Philosophy of Race

Race is a socially constructed category of people who share similar physical characteristics, such as skin color and facial features. It also refers to a person’s ethnic and cultural identity and ancestral background. A person may belong to or identify with more than one race, and some diseases are disproportionately prevalent in certain races. The concept of race was developed in the 17th century, shortly after the start of European exploration and colonization, as a folk ideology to explain differences between Europeans, Africans, and Amerindians. It became a powerful mechanism of social division and stratification in the 19th century, after the abolition of slavery.

Some philosophers have argued that the concept of race is flawed, while others have embraced it. The arguments of the latter group have focused on issues of social injustice. These have included criticism of the science behind race, and a call to abandon all forms of racism.

A prominent figure in the development of racial thinking was Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), often considered the founder of modern anthropology. His doctoral dissertation, published in 1775 and later revised and republished, identified four “varieties of mankind,” characterized by different facial features and presumably ancestry from different geographical areas: the noble blonds of Europe and Asia; the copper reds of America (and east Asian); the dark browns of Africa; and the squat lapps of northern Scandinavia.

Although some anthropologists supported Blumenbach’s ideas, academic anthropology provided the first serious challenge to biological conceptions of race in 1858 with a paper by Columbia University professor Franz Boas (1858-1942). In his essay, Boas attacked one key fundament of racial classification, namely that the physical traits associated with each racial type were fixed, rather than changing through natural selection (Bernasconi and Lott 2000, 84-88).

While recognizing that race is an essential social construct, scholars have differed on whether it is more of an ontology (a question of reality) or epistemology (a question of knowledge), or both. Many philosophers, including Foucault, have emphasized the epistemological dimensions of the question, but others have tended to emphasize the ontology of the concept of race, as a social construct whose existence depends on power relations between individuals and groups.

In the late 20th century, genetic studies have conclusively refuted the concept of biogenetically distinct races. Nevertheless, a debate continues about how to describe human diversity, with some scholars arguing that there are still useful distinctions between phenotypes such as skin color and facial features, while others maintain that these categories are too crude and broad-brush for use in describing human variation.

The philosophy of race is part of a larger, diverse field in which we consider the nature of our shared humanity, how people make sense of differences between each other, and what roles public policy and private institutions play in determining economic inequalities and health disparities. Other related fields include philosophical ethics, social and political philosophy, and philosophy of religion. See the entries on these and related topics for more information.