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?


13 thoughts on “Race: Normative, Not Metaphysical or Semantic

  1. Timothy Patricia

    Mallon’s example of a potential case in which racial classifications could be useful is in “medical diagnosis.”…Can we think of other cases in which racial classifications could be useful?

    Racial classifications seem to be useful in the college application process. In adopting affirmative action policies, colleges and universities have helped underrepresented minorities and socioeconomic groups become visible and heard on campuses across the country. Additionally, many institutions of higher education offer scholarships and specifically for students of color. These types of racial classification seem to show minority groups as having something to gain from being classified, although I think these types of cases are generally few and far between. I’m hesitant to say, however, that we should do away with all racial classifications, as some forms of positive discrimination still exist.

  2. Mohamed Houtti

    “Constructionist theorists typically worry that racial skepticism leaves something causally or socially important out or, worse, that in the hands of political conservatives, it plays into the hands of a political agenda aimed at preventing racial justice.” (534)

    Might these types of concerns apply to gender as well? Could there be similar repercussions for adopting a schema where gender does not exist? The fact (as far as I can remember) that this hasn’t really come up in any of our discussions of gender makes me think that this would not be a concern, but I can’t quite put my finger on why.

  3. Leo DesBois

    In response to Griffin’s concerns about racial population naturalism, I think the goal should be to treat human evolution as an object of scientific study without being influenced by social, political, or historical concerns. The principles of Darwinian natural selection apply to humans no less than other animals, and we should not feel uncomfortable about using these principles to understand ourselves. The physical theory of atomic structure helped humans make the atom bomb, but this does not mean we should stop trying to understand the nature of the atom. Similarly, the ugly history of racial essentialism should not deter us from formulating an accurate account of the relationship between biology and race. As we have seen, a biological understanding of race can lead to more effective medical treatments. Are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we reject all forms of biological naturalism in the name of rejecting racism and essentialism?

  4. Jingyi Wu

    Correct me if I’m wrong, it seems to me that according to Mallon, the three theories on race all captures some “truth” along the race line from different perspectives and can be compatible to each other metaphysically. Moreover, Mallon maintains that instead of wasting our time disputing among the seemingly contradictory semantic assumptions that each theorists employ based on their specific metaphysical theories, we need to be more strategic and ask ourselves this normative question: what can our racial concepts do to our practices.
    So my question would be: how can we use these metaphysical facts to inform our practice? what’s the next step? What can we do with these fairly descriptive and historical based metaphysical facts on page 545? How can we turn them into something that has a normative twist? What kind of an ultimate goal do we have in mind? Do we have to take into consideration the goals of specific theorists when we are applying their theory? This paper may be the closest reading we’ve got that tries to link metaphysics with practice, and I am interested in how we can make that connection.

  5. Kyle Kysela

    At the end of his essay, Mallon writes of the semantic and metaphysical debates surrounding race, “Both are best left behind. The alternative is to acknowledge the widespread metaphysical agreement and ask, with Sally Haslanger, what do we want our racial concepts, terms, and practices to do?” (551)

    Perhaps that is Haslanger’s strategy in the article cited by Mallon, but in Resisting Reality she seems dead set on discussing, at length, the semantics of race. In fact, she disagrees with the whole thrust of Mallon’s concluding paragraphs. It is important to Haslanger that we have some sort of foundation for claims that race is real—purportedly for the political/strategical advantage that acknowledgement of race can bring. Therefore, she spends many pages jumping through hoops and twisting over backwards, finally coming out with a definition of race that, while perhaps technically correct, does almost none of the work that we colloquially want the word “race” to do.

    1. Kyle Kysela

      Furthermore, on page 547 Mallon concludes that each of the three camps—skeptics, constructionists, and naturalists—are in basic agreement about metaphysical matters with regard to race. In fact, he notes that “for a variety of important questions of public policy and applied morality, the questions may be restated without important metaphysical disagreement within different idioms of ‘race’ talk.”

      Considering these conclusions, why do we think Haslanger is so intent on proving, in some sense, the “reality” of race—that racial vocabularies do refer to something in the world. Following Mallon, it seems that for Haslanger’s project to be worthwhile, she would need to present some practical advantage to treating race as a real and referring thing, as opposed to adopting the skeptical, eliminativist approach. I’m not sure she has devoted much time to proving such a project worthwhile. Why not dispose of these dusty old racial signifiers, whether or not they actually refer to anything?

  6. Gioia Pappalardo

    I think I largely agree with much of what Mallon is saying, considering the deep divides surrounding theories of reference, but the general concepts that are agreed upon (most important that racialism is wrong). However, how dependent is his argument on these metaphysical/semantic divides being unbridgeable for the foreseeable future? Mallon apparently considers a more definitive answer an the metaphysical front near impossible, because “there is agreement over what would count as getting it right” (549). He also believes that the different theories would almost certainly lead to very different accounts of race (does he dismiss this possibility too quickly?). But what if a more solid answer did come to light in the near future? Is Mallon’s main goal to provide an account of race that is not “hostage to issues in the philosophy of language and metaphysics about which there is little agreement” (548)? This is mostly a practical goal, so we can deal with the issue of race in the present. Would Mallon be willing to defer to a clearer answer on the metaphysics/language front if one came about?

