Hesperus is Bosphorus

A group blog by philosophers in and from Turkey

Is the “philosophy of race” parochial?

with 20 comments

Before I get started I want to make it clear that in asking this question I am not questioning the value of the work being done in the “philosophy of race”. I am merely questioning the wisdom of calling this sub-discipline of philosophy “the philosophy of race”. And I’m not sure what my answer to this question is. I have a suspicion that “the philosophy of race”  might be parochial – and I’ll try and explain my reasons here – but perhaps my suspicions are mistaken. If my suspicions are right, then perhaps the conclusion to be drawn is that we need a broader general category that includes philosophy of race as a sub-category. This post is a belated response to a recent post at newAPPS (here) and to the fact that the philosophy of race is now included as a speciality on the gourmet rankings (here).

The post at newAPPS is response to the review of a recent edited volume on ‘Political Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Authors and Arguments’.  And the reviewer writes:

“Insofar as race was one of the central, constitutive components of twentieth-century politics and the central pivot point for civic activism and debates over social change in the postwar United States, this exclusion is impossible to justify. Further, insofar as one of the main uses of this text will be (as noted above) to allow different parts of the political tradition to speak to one another, it would have been a great virtue if the volume had slightly broadened the conception of what it is to do political philosophy by including a social theorist like W.E.B. DuBois, Oliver Cromwell Cox, or Frantz Fanon — or alternatively, an essay focused on the rich discussions of the meaning of democracy and by extension the political condition found in mid-century African-American authors such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright.”

Now, if this volume had been entitled ‘American Political Philosophy in the Twentieth Century’ then I think such a complaint would have been fully justified. But reading such a complaint about a book that is aimed at an world (Anglophone) audience this complaint seems to be criticising the volume for not being Americo-centric enough. Why not demand a chapter by, say, a (European) Muslim,   or Turkish Kurdish intellectual? Anyway – my reactions to this post got me thinking about (my very under-developed) attitudes towards the philosophy of race. Here are two thoughts:

(1) The position in minorities in societies is and should be an important part of political philosophy. Although there are obviously some commonalities but the minority experience is, obviously, very different, and conceptualised very differently, in different societies. In some societies, and in relation to different groups, the notion of race plays an important role. In other societies, and with regard to some groups, differences are not conceptualised in racial terms but in cultural or historic terms. So, for example, the experience and problems of Muslims in Europe is I think predominantly to be understood in cultural rather than racial terms.  My feeling is that race does not play a central role in the conceptualisation of differences in Turkey. So for example, as far as I can see, the difference between Turks and Kurds is predominantly understood in cultural and linguistic terms rather than racial terms. And most Turkish nationalists I know here do not seem to think of ‘Turkishness’ in racial terms. I wonder if my impressions about the place of the concept of ‘race’ in Turkey are correct here. And I wonder if there are other countries in which ‘race’ does not play a central role in the political discourse. Anyway, my guess is that there are some countries where the notion of race plays a central role in conceptualising such differences (the US and perhaps Brazil might be examples of this) and others where it does not. My potential worry here is that the evolution of the philosophy of race into a separate sub-discipline within academic philosophy may lead to a pulling apart of issues that perhaps should thought of together.

(2) My understanding of the early modern history of the concept of ‘race’ and my limited knowledge of debates about the concept of ‘race’ in the philosophy of biology leads me to think that ‘race’ is primarily a pseudo-scientific concept that was invented in the early modern period and unfortunately migrated into political discourse.  (Justin Smith has been doing some interesting work recently on early modern theories of race. See here.) If I am right, and there is an ongoing debate here in the philosophy of biology, then ‘race’  has a status similar to ‘Phlogiston’ or ‘witch’. And in the future we might look back on ‘the philosophy of race’ in the way we might now look back on someone who worked on the ‘philosophy of witches’. So as someone who thinks that ‘race’ is probably a pseudo-scientific concept, the development of the philosophy of race as a sub-discipline gives legitimacy to what I suspect is a pseudo science.

Anyway, my gut feeling here is there that needs to be a sub-discipline within political philosophy that is concerned with the way in which various societies conceptualise and treat minorities – but this need to be understood in broader terms than in terms of the Philosophy of “race”. For some countries, much of the discussion would focus  on questions of race, but in other countries race is not central in the conceptualisation.  I wonder what other people think. My views here are not very firm. One reason to write a blog is to work out what one thinks about a particular issue.

A question for native Turkish speakers: With my limited understanding of Turkish I believe that the best translation of “race” into Turkish is “ırk”. Is this right? As far as I understand Turkish “ırk” is not understood in biological terms. Is this right? As far as I understand “race” in English this is a (pseudo-)biological concept.

Comments are welcome – but please be civil.

UPDATE: I think these two papers by Justin Smith (links from his blog on race) are very interesting:  “‘Curious kinks of the human mind’: Cognition, Natural History, and the Concept of Race” and  “The Pre-Adamite Controversy and the Problem of Racial Difference in 17thCentury Natural Philosophy.”


Written by Lucas Thorpe

March 15, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

20 Responses

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  1. Hi Lucas,

    I think and teach quite often about race and other categories of social identity (including gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, religion, age, class) so let me try to reply to your questions. I do appreciate your honesty about not knowing too much about these issues but nevertheless putting your thoughts and gut-feelings out there to get feedback from others. I hope that we can continue to discuss this further and I look forward to it.

