What Is Race?: Four Philosophical Views by Glasgow, Haslanger, Jeffers, Spencer

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 44 min.

A while back, I wrote up some thoughts on a handful of my favorite books I was in the middle of reading. I figured I’d share some of those write-ups. Here’s one for What Is Race?: Four Philosophical Views (2019), by Joshua Glasgow, Sally Haslanger, Chike Jeffers, and Quayshawn Spencer. I’ll flesh it out a bit. And, at the end, I’ll append some follow-up thoughts now that I’ve finished the book.

Part 1: Halfway Finished

I eagerly picked this up (preordered it, in fact) due to my ongoing interest in social group ontology and because I’m always on the lookout for works by Haslanger and Spencer. The other two philosophers are new to me; I’m pleased to meet them. It’s an excellent volume of essays in which each philosopher lays out their understanding of the problems, questions, vocabulary, and so on, towards answering a simple question: What is race?

Simple? How about easily uttered? Answering, on the other hand, seems to me too hard, maybe impossible. Or, at least, achieving a consensus among experts seems impossible. Not to mention among ‘ordinary speakers’ (quasi-mythical creatures philosophers often appeal to or are held accountable to, if only by other philosophers).

But there’s much to learn from watching smart experts do their best. The amount of work it takes to make the effort—involving the wide range of resources one must cite and respond to; the historical contexts; the social science; the intractable messiness of language; the need for one’s answer to be consistent with one’s understanding of metaphysics, philosophy of language, performativity of language, socio-political philosophy, and science; the past and present literature on race, ethnicity, intersectionality; and on and on—is staggering.

I’m currently finishing up the final essay of the first half of the book. The book’s second half consists of follow-up essays in which the philosophers respond to one another (philosophy is a collaborative project!). The collection, then, is an education not only on the question of race, but on how one might go about, in roughly 18,000 words, answering—and then defending one’s answer to—a very difficult, if not impossible, question.

Here are some brief thoughts on the book so far.

I was introduced to Haslanger by way of her 2016 essay collection, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique, which I have so far read enough of to confidently recommend; her care in the deployment of language, concepts, and historical references is the epitome of what analytic philosophy—or just philosophy—should be. This same rigor shapes her thinking in What Is Race?

Spencer is similarly careful and rigorous, but from an angle that reflects his background as a scientist-turned-philosopher; what I mean by this will be immediately clear should you read his contributions. Soon, in a blog post I’ve got in mind, I’ll say a little more about what has drawn me to Spencer’s work. [Update: Here’s that post: “Confusion, In Praise Of.”]

I’ve also enjoyed and learned from the essays by Jeffers and Glasgow who bring their own, no less thorough, styles of analysis and argumentation to the table. Jeffers’s defense of a cultural constructionist view (see the below-cited passage) provides an equally rigorous, and I think useful, balance to Haslanger’s political constructionist position.

My own view is most aligned with Glasgow’s. Saying more about that view would be a nice way to give a small taste of what the book has in store. Consider this thought experiment from Glasgow’s essay, which is the fourth and final essay of the book’s first half (i.e., it’s the one I just finished, so it’s the freshest in my mind):

One thought experiment challenges all constructionist views: imagine a world of only babies. Everyone else has died off. A new technology keeps the newborns alive and cares for them until they can care for themselves. Before the adults perished, they acted to prevent the terror wrought by centuries of unjust racist behavior. Wanting their children to avoid the same racial struggles with which humanity had plagued itself, the parents decided to wipe any trace of racialization. They destroyed any records that refer to our racially fraught history. In fact, just to be safe, they erased all history and culture other than what was needed to provide the babies with enough science to maximize their well-being. All babies are given equal resources. A variety of therapies become available to allow them the equal chance for equal health outcomes. And so on. Any other information is eradicated in an attempt to present the Reboot Generation with a social blank slate.

Because every racial practice, along with every result of our racialized past, dies off with the adults, constructionism is forced to say that a (racially) Asian baby stops being (racially) Asian when the last adult dies. According to constructionism, that baby was firmly Asian, but her Asian-ness somehow instantaneously vanishes at the age of four months and six days, even though the only thing that changes is that some adult, some stranger on the other side of the world, passed away. That is not how race purports to work. Surely the babies would still have their races after the adult perishes, if they have any races to begin with. This is how constructionism fails to capture race in the ordinary sense of the term. Of course, committed constructionists will not (and do not!) share my reactions to these thought experiments. They will say that we can lose our races in the amnesia case, that racial equality is impossible (Haslanger 2012, 9), that races wholly sharing culture is impossible, and that the Asian baby truly stops being Asian. The constructionist and I disagree on these points. You, reader, must judge for yourself. (pp. 133–134).

Before commenting on this, I should point out that the position Glasgow most robustly defends is one of racial anti-realism (he also entertains something called basic racial realism as an appealing alternative, but I won’t get into this here). As he puts it:

I believe that the overall balance of considerations pressures us to conclude that races are neither biologically nor socially real. And from this a pretty compelling argument by elimination follows: if races are neither biologically nor socially real, then race is an illusion. This is racial anti-realism, and it is a stark claim. It maintains that Vaishno Das Bagai had no race. Neither do you, neither do I, neither does anyone else. Slavery, the Naturalization Act, Jim Crow, global domination and exploitation by Europe’s colonial powers, the exclusion of Ozawa and Thind, the racial biases and discrimination that shape our world today, and all the rest have been premised on a terrible confusion. Race does not exist. (p 117)

This might make you wonder what Glasgow means by the baby continuing to be Asian. I suggest of course that you read the book to get a better sense of his view, but I will say a few words about Glasgow’s goals in order to provide some context. He writes:

What we care about, ultimately, is what the word ‘race’ actually means, not what we think it means. (p 115) …

What I am focused on here is how the term ‘race’ is used by ordinary, linguistically competent people in the contemporary United States, to describe groups of humans. (p 115) …

Races, by definition, are relatively large groups of people who are distinguished from other groups of people by having certain visible biological traits (such as skin colors) to a disproportionate extent. (p 117)

All this taken together, along with several background observations and arguments I will only barely touch on here [note: see my follow-up thoughts below for a little more on this], tells us, according to Glasgow, that the definition of ‘race’ refers to nothing that actually exists.

