Philosophy of Race
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Philosophy of Race

An Introduction

Naomi Zack

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eBook - ePub

Philosophy of Race

An Introduction

Naomi Zack

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Philosophy of Race: An Introduction provides plainly written access to a new subfield that has been in the background of philosophy since Plato and Aristotle. Part I provides an overview of ideas of race and ethnicity in the philosophical canon, egalitarian traditions, race in biology, and race in American and Continental Philosophy. Part II addresses race as it operates in life through colonialism and development, social constructions and institutions, racism, political philosophy, and gender. This book constructs an outline that will serve as a resource for students, nonspecialists, and general readers in thinking, talking, and writing about philosophy of race.

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Part IIdeas and Realities of Human Race

Evaluative ideas about human races in the history of Euro-American societies have not been neatly separated from beliefs that there are human races and that humankind is naturally or biologically divided into them. Beliefs that racial divisions naturally exist have usually been in the background of discussions about relations and interactions between racial groups. From a contemporary vantage point, the modern idea of biological race developed in the eighteenth and nineteeth centuries, has always been racist.
In Part I of this book, ideas of race in the canonical history of philosophy are considered first (Chapter 1). Insofar as those ideas now appear to be biased toward Eurocentrism or what some today would call ongoing white supremacy, it is important to also consider alternative ideas of race that were more egalitarian and inspired an historical tradition of resistance against racism and hope for a better future. The egalitarian tradition began in the ancient world, spanned Christianity, was taken up by abolitionists in England and the United States, and motivated the US Civil Rights Movement. Thinkers in fields outside of philosophy, as well as philosophers, contributed to that tradition and their work merits philosophical consideration in retrospect (Chapter 2). The subject of race in the modern period originated in the new sciences of biology and anthropology. For the first time, there was a universal scheme for dividing humankind. Biological race developed through monogenism, polygenism, evolutionary theory, and population genetics. Science of any kind is inherently self-revising and this has been especially true in the former science of race (Chapter 3). Distinctively American pragmatist philosophy has lately directed positive attention to race, which is relevant insofar as the United States is the primary context for contemporary scholarship on race. Continental Philosophy has reflected liberatory intellectual phenomenology. Both of these philosophical traditions merit distinct and comparative consideration as alternatives to analytic philosophical approaches to race (Chapter 4). The idea and historical reality of ethnicity has been closely related to race, especially as affected by the movements of peoples. Ethnicity and race have overlapping meanings in different countries, as well as within indigenous societies (Chapter 5).
© The Author(s) 2018
Naomi ZackPhilosophy of RacePalgrave Philosophy Today
Begin Abstract