    As far as the book review goes: regardless of its title, the book claims to have a focus on the United States after World War II – this is included in its self-description on Cambridge University Press website. So in that sense, the criticism is apt, and I agree that race and any theorization of race and racialization of political philosophy by African American authors such as W. E. B. DuBois, Franz Fanon, and I would add Charles Mills (whose work on race and political theory is unarguably the best that there is – I would highly recommend anything by him) must be in this book, and its omission is telling. Even if the book did not specify that it was about America, it is still important to incorporate philosophies of race since this concept has been used to justify colonialism/imperialism, occupation, revolution, genocide, ethnic conflicts, military inventions, etc. : all political stuff. The book seems incredibly Euro-centric in its understanding of political philosophy especially in terms of its focus, even though the historical reality is that these so-called universal ideas of freedom, equality, liberty etc. did not apply to non-whites or non-Europeans for a very long time due to a certain understanding of the hierarchical differences that existed between white and non-white races. Such exclusion of issues of race and texts by people of color is exactly the repetition of a certain history and understanding of why “race” does not matter, that it is not a philosophical issue, that it is a soft matter. (I am not saying that this is your argument or suspicion – this is a general attitude in political philosophy at the moment and the book seems to reiterate it).

    Regarding your other questions, I can say so many things, but I will try to be brief:

    – In terms of talking about minorities: It is important to note that race is not just an issue about minorities, and as such whiteness and white privilege also have to be conceptualized and analyzed as a reality in politics, for these played a central role in many political issues. To reduce discussions of race to a discussion of minority issues is to ignore one’s complicity in replicating such discourses, and akin to asking non-white people to describe how it feels to be a problem (DuBois has a very good analysis of this in his Souls of Black Folk).

    – In terms of whether race can be applied universally: as Justin says on Facebook, race will not have the exact same meaning in each culture; however, this does not mean that it did not play a similar role in various contexts. It is not difficult to find in different countries/contexts analogous ways of classifying people, biologically or culturally, and formulating differences among them in a hierarchical way. Also, there are different ways of talking about scientific racism (originating, as you point out, with the pseudo-sciences of phrenology and such) and the social-political reality of race and racism. As you may know, even though science now does not accept the “reality” of race, this does not eliminate the past, present, and future social policies that reflect race and a certain understanding of race as a reality. Because we do not yet live in a race-less or post-racial society, it is important to conceptualize race and think about what it means to include or exclude this concept/category in current debates of political philosophy. The documentary called “Race: The power of an illusion” is excellent on the “illusory reality of race” (how race is real and not real, not just scientific but political, etc.) and you can find most of it on youtube, I think.

    – I think that you are right that originally “irk” in Turkish does not signify anything about biology (some might argue that there is a biological nationalism that argues for the significance of blood and blood ties as they pertain to being a Turk, but that is considered extreme). Regardless of this, though, there is racism and racial discrimination in Turkey, insofar as certain “differences” that exist between Turks, Kurds, Alevis, Azeris, Armenians, etc. (what we might call “different ethnic or cultural groups”) are conceptualized in a hierarchical way and introduced into policies in this way. So it does not matter whether race is conceptualized in the same way in Turkey as it was in Europe or the States or whether it referred to something real, its consequences are real, so much so that people die because of it and certain governmental policies prioritize certain groups and exclude others. It is not incorrect to call these “irkci pratikler” or “irkcilik.”

    – If I understand you correctly in terms of making philosophy of race a sub-category of political philosophy but not rigidifying its meaning so much so that it only refers to something scientific: there is no philosopher of race at the moment who makes an argument for the scientific reality of race, to my knowledge. In fact, theorizing differences such as race also takes the form of thinking about race in connection with nationality, gender, and class, for example, and tries to understand how each of these categories constructs one’s social identity in various contexts – perhaps that is closer to what you mean when you say you worry that race does not pertain to each country in one and the same way. Philosophies of race or actually Critical Race Theory tries to understand how race (understood broadly in the ways I described above) might have played a role in founding of nations, declarations of independence and war, current state policies, etc.

    Again, I look forward to discussing this with you further.

    Dilek Huseyinzadegan

    March 15, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    • Hi Dilek,

      You write: “Regardless of this, though, there is racism and racial discrimination in Turkey, insofar as certain “differences” that exist between Turks, Kurds, Alevis, Azeris, Armenians, etc. (what we might call “different ethnic or cultural groups”) are conceptualized in a hierarchical way and introduced into policies in this way. So it does not matter whether race is conceptualized in the same way in Turkey as it was in Europe or the States or whether it referred to something real, its consequences are real, so much so that people die because of it and certain governmental policies prioritize certain groups and exclude others. It is not incorrect to call these “irkci pratikler” or “irkcilik.””

      Would you say that because in Turkey, “difference between men and women are conceptualised in a hierarchical way and introduced into politics in this way”, sexism is racism?

      I really don’t get why calling prejudice against Alevis in Turkey “racism” is significantly different from calling “sexism” “racism”.

      For those of you who don’t know Turkey: Alevis are are religious minority in turkey. they are non-Sunni Muslims and make up between 10-40% of the population here [the statistics here are extremely unreliable -and different groups make wildly different claims.] There have been many hate crimes against Alevis in Turkey. The Sivas massacre in 1993, in which 37 people were killed, is probably the best known recent event.

      But I think calling this “racism” is like calling the prejudice of “Christian conservatives” in the USA towards Mormons racists. Mormons are obviously not a race. And calling anti Mormon sentiments “racist” doesn’t make any sense to me. And so I can make no sense in classifying discrimination and hatred towards, say, Alevis as “racist”. I’m not denying the fact – I just think you are using the wrong label here. In Terms of linguistic self-identification there are Turkish, Kurmanci and Zazaci speaking Alevis. Calling anti-Alevi prejudice “racist” would be like calling anti-protestant prejudice “racist”. To me this just sounds like nonsense. It really sounds to me like calling sexism racism.

      We should fight hatred. But this is quite compatible with fighting against the misuse of words when talking about the hatreds and prejudices that exist.

