Abstract of a talk to be given at the CUNY Graduate Center, hosted by the Committee for Interdisciplinary Science Studies, May 6, 2013.
It is not hard for arguments in favour of racial realism to lapse into circularity: as Barbara J. Fields nicely summarizes the problem, certain characteristics are first defined as 'racial', and then these very same characteristics are adduced as evidence for the existence of race. Yet it may well be that this is how science in general proceeds in coming up with ever more adequate knowledge of where nature's proverbial joints are found. If such circularity can often be virtuous, to the extent that it serves heuristic purposes until such time as the initial folk-category is displaced by one that picks out real divisions in the natural world (as John Dupré has nicely described the history of the category 'fish'), in the case of race the folk-categories appear to have a life of their own that is entirely indifferent to what science tells us about the way genetic traits in fact cluster in populations. This indifference strongly suggests that what we are dealing with here is not even a candidate for natural kindhood, but is rather a social and historical kind, with all the attendant 'looping effects' Ian Hacking has told us to expect. And this suggests also that any adequate treatment of the concept of race will approach it genealogically, will be one that asks, namely, when and why people began speaking of the human species as if it broke down into a fixed number of real subkinds. We can precisely date the leap of the term 'race' from animal husbandry (pigeons, dogs, and horses, mostly) to talk of human social reality: it happened in the 1680s. What, though, were the conceptual problems this terminological innovation was meant to help solve? Did it in fact help to solve them? What are the reasons why this new way of talking about human diversity stuck, and remains with us several centuries later? In this talk, I would like to go some distance toward answering these difficult questions by reconstructing the context in early modern science and philosophy in which the concept of race first emerged, with particular attention to the work of François Bernier, G. W. Leibniz, and Carol Linnaeus.