:: Article

Constructing Race

Interview by Richard Marshall.


Conservationists about “race” talk tend to justify their position partly by appeal to the reality of race. And eliminativists about “race” talk tend to argue in part by asserting the nonexistence of race. Answers to the normative question do tend to indicate answers to metaphysical positions. Given this correlation, one worry you might have, or anyway, that I have had, is whether metaphysical disagreement is really mostly determined by normative disagreement (rather than the other way around).

In the case of race, explicit racism seems to be much rarer than in the past. A range of other barriers remain, but a substantial part of the explanation of the relative deficit of nonwhite philosophers (especially black philosophers) seems to involve large-scale inequality in society as a whole. There remains substantial disagreement about how to correct such inequality (even were there the political will to do so). Thus, even once we acknowledge a role for various kinds of explicit, implicit, and structural racism (even when we acknowledge a role for the social construction of race), there are other barriers that we as a society must understand and address.

Ron Mallon is a philosopher who thinks about the philosophy of race and social construction. Here he discusses various default metaphysical positions taken regarding race, racialism, race talk, then goes on to think about the role of semantic theories, problems with this, whether we continue with race talk, whether race talk started in the west, ex phi, why there are so few non-white philosophers and what should be done about that (and sexism too). Roll on Ron…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Ron Mallon: I am from Salina, Kansas, a city of about 48,000 people. My father was a disabled farmer and could not work. My mother worked at the hospital blood bank. I grew up not really exposed to the possibility of a career focused on intellectual work. I don’t really remember knowing anyone with a Ph.D. (or that I knew had one) as I grew up, and certainly didn’t think a professional philosopher was a career one might have. I attended good public schools, though, and, as I grew older, I was exposed to and inspired by philosophical ideas in political theory, in religion, and ethics. I enjoyed how hard it was, how abstract, and how significant it seemed the conclusions were. I was really propelled by ideas, and by the power of argument. When I was 16, I took a summer course in philosophy at Fort Hays State University, and that led me to read more contemporary work. I then majored in philosophy at University of Kansas, became intrigued by the question of how mental properties could be accommodated within the world revealed by our best science, and off I went to Rutgers – another really amazing state university where some of the best philosophy of mind in the world was being done. At some level, I never really thought a career in philosophy would work out, so even now I am kind of amazed to be working in academia.

People sometimes suggest that you have to have some kind of substantial financial resources or parental support to be able to afford to study philosophy. I had something of the opposite experience. Growing up as I did, I came to think, perhaps naively, that I didn’t really need much money to have a comfortable life (certainly to do the things I grew up enjoying). So I studied philosophy without a huge amount of concern about whether it would result in lucrative employment. I just enjoyed it, and I had some vague idea that I’d go to law school or get a job when I was no longer able to continue.

So I guess my answer is that I loved the content and activity of philosophy immediately, enough to pursue it for its own sake without being too concerned about professional or material success. Along the way, I’ve continued to be engaged by it, and lucky enough to be able to do so professionally.


3:AM: You’ve worked at the philosophy of race. You have argued for a particular approach. Before getting to your preferred option, you outline three default metaphysical positions that philosophers take on this issue – scepticism, constructivism and population naturalism. Could you sketch out what these three positions claim?

RM: On my rendering, skeptics think that race does not really exist. Constructivists (or “constructionists” – I use them interchangeably) think that race does exist, but that it is actually a social construct – some sort of a product of our history, conventions, minds, or social practices – as opposed to, say, being an important biological or medical grouping. Population naturalists hold that races are or were biological populations or subpopulations of humans, where such populations are individuated by partial reproductive isolation.

3:AM: The science shows racialism to be wrong doesn’t it – and this is what most philosophers accept don’t they – so are these metaphysical positions different ways of agreeing with that state of affairs?

RM: Racialism is the view that races are real and characterized by racial essences – unseen properties possession of which explains category membership and category-typical properties. Most philosophers (and many others besides) accept that racialism is mistaken. The failure of racialism is perhaps most commonly argued for by noting that there are not racial essences. And philosophers also tend to agree, broadly, about many other empirical facts: for example, that there are social practices that classify people by race and differentially affect them, that racial identity is psychologically significant to people, that there are some traits like skin color that have biological explanations and correlate with folk racial categories, and so on. In my own work, I’ve tried to emphasize that there’s substantial (though not universal) agreement about the “facts on the ground.” Disagreement emerges when we ask how to interpret these facts in terms of familiar social categories like “race,” “black,” “white,” “Asian,” etc. that often carry with them substantial assumptions about the typical features of category members and about category-appropriate norms.