      Lucas Thorpe

      March 17, 2012 at 4:30 am

      • I thought that your concerns were about whether philosophy of race was parochial and whether using the concept “race” makes sense in different contexts, specifically in Turkey. I think that Chike did an excellent job of showing that philosophy of race is not parochial and also that it can be universal in its scope. While I do not go as far as saying that race is universal, my point was simply that since anti-Alevi, anti-Kurdish, anti-[any ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural group that is not the majority in Turkey] sentiments have parallel and analogous discursive strategies to that of racism, and that it is theoretically helpful to use the concepts of race and racism as short hand for such strategies. Of course this does not apply universally to all differences conceptualized in a hierarchical way – so my claim was not about the differences between women and men, since we do have a concept for that, sexism/cinsiyetcilik. However, and I think the main difference between our approaches to this issue lies here, when it comes to race, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc. I am quite certain that these forms of oppression do not function independently of one another, that they are intersectional or intertwined. This is called an intersectional theory of identity and oppression (coming out of feminist theory, queer theory, and critical race theory). Let me give an example (and this is not a universal claim, just an example): if an Alevi transwoman experiences oppression in Turkey, we cannot easily separate different parts of her identity to figure out what is oppressing her more and we cannot simply speak in terms of a quantitative addition of her oppressions. So her oppression should be understood and theorized in an intersectional way – in her living experience, she may not be able to easily identify when she is being discriminated against because of her trans identity (transphobia), when because of her Kurdish identity (? racism is my short hand here, you can also call it nationalism, hate speech of ethnic variety, etc. all are helpful), and when because she is a woman (sexism). It is unfair and incorrect to try to label them in a separate way so neatly because this might be disingenuous to her experience and it might not really help her to spend her energies there. In terms that you might be more familiar with, (and I just thought of this so maybe this is not helpful at all) one can think of a family resemblance between different forms of oppression and use any discursive label to analyze, understand, and fight them to the extent that they are theoretically helpful. So to label something as racism is not incompatible with also labeling it as sexism, hate speech, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

        Questions about the merits of calling everything racism regardless of context: I do not think that I was suggesting that we call all discrimination in Turkey racism. However, think about the following: what does burning people in Sivas alive imply? And now that it has been made legal, because of passage of time these people cannot be brought to justice? That means that the people burnt were somehow understood to be less worthy, not quiet human because they are not quite Turkish (normative identity of being Turkish referring to the intersectional idea of middle-class, Sunni, etc – similar to what Nuray Mert identifies as White Turks), their lives are dispensable, the justice system will not really do anything because the state does not really care, etc. This is very similar to how racism functions in other contexts. So it might be helpful (not by itself sufficient, so contextual and historical analyses are also necessary) to think in terms of the discourse on race that deems certain lives to be dispensable, not cared by the State, etc.

        Think about what is going on right now in Turkey: 1) Alevi houses are being marked – like Jewish houses were marked in Germany by SS soldiers and Turkish houses are being marked in Germany right now by neo-nazis. In this context, it is helpful (not by itself sufficient by any means and it should be supplemented by specific historical and contextual analysis) to resort to a discourse of racism because this is an instance where it makes sense to think about racism and its systematic functioning. So I would call these markings of Alevi houses racist, as a theoretical short hand, because of the family resemblances between the ways in which these acts and those in Germany function. To call them racist does not exclude, by the way, other labels such as hate speech/discourse, hate crimes, etc., according to the intersectional theory; 2) A state sponsored rally against “Armenian bastards” – again, to label a non-Turkish group as bastards, calling them monsters, implying that they are not human beings fully, etc. Here, I again find the discourse on racism helpful, because it functions as a short hand to understand where these discursive practices come from. It is not incompatible with calling this hate speech, etc. They go hand in hand. 3) DuBois’ conceptualization of double-consciousness in Souls of Black Folk, where he describes an inner/internalized experience of oppression and its resulting self-consciousness split into two (African – nothing, ignorant, only good for physical labor and American – free, in a land of opportunity, ideals of education, etc,) is specifically about post-Emancipation era US. This is philosophy of race. However, when I read Kurdish authors describe a similar state of consciousness whereby they are forced to speak Turkish at schools and they talk in Kurdish at home, for example, I see a parallel splitting of their social identity. I find it helpful to think about the discourse of racism here, not because Turkey and US had the same history of race, but again racism functions as a theoretical shorthand, to refer to a set of practices that might cause parallel experiences in oppressed populations. 4) When I met Charles Mills for the first time right after I read his mind-blowing book The Racial contract (my first year in graduate school. seriously it was the best thing that happened to me:)), he and I chatted about whether there were races in Turkey. I thought about it and all I could come up with was, well, no, not the way there are races in the US or in Kant’s conceptualization, etc., but there are certain practices that resemble racist practices. So in that sense, philosophy of race may be not about “race” per se, but about how it functions. In The Racial Contract, Mills does not only talk about Blacks versus Whites, but about the majority of world’s population that endured colonization, slavery, exploitation, genocide, etc. because they were understood to be non-white in various ways. So it is also important to think about race beyond the Black-White binary. 5) I heard many Romani activists in Turkey refer to the discriminatory practices of the Turkish state as “racist” and I am sure it is not because they do think they are JUST LIKE the African Americans in the US, but because they find it useful to resort to discourse of racism to argue their case, so all the power to them. 6) Islamophobia in the US is being conceptualized along the lines of racism and racist discourse by many philosophers of race, not because Islam is a race, obviously, but because Muslims are being described as less than human, crazy jihadists, ignorant and misogynistic, etc. much like Jewish people were a threat to the Arian race and much like African American people were ignorant, etc. These are contextualized in post-9/11 context, so it is not just like racism of the segregation era, post-Emancipation era, etc. 7) Regarding your examples of anti-mormon and anti-protestant sentiments and how it is nonsensical to call these racist, I do think that you are reducing my argument to a universal claim about all discrimination being racist, so I hope that it is clear now that that is not what I mean, and that I do think that racism and religious intolerance (or whatever labels people find helpful) can be used together. They do not always go hand in hand, but it is important to look at the context – so I take your main point to be about being careful about the context, which is well taken. [side bar – if we follow your argument about calling religious differences racism nonsensical, then calling Nazi Germany’s policies racist is nonsensical because one could argue that it was a matter of religious intolerance since they had an element of anti-Judaism. But I don’t think that is what you would argue and I think you would think that Nazi racism was intersectional, they it “racialized” differences that are ethnic, religious, economic, etc. and created a concept of Arian race. Yes, it was pseudo-science and it did not refer to natural kinds, but it functioned as racism so for all intents and purposes, it was racist. Another concept that I find helpful is the verb “to racialize” and I think that this is what is at stake at least partly in discrimination against minorities in Turkey]

        In conclusion, I don’t think I disagree with your carefulness about labels; however, I am for using race and racism as theoretical tools whenever we find them helpful in analyzing all forms of discrimination, making explicit how they function differently in different contexts. Calling something racism, as I explained above, is not incompatible with calling it something else at the same time or complicating the issue with more historical and contextual analyses, but it is unfair to call it nonsensical since it is helpful to talk about racist practices and discourses even in Turkey.


