Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on "Race"
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July 23, 2010, 04:34 PM
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I`m sometimes told that nobody believes anymore that "Race doesn`t exist," that that`s so 1990s. Yet, here`s the opening of a 10,700-word 2008 article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on "Race."


First published Wed May 28, 2008 The concept of race[1] signifies the grouping of individual humans by some set of perceived physical characteristics, often called �phenotypes,� which are thought to be inherited through some blood-borne factor. Which specific set of perceived, shared physical characteristics constitute a race varies historically, geographically, socially, and politically. Indeed, there is no biological or genetic foundation for the grouping of individual humans into a racial group. Instead, humans themselves choose (consciously or unconsciously) which physical characteristics constitute a racial group. Consequently, racial groups are presently thought to be social constructions, or a category created not by biological nature but by human invention. However, from its origins in the early modern era until the twentieth century, race was not considered a social construction but a real, biological distinction transmitted from one generation to the next. Thus, racial identity was thought to be something fixed and imposed genetically.

As a result of this biological conception, racial groupings are typically thought of as discrete, meaning that the boundaries between them are determinate. Where one racial group ends, a distinct other racial group begins. If human phenotypes are simply considered to be gradual variations in things like skin color, hair texture, or bone structure, then one cannot really speak of distinct human races. Rather, such differences would simply reflect variations in physical traits, such as the variation between very straight versus very curly hair. To speak of race, then, requires classifying humans into discrete groupings based upon a set of putatively inherited physical characteristics. Note that the discrete character of racial groups holds even when we speak of �mixed race� people, since this term implies that a �mixed� individual has ancestry from two or more discrete racial groups.

Determining the boundaries of discrete races has proven to be the most vexing problems for those thinkers who sought to classify humans according to race, and led to great variations in the number of human races believed to be in existence. Thus, some thinkers categorized humans into only four distinct races (typically white or Caucasian, black or African, yellow or Asian, and red or Native American), and downplayed any phenotypical distinctions within racial groups (such as those between Scandavians and Spaniards within the white or Caucasian race). Other thinkers, drawing boundaries around different physical traits, classified humans into many more racial categories, for instance arguing that those humans �indigenous� to Europe could be distinguished into discrete Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean races.

The ambiguities and confusion associated with determining the boundaries of discrete racial categories has over time provoked a widespread scholarly consensus that that race is socially constructed, while advances in the understanding of human genetics has undermined scholarly belief in the biological foundations of discrete races.

In contrast, I say that if "partly inbred extended families" aren`t "racial groups," then we need to invent a term for them (PIEFs?) because they sure are important in this world.

Now, philosophers are generally pretty smart — students intending to go to grad school in philosophy average higher on the GRE than everybody except physicists. When I wrote an essay poking fun at philosophers in 1999, I received a number of long, extremely well-argued emails pointing out my gross errors in reasoning. Initially, I responded combatively, but after awhile, I noticed that I was losing badly in these arguments, even with myself as scorekeeper.

On the other hand, this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is intellectually weak. It`s a straw man argument of the most obvious kind. The point of being a philosopher is that it`s fun to use your brain well. Yet, surely, it`s not fun to think as poorly as this?

Granted, philosophers aren`t required to keep up with Nicholas Wade`s articles in the Science section of the NYT, so the huge factual error in the last sentence is forgivable. Still, the overall level of reasoning is poor.

And race is not a topic wholly outside the central stream of the philosophical discourse — as this encyclopedia article makes clear by devoting almost 600 words to the writings on race of Hume and Kant, who are likely the two biggest names in post-Greek philosophy.

From a conceptual point of view, if you can figure out race, that`s a pretty big accomplishment. If you can figure out the riddle of race, that might give clues for figuring out a lot of things. So, why, as this long article unintentionally makes clear, is there so little good work being done on this hugely important topic?

Besides the usual political-correctness-makes-you-stupid plauge, a couple of things seem to be a problem here:

- Philosophers, like an awful lot of people, love thinking in terms of Platonic essences. It makes reasoning so clear cut. Then it`s fun to yank the rug out and point out that Platonic essences aren`t real. Let`s put it in a syllogism:

If races are Platonic essences; And if Platonic essences don`t exist; Then, races don`t exist!

But we already knew Platonic essences aren`t real, so we`re not really getting anywhere by beating up this straw man, are we?

- The second problem is more subtle. I`ve noticed that my brain doesn`t work like powerful abstract thinkers` brains tend to work. They like to say things like, "If X, assuming Y, then Z." But I always get confused halfway through because I have no short term memory anymore after years of taking Lipitor (not that I had much before). I`m always interrupting to ask things like, "Which one is X again?" Then they`ll start over again using toy examples with words like "widget" in them to make it easy for me, but I can`t get terribly interested in widgets. They think best when least distracted by factual information and when dealing with the least interesting examples.

In contrast, I can`t think well like that. Instead, I do my best abstract thinking when I`m thinking about the most important and/or flagrantly interesting examples, such as blacks vs. whites vs. Asians. Or gays vs. lesbians. Or male vs. female. Or Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. (This Manning-Brady one lays out my Theory of Everything.)

In contrast, a lot of people who are better than me at reasoning in the abstract seem to suffer vapor lock when asked to reason about something obviously important. Their passions overwhelm their reason. I`m a rather dispassionate, amenable, reasonable kind of guy, so it`s striking how many people consumed by anger project their rage onto me. Thus, we frequently witness people furiously accusing me of being full of hate. It`s really rather amusing.