3:AM: You argue that linked to the metaphysical positions are normative positions about ‘race talk’? Should we refuse to use race terms or not is the question – and each of the three metaphysical positions comes up with a different response don’t they? Can you tell a person’s metaphysical position from their response to this question?

RM: Theoretically, one can hold that race does not exist, but insist that we should continue to use “race” talk. (Joshua Glasgow has argued for a view like this about race, one on which existing “race” talk is literally false, but we should continue to use something very like it to pick out the social constructions produced by such talk.) One could also hold that race does exist, but we should cease using “race” talk (perhaps because it is harmful).

Despite this conceptual independence, there is nonetheless a correlation for defenders of the normative and conceptual arguments since most defenders of normative views of race do so at least partially on the basis of metaphysical arguments. Conservationists about “race” talk tend to justify their position partly by appeal to the reality of race. And eliminativists about “race” talk tend to argue in part by asserting the nonexistence of race. Answers to the normative question do tend to indicate answers to metaphysical positions. Given this correlation, one worry you might have, or anyway, that I have had, is whether metaphysical disagreement is really mostly determined by normative disagreement (rather than the other way around).

3:AM: All this has seemed to require a theory of meaning, a semantic theory of reference that tells us how we refer using a word or concept? Why has a semantic theory been thought important here?

RM: While there are philosophers for whom discussion of concepts or word meanings are the proper subject of philosophy, many philosophers are interested in philosophizing not only about concepts or word meanings, but about the extra-mental world itself. They want to know not just about the concepts number, or knowledge, or justice, or race, but about numbers, knowledge, justice, or race themselves. This raises the question: how does a philosopher’s apparently a priori method allow knowledge of such mind-independent entities?

One way of answering this question is to suggest that the mind has the capacity to directly grasp facts about abstract universals, but this has seemed to many to be a “spooky,” non-natural, hard-to-understand epistemic capacity.

A less spooky approach has been to employ assumptions about a theory of reference to connect our words and concepts to the world they are about. One attractive version of this is to hold that the ordinary descriptions or platitudes that we associate with our words or concepts give their meaning and tell us what any would-be-referent of the words or concepts must be like.

So, a semantic theory has been thought important because it provides an apparently coherent, naturalistically acceptable way of connecting our existing beliefs and theories about a thing to the thing itself, and it does so in a way that (at least prima facie) fits with philosophical practice.

3:AM: Does it matter to this particular fight whether one takes a descriptivist or a causal-history theory of reference is in play – other than that Kripke’s causal-history theory of reference seems to be the better theory generally?

RM: Different theories of reference – and “fillings in” of the auxiliary assumptions required to apply them to particular cases – entail different things about whether the terms in the scope of the theory refer. So, on this strategy, if one assumes the truth of such a theory for a term, one can draw different metaphysical conclusions than those who assume a competing theory (and set of assumptions). One strand of my work, following on work by Stephen Stich (who was my Ph.D. advisor) and others, is that we ought not to let these differences over reference confuse us into thinking that disagreement about race is metaphysically deep. The main issue among philosophers of race, I have argued, is really normative: how ought we to use “race” talk?

3:AM: Why is this use of any semantic theory problematic? Is it because the disputes about the semantics disguises the agreement at the metaphysical level between the three positions, and are you saying that the differences in the metaphysical positions are largely about nuance and emphasis rather than substantive issues?

RM: There are a few problems with using theories of reference to draw significant philosophical conclusions. First, their use seems to make a verbal or semantic dispute seem like a metaphysical one even when there is widespread agreement about the nonsemantic facts. I have made this argument in the context of race, and earlier (with Stich) in the context of apparently empirical debates over the universality of emotions. In addition, theories of reference are so flexible (given the many assumptions it takes to apply them) that it is unclear when they are providing an independent argument for a metaphysical conclusion (rather than semantic assumptions being themselves made because they ensure a desired metaphysical conclusion). There are also concerns about the justification of the theories of reference themselves. Because philosophers argue for theories of reference by appeal to intuitions about cases, they may turn out to be parochial if those intuitions vary across, and perhaps within, cultures, as a number of us (including Edouard Machery, Shaun Nichols, Stich, and myself) have argued on experimental grounds. More recently, Nichols, Àngel Pinillos, and I argued using additional experiments that putative natural kind terms (including, presumably, racial terms) are actually ambiguous between theories of reference, sometimes receiving a causal-historical construal, and sometimes a descriptivist one.