        March 17, 2012 at 8:31 pm

        • Hi Dilek,
          Thanks for that. I need to think about some of the things you have said. But here are some initial thoughts.
          You say:
          “While I do not go as far as saying that race is universal, my point was simply that since anti-Alevi, anti-Kurdish, anti-[any ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural group that is not the majority in Turkey] sentiments have parallel and analogous discursive strategies to that of racism, and that it is theoretically helpful to use the concepts of race and racism as short hand for such strategies.”
          And I think I disagree here. perhaps I was being too rhetorical and overstating my position to say that using the concept of racism here is nonsense – but I’m not sure why it is theoretically helpful – my suspicion is that it confuses things rather than clarifies them.

          Talking to an Alevi friend here – and she says that she wouldn’t call anti-Alevi behaviour “Irkcilik” (“racism”) but “Etnik Ayrimcilik’ (“ethnic discrimination”) And I think that this is a better way of classifying it than as racism. I don’t have a Turkish keyboard – so sorry for the mis-spelling. Do you have these intuitions about Turkish?

          Some of the reasons for this are similar to Justin Smith’s arguments in the paper I added at the end of the original post. We have a friend coming to stay for a few days – so I need to go and make our apartment nice.

          Lucas Thorpe

          March 17, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    • My mistake in calling Mills and Fanon African American and Chike is obviously right to call me out on that. I typed my first response very quickly, which is not really an excuse. I meant to say philosophers of color.


      March 17, 2012 at 8:48 pm

  2. When we consider racism, I think it is not anymore called racism but hate speech both in Turkey and another countries. I have just started to work on hate speech. So I don’t know much about it but I have a (feeling) that If we think from that perspective I guess It might become more clear even it is even not clear what should be hate speech and what should be freedom of speech. It just a suggestion.


    March 16, 2012 at 1:50 am

    • Hi Zubeyde,

      I think that “racism” and “hate speech” are quite different things. I used to think that that I knew what racism was – but now I’m not really sure. And think it’s not really a useful category. We should focus on hatred and discrimination in all its forms. So I think categorising things in terms of expressions of hatred and irrational discrimination is far more useful than the the concept of “racism”

      Is an American Islamophobe (see e.g. fox news and this) “racist”?. I really don’t think this makes any sense – Muslims clearly are not a race on any common sense understanding of “race”. Americans who hate Muslims (and I think this is the predominant form of socially accepted irrational hatred in the USA, and probably Europe too, today) are not “racist” and this is in clearly at least on of the predominant forms of hate speech found in the USA today. I think that as a Turk your understanding of “racism” is probably quite different from that of an American – because you don’t really have a good translation of “race” [which I think is a good thing about Turkey – racist discourse was an early modern European invention that has not really taken on in Turkey for various reasons.]

      So I think that you are factually wrong when you say that “racism” is “not anymore called racism in both Turkey and other countries” I think that your sentiment is right and that we should focus on hatred and discrimination in all it’s forms. I think that in Turkey hatred and discrimination is not conceptualised in racial terms. but in America racial discourse is ubiquitous. (And I think that part of this is a deliberate strategy by right wingers to shift the discourse away fro a discussion of inequality, class and history – and I think that by reifying ‘race’ by accepting the ‘philosophy of race’ as a sub-discipline of philosophy people like Leiter have fallen into this trap). So I think american, so-called progressives such as Leiter have fallen into the fox news republican trap by accepting the racial categorisation.

      Lucas Thorpe

      March 16, 2012 at 2:52 am

    • If you want to see hate speech in the USA today follow the Republican party presidential primaries. Most of it is not “racist” as its directed towards Muslims. (the hatred towards African Americans is all coded and normally not explicit, it’s done with a wink to the reptilian base – but when it cones to Islamophobia no winking is required – but it doesn’t matter this hatred is not “racist”.).

      Lucas Thorpe

      March 16, 2012 at 3:03 am

  3. Hi Dilek,

    Thanks for the comment – I’m sure you know more about this than I do – so I look forward to learning from you once you’re here in Istanbul. This will be quick as I must go to bed:

    I know one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – but I judged this book by its title: Political Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Authors and Arguments. Nothing about the USA there.

    My worry goes something like this: Some people think that “races” are natural kinds, some don’t – and I’m inclined to agree with the second group – and I suspect most biologists are too [any biologists of philosohers of biology out there – what do you think?]. Calling a sub-disciple “the philosophy of race” strongly suggests that the philosophical community thinks that “races” are a natural kind. And I think doing this will encourage cultures that do not conceptualise differences racially to start doing so. And I think this is probably a bad thing. The fact that the “philosophy of race” is now a category on the Leiter list encourages philosophers in countries where differences are not characterised in racial terms, to do so. The Anglophone philosophical community is now not restricted to English speaking countries. And there is a strong career incentive for philosophers outside the US to fit themselves into Leiter’s categories.

    Leiter hates the Texas Taliban. So I don’t understand why he is implicitly endorsing a pseudo-scientific concept (“race”) in the gourmet report.

