Racism and conceptual analysis: A defense of the Wittgensteinian approach

Alberto G Urquidez, Purdue University


This dissertation defends Ludwig Wittgenstein’s grammatical approach to philosophy in the context of contemporary theories of racism. Grammatical analysis does not aim at theory-construction, but at conceptual clarity that is free from conceptual confusion. My aim is to dissolve conceptual confusion in contemporary theories of racism. I clarify ordinary uses of ‘racism’ and its cognates, and key analytical terms (e.g., ‘description,’ ‘correct use,’ ‘definition,’ ‘disagreement,’ and so on). Whereas contemporary ‘descriptive approaches’ are explanatory on the model of hypothetico-deductive theories in the natural sciences, the grammatical method is purely descriptive on the model of clarifying the rules of a legal code or game. Currently, there are few defenses of Wittgenstein’s grammatical approach in the normative domain (e.g., moral, social and political philosophy) although that is slowly changing. Most philosophers who seek to extend Wittgenstein to this domain deliberately violate his central commitment to pure description (‘philosophy leaves everything as it is’), for it is typical of this field to resolve practical problems. Thus, the so-called quietist objection states that pure description is necessarily conservative, since it precludes the possibility of criticizing ordinary usage. Most Wittgenstein-inspired approaches concede this point and proceed to reject pure description. The quietist objection is shown to be misguided (in chapter 1), for it rests on the dubious assumption that pure description is incompatible with critical and revisionist philosophical approaches. The Wittgensteinian need not object to Wittgenstein-inspired philosophers who appropriate elements of his picture of language for their own purposes, including those who revise, criticize and extend grammar. However, Wittgenstein’s purely descriptive method is shown to be essential to the achievement of conceptual clarity that is free from conceptual confusion. To abandon it, therefore, is to engage in a different philosophical project by virtue of pursuing some other end. My argument in defense of Wittgenstein’s grammatical method is that clarity about both the concept of racism and conceptual analysis can dispel conceptual confusion in contemporary theories of racism. The main targets of my arguments are Clevis Headley, Joshua Glasgow, Leonard Harris, and Jorge L