This situation suggests to me that while there are substantive questions to ask about how we should or should not employ “race” and various sorts of “race” talk, these questions are best addressed directly rather than via theories of reference.

3:AM: So if we throw out semantic theories, how do we resolve the big normative question of whether we ought to continue to use race talk?

RM: Ultimately, we have to consider the costs and benefits of various ways of talking, including not only current terms and practices but also various revisions to them, and negotiate the best way forward. It is a question of which set of social and linguistic conventions are best, all things considered. Because this involves a calculation that we probably cannot actually perform, we are driven to divide the problem into parts: should we use “race” talk in this context or fashion, or in that? Alternatively, we could adopt a convention on using “race” talk that would determine that many uses are appropriate or inappropriate. If appropriately arrived at conventions can confer normativity, then such conventions might resolve normative disagreements about the acceptability of “race” talk. I am far from sure how all this would go, but I do not think we can read it off the semantics of “race” talk or the metaphysics of race.

3:AM: Can this approach to race be generalised to other normative domains which aren’t uniquely connected with race, such as personhood where there seems similar agreement about the metaphysics,(metaphysically it doesn’t exist) a semantics move and important normative issues? Or the soul? Or even God?

RM: Yes, it can be generalized. But the case of “race” talk is different than some in that there are very practical concerns that do not always have parallels in other domains. What role should “race” talk play in public policy? In social identity? In social morality? These practical concerns are substantial enough that they plausibly should guide our behavior even if there turned out to be a correct theory of reference that suggested the semantic legitimacy or illegitimacy of “race” talk. In some other philosophical domains, extra-semantic considerations may not be as important, and in those domains semantic considerations may decide the issue. Ultimately, the legitimacy of extending these considerations to other philosophical domains has to be considered case by case.

3:AM: Does it follow from your theory that instead of asking questions about what we mean when we use race language we should rather enquire what normative ends it serves to use it? Are you literally trying to change the conversation?

RM: It’s fine to ask what we mean by “race” talk, and it can be useful. But, given reasonably widespread agreement about most of the empirical facts and the possibility that we mean more than one thing, it seems like the real questions in thinking about our socio-linguistic practices involving “race” talk involve asking what role or roles that “race” talk does and could play in political and social morality. (Work by Sally Haslanger and Tommie Shelby, among others, can be seen as addressing these substantive questions.) So, yes, I think we should focus the conversation on these more substantial issues.

3:AM: Was race thinking invented in the modern West?

RM: Many historians have suggested that there is something distinctive about the racial beliefs that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries and this is sometimes put in terms of the invention of the racial concepts involved in those beliefs. This talk of “invention” suggests a significant break with past thinking about human groups, a claim that is prima facie quite plausible given that culturally-typical beliefs, word meanings and conceptual repertoires change over time, sometimes quite radically. But what is the content this purported break? How exactly did the concepts change?

A number of accounts suggest that the change amounted to the emergence of essentialist theories of races, as previously recognized human groups came to be understood as possessing unseen “deep” properties possession of which explained category membership and also explained racially-typical properties. I’ve been skeptical of this historical claim, noting a range of psychological evidence that suggests such essentialist thinking, including about human groups, is relatively widespread in humans, exists in a range of cultures, and emerges regularly in children. I don’t doubt that it’s possible to pick out some distinctive features of racial thought in the nineteenth century, but I’m skeptical that these amount to the sort of significant change in beliefs that seem sometimes alluded to.

3:AM: If metaphysically there’s nothing there, how did the race thing get started? What is its source?

RM: Skeptics who hold that race does not exist can allow that some human groups are characterized by a range of differences (e.g. geographic location, ancestry, bodily features, culture). Such skeptics can then say that “race” talk began out of a mistaken impression that these observed differences were explained by significant natural differences, and, if they liked, they could appeal to various human and cultural cognitive predispositions to essentialize perceived difference (folk essentialism), or to predispositions to explain individual difference by appeal to intrinsic rather than situational features of persons (the fundamental attribution error).