    At the very least – given there is a disagreement between those who think that “race” is legitimate concept and those who don’t – the philosophical community should not implicitly endorse one side of the debate by naming a sub-discipline “the philosophy of race”. To me this sound like “the philosophy of witches”.

    Of course “race” plays an important role in the political discourse of certain societies. And this surely should be a topic of philosophical discourse. So if the sub discipline was called: “The philosophy of ‘race’ ”
    I wouldn’t have a problem. But I think that the name legitimises a form of categorisation, that should not ultimately be legitimize.

    But – once again to avoid misunderstanding – in a society where the vast majority of people categorise things in “racial” terms (e.g. the USA) then reflection on this is important. But why on early would you want to encourage people who don’t categorise things in such a way to do so? And calling a sub-discipline of philosophy “the philosophy of race” does provide an incentive for intellectual in countries where things are not categorised in this way to do so. Bad thing in my opinion.

    Ok – and this is my uneducated gut feeling on the issue – so I’m open to being taught – I think the notion of “race” in American culture is an unhealthy unscientific concept but which plays an important role in understanding oneself and others in the USA but which does not denote any sort of natural kind. But, if, say, “African Americans” constitute a natural kind they’re a historical kind, not a racial kind. They are a set of individuals who belong to a kind because of their history, not because of their biology. I really do think it’s like the concept ‘Witch’. There are no witches, but people did get burn for being witches. And it’s a good thing that we stopped using this word.

    Anyway – i could continue. but I guess I’ve said enough. Looking forward to your reply (and to talking with you when you’re in Istanbul)

    Lucas Thorpe

    March 16, 2012 at 2:13 am

  4. As someone who specializes in philosophy of race, I am happy to comment. Here’s the summary of my comment in advance: “philosophy of race” is most definitely the best name for the field, and there is nothing parochial about it.

    Now, let’s begin with the comment from the review. You seem to have taken note of the reference to race as “the central pivot point for civic activism and debates over social change in the postwar United States” and the reference to “the rich discussions of the meaning of democracy and by extension the political condition found in mid-century African-American authors such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright.” There are good reasons for a book of global scope on political philosophy to address these central developments and these major figures if the idea is to look at the 20th century, often referred to as “the American century”… but, of course, if such topics and material were all there were to philosophy of race, then you would be right in thinking that it is distinctively American in content. But the reviewer also claimed (before talking about the US) that “race was one of the central, constitutive components of twentieth-century politics” and he argued that “it would have been a great virtue if the volume had slightly broadened the conception of what it is to do political philosophy by including a social theorist like W.E.B. DuBois, Oliver Cromwell Cox, or Frantz Fanon.”

    Let’s take these two claims in turn. Race was one of the central, constitutive components of 20th century politics worldwide, whether one thinks about the world in a Eurocentric or non-Eurocentric manner. From a Eurocentric perspective, it is impossible to deny the significance in 20th century politics of Nazism, a political movement that championed and organized itself around “racial science”. From a non-Eurocentric perspective, it is impossible to deny the significance of decolonization, and European colonialism was organized around the superiority of white people and their right to rule over non-white people.

    Now, to the second claim. Frantz Fanon is not, as the comment before me mistakenly implies, African American. Neither is Charles Mills, actually, and neither is Oliver Cromwell Cox. Mills (who supervised my dissertation) is Jamaican and Cox was Trinidadian. Now, it is true that Mills is based in the US and so was Cox, and much of their work is focused on race in America, but The Racial Contract (Mills’ most famous book) is most definitely global in scope. Du Bois – one of the greatest intllectuals of the 20th century, in my view – was African American, but much of his work on race is also markedly global in scope.

    Fanon was Martinican and none of his work focused on race in America. His most famous books are Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), which focuses on the experience of the black West Indian in France, and Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth) which focuses on anticolonial struggle in Africa. To say that his importance as a thinker concerned with race deserves recognition is in no way Americo-centric. (This also goes, by the way, for a number of the thinkers named in the first comment, by John Drabinski, on the NewAPPS post: Césaire, Lumumba, Senghor, Glissant, Chamoiseau, Benitez-Rojo, Gilroy.)

    Having shown how the excerpt from the review did not reduce race to an American issue, let me expand on the point made by the previous commenter that race is *not* about the treatment of minorities (precisely the type of mistake one might make if one is narrowly focused on race in America). It is funny that just today I was discussing a speech by Nelson Mandela in my course on Legal Thinking, and I was remarking how useful it is to turn from the material we were looking at in the previous class on race and law in Canada (by the way, that is where I am located) to look at race in South Africa, because it is a great way to remember that racism is not something majorities do to minorities. The process of colonization made white people a majority in places like Canada and Australia but a minority in places like South Africa, and yet the belief in white supremacy and its institutionalization was a constant in all contexts.

    As for Europe, race clearly plays a major role in the politics of immigration and multiculturalism and thus it most certainly plays a role in the controversies surrounding Muslims in Europe. (If one is interested in the roles of race and colonialism in the global politics of Islam generally, I recommend Chapter 9 of Reza Aslan’s excellent book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.) I will say something more about the interesting case of Turkey at the end of my comment.

    Let me move to your points about early modern thought and philosophy of biology. First, it should be noted that the idea that a concept from science migrated into politics may very well get the picture backwards: it is European expansionism and colonialism that created the basis for early modern discussions of race, and thus it may be more appropriate to say that a certain form of politics produced a pseudo-science rather than the other way around. If, however, discussions of science and race in philosophy were limited to historical discussions of modern thinkers (by the way, for a great example of such work, I highly recommend Robert Bernasconi’s celebrated essay “Who Invented the Concept of Race? Kant’s Role in the Enlightenment Construction of Race”), then it would still be the case that philosophy of race was in no way parochial and also that there is no reason to subsume it within some larger category (especially given the way it cuts across work on politics and work on science). It also would not be the case that a pseudo-science was legitimized, as there is no reason to think that historical work of the kind you mentioned by Justin Smith or the kind I mentioned by Bernasconi has that effect.