The focus of the thought experiment, as I understand it, is on the tension between the social constructionist notion of race and the ordinary understanding of race that Glasgow is after. To be clear, social constructionism about race does not imply that race isn’t real:

The most rudimentary version of constructionism says simply that when we classify ourselves into races, we create real races, just as classifying ourselves into students and teachers creates actual students and teachers. (p 128)

But Glasgow observes that this is at odds with “operative ordinary concept of race,” in which “race is supposed to stick around even when the social facts change” (pp 128–129). To be clear, it is not “rudimentary” social constructionism that Glasgow’s thought experiment explicitly aims to address (as a simpler thought experiment can accomplish that), but rather a more “sophisticated” social constructionism.

But the goal of the thought experiment is fairly straight forward: to show “how constructionism fails to capture race in the ordinary sense of the term” (p 133). In other words, under ordinary conceptions of race it seems that the baby continues to be Asian, even after the concept of race has been eradicated from human minds, along with the many social outcomes that have followed from a history of people believing, or at least pretending to believe, in that concept, or at least believing (or pretending to believe) in an interpretation of race that justifies those social outcomes.

Put more simply, I take it that Glasgow’s critique is that social constructionists are not reflecting the most common view of race as something that has been discovered and named, rather than invented, where the aforementioned social outcomes make race salient so that it may be more readily discovered, and so on. By removing those social outcomes from the picture, Glasgow addresses a more “sophisticated” social constructionist positions in which those outcomes, which lead to deeply embedded social structures and institutions and so on, are largely what make race real.

To say any more about this would require getting into more than I aim to get into here, such as whether the task at hand really should be to figure out wide-spread conceptions of race. Not to mention the difficulty in figuring out what those conceptions are, and in determining whether they can survive challenges that demand feature changes (for more on this, see Glasgow’s difficult and appropriately modest discussion of “existence” versus “features-and-identities” commitments in section “4.1.3. Surprising Referents, Take 1: Whales Are Not Fish”; the questions touched on there are crucial for a great many words besides “race”).

Another difficult question is whether the thought experiment is a valid tool for doing what Glasgow aims to do (Spender, in his response essay, argues that it isn’t; Glasgow defends the move in an appendix to his own response essay). I’ll leave those questions for you to grapple with as you read the text. I happen to think the thought experiment is a useful one to contemplate, even if it doesn’t satisfy Glasgow’s aims.

That said, here’s a small glimpse of my own grapplings with the thought experiment. If I haven’t already, I hope this does what I promised earlier, which is to give a taste of the sorts of deep and difficult thinking you’ll be asked to engage in as you read the book. At any rate, what I’ll share here are not clear-headed thoughts, but ultimately confused ones.

Here goes.

[Note: If you find yourself getting bored or thinking “I get the point!,” skip ahead to Jeffers passage at the end of this section, then see my “after finishing the book” thoughts, which, if no more clear-headed, might at least be more interesting and more usefully framed. Emphasis on might.]

I agree with Glasgow that wide-spread conceptions of race are probably more or less what he takes them to be, and that under such conceptions, the baby continues to be Asian in the scenario. I suppose, though, that this only poses a problem for the constructionist who is worried that they are failing to capture ordinary conceptions of race.

As for myself, I believe not only that race was invented by western Europeans, rather than discovered and named by them, but also that the invention is not coherent enough to withstand application (unlike, say, the classification “teacher,” which, as Galsgow points out, is also human-constructed—but teachers really do exist). So, I don’t believe that the baby stops being Asian, so much as continues not being Asian, while also no longer being racialized or labeled or classified or subject to social institutions and structures and so on as “Asian.”

So, the experiment isn’t meant for me in that sense. But I do think it’s useful for those who might, consciously or not, happen to carry something roughly aligning with the “ordinary” conception of race. This might be most of us; in other words, it may be a nice way to root out the essentialism that exists even in anti-realists (such as myself) and social constructionists.

By an “essentialist” view [note: a genre of which, by the way, Spencer defends, as I’ll note below in my follow-up thoughts] I mean one that has something to do with biology, such that the baby would continue to be Asian (or of some distinct race, call it what you will) in the world described in the thought experiment.

(Of course, if it’s true that race is real, I’m not saying we should avoid ignore that truth for the sake of social utility. I’m absolutely convinced that, no matter what the truth is here, any interpretation of it that leads to harm must be itself a fiction. This, too, is aligned with the position Spencer defends.)

At any rate, saying that the baby continues to be Asian would be at least close to something like one of the following statements.

Had humans never evolved the sense of sight, red apples would still be red, even though humans would never have attached the word “red” (or pick your language) to the visual experience correlated with how light and eyeballs and human brains typically interact around red apples in our own (i.e., actual) world.

In the 11th century, Earth’s water was composed of one hydrogen and two oxygen atoms, even though the humans of that time new nothing of atoms in the contemporary sense of that word.

Had humans never invented or discovered numbers, the number of planets in our solar system (in 2019) would still be eight.

Each of those examples comes with its own philosophical problems, but I don’t think any one of them nearly as problematic as saying that the babies are Asian in a world in which no humans have the concepts of race and in which, as Glasgow cleverly ensures, there exist no social outcomes arising from a belief in race.

If the behavior, and resulting social structures and so on, were still in place, the social constructionist could say that race still exists, it just needs to be discovered and named; namely, it is the central force responsible for those social structures and so on, where that central force isn’t a belief in race, but race itself. Is this circular? How can the force responsible those structures be the consequences of those structures? I suppose it depends on the actual view at hand. I won’t comment any further, as I admittedly have not outlined any either of the constructionist views in the book, and I don’t want to give an uncharitable impression of them.

Glasgow, to be clear, holds that belief in race is what is responsible for those structures, not race itself, as race is a fiction; I agree.

I find that many people agree with me, or are relatively easily persuaded, that race is invented, or “constructed,” around a flimsy set of biological markers. The harder thing to get agreement on is that the constructed thing isn’t literally brought into existence by virtue of being constructed. In which case the babies in the world of Glasgow’s thought experiment could grow up to remake something we’d agree to call “race” by organizing themselves according to some set of shared characteristics or another.

