From time to time I write about the ever delicate, and seemingly never exhausted, issue of race. For instance, this year I published a paper on the famous Morton skulls controversy, co-authored with Jonathan Kaplan and Joshua Banta (a Plato Footnote summary is here). Back in 2013 I co-wrote a paper with my friend Guido Barbujani on races from a biological perspective, and in the same year I published a solo paper on the same topic from the combined point of view of a philosopher and a scientist. Way back in ’03 Jonathan and I wrote a piece for Philosophy of Science on the applicability to humans of the biological concept of race.
Here I want to highlight a commentary I published in The Philosophers’ Magazine online on a recent paper co-authored by Jonathan Kaplan and Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther on “Realism, Antirealism, and Conventionalism about Race.”
Realism, antirealism and conventionalism are technical philosophical terms usually deployed in discussions of philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, and ethics. Say we are talking about the existence of mathematical objects (or of moral truths, which in many respects is an analogous concept). If one is a realist about these objects one is saying that there is a ontologically thick sense in which, say, numbers “exist.” Ontologically thick here means that numbers exist in a mind-independent way, though not in the physical sense that you can point a telescope somewhere and see them. More along the lines of “if there are any other intelligent beings in the cosmos they will independently ‘discover’ the concept of numbers.”
Being antirealist about numbers (or moral truths) means, of course, exactly the opposite: the antirealist doesn’t deny that numbers, once defined in a certain way, have certain objective properties. But she denies that it makes sense to think of any such definition in a mind-independent fashion.
The conventionalist, then, provides one possible antirealist account of numbers (or moral truths) to counter the realist one: numbers, like all mathematical objects, are human inventions, which are constructed in certain ways but could have been constructed differently. They are not “discovered,” they are invented.
This distinction among realism, antirealism and conventionalism is well deployed by Kaplan and Winther to make sense of discussions about race. Briefly: “races” are real, not real, and conventional — depending on the context. This is possible because the authors distinguish three possibilities: races as bio-genomic clusters, as biological entities, and as social entities.
To think of races as social entities is to take the standard “nurturist” position: human races are not biologically grounded, but they are the result of social practices. Conversely, to say that races are biological is to adopt the classic “naturist” stand: races are identified by some deep genetic dissimilarities among certain human populations, of which external markers such as skin color are the most obvious outward manifestation. Lastly, a bio-genomic cluster is a technical term from population genetics, which indicates the fact that one can study genetic similarities and dissimilarities among individuals belonging to different populations and objectively “cluster” them (using a number of well known statistical techniques) into distinct groups.
Kaplan and Winther conclude (and, I think, are obviously correct) that the most sensible positions concerning race are: conventionalism about bio-genomic clusters, antirealism about biological races, and realism about social races. The full paper can be found here.