    It is not, however, the case that discussions of science and race in philosophy are limited to historical discussions. You are right to speak of “debates” in philosophy of biology, and if there were already an unshakable consensus that race is nothing more than a pseudo-scientific concept, there would be no debates. As it turns out, philosophers of biology like Robin Andreasen and Philip Kitcher have explored ways of conceptualizing race that make it a biological reality without committing us to any of the falsehoods of older forms of race theory. Debates about “the new biology of race” (as Joshua Glasgow dubs it in his critique of these folks) enrich the field, and show once again that it is not parochial, that it cuts across areas of study in a unique way, and that it is wrong to assume that it legitimizes pseudo-science.

    In closing, let me speak briefly about Turkey. I certainly have no expertise on the question of what word best translates “race” in Turkish and what connotations this word might have. I do not have expertise on Turkey in general. Nevertheless, I have had a number of very interesting conversations about race with Turkish friends and acquaintances over the years and so I will mention a few ways in which I think Turkey might figure in discussions within philosophy of race. First of all, let me note that I think your uncertainty about the relevance of race to thinking about Turkey and about differences within Turkey is understandable, despite what I pointed out as a mistaken focus on the question of minorities. This is because I think the racial status of Turks itself is a not a clear-cut question, a point that is easily made when one thinks about the controversies over whether Turkey “belongs” in Europe. How do discussions of Turkey’s accession to the EU position Turkey racially? I think this is a useful question to ask. Outside of Turkey, there is the question of Turkish immigrants – how are they perceived in terms of racial categories? Does anti-Turkish sentiment or activity in a place like Germany count as racism? Inside Turkey, you are right to pose the question of whether the position of the Kurdish counts as a racialized one. To ask this question is to raise the philosophical question of the difference between race and ethnicity, an important question in the philosophy of race. Beyond the Kurds and other longstanding ethnic minorities, however, I have spoken with some people about the experience of migrant Africans in places like Istanbul, and there are interesting questions about race in Turkey to be raised in relation to such populations. What meanings attach to the term “zenci”, for example? And what might we say about the non-immigrant black population in Turkey, people like the singer Esmeray? What is their experience of racial difference? Finally, I have chatted with a friend about the meaning in contemporary political discourse of the terms “white Turk” and “black Turk”… the terms, as I understand it, do not refer to different “races” of people, but the question of what racial overtones might possibly attach to such language remains an interesting one.

    In any case, philosophy of race is not parochial, can’t be replaced or subsumed by another sub-area, and is growing in important ways that I am happy to see recognized by the Philosophical Gourmet and the good people at NewAPPS. I hope my comment has been both respectful and helpful.


    March 16, 2012 at 5:43 am

  5. My long comment was written after reading only the original post and the first comment. I think I gain a bit more understanding of some of the questions you have about philosophy of race after reading your subsequent comments.

    You worry, for example, that use of the term “race” suggests belief in race as a natural kind, and since you don’t believe it is a natural kind, you worry about philosophers portraying themselves as believing in something false by engaging in the philosophy of race. You should know, first of all, that perhaps the most popular position in philosophy of race is that race is (a) real but (b) a social kind, rather than a natural kind. This means that many philosophers of race, myself included, have no problem giving people the impression that we believe in the existence of race, despite agreeing with you that race is not a natural kind.

    But there is also a popular position in the field according to which races are putative natural kinds that are not in fact real. Folks who hold this position, as far as I can tell, have no problem with the title of the field, no more than an atheist who disbelieves all religious discourse would have a problem admitting that their work on the subject fits into the field known as philosophy of religion. The title of the field is not generally seen as suggesting a conclusion to the ontological questions raised by its participants. Nevertheless, you should know that there are other names out there: critical race theory (though that is borrowed from legal studies), critical philosophy of race (does the “critical” part accomplish what you say quotations around the word “race” might be good enough to do for you?), etc.

    By the way, you seem to misunderstand the power Leiter holds with respect to the field. The field is a growing and flourishing one, with a sophisticated literature and contributions by a number of very prominent philosophers. The fact that Leiter has finally gotten around to adding it as a specialty area need not be taken as any kind of comment on what he thinks of the field, what he thinks of the title of the field, etc. It is simply recognition that, in light of the expanding literature and number of people claiming expertise, the field cannot be ignored.

    Let me also say that the idea that people who discuss race as a serious social phenomenon are falling into some kind of right wing trap strikes me as an enormous misunderstanding of American political discourse. It is in fact the right wing that likes to point at people on the left as “playing the race card” whenever they (the left) dare to mention race. For example, a common dynamic over the course of the Obama presidency is inflammatory rhetoric from the right which is called out as racist by the left, with the right claiming that race has nothing to do with it.

    Finally, the idea that more people outside the US might grapple with the concept of race as a result of its addition as a specialty area is a very happy thought to me. There is a strong tendency in the West, outside of the US, to deflect issues of race and racism, seeing them as characteristic of the US. This is a very sick kind of social and historical blindness which has adverse effects on non-white members of these societies, as they have to deal not only with racism but with the myth that it doesn’t exist here, only over there in the States. Perhaps it’s unlikely that philosophy of race will take off as a big thing in Turkey, but the quicker that philosophers in Europe and Australasia can start doing some good philosophy of race (or critical race theory, or whatever one chooses to call it) the better… and I’m doing my part to make a difference here in Canada.