These need not relate to facial features and skin color (or to any other visible indicators of the geographical origins of one’s not-too-distant and not-too-recent ancestors). Maybe they’d organize themselves instead by pharmacological phenotypes (in a world in which healthcare is finely tuned to individuals) or musical taste or who could possible know what.

(Note that, for those who believe that our concept of race amounts to a discovery of some biological essence, organizational principles based on anything but those biological essences cannot literally pick out races. If correct, the humans of Glasgow’s thought experiment may never manage to organize themselves according to their “natural” kinds. Which, interestingly, very well could lead to a behavior that eradicates that very essence through unconscious inter-racial mating. If people organize based on some other shared characteristics, this could lead to new “races.” Unless they intentionally breed outside of their “race”; one can imagine a variety of worlds in which miscegenation is a cultural norm.)

Whatever they happen to call such organizational clusters of characteristics (it need not be “races”), we would likely be able to recognize that it is analogous to what we mean today by “race.” Which brings me back to a deep problem here, which is that if the understanding of “race” is such that we can recognize it when the organizing principles are very different, it’s doubtful we have really managed to capture just what the word “race” refers to or means. It’s not just any organizing principle, but one of a certain kind. But what kind?

To get a sense of the options on the table, consider one more paragraph from the book, this time from its third essay, by Jeffers:

Human races are social constructions. What I mean by this is that, while there are aspects of racial diversity among humans that may be studied by natural science, the fundamental factors making it the case that races exist are sociohistorical in nature. Racial distinctions have come to be and continue to exist in the present as a result of the ways that we as humans have interacted and organized our affairs over time. To believe this, as I do, is to be a social constructionist about race. Like Sally Haslanger in the first chapter of this book, one of my aims in what follows is to explain why this is the most attractive position on the metaphysics of race. More distinctively, however, I want to argue that it is important to distinguish between two kinds of social constructionism, which I will call political constructionism and cultural constructionism. In contrast with Haslanger’s political constructionist account of race, I will defend a cultural constructionist account. (p 37)

As Jeffers says, it’s up to the reader to decide for themselves. If you read the book, let me know what you decide, if anything.

Part 2: Book Completed

2.1 Final thoughts on book. 

Having  read the second half of the book, I’ll now say a little more about it and will share some additional thoughts on the “What is race?” question.

The book didn’t disappoint—I consider it a major achievement—and I figure it’s a no-brainer to add it to your collection if you’re interested in the “What is race?” question. Or if you’re interested in similar questions that would benefit from similar methodology. It’s also great to observe philosophers in complex dialog, and to see the efforts they make to find the critical points of agreement and disagreement, while attempting to charitably represent one another’s views.

I learned a tremendous amount on all counts. If there’s one thing I’m come out of it sure about, it’s that “What is race?” is an extremely difficult question.

That said, I do have some worries.

For instance, I worry that Haslanger and, perhaps especially, Jeffers are too committed to a prescriptive project guided by a certain set of political goals, despite Jeffers’s disclaimer that “[having] a conscious commitment to one’s metaphysical musings on race having useful implications for figuring out problems of social life … [is] not a matter of sacrificing truth for social utility” (p 177).

Perhaps this sort of prescriptivist project is the right one to have, particularly for social constructionists like Haslanger and Jeffers; however, it seems more like a question of “What should race be understood as?” or, perhaps, “What sort of thing should we construct when we construct the thing we’ll call ‘race’?” than one of “What is race?” Glasgow makes this point, such as with his above thought experiment in which the idea is to bring into relief the tension between a constructivist definition and “ordinary operative” definitions of race. On the other hand, an overly descriptivist approach will start to look like, “What do most people think race is?” Figuring out what the question “What is race?” is actually asking is, of course, part of the immense challenge in front of anyone who confronts it.

That in mind, it may be that there are different projects going on this book. I happen to be most sympathetic to Glasgow’s anti-realist view. And, for the record, I think that it actually would have social utility for people to come to believe that race is a fiction, as it might help us to understand that we are more alike than popular conceptions of race would have us believe.

But I also will emphatically note that this message should not be seen as denying the horrors that have come from a belief in race. Or, perhaps, from pretending to believe in race, particularly when framed by socially dominant groups as justification for social hierarchy (employing such conceptions by no means requires believing them to be true).

At any rate, my point is that it is obviously no tension in aiming to reveal that race is a fiction, while being committed to anti-racism. Consider, for example, the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, such as this 2014 Atlantic article, “How Racism Invented Race in America,” or the oft-used invocation of “people who believe themselves to be white” in his 2015 book Between the World and Me (e.g., “Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people…” [Coates, p 10]).

Another worry I have is that Glasgow’s follow-up article misrepresents Spencer’s view as being singularly grounded in an Office of Management and Budget ( or “OMB”)-based conceptions of race. That is, the five-category system used on U.S. government forms and by many other institutions.*

[*Interestingly, this is based on the classification system developed by German anthropologist, physician, and naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. As Spencer puts it (I’ll put his references in footnotes):

In 2013, the director of the US Census Bureau from 1998 to 2000, Kenneth Prewitt, came out and said that the OMB’s 19971 racial classification was a deliberate attempt to mimic “Blumenbach’s racial taxonomy” (Prewitt 2013, 17)2. In Prewitt’s (2013, 17)2 words, “An extraordinary thing happened two hundred years after Blumenbach announced that the world’s population should be divided into five race groups distinguished by skin color. The United States government agreed.” Prewitt (2013, 18)2 even calls the OMB’s races “Blumenbachian races.”

Furthermore, Prewitt should know what the OMB’s true intentions were in 1997 because he worked closely with the OMB demographers who revised the OMB’s race talk in 1997. (pp 217–218).

1. OMB. 1997. “Document 97-28653: Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity.Federal Register 62(210): 58782–58790.

2. Prewitt, K. 2013. What Is “Your” Race?: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.]

For example, Glasgow seems to imply that Spencer’s view doesn’t allow for the possibility that we might be “working with multiple, shifting concepts of race” (p 274), despite the fact that Spencer’s characterization of his own view is as a “radically pluralistic” one in which “there are multiple, distinct, and dominant meanings of ‘race’ in American English” (p 212), and in which “the OMB’s meaning of ‘race’ is one dominant meaning of ‘race’ among American English speakers, but not the only one, because there is no such thing as the only one” (p 213).

