[Presented in the colloquium series of the Boğaziçi University Philosophy Department, 21 July, 2009]
Recent research at the boundary of cognitive anthropology and philosophy in the field of ‘folk taxonomy’ or ‘folk biology’ has drawn remarkable conclusions about the regularity of certain aspects of classification across cultures. Atran 1990 has argued that in the highly structured and articulated domain of folk-taxonomical knowledge, there are universal constraints upon the different ways different cultures may carve the world up, and that Aristotle, and later Linnaeus, were no more free of these constraints than were the Guatemalan Indians whose taxonomic system Atran himself studied. Francisco Gil-White 2001 has extended this programme of research from cognition of animal and plant kinds to subkinds of the human species, that is, to what are generally called 'races'. Gil-White's argument is that not only is there an a priori structure for cognizing and classifying biological species, but human cultural groups are also, in turn, constrained to think of other human cultural groups on the model of biological species: that is, the same innate tendency toward essentialism about animal kinds is what makes human beings, everywhere and for the most part, racists. But there are some points of disanalogy that threaten Gil-White's thesis, the most important being that species are biologically significant categories (even if evolutionary theory has taken them down a few notches from their earlier status as eternal natural kinds on a par with gold or even triangles), whereas races are not. Part of Atran's thesis had been that, while rough, folk-biological taxonomy generally maps reliably onto the divisions in nature, whereas there simply are no corresponding divisions in nature that might enable "folk racial science" to "get it right." Where then do racial categories come from, if not an a priori fit between the mind and the natural world? Here, it will be helpful to introduce Hacking's notion of 'historical kind', and to consider in terms of it the relatively recent emergence of 'race' as a distinctively scientific category. What we see when we do this is that, while some variety of us/them dichotimization may be an inelimnable feature of human cognition of social reality, it was by no means inevitable that this feature should develop into a quasi-biological classificatory scheme. For this to happen, there also had to be a distinct confluence of ideas, particularly in the work of Buffon, Blumenbach, Kant and others, about human nature and human diversity. The aim of this talk will be to spell these out.