    March 16, 2012 at 9:06 am

    • Dear Chike

      Thanks a lot for both your long comments. You have given me a lot to think about. I don’t have much time now – so I don’t think I’ll be able to say all the things I want – but here are a few thoughts:

      (1) By background I’m a Kant scholar – and although I don’t primarily work on his Anthropology – I’ve thought a bit about his views on race and about the notion of race in early modern thought. – for those who don’t know this literature I’d also recommend having a look at Pauline Kleingeld’s “”Kant’s Second Thoughts on Race.” (2007).
      I suggested that the notion of race was a pseudo-scientific concept that migrated into political discourse and you reply that perhaps “a certain form of politics produced a pseudo-science rather than the other way around.” I suspect that both of these claims capture some of the truth. I guess that there is some interesting and important historical research done (and to be done) on this question. I know that Justin Smith is working on a book manuscript on the origins of racial ‘science’ in early modern natural philosophy – and I suspect this will be an important and significant book that will help us form a better understanding of the history of the concept of ‘race’. From what I remember about Justin’s work (he gave a talk on this in Istanbul a few years ago), I think it might be better to talk of the ‘modern (or early modern) construction of race rather than the enlightenment construction of race.

      (2) As I said, I don’t know much about the contemporary philosophy of race. I was aware that some (many?) think of the concept of race as a highly problematic concept. You write: “But there is also a popular position in the field according to which races are putative natural kinds that are not in fact real. Folks who hold this position, as far as I can tell, have no problem with the title of the field, no more than an atheist who disbelieves all religious discourse would have a problem admitting that their work on the subject fits into the field known as philosophy of religion.” I found this very interesting. I wonder if there are people in this field who hold such a position who do have a problem with the title of the field? I thought the analogy with the philosophy of religion was interesting. But I’m not sure it is the right analogy. An atheist can believe that religions actually exist. So I think a better analogy would be “the philosophy of God” or theology, and I guess that an athiest working in the philosophy of religion would not want to be called a theologian.

      The worry I have about the name of the field is that I take “Philosophy of x” to function as something like an honorific, implying the legitimate status of ‘x’. Given the fact that “race” is a problematic/contested concept I wonder why those who contest the concept are not worried about the discipline being named “the philosophy of race”. Why not, say: The philosophy of “race”?
      If there is anyone reading this who works in the philosophy of race who hold a position like the one Chike mentions – I’d be interested to know what they think of the title of the field.

      (3) I know that there is a debate in the philosophy of biology about the status of “race” – in my original post I mentioned this, saying “there is an ongoing debate here in the philosophy of biology”. (I was aware of Kitcher here, but not of Robin Andreasen – so thanks for the reference). From the little I know, my inclinations are still sceptical about the scientific legitimacy of the concept of “race” – but I’m open to be persuaded here.

      (4) You write: “Now, to the second claim. Frantz Fanon is not, as the comment before me mistakenly implies, African American. Neither is Charles Mills, actually, and neither is Oliver Cromwell Cox. Mills (who supervised my dissertation) is Jamaican and Cox was Trinidadian.” – you’re right that what I write falsely implies that Fanon is African American. Sorry for the sloppy writing. I guess I was expressing my attitude towards what I took to be the tone of the discussion and comments. I like Fanon and think he is interesting. But when I looked at the list of authors in the book under review, what I took to be striking is that it did not seem to include any non-euroepans or north Americans. Putting this in terms of “race” misses out, I think, a lot of the the missing.

      As aside: my views on “race” in America are partly influenced by having spent almost 10 years living in Philadelphia. Most of my black (and I’m not sure what word to use here) friends or acquaintances were either Europeans, from the Caribbean or recent immigrants from Ethiopia (there is a fairly large Ethiopian community in west Philadelphia) – and many of them found the American discourse on race problematic. Very few of them self identified as African Americans. (but obviously were aware of and often suffered racism).

      (5) One reason I wrote this post is because as a foreigner living in Turkey, I want to understand the country I am living in better. I have some intuitions about the notion of “irk” in Turkish, and from what I know I don’t think it really means “race” in the English sense, but is the best translation there is. But I’m interested to know if my intuitions here are correct. I guess that the concept of “race” plays an important role in political discourse in Europe, and the Americas – But I wonder how “race” (and difference) is conceptualised in non European and non “American” cultures (Understanding “American” here in a broad sense to include all the Americas). So I wonder to what degree are things conceptualised in terms of “race” in, say, Japan, China and India, and Africa?

      (6) On Leiter: I didn’t mean to imply that Leiter in some sense created the discipline by including it on the Gourmet report. Including it on the report was clearly the recognition of a reality. The point of mentioning the gourmet report was to meant primarily as evidence that ‘the philosophy of race” is fairly well established and recognised as a sub-discipline. i do think, however, that recognition of the gourmet does have consequences. And the gourmet report did decide to recognise “the philosophy of race” rather than say “critical race theory” – and I guess this may have implications for the field.

      Anyway – thanks again for your comments – I found them very stimulating and thinking about them is (hopefully) helping me to clarify my position.

      Lucas Thorpe

      March 16, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      • I agree that Kleingeld’s essay is well worth reading. But getting back to your worries, I have never once heard any of the racial anti-realists/skeptics/eliminativists (the field is still in the process of getting terminology settled) complain about referring to the field as philosophy of race. One very important recent book, according to which race is not real, is Joshua Glasgow’s book A Theory of Race. No quotation marks. I think people in fields outside philosophy are a lot more likely to use quotation marks than any philosophers are, and I think that’s because many outside philosophy want to refer to problems involving race but don’t want to be misunderstood as claiming that there are these biologically real things called races, etc. Philosophers of race are generally interested in tackling this metaphysical question head-on, and thus do not need quotation marks.

        You say your black immigrant friends did not identify as African American, which is unsurprising, as they are not American (at least in origin). I’m not sure I got the connection between that fact and the fact that they found the American discourse on race problematic. But here’s the interesting thing: you say they were obviously aware of and suffered from racism. Note that you did not place “racism” in quotation marks. Since the average person thinks of racism as discrimination based on race, the idea that racism can be real if there are no such things as races would be surprising to them. Now, as a matter of fact, it is possible to believe that racism is real without believing that races are – one simply needs to tweak the definition, perhaps doing something as simple as saying “perceived race”. My point, though, is that this is the kind of thing that shows why quotation marks around the term “race” itself seem disposable and, furthermore, you can hopefully start to see here the motivation behind social constructionism about race: since you can talk so easily and sensibly about the way people belonging to certain groups experience something called racism by virtue of belonging to those groups, you can hopefully see why it makes sense to many of us to talk of race as a social reality, not even despite but rather in part because of the influence of the biological fictions of old.