1. Ideas of Race in the Canonical History of Philosophy

Naomi Zack1
Department of Philosophy, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR, USA
Naomi Zack
End Abstract
To speak of human race is to speak of human races—if there were only one human race, that “race” would be the whole of humanity. To understand the history of ideas of race in Western philosophy, it is important to avoid anachronism and not interpret earlier forms of human hierarchy or status, as racial systems, where and when there were not yet fully developed ideas of human races as hereditary physical systems. Because we now know that many of the past beliefs concerning human racial taxonomy were not scientifically accurate in terms that scientists would accept today, we cannot rely on the existence of human racial taxonomies as a system of division timelessly given in nature. We also know that ideas of human race have changed over centuries and even decades, particularly in the USA (the main focus of this book), so it is useful to begin a discussion of race in the history of philosophy by stating five main meanings of the word “race” in contemporary intellectual discourse.
  1. 1.
    Race is biologically inherited and it causes both physical and cultural and moral traits that can be objectively compared in terms of human worth;
  2. 2.
    Race is biologically inherited but it causes only physical traits;
  3. 3.
    Race is a matter of superficial physical appearance, mainly skin color;
  4. 4.
    Race is a cultural artifact based on biology, even though the biological differences between societal or cultural races are arbitrary and unscientific;
  5. 5.
    Race is a social construction that reflects history, politics, and shared social traditions among dominant and subordinate human groups, each of which shares interlocking, intergenerational lines of family descent.
Race as biologically inherited, with or without cultural and moral traits ((1) or (2)) was the dominant model and meaning of the word from the eighteenth to twentieth century, which is to say, over the modern period. Of course, biology as studies of living things predated modernity and has overflowed Western science. But biological distinctions with a basis in classification or taxonomy are distinctive to the modern period in the West, because modern biology began with systematics (Mayr 1942). The equation of racial difference with differences in appearance (3) also relies on a biological or hereditary physical foundation. And the contemporary conception of race as unscientific (4) refers to the science of biology. Race as a contemporary social construction (5) mirrors the experience of race as lived realities.
If we accept the starring role of biology in modern ideas of race, it needs to be shown why ideas of human difference that resembled race before modern biology should not be considered full-blown ideas of race, even though they may have had oppressive effects comparable to those of modern racism. Within the philosophical canon (containing ten to fifteen of the major historical figures), it makes sense to begin with Plato (427 BC–348 BC) and Aristotle (384 BC–323 BC) and then move on to Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and John Locke (1632–1704), followed by David Hume (1711–1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831), John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) were influential philosophers of race over the nineteenth century. Altogether, canonical philosophers created a model of race with normative anti-nonwhite bias. Constructing a chronological account of their thought is disciplinarily appropriate, because philosophers typically begin inquiries with what past philosophers thought about a topic. And coincidentally or not, a consideration of race within or through the history of philosophy lines up with real-life historical events and narratives. For instance, all of the philosophers mentioned were aware of slavery as a legal institution in their own times. (The practice of slavery preceded ideas of race until it became coincident with race during the centuries of USA black chattel slavery.)

Race-Like Ideas in the Ancient World

Plato believed that the structure of the individual and of society were analogous—the state or society was the individual “writ large.” The person has parts with distinct functions and so does society. The mind ideally rules the body and the passions, and the most intelligent and rational members of society should rule soldiers and workers. In the Republic , a “noble lie” about human hierarchy is suggested. Those setting up the Republic who were in charge of education, will have observed the characters of the young, testing them for memory, critical capacity (their ability not to be deceived), courage, composure, and discipline. Performance on these tests would determine the person’s appropriate place in society—guardian-king, soldier (including military, police, and local administrators), or worker (laborers and mechanics).
The noble lie was to begin with a story of origins, when rulers and educators told the young that they had all had been born to the state through a process of “molding” underground, so that what they believed had been their education was in reality a dream. As creations of the state, all of the young were brothers, expected to love one another and the city as God that had fashioned them. But they were not equal, so they would be also be told:
God in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious—but in the helpers silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen. And as you are all akin, though for the most part you will breed after your kinds, it may sometimes happen that a golden father would beget a silver son and that a golden offspring would come from a silver sire and that the rest would in like manner be born of one another. (Plato 1964, 415, a–b, p. 659)
Some scholars have found a theory of race in these distinctions that included innate capacities (Kamtakar 2002). Moreover, Plato envisioned the Republic as a society that would function based on these differences and the noble lie would presumably sustain that structure by being retold to each new generation. However, Plato was not primarily interested in the different identities that resulted from his proposed race-like classifications—which he was quite open in labeling as what we would call “propaganda”—but in assigning societal roles based on individual capacities. The metallic categorizations were thus a heuristic device, because different individual capacities were to be determined before the metallic categorizations were applied as labels for the person. Also, the metallic categories were not hereditary as biological racial categories came to be, because gold parents could have silver offspring or silver parents.
Ironically, the closest resemblance to a theory of race...


  1. Cover
  2. Front Matter
  3. Part I. Ideas and Realities of Human Race
  4. Part II. Relations, Practices, and Theories of Race in Society
  5. Back Matter