Author Archives: Griffin Jones

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?