Constructionists have a somewhat harder task in front of them, for they hold that while there are not biological racial kinds, contemporary racial terms pick out some sort of “social construction.” So constructionists need not only an account of the origins of racial thinking (perhaps one appealing to psychological proclivities common in humans), but also an account of the origin of (constructed) race itself. Here, the constructionist appeals (in part) to the various social and linguistic practices surrounding the belief in races and their causal effects to explain the social constitution of race.

However you choose to go, the most plausible version of either metaphysical account seems to me to appeal to both psychological evidence about how humans think about human groups and a much broader range of evidence about the extramental (biological and social world) in which we live.


3:AM: Is your approach one that chimes with experimental philosophy?

RM: I already mentioned some work in which my collaborators and I explored intuitions about reference, with findings that I think support the idea that theories of reference ought not to play a central role in metaphysical discussions such as those surrounding race. I have also explored a number of other topics experimentally. More broadly, I am a philosophical naturalist who holds science to be an extraordinarily successful epistemic enterprise, and one whose fruits can be useful to philosophizing. But I have also sought to critically engage with and synthesize work from different disciplines (including scientific disciplines) into a coherent whole.

3:AM: How should we understand the lack of non-white philosophers in the academy? Does your theory bring new insights to the table? And what action ought be taken if you’re right on this?

RM: There are, and have been for some time, really good and interesting non-white philosophers in the academy, so it’s important to understand the underrepresentation of non-white philosophers relative to some contrast, for instance to the proportion of nonwhite persons in the population or the proportion in other academic or professional fields. That having been said, such underrepresentation is a problem for philosophy in part because a deficit of diversity can be costly to a community with collective epistemic aims like truth, but also because such underrepresentation reflects a collective failure to achieve social ideals like equality and inclusion.

My work on race arose in a moment in which the articulation of the biological unreality and social reality of race seemed an important task for philosophy, and I (following many others like Linda Alcoff, Anthony Appiah, David Theo Goldberg, Stuart Hall, Charles Mills, Ronald Sundstrom, Paul Taylor, and Naomi Zack) tried to contribute to this intellectual project.

But solutions to underrepresentation require much more than this recognition, including some things that are not yet well understood (or, at least, that I don’t understand). In the case of race, explicit racism seems to be much rarer than in the past. A range of other barriers remain, but a substantial part of the explanation of the relative deficit of nonwhite philosophers (especially black philosophers) seems to involve large-scale inequality in society as a whole. There remains substantial disagreement about how to correct such inequality (even were there the political will to do so). Thus, even once we acknowledge a role for various kinds of explicit, implicit, and structural racism (even when we acknowledge a role for the social construction of race), there are other barriers that we as a society must understand and address. Still, for our part, philosophers should attend to various forms of bias that linger in our behaviors, practices, and institutions.

3:AM: Is sexism similarly explained?

RM: I am uncertain exactly what factors explain the significant underrepresentation of women in the profession of philosophy. While the relative lack of women philosophers is plausibly explained by some of the same mechanisms as the relative lack of philosophers of color (including implicit and explicit bias), I do not think large-scale social and economic inequality has the same role to play as it does in explaining the deficit of nonwhite philosophers. But women also face other barriers that are distinctive to sex and gender categories.

If this contrast is correct, then there may be reasons for optimism regarding the relatively near-term correction of the underrepresentation of women in the profession. Universities, departments, and individuals may already have the capacity to intervene locally in ways that can increase the number of women philosophers. Still, I think we’ve only recently begun to seriously take up this project as a profession.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend that would take readers here at 3:AM further into your philosophical world?

RM: The most obvious answer is my own book, The Construction of Human Kinds, just coming out from OUP (though perhaps to name my own book is against the spirit of the question). Five books by others are:

The Ethics of Identity (2005) Kwame Anthony Appiah
The Moral Psychology Handbook (2010) edited by John Doris and the Moral Psychology Research Group
Historical Ontology (2002) Ian Hacking


Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique (2012) Sally Haslanger


Deconstructing the Mind (1996) by Stephen P. Stich



Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 5th, 2016.