kind of treatment” (8) (Interestingly, Mikkola is rephrasing Haslanger’s original formation, which included no grounding relation. Does this change the meaning?)

However, in order for grounding to be valuable in the explanation of social facts, it must have certain restrictions on how it can be used in line with the cooperative model theory.


Potential Problems with Grounding: Fundamentality

  • Relative Fundamentality: one fact is more fundamental than another iff the one explains the other, but not vice versa (9)
  • Absolute Fundamentality: a fact is fundamental iff it is not explained by any other fact (9)
  • Socially ontology does not deal with fundamental facts (is this true?) & it is hard to compare the degrees of fundamentality on each side of the grounding relation. Which direction is the grounding going? How do feedback loops make this hard to determine?


Rejecting Fundamentality: FUND and BECAUSE

FUND: grounding facts are fundamental

  • This leads to the collapse problem, because facts that ground a fundamental fact must themselves be fundamental. We lose the layered structure of reality.
BECAUSE: If F because Y, then (the fact that F because Y) because Y
  • Grounding facts can themselves be grounded in fundamentalia
  • Upward but not downward necessitation: given ‘F because Y’, then necessarily (Y –> F) but not necessarily (F –> Y)
  • Example: paper counts as money (explanandum) because Y (explanans), where Y is some fundamental fact (ie appropriate acceptance-dependence obtains) (13)
  • This works in social ontology if we accept it as being contextual, ie. given of social frameworks & conventions, the explanans necessitates the explanandum (12)
    • Does this contextualization radically change the meaning of the grounding? In relation to non-social metaphysics?
    • Is the upward-necessitation mind independent or dependent? Is this problematic?
  • Is explanatoriness missing from BECAUSE? Should explanatoriness be important or necessary? BECAUSE only tells us that Y necessitates F, what else is needed? DeRosset argues that explanation is exhausted by BECAUSE (a deflationist strategy), but Mikkola maintains that such an explanation may still not be good enough, while also rejecting EXPLANATORINESS.
    • What explanations count as adequate and illuminating? This depends on significance, our background interests, and is where feminist philosophy comes in. Are adequate and illuminating still too vague, though?
  • Methodology of Grounding: what counts for evidence of C as opposed to its converse? According to Mikkola, none of these options give satisfactory explanations.
    • Intuitive Evidence
    • Methodological Evidence
    • Explanatory Science

The takeaway: “applying the justice model of theory choice to deRosset’s regimentation of grounding shows that it fails to do justice to social phenomena… we must modify BECAUSE so that this justificatory burden is satisfied” (18) But does this mean BECAUSE must be modified for other uses, when not talking about obviously social phenomena?


Rejecting Fundamentality: Grounding as Superinternal

Grounding both is and is not fundamental, which brings danger of infinite regress. Through superinternality, Bennett argues fundamentality does not have to be part of grounding. Grounding is superinternal, in that it is “a relation where ‘the intrinsic nature of only one relata – or, better, one side of the relation – guarantees not only that the relation holds, but also that the other relatum(a) exists and has the intrinsic nature it does” (18). In other words, “all grounding facts are grounded in their first relatum(a)” (19). As a result, the regress is not vicious, because each step is based on the same grounds, and the ontology of the grounding doesn’t expand. Furthermore, superinternality is thin, so there is no need to posit a regress of relationships between facts.

Why is this not helpful for social ontological cases? It relies on intrinsic natures, which is not acceptable grounds for social facts. For example, if you want to ground the term woman, relying on intrinsic features only reinforces gender roles and stereotypes (think ch1 of Haslanger). If, as many believe, metaphysics requires a uniform conception of grounding, then this account is unacceptable given its problems with social ontology. The problem of working out a conception of grounding that satisfies social ontology has been seen to support skepticism that there is a single grounding, instead of various distinct relations. However, if there are different groundings for different domains in ontology, will the arguments from social ontology hold in other domains? If not, why should metaphysicians in other domains care about the feminist arguments? Should they even consider grounding in social ontology grounding, if there are admittedly different relations in different domains? Does, as Mikkola argues, grounding in social ontology still explain something new about the world? If so, then it is just one example how feminist philosophy can be relevant, even is such supposedly ‘value-neutral’ matters as theory selection in metaphysics.