Philosophy Race
Angelo Corlett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0097


The concept of race is of great importance to moral, social, political, and legal philosophy, as well as the history of philosophy and philosophy of science. However, it has received less attention from analytic philosophers than many other important concepts. The concept of race is related to matters of ethnicity, racism, social justice, and differences in health and status. Yet most philosophers who write on race write on it as it relates to matters of racism and social justice and ignore other questions about the use of the concept in science and public life. The concept, however, gives rise to a variety of philosophical questions. Are humans properly categorized by race? If so, are these natural kinds, social constructions, or something else? What properties, moreover, are best used to categorize humans into different groups? If severe harmful wrongdoing against one group is caused by racism against that group, what, if anything, ought to be done to remedy the harm? This bibliography annotates the most important analytic philosophical work on race and the areas of philosophical investigation related to this category.

General Overviews

These sources discuss critically the concept of race in general (Taylor 2003). They are among the most philosophically sophisticated works on race and discuss the nature of race, some asking whether or not the category “race” ought to be eliminated because it is an empty or highly problematic concept. There are generally at least two positions on this issue. One is that, on the assumption that the concept of race is empty, use (not mention) of the category ought to be eliminated from human vocabulary, except of course as a historical artifact (race eliminativism). Proponents of this position would include Appiah (Appiah 1990; Appiah and Gutmann 1996), Corlett (Corlett 2003, cited under Race And Ethnicity), and Zack (Zack 1993, Zack 2002), who propose that categories of ethnicity supplant those of race in ordinary and scientific discourse. Yet there are those who wish to retain race-talk (race non-eliminativism). Hardimon 2003 and Glasgow 2009, for example, wish to retain racial categories in order to combat racism, and Mallon 2006 argues that there are ways of talking about race that are not objectionable and that Appiah and Zack are incorrect in wanting to jettison talk about race altogether. There is also disagreement concerning whether or not the concept of race is a social construction or a biologically based one. Appiah and Zack concur that race is a social construct, while Kitcher 1999 disagrees. Furthermore, some philosophers maintain that though there are no properties shared by all and by only the members of one racial group, as long as people classify themselves by race, race should be used as a variable in the social and biomedical sciences to describe or explain variation in measures of health or well-being. Some philosophers also maintain that given the role race has played in the history of the United States and other countries, race is an important category in the formulation and administration of public policy. Finally, some philosophers maintain that as long as race is a source of individual and social identification or pride, racial categories should be conserved rather than eliminated.

  • Appiah, Anthony. “But Would That Still be Me?: Notes on Gender, Race, Ethnicity as Sources of Ethnicity.” Journal of Philosophy 77 (1990): 493–499.

    Poses important questions of what really makes one what one is, putatively, in terms of race. Morphology may change, but race, if there is such a thing, remains constant for each person.

  • Appiah, Anthony, and Amy Gutmann. Color Conscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    Appiah argues that even if one assumes a genetic picture of race, one can see that each person is the product of various genetic properties, “interacting with each other and the environment” and that there is no guarantee that members of a group that share some characteristic will share all or even most others with other members of that group.

  • Glasgow, Joshua. A Theory of Race. London: Routledge, 2009.

    Argues that, as ordinarily conceived, race is illusory. However, our pressing need to speak to and make sense of social life requires that we employ something akin to racial discourse and requires us to cease to conceptualize race as something biological, and instead to understand it as an entirely social matter.

  • Hardimon, Michael. “The Ordinary Concept of Race.” Journal of Philosophy 100 (2003): 437–455.

    Addresses purely morphological, genealogical, and geographical analyses and finds them wanting and reveals a more complicated account of race. It is anti-eliminativist on the issue of whether or not “race” ought to be eliminated. But it is an account of race that is of questionable use in public policy administration because it seems unable (owing to vagueness) to accurately identify humans as being members of this or that racial group.

  • Kitcher, Philip. “Race, Ethnicity, Biology, Culture.” In Racism. Edited by Leonard Harris, 87–117. Amherst, MA: Humanity, 1999.

    Agrees that the concept of race in terms of phenotypic properties is highly problematic and that any attempt to justify the superiority of one race over another is mistaken. “Pure” races are nonexistent. While the old conceptions of race ought to be eliminated from usage, a biological conception of race is possible. The social construction theory of race is implausible.

  • Mallon, Ron. “Race: Normative, Not Metaphysical or Semantic.” Ethics 116 (2006): 525–551.

    DOI: 10.1086/500495

    Discusses the views of Appiah (various articles) and Zack 2002 on race. Argues that much of race-talk is illusory and that meaningful race-talk ought not to depend on a “correct” theory of reference for racial categories.

  • Taylor, Paul. Race: A Philosophical Introduction. London: Polity, 2003.

    Explores the meaning and significance of race-talk, including some of its implications for social justice.

  • Zack, Naomi. Philosophy of Science and Race. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    Argues that the folk conception of race has no scientific basis and that we ought to give up race-talk.

  • Zack, Naomi. Race and Mixed Race. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

    Provides an existential analysis of the concepts of race and mixed race. A broad range of racial categories is covered.

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