Now, these quotes are from Spencer’s follow-up essay. Spencer doesn’t mention phrases like “radically pluralistic” in his initial essay, though he does, I think, make some implying nods in that direction. There’s evidence that each of these writers have seen the others’ follow-up essays when writing their own follow-up, but obviously it’s impossible for each of them to have seen each others fully finished follow-up essay as they wrote their own. Furthermore, I’m not sure Glasgow is obligated not to take himself to be addressing the initial essay. Whatever the case, Glasgow’s follow-up is best taken as a response to Spencer’s first essay.

Arguably, Spencer has the most complicated view here. Even without the pluralism! (I heard him touch on his pluralist view before the book was published by the way, in an excellent SCI PHI podcast interview: Episode 37 [4/12/18].) I won’t attempt to outline Spencer’s view here, but will say that the view he principally endorses is one of biological realism about race:

Given this view of what an OMB race is, it should be obvious that I believe in racial essences, but not the kind of essences that involves intrinsic properties and other tenets of racialism, which has been widely refuted by philosophers of race as untenable for any folk race that exists. … Rather, I believe that the essential properties of OMB races are all relational and extrinsic. (p 205)

For what Spencer means by “relation,” “extrinsic,” and many other terms, read the book.

I hope I have here given a sense of how difficult the topic is, and will re-emphasize that I whole-heartedly recommend every essay in the book. The follow-ups are essential, though they didn’t clear up my confusion about the topic so much as exacerbate them. This is fine. It’s a confusion that merits cultivation.

In fact, I’ll wrap up these final thoughts on the book (before moving to some additional thoughts of my own) with two quotes that I shared in the aforementioned blog post, “Confusion, in Praise Of.”

Here’s another podcast in that features Spencer (who, by the way, I’ve heard say that his views on what race is have changed over the years as he’s spent more and more time contemplating the question). From the UPenn-based OMNIA podcast, in an episode called “Philosophy of Race” (3/27/19), in reference to a course Spencer teaches on philosophy of race at UPenn:

“Ok, what is racism? What is race? Convince me that you’re right. Give me the argument.” And when you put the challenge to students like that and you give them these rules, “this is how you deductively, validly make your argument,” it definitely makes it more humble to see how difficult this is. A lot of times, students flip. It’s like, “I came here thinking that race was just a non-biological social construct, now I see I can’t defend that”… “I came in thinking that race was this biological thing that’s obviously real.”

In most cases, they start to appreciate the other side and to see what sort of evidence they need to make their argument more tight, to make it deductively valid. And if they can’t find it, then a lot of times they just end up in this gray haze of “I don’t really know what to think,” which is usually kind of where we want you to be at the end of a philosophy class.

And here’s more from Glasgow, who entertains the possibility (as noted above) of a competing “basic realism” view:

…there are no visible-trait-based biological racial groups, but there are traits that could be the basis for real, basic races. Is that enough to have race?

On this question, I’m afraid that I am at a loss. All I have are weak and wavering leanings about which of these commitments is entrenched in the meaning of the word ‘race.’ It may be that we have some conversations in which we deploy one meaning of ‘race’ and other conversations where we deploy the other, allowing basic racial realism to be true for some conversations while racial anti-realism is true for others. It might be that we have not taken a stand either way, in any conversation, in which case ‘race’ is semantically indeterminate on this question, meaning that there simply is no fact of the matter whether basic realism or anti-realism better fits what we mean by ‘race.’ Or it may be, instead, that there is a determinate, decisive answer in one direction that I am not seeing. Perhaps you can do better at navigating through this particularly heavy fog. (p 143-144)

2.2 Closing speculative thoughts.

Some loosely connected thoughts to maybe think more about later. I’ll number them for convenience. I could do this for days on end, but will restrict myself to just a handful.

(1) It would be possible to construct a biologically grounded notion of race. The question is whether it would be meaningful or useful to do so; or, in other words, whether it would catch on. It could be useful in an attempt to push against existing notions of race, but beyond that, I’m not sure what the point would be.

One example would be to base rase on pharmacological phenotypes, which occurred to me several years ago, when I learned about personalized medicine. It’d be nice, I thought, because people could end up in different races than their children, and it could be useful for a variety of health-based reasons.

I’m not so sure it would work, however. It would require several generations for people to get used to, if ever. Actually, I imagine it would fail to replace folk notions of race. Just as those notions persist despite the aforementioned Office of Management and Budget (or “OMB”)-based conceptions of race that most of us are quite used to running into on forms. (More about which shortly.)

I’ve also assumed that the resulting groups would be rather diverse. But I admittedly still know little about the relevant science (I have a long reading list I hope to one day get to), and I know that science is in its infancy. That said, my suspicion is that in the future it could be promising for the same reasons that it’d be a bad idea to attempt to align current conceptions of race with shared or high rates of medical conditions. Glasgow touches on this:

In addition, attempts to ground race on certain bio-medical conditions, like heart disease or sickle-cell trait or Tay-Sachs disease, run into the roadblock that the populations with these conditions do not correspond to ordinary races. Moreover, to whatever extent there appears to be a correlation between races and medical conditions, this correlation is ultimately best explained by social, rather than biological, causes. (p 119).

And these aren’t the only reasons to shun the approach Glasgow describes. For one, even if a certain condition has a higher rate of prevalence within a certain existing race, it doesn’t mean it only appears in that race. Even if it did, this wouldn’t be sufficient for grounding or validating our existing conceptions of race. For example, if there were some medical condition that has only been documented in race x, but then someone in race y were discovered to have the condition, we wouldn’t say, “Oh, that person we thought was race y is actually race x. (Substitute whatever races you like for x and y.)

(2) It seems possible for there to be a constructed notion of race that we’re operating under, which may or may not become real just as the class “teachers” is real, while at the same time there is something that merits being called “race,” in the ordinary conception of the term understood à la Glasgow, but that has yet to be pinpointed.

(3) There are social groups that exist by virtue of having conceptual borders drawn around them, and these can be meaningful. The people in this apartment (i.e., specifically the apartment I’m sitting in right now) is a clearly definable group I’ve just named. There are two of in that group. Clearly we exist as individuals. And clearly we are both in the apartment whether or not this fact is known to both of us (one of us could be hiding in a closet; actually, one of us is asleep). But whether the group itself, as a group, has any sort of literal existence in its own right, I greatly doubt. I doubt this whether or not I happened to notice the group.

