When arguing about the reality of race, constructivists will often challenge one to produce the definition or meaning of race. This is because there are certain erroneous semantic and conceptual presuppositions at work in the background of the debate on race that confuse the issue and lead to social constructivism. I can’t hope to fully cover this complex issue here, but I do wish to show that there are alternatives to the premises anti-realists use to support their position. Their goal is to shift the debate away from biology and into the madhouse of semantics.
The first thing to note is that whether we know how to define something bears nothing on a phenomenon’s reality. Lightning was real and identifiable long before we knew what it was or how to define it. Once having shifted the debate to semantics, the constructivists will require that the only form of acceptable definition is a list of necessary and sufficient conditions, or a uniquely identifying description. The old-school way of thinking is that the meaning of a term determines its “extension”–the things in the world that fall under that term—and that meanings are lists of necessary and sufficient conditions. However, no biological phenomenon has such rigid boundaries, as discussed previously in part 2. As Jerry Fodor states:
A major problem with the definition story was the lack of convincing examples; nobody has a bullet-proof definition of, as it might be, ‘cow’ or ‘table’ or ‘irrigation’ or ‘pronoun’ on offer; not linguists, not philosophers, least of all English-speakers as such. (Concepts 1998, p. 92-93)
And so realists should not worry about providing a meaning for ‘race’ if the only admitted notion of meaning is necessary and sufficient conditions. On Millikan’s view, on the other hand, the meaning of a kind term is not the result of conceptual analysis of the term, but is its “stabilizing function,” its survival value, what it does that explains why we continue to use it in communication. The question is why does a term continue to be kept in use? What effect does it produce that makes it valuable to keep around? Upon encountering some feature of nature, we coin a conventional term and propagate it in order to coordinate amongst each other when discussing the thing. Terms survive and are kept in use because they have historically succeeded to direct our listeners’ attention towards the things in the world. If speakers could not get their listeners to know to what item in the world they were referring, they would stop using the term to share information with listeners, it would die out. And if listeners could not gain useful information about the items in the world by treating speakers’ use as referring to some object, they would stop forming beliefs on this basis. But as the interests of both speakers and hearers are served by using worlds to refer to features of the world, the term remains in use. It is because of the stability of the structure of the world that speakers and hearers manage to coordinate in sharing useful information about it in communication, not because they have a common reified meaning before their minds. The world structures our language, not the other way around.
Just as with other kind terms, race is a natural phenomenon about which we may want to understand and communicate. The terms for the various races mean what they do, and people manage to agree in their judgements concerning races, because the races persist in time with a relatively stable form.
Also working in the background is a certain notion of the nature of concepts. The traditional view, descended from Kant, is that concepts are ways of organizing experience, or “carving up reality.” If you believe that there are multiple ways of carving up reality, and that they are all equally valid, and that the categories are created by the powerful in order to serve their interests, you end up with full-blown post-structural Marxist relativism. For Millikan, on the other hand, concepts are not ways of classifying the objects of experience; instead concepts are mental abilities to reidentify what is objectively the same on disparate occasions and under disparate conditions.
Again quoting Elder:
Suppose, then, that the kinds of nature obtain independently of our having names for them or thoughts about them. Then at the time that natural selection was fashioning in our hominid ancestors the capacities to think about the world’s kinds, and to name the world’s kinds, our ancestors already were surrounded by objects and samples belonging to these kinds. These objects and samples were similar to their kind-mates in respect of many properties—often enough, in respect of properties crucial to our ancestors’ survival. For this reason it would have been crucial for our ancestors to be competent, and useful for them to be skilled, at reindentifying nature’s kinds – at judging (and saying) that this object now before me is the same in kind as that object that I (or a member of my clan) earlier examined… So it was crucial for our ancestors to be able to bring to bear information gleaned from earlier inspections of members of a given kind to their dealings with members currently encountered. Our ancestors needed to be able to reidentify nature’s kinds. (Millikan and her Critics, p. 158).
To be able to benefit from experience with, say, tigers, it is crucial that one be able to identify tigers, since tigers share many properties, such as being dangerous carnivores, and so in order to exploit the knowledge gained from one encounter we need to be able to identify and reidentify tigers. My methods of identifying tigers might differ significantly from yours, or from a zoologist, or a hunter. There is no one universal shared concept of tigers that is grasped by the mind of all those who know how to identify tigers. Individual tigers don’t fall under the concept ‘tiger’ because they match the conceptual classification scheme (they are tigers for the reasons given in part 1). Social constructivists always challenge you to produce the classification scheme first. Instead the question is how it that we are able to identify members of races and relatively accurately can discern their kind membership. We might use skin color, or hair color, or eye shape, or some other observable feature because these are more or less reliable methods of identification, but these methods of identification are not what it means to be a member of the kind, which is a matter of history, and not a priori.
In conclusion, it is obvious that there are races. Race is a natural phenomenon that we wish to understand and discuss. If Aristotelian (or genetic) essentialism is in error, we need to seek another explanation for the phenomenon. Social constructivists however act like having discovered that fire is not phlogiston have concluded that fire doesn’t exist. It just so happens that we have a perfectly good explanation for the reality of race: humans migrated into different parts of the world and in relative isolation for thousands or tens of thousands of years were subject to different forces and developed differently. This has resulted in the races that inhabit the world today with their varying features. We form concepts of the various races by possessing the mental ability to identify members of races. We can discuss race because the various races are more or less stable and enduring. This stability allows our language to reliably convey information between speakers and hearers. This realist picture of concepts and language allows us to avoid the premises used by social constructivists in reaching their anti-realist positions.