        The question you ask about race outside Europe and the Americas is a complicated one. Let’s start by remembering, though, that I’ve already pointed out a case in which notions of race remain a huge deal in Africa: the example of South Africa, where transcending the effects of apartheid remains a work in progress. Outside South Africa, though, the average African is much less likely to think as regularly about race as his/her black counterparts in Europe and North America. The average person in black majority countries in the Caribbean is going to think less about race as well. But go back 60 years and these countries were territories with black majorities run by white colonial elites, and so especially for those concerned with questions of power the question of race was inescapable. (Ethiopia is perhaps an interesting exception here, as it was never fully colonized, although the invasion and occupation by Italy of course had a major impact.) What I’m getting at is that consciousness of race in places where it is not *currently* a major factor in public life is partly based on the vividness of historical memory. It is also, however, a matter of global consciousness: many Africans are fully aware of the racial stereotypes that persist as explanations for the continent’s woes and many people of all backgrounds notice that the distribution of power and wealth in today’s world still bears the marks of the colonial era (even if places like India and especially China have moved us ever further into a global formation where Japan – another place notable for having escaped colonization – is not the sole representative of the non-white world among the major powers).

        In closing, I will say that if Leiter had chosen to use the term “critical race theory” I suspect he would not have gotten many complaints, and there may even be those who would have preferred that. For my part, I like “philosophy of race” better because of the deep association of “critical race theory” with legal studies – one can’t be confused if the word “philosophy” appears in the title. In any case, I’m glad you found my contributions stimulating and helpful.


        March 20, 2012 at 7:55 am

    • p.s. I’ve re-read the NewAPPS post and the original review, and having thought about your comments, I suspect that my reading of it (as being too Americacentric) may have been uncharitable.

      Lucas Thorpe

      March 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm

  6. The criticism of the second point undercuts the criticism of the first. If the concept is unclear, how will we be able to understand what its significance is? Indeed, I think in everyday usage, historical usage and scientific usage, the meaning of the word ‘race’ is entirely obscure. In the US, it means something like ‘group according to dominant skin color,’ but its clear that it is not used that way even remotely consistently. It is used for cultural notions far more often than some genetic notion. And even when it is used for some genetic marker, it is used without much thought. Obama is black, Tiger is black. Tiger is never Asian, and Obama is never white, even though the one had a white mother, and the other had an Asian mother. But very quickly, the real use of the words changes, so that the way you act determines the true nature of racist views. So, for example, racists in the US today can separate black from the N word by their behavior, as in Chris Rock’s “I love black people, but I hate [N-word].’ The difference between Rock and most racists in the US is a disagreement about numbers. But the very distinction that they are using, whatever it is, is not genetic, but cultural, individual.

    In Europe 1850-WW2, each nationality was considered a race.
    The Nazi conception of being German and being Jewish actually gets into the same territory (I have a buddy who wrote a book on Einstein’s Jewishness, in which he and his co-author get into just what Jews and Germans thought of as being Jewish), and there was an English race, French race, etc. And its quite clear from the markers of those racial notions that they only referred to cultural notions. And they are still at it, if only when it comes to people who act very differently from the standard Dutch or English behavior. I don’t think the average Dutchman worries about the genetic scope of race when she vents against Turks or Moroccans, but the content of their discourse matches racists views, and is usually categorized as racist.

    And again, native American tribes, as well as others, have some ‘racial’ notions, but not understood genetically (obviously), nor in terms of color. If you acted Comanche, you were Comanche, of the people. And if not, you were a moral non-entity, to be used in any way a Person sees fit. But they freely stole children from other ‘races’ and raised them Comanche with almost no bias. There are reports that the child of a ‘white’ woman and her Comanche leader was teased for having a non-Comanche mother by other children. But he grew up to be a great leader, too.

    In short, we have meant and continue to mean a variety of incoherent attitudes ‘racist.’ In true analytic fashion (and Socratic), lets get more clear about what we mean before we consider questions about it.


    March 19, 2012 at 4:40 pm

  7. The use of ‘minority’ for ‘race’ is a case in point. But Minority is not racial, but flows from not being the dominant culture in a plurality. This, of course, need not be an actual minority (Africans in South Africa), nor even based on race (French speaking Canadians) but does connote lack of power, and poorly treated as a result. That we can substitute a non racial notion for a racial notion so easily shows that a lot more is going on.


    March 19, 2012 at 4:46 pm

  8. Re: Turkey and the concept of “race” [irk], here is an example of how the concept is useful and already in action in theorizing discrimination in Turkey:


    March 22, 2012 at 10:01 pm

  9. I completely understand and agree with your analysis. The sociological and political understanding of ‘race’ are based on, at best, 20th century psychological thinking of the caliber of phrenology that sadly found its way into sociology and politics.

    I beleive that psychology offers a uniting theory, one that would generalize well to your Turkish example. It is ‘social identity theory’ which is about in-groups and out-groups, and it ties in to evolutionary thinking very well. Basically, we are ‘tribal’ – like chimpanzees, we throw rocks at other tribes, especially when competing for resources, but implicitly trust members of our own. This can be induced experimentally: people can be randomly assigned to groups, and they will then discriminate against people who are assigned to the other, arbitrary group. It works with calling people ‘reds’ and ‘blues’ (can’t find the link to the paper) and there have been numerous interesting experiments.


    Robbers Cave Experiment

    Stanford Prison Experiment

    Sadly, people raised in the most communal environments (Israeli Kibbutz) demonstrate ingroup-outgroup bias, which suggests there is something very primal about it. http://ideas.repec.org/p/wpa/wuwpex/0310002.html. Race is just one kind of ingroup/outgroup distinction.


    January 20, 2014 at 8:32 pm

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