There are groups that are even easier to doubt, like everyone who has an odd number of hairs on their head at this precise moment. But there are other groups that carry enough meaning as groups to seem like they do exist. The Chicago Bulls, for example. Or everyone who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Those are very different sorts of groups. The first is a de dicto sort of group: the Chicago Bulls of 2020 is not composed of the same people who made up that group in 1980, but it’s still the Chicago Bulls. Those who died in the factory fire, however, are specific individuals, making it a de re group.

In other words, as I’m using the terms, a de dicto group defines the group first then admits people into the group (the Supreme Court is like this as well); and the de re group is formed by noticing that two or more individuals have certain characteristics, and then organizing those specific individuals by those characteristics.

As for the people in this apartment, I haven’t said enough to make clear whether it’s a de dicto or de re group. If it’s de dicto, it will be whoever happens to be in the apartment at a given moment. If it’s de re, then, when the people it picks out go outside, we could say something like “the members of the group called the people in this apartment are now walking in the park.” At any rate, as it is, there’s no reason to assume either of these: it’s not a very meaningful or interesting group designation—but it could become interesting, for example if the people in this apartment is meant to pick out only those listed on the current lease.

(My favorite example for keeping straight the sort of de dicto / de re distinction I’m relying on is: Tomorrow, Tonya is going to marry the tallest man in town. A de re interpretation is that there is some man, say Jacob, who Tonya is going to marry; he happens to be the tallest man in town at the time of the utterance; Tonya will marry Jacob, even if a man—say, George—taller than Jacob moves into town the next morning. The de dicto interpretation is that, if George moves into town the next morning, that’s who Tonya will marry.

More about the distinction at this Stanford EP article, this Wikipedia entry, and this brief Rutledge EP entry.)

At any rate, when a group is established, we behave in such ways that reflect the meaning we take the group to carry, which may impose new meanings, to which we in turn respond, and so on. Such behavior in itself can make the social group (or “group identity”?) real in some important sense, or not. Determining what makes a particular kind of group real or not, and in what sense of the word “real,” is obviously difficult.

Interestingly, a group conceptualized on the basis of an easily described attribute like everyone who has an odd number of hairs on their head at this precise moment may be based on an empirically simple, concrete fact about the world1, but this doesn’t give us any reason to think that this social group is literally real, particularly had I not named it. (Notice that you could gain membership into this group on a given day by shaving all but three hairs from your head.)

And one can think of even stranger attributes; e.g., every human who had an odd number of hairs on their head at 6pm ETS on March 19, 1972, and an even number of hairs on their head at 6:01pm ETS on December 22, 2018.

And groups that seem robustly real sometimes seem like they can be real, in the same sense, even when no one is in the group (to be clear, in general, I’m not counting groups that amount to necessarily empty sets or promised-to-be-empty sets, or singletons as groups; for example, the group of people who can run faster than light; the group of people who were president of the U.S. on June 16, 2020; the group of people who can out-swim propagating sound waves.)

It seems, for example, that the Chicago Bulls could exist without any team members, at least for a while—such as were every member to be fired, and scouts were in the processes of scouting new members. Is the Chicago Bulls a de re or de dicto group? Is it both, depending on the sense intended by the phrase “Chicago Bulls”?

(Teams are an interesting kind of social group. Much more to say about them than there’s space for here. For example, what are the implications of teams—i.e., of groups of people—having so-called “owners”? What sort of mentality might that attract or engender in the sorts of people who might like to “own” a team?)

Whether people treat race as a de dicto or de re designation may say something about how “real” they think it is, or what sort of designation they take it to be. A de re interpretation “white people” assumes that there are a set of people who are white no matter what we decide to call those people; a de dicto designation says that “white people” is a group composed of those individuals who satisfy whatever criteria are in place at a given moment for being considered white (where “considered” may be domain- or context-dependent; more on those in the mention below of OMB’s race categories).

It seems to me that in a certain formal or practical sense we treat race as de dicto, but in a deeper sense, we treat it as de re. That is, we treat it as though there are specific individuals who possess certain characteristics that gain them membership into a group (e.g., into a certain race, or even multiple races), and those individuals, by virtue of possessing those characteristics, form social groups with other such individuals, and that these social groups are meaningful enough to be named. Those individuals need not know of one another’s existence.

But for it to be race, the characteristic has to be something more interesting—more meaningful to us humans—than something like having, say, an odd number of hairs at 6pm EST on June 6, 2020. Actually, they must be meaningful in a certain, socially relevant way; in a way that I’m afraid pharmacological phenotypes wouldn’t capture. At any rate, what’s meaningful to us may change, and along with it the criteria for group membership. Does this complicate the de re picture, or just mean we’er picking out new characteristics?

Whatever that thing is, whatever that meaning, it can affect how we behave towards individuals satisfying whatever criteria. This produces corollaries of the criteria, which we tend to misattribute to the individuals composing the groups, rather than to the treatment of the groups as such; which tells me that, even were we to establish a group on extremely arbitrary designations, we could start to find meanings in the corollaries, and so on.

(I know social psychologists have managed this sort of thing in a variety of situations, creating in-group/out-group dynamics on flimsy grounds, where all participants would usually be seen as being in the “same” group; of course, people can and are in many groups at once in the real world, forming  intersectional groups that themselves may or may not carry special meaning, and so on.)

Somewhere in the midst of this meaning processing and the resulting behavior and social structures and so on, the “construction” happens, and, depending on just how coherent all of this is, the thing constructed may or may not actually exist. It strikes me that this stuff loses coherence fast, and will get even more difficult when we start talking about things like personal identity over time of individual members; the fact that some people are denied membership to groups they’d like to be members of, or have compulsory membership in groups they don’t want to be in; and group cognition (which I’ve written about here: “Do Groups Believe?“).

In many or most cases, stuff’s just not coherent enough. I think this is obviously true for race. For example, if there exists, say, a race of white people, then there are white individuals. Every individual in the group satisfies some condition of being white. But such conditions aren’t just vague, they are impossible to pin down. They are incoherent. Anyone can see this with a few moments contemplation. Race, as a way of behaving with respect to categories or kinds of individuals, breaks down quickly.