    Also, considering the large base of agreed-upon things between people of opposing positions, does this indicate that the deep divide is actually on the practical/ethical level? Each group (skeptics, constructionists, naturalists) seem to be largely motivated by a specific normative point. Would ignoring the metaphysics/semantics really lead to a more definitive answer, or would the divide linger?

    1. Leo DesBois

      Mallon addresses your first concern on p. 549, when he writes that “even supposing we overcame all these problems and arrived at a correct account of the reference of racial terms…yielding a definitive account of what (if anything) race is, it is not clear that the semantically correct account of ‘race’ talk ought to dictate our use.” So, Mallon would be willing to defer to a clearer answer, but still thinks that practical and normative considerations should dictate how we engage in “race” talk. His argument, therefore, does not depend on the metaphysical/semantic divides being unbridgeable in the foreseeable future.

  7. Robert LaCroix

    “To say that debates about ‘race’ talk are normative, not metaphysical, risks being misunderstood. What is normative is not what is in the world, but how, when, and where we decide to talk about what is in the world. I have argued that the attempt to link these two questions via the semantic strategy has, in the context of race and ‘race’ talk, resulted in an illusion of metaphysical disagreement and a misplaced emphasis on metaphysical and semantic concerns. Both are best left behind. The alternative is to acknowledge the widespread metaphysical agreement and ask, with Sally Haslanger, what do we want our racial concepts, terms, and practices to do?”

    While I agree with the overall point that semantic fragmentation surrounding the word “race” leads to unhelpful discussions in which participants talk past each other, ignoring the large swath of agreement to which Mallon refers, I wonder if this swath of agreement is sufficient for our purposes as antiracist thinkers. Surely it is not enough to know what we want to do with our terms–here I think the consensus is even greater: we want to eliminate racism from society–but what we actually CAN do with them. And here I think that metaphysical and semantic issues come creeping back in. For instance, as we discussed last class, the idea of “race” as picking out populations that have an elevated risk of certain genetic diseases is useful, and so Andreason and Kitcher’s idea of race is useful, even if it has much in common with Appiah, et al.’s view.

    It may be that the term “race” is at this point hopelessly equivocal. If this is the case, I am with Max in saying that another term would be more useful, depending on the context. Still, I wonder, can we really fully expunge metaphysical and semantic debate from our discussions of race and have them be useful?

  8. Jack George

    “If this is correct, it is mistaken to view disputes among constructionists and naturalists as primarily metaphysical in character. Skeptics say race does not exist, employing the term ‘race’ to mean something that everyone agrees does not exist. Constructionists insist that race does exist, again employing the term ‘race’ to pick out phenomena that everyone agrees exist. And naturalists insist that races existed and might still exist, using the term ‘race’ to pick out biological populations that are substantially different from the kinds whose existence eliminativists deny.” (p.547) ​

    Haslanger’s definition of race in her book (published after Mallon’s article) would only pick out the race definition relevant for social constructionism, and therefore is not a refutation of either the eliminativist or naturalist accounts. Though she is earmarked as a candidate for moving forwards with Mallon in the last sentence of the article. I don’t think she transcends the trap of employing the term “‘race’ to pick out phenomena that everyone agrees exist.”

    Am I wrong? Is her definition of race more normative or constructionist? From previous conversations I feel her definition garnered similar responses to what Mallon is describing: wide-spread consensus, “Yeah, okay, but is that what we mean when we say race?”

    Even if it were, adequately normative for Mallon, it is still built off of a social constructionist metaphysic/semantic lens. Can this ever be avoided?

  9. Daniel Ramirez

    I think Mallon’s idea of an ontological consensus amongst competing theories of race is a step forward. Initially, his idea of a practical normative approach to race talk seemed like a good move too, but I don’t he’s done enough to justify such an approach.
    I don’t think we know how to use racial terms and practices because we don’t know how racial concepts actually operate. We need to be able to answer questions like: How does our perception of someone’s race interact with our perception of their other qualities? (whether or not they are sitting down, how close they are to you, their age, their facial expression, their attractiveness) How does the combination of my perceptions about my own race and my other qualities affect the way I perceive the race and qualities of others? I think that there are good reasons to believe that the concept of race behaves differently from one interaction to the other. The unimaginable complexity of social interactions undermines the possibility of forming racial terms and practices that do exactly what we’d like them to do.

  10. Max Riddle

    Mallon argues that even if philosophers were able to arrive at a “definitive account of what (if anything) race is, it is not clear that the semantically correct account of ‘race’ talk ought to dictate our use (549).”
    If we had a definitive account of race, then wouldn’t it be incorrect to use the term in any other way? If the word “race” doesn’t align with the pursuit of social justice, then why couldn’t we use a different term to fulfill commitments to social justice?

    If we completely move past the realm of metaphysics and semantics in discussing race, then is race still an issue of social ontology?

    1. Jeremy Read

      I’m not sure that Mallon is moving past the realm of metaphysics by rejecting a semantic account of race. Mikkola showed us how normativity is compatible with (and even necessary for) metaphysical inquiry. Mallon/Haslanger’s “What do we want race to be” certainly seems to be more purely normative, but how can you determine what you want a concept to mean, without an understanding of the reality within which that concept will be employed?

      As most feminists would argue, description (metaphysical or not) is necessarily normative. If we accept this argument, then is there a distinction between giving a normative account of race and giving a semantic account of race?

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