For example, any good theory of race will need to account for the fact that in 1940 Germany, the Nazi leadership and Ashkenazy Jews were different races. In 2020 United States, the grandchildren of those Nazis and Ashkenazy Jews are the same race. Of course, one can come up with a nice-standing story to make this work (probably using a lot of jargon; and I admit it, I’m fond of jargon: it makes me feel smart and like I’m talking or reading about something important or deep; I consider this a vice, but I don’t know where to draw the line between jargon and genuinely useful specialized terminology). I doubt the story will be one that contributes to a good theory of race.

Here’s another example. In his riveting 1963 history of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, historian/journalist C.L.R. James writes that, in 17th/18th-century San Domingo (or Saint-Domingue, now Haiti):

As [Mulattoes] began to establish themselves, the jealousy and envy of the white colonists were transformed into ferocious hatred and fear. They divided the offspring of white and black and intermediate shades into 128 divisions. The true Mulatto was the child of the pure black and the pure white. The child of the white and the Mulatto woman was a quarteron with 96 parts white and 32 parts black. But the quarteron could be produced by the white and the marabou in the proportion of 88 to 40, or by the white and the sacatra, in the proportion of 72 to 56 and so on all through the 128 varieties. but the sang-mêlé with 127 white parts and 1 black part was still a man of color. (James, p 38).

Where you fell in the spectrum mattered:

The Council proposed to banish all the half-castes up to the degree of quarteron to the mountains (“which they would bring into cultivation”), to forbid the sale of all property on the plains to half-castes, to deny them the right of acquiring any house-property, to force all those up to the degree of quarteron and all those whites who had married people of colour to that degree, to sell all their slaves within a year. (James, p 41)

I’m unclear to what extent such efforts resulted in genuine belief in a great variety of races. But I’m also unclear on how that operates even in my own culture, where according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the many other formal institutions that use OMB designations, “Asian” includes people with origins in Korea, Japan, Cambodia, and India, among other places, and “White” is defined as “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”

I’ve known Cubans who at bristle being addressed as a person of color (“I’m definitely white!”) and have met people who grew up in the United Staes who would be considered unambiguously black by outside observers, but emphatically refuse the designation (“My parents are from Nigeria, so I’m Nigerian-American, not black”).

For these and many other reasons, I remain convinced that race is not just a construct, but a construct that doesn’t manage to graduate from fictional to reified.

(4) C.L.R. James’s description of the one-drop rule in Saint-Domingue plays out in vaguer ways in the contemporary U.S. What is unambiguous, it seems, is that a white woman in the U.S. can have a black baby, and but a black woman in the U.S. cannot have a white baby (though she can have a baby that passes as white, where “passes” implies that the child in reality is black).

For me, this is yet more proof of how arbitrary the construction of race is. In fact, there are cultures where the scheme is different. From Haslanger’s essay:

…the United States has relied—sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly—on a rule of hypodescent (i.e., assuming a racial hierarchy, the child of individuals of different races is assigned the “lower” race of the two parents).** However, social scientists have found a variety of other rules for assigning race in the case of “mixed” offspring. (p 15)

[**Here Haslanger footnotes the following web page: www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Racial_Integrity_Laws_of_the_1920s]

She goes on to list some of the other rules, which unsurprisingly can vary quite a bit. I sometimes test my own intuitions on this stuff with a thought experiment like the following.

Suppose two non-mixed-race (however that designation is determined) black folks had a child who, for whatever obscure biological reasons, came out looking almost identical to, let’s say, Macaulay Culkin. Would we say, “that child is black but looks white”? Or would we say, “those black parents had a white child”? Likewise, say two similarly non-mixed-race white people had a child who looked almost identical to, let’s say, Michelle Obama. Same questions, adjusted for the example.

(Note that the principal, indisputable evidence that Rachel Dolezal was white was that her biological parents were both white.)

(5) If race isn’t real, then there are no experts on race. Rather, there are experts on the history and discourse surrounding the use of the word “race” (to put it reductively), though some of those experts believe that word refers to something real. This project of “being an expert” of the sort I’m describing itself contributes to the history and discourse in question.

(6) What does it take to make something true simply by believing it true? Does it require behavior in addition to the belief? In which case, does it even require belief? (Assuming a definition of belief that can be cognitive but not behavioral; e.g., a completely paralyzed person can still have beliefs.)

Accounts from folks like C.L.R. James, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the page linked in the Haslanger passage, and by many, many others makes it clear that those defining—i.e., inventing—race to their own advantage did not believe in the literal existence of the racial categories they were inventing. But it was to their advantage for others—for many or most people—to believe them real. But all that really matters in terms of social hierarchies and so on that result from those conceptions of race is that people behave as though they’re real.

(A topic that would merit addressing in a longer discussion is what it looks like for groups to take such conceptions and turn them on their head. For example, Négritude.)

At any rate, back to the question: at what point does something become real by virtue of belief or behavior?

Suppose I believe, or pretend to believe, that you have a colony of extra terrestrials living inside you, controlling your actions. No matter how much I believe or act as though this premise is true, it won’t be made true. Even if I convince everyone alive, including you, of its truth, and even if we believe this about groups of people thus creating a harmful social hierarchy and so on, it won’t make it true.

In other cases, believing and behaving as though something is true does seem to make it true. Recall Glasgow’s example of designating people as teachers:

The most rudimentary version of constructionism says simply that when we classify ourselves into races, we create real races, just as classifying ourselves into students and teachers creates actual students and teachers. (p 128)

But there’s a certain way in which the example is problematic. Being a teacher of a certain sort, for example, might require a license. We might say “such and such is a natural born teacher, but they never pursued the calling.” At any rate, despite all this, it’s obvious that there are really are teachers.

A more common, but harder, example is money. Saying what sort of thing money is is very difficult. You can’t hold money in your hand (you can hold bills and coins and checks and rebate vouchers and winning lottery tickets, but not money in itself). And you don’t need to hold it in your hand: all your money can exist as data hosted by your bank, Venmo, PayPal, Square, and so on.

The money question is yet another topic that would require far more space than I can get into here, and yet another set of books to reference, such as, perhaps, John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality (1995), where he asks such questions as:

How can there be an objective reality that exists in part by human agreement? For example, how can it be a completely objective fact that the bits of paper in my pocket are money, if something is money only because we believe it is money? And what is the role of language in constituting such facts? (Searle, p 2–3)

Searle doesn’t address the “What is race?” question, but the methodology seems obviously applicable.

(Another book to work into the discussion might be one I started reading a couple of days ago by psychologist Tory Higgins called Shared Reality: What Makes Us Strong and Tears Us Apart [2019]. The idea, in a nutshell,  is that human interaction creates a world, or a “shared reality,” that is then treated by those sharing that “reality” as objective truth. It’s deeper than this, actually. The motivation for shared reality, according to Higgins, provides “a different perspective on the age-old question of what makes us human.” It does not seem to deal with ontological questions of the sort I’ve been grappling with here, but does investigate crucial corollaries such as social/political bubbles, stereotyping, racism, and in-group-out-group discrimination based on social identity.

I’d been looking forward to the book’s publication since hearing Higgins talk about his work on “shared reality” when I took his fantastic social psychology course in 2014. [The same year, incidentally, I bought and started reading Searle’s book, which, admittedly, I still haven’t finished.])

That said, it’s not hard for me to conceive of the word “money” as a kind of shorthand for describing a system of behaviors that needn’t hold money to literally exist as a thing in itself. The behaviors would themselves be sets of behaviors each of which may have their own designations.

For example, suppose I promise to paint your fence in exchange for the dinner you just fed me. The “promise,” the word we attach to certain kinds of behavior, was real. The “debt,” as a word to summarize the state of affairs resulting from the giving and acceptance of the promise etc. is real. If this is turned into a monetary system, at what point does the money itself become real? That is, something more than a summary of all these behaviors and consequences thereof, etc. Never.

Though some might believe it real. They might believe, for example, that the bills in their pocket are a kind of coupon for whatever you’d like to refer to it as—a transfer or energy or of information or of whatever features of the world you take to be both fundamental and relevant here; and that “money” picks out an actual or potential, but literal, exchange of these features from one location to another, etc. This is a rough story, and perhaps someone can clean it up; but I don’t know if most people will say, “ah yes, that’s what we’ve meant by ‘money’ all along.'”

At any rate, it is conceivable to me that “money” can serve as a shorthand in the way I’m describing, but never be as real as, say, cars (also constructed by humans) or teachers.

But I still have an easier time of thinking of money as real in some significant way than I do of thinking of race as real. Still, this “shorthand” anti-realist view I’m describing, does seem it could have application to conceptions of race.

(I also apply this sort of anti-realism to numbers. What sort of things are numbers? I’ll look at that question more closely in another blog post. Will link here once posted.)

(7) There’s actually a lot more to say about cars. Humans construct cars. Cars exist by virtue of being constructed. They would also exist had mindless robots constructed them, or if they randomly came about due to random events in nature (like hurricanes do).

I’m reminded here of an example due to Hilary Putnam, in which a walking ant happens to trace in sand a path that bears a remarkable likeness to Winston Churchill. “Has the ant traced a picture of Winston Churchill, a picture that depicts Churchill?,” asks Putnam, who continues: “Most people would say, on a little reflection, that it has not.”

(The example is from page 1, in the first chapter, called “Brain in a Vat,” of Putnam’s 1981 book Reason, Truth and History. Read the chapter here.) 

I’m among those who don’t think the ant’s tracings make a portrait of Churchill. I think there’s no more meaning to be found in the tracing than there would be were we to keep an eye on an ant and collect instances of whenever it happened to trace a letter, only to notice that the letters so-collected eventually form the string, “HELP.”

Cars are different, I take it. If something looks and functions like a car, it is a car, no matter how it came about.

That said, there are arguments that cars don’t exist strictly speaking, because the only thing that exists strictly speaking are simples (i.e., things that cannot be broken down any further because they are not composed of proper parts; i.e., what used to be called “atoms” before it was discovered that atoms have proper parts; actually, philosophers still use the word “atoms” in the older sense, as a kind of metaphysical shorthand).

A mereological (or compositional) nihilist is committed to this “only simples exist strictly speaking” position, which I’ve argued in favor of in a blog post here (in opposition to Peter van Inwagen’s mereological organicism, which says that the only objects that exist strictly speaking are simples and organisms): “In Favor of Compositional Nihilism: A Response to the Organicism of van Inwagen.”

Now, there are ways to make use of mereologically careful language when talking about cars (or “things arranged car-wise”) when the mereological nihilist talks about cars. For more on what’s actually being claimed, see the above-linked article (in my experience, many people are more sympathetic to the position than they expect to be).

I have for several years now been slowly, in fits and starts, developing an interpretation of social group ontology that begins with my intuitive sympathy for mereological nihilism. Namely, if I don’t believe mugs and cars and clouds and solar systems and, yes, organisms exist strictly speaking, how can I say social groups exist?

To address that question, I begin with what I take to be an obvious, very easy-to-accept principle of rights distribution, which goes like this:

Fundamental Principle of Rights Distribution: First, determine what rights all humans should have. Second, determine which humans do not receive those rights according to the following scheme: it is never permissible to restrict rights based on the “kind” of person someone is, but it is permissible to restrict rights based on a person being in a state in which any “kind” of person can find themselves.

For example, it is not permissible to restrict the right to vote based on someone’s gender or race. Those are “kinds” of people. Any “kind” of person (e.g., someone of any gender or race), however, can be 12 years old, and it is permissible to restrict the right to vote based on not yet having satisfied the state of being 18 years old (or whatever boundary is designated).

Unsurprisingly, this basic principle breaks down quickly. It is of course difficult to determine what counts as a “kind” of person. I put “kind” in quotes not only because it’s difficult to say what a “kind” is, but because it may not be the best term—e.g., it seems to imply some sort of essential set of characteristics, and such sets may be arbitrarily constructed.

Which brings us back not only to the question “What is race?,” but what is anything that purports to underwrite a sound or valid organizing principle for human beings, such that they are grouped into “kinds” or “tokens of a type” and so on.

As for what terms to use here, I’m not sure. I prefer to avoid terms that imply, much less require, group membership, however, as that is the thing I’m trying to understand—e.g., how do such things as social groups emerge from our organizing principles?

At any rate, constructing (or building or making or inventing, etc.) cars, portraits, numbers, teachers, money, principles of rights distribution, races, social groups broadly speaking, scientific theories/models, notions about people controlled by aliens, and on and on, seem to come down to a wide variety of phenomena that operate under a variety of ontological and metaphysical rules, forces, principles, regularities, and so on.  And this is only scratching the surface.

Even the notion “social construction” is itself a thing that takes many forms, and may or may not be a construct that attains a status as “real,” picks out behaviors, or is so incoherent or vague as to not mean much of anything by now. I know of no better expression of, and investigation into, this worry than Ian Hacking’s indispensable 1999 book The Social Construction of What?, whose first chapter begins with a list of examples of things “said to be socially constructed,” among them authorship, danger, facts, quarks, reality, serial homicide, and women refugees. “Social construction,” notes Hacking in the Preface, “is one of the very many ideas that are bitterly fought over in the American culture wars.” Again, he this is 1999.

(I did a Google Ngram search on “social construction” and found books referencing the social construction of reality and free will and such going as far back as the late 1960s, and much older uses that go into the 1800s, though I’d have to look more closely to see what is meant by the term. Interestingly, there is a fairly quick rise from the late ’60s to the late 80’s, at which point it seems there is a much faster raise to a peak at right about when Hacking’s book is released; that book is the first hit in the 1979–2001 search results, in fact, when sorted by relevance. Here’s a link to the search.)

(8) To close, I’ll consider an example that occurred to me when I heard Haim Gaifman say that, were humans to cease to exist, the equator “has a certain status of an objective entity” despite there being no “line in the sand.” He said this about 4.5 minutes into an duscission on the podcast Elucidations (#66, 12/19/14), more about which in the aforementioned blog post on numbers.

Now, this may or may not be a good example for Gaifman’s purposes, which is to add support to the idea that mathematical objects are real. That is, the equator can be defined as “the great circle of the celestial sphere whose plane is perpendicular to the axis of the earth” (as it is at Merriam-Webster online), or as an “imaginary line” that divides our planets hemispheres (e.g., at Wikipedia).

I don’t know how Gaifman would elaborate on the claim. But it seems to me that the equator would not exist without humans behaving as though it exists, and even then it might not really exist (depending on what we mean by “imaginary,” or how we interpret definitions of the thing). To think about this in more general terms, I found myself considering the following thought experiment.

There is a large wall in front of me. It’s freshly painted white. Suppose I imagine on this wall a figure in the shape of an “S,” such that would fit snuggly into a square with an area of four square feet. I imagine the “S” over many years, always in roughly the same spot on the wall.

Is the “S” real? That is, does it exist in the region of space I’m imagining that it covers (or that contains it, or however you’d like to put it)? I’d say certainly it doesn’t. Even if I behave as though it does. Even if I name it and talk about it to people and say “Hi” to it every time I’m in the room, which is frequently. Even if I miss it when I’m not in the room and I look forward to staring at the wall imaging it there. Even if I start hallucinating it there or make glasses with an augmented reality function that puts the “S” in the right spot from my p.o.v.

Maybe you think it does exist in some of the above cases. Suppose I forget about the “S” one day or die. Or the augmented reality glasses break. Or I come to believe it was not there along. Would you agree then that it doesn’t exist?

Rewind back to when I first begin imagining the “S” on the wall. Suppose I paint the wall beige everywhere but where the “S” is (I don’t want to paint over it). Now there’s a white “S” on a beige wall. Does it exist now? I suppose it does.

Suppose I don’t paint the wall. Instead, termites come in and eat away at the wall and lay feces there or whatever it is they do. (Or some other random thing happens resulting in the same sort of outcome I’m about to describe.) Somehow, by sheer coincidence, every part of wall is visibly affected except for the “S” shape I imagined. Does it exist now? I don’t know.

Rewind again. Suppose I and many other people decorate the wall with pictures and whatnot, but are careful not to cover the “S” I imagine. The “S” is perfectly described in the negative space around the decorations, but were the decorations removed, the “S” would also disappear. I think it now is just as real as not painting it over beige, as the decoration effects are just about as easily undone as the not-painting effects are.

Rewind. Suppose I don’t paint it or in any way represent it there physically. But I convince everyone on Earth that the “S” is real, and we all talk about it and behave as though it’s real. We treat it as sacred. We make sure the building is never torn down over many generations, and people come to stare at the wall and imagine the “S” there. (Actually, perhaps some small group of folks don’t believe it’s real, but the punishment for not behaving as if it is real is death, so they play along.)

Maybe people are even implanted with devices so that the above-mentioned augmented reality function is thought by most of them to be a true experience of the wall.

Does it exist? If so, does it continue to exist once humans die, so long as the wall is still standing? Or does the wall need to be standing, as it was never physically on the wall, but rather imagined in a region of space that will exist as long as there is space? (I suppose this can’t be, because I assume that four-square-foot of the wall’s surface could be transferred to a more secure place if need be. Can it then be reconstituted as with the Ship of Theseus? If so, then you could end up with two walls, and then three, and perhaps as many as you like, all of them equally authentic!)

(With Gaifman’s equator example, were the Earth pulverized, would the equator still exist in the region of space that the Earth would have been occupying had it not been pulverized. I’m sure the answer is “no,” but why not?)

Maybe the “S” thought experiment is terribly silly. Or maybe if I spent more time with it, I’d find a way to make it more interesting. I do think that such examples are useful for thinking about at what point we can meaningfully ascribe objective existence to things that, at least at some point, we are able to think and talk about them but are unable to perceive them with our senses (or with some proxy for our senses, such as with some special measuring device that translates the phenomena into a readout we can perceive with our senses).

Enjoy or find this post useful? Please consider pitching in a dollar or three to help me do a better job of populating this website with worthwhile words and music. Let me know what you'd like to see more of while you're at it. Transaction handled by PayPal.

Further Reading


  1. Assuming we can operationalize what counts as a “hair,” which actually does come under philosophical scrutiny among metaphysicians; e.g., would a hair count that is so short that, were the person’s head covered with them, they’d generally be considered bald?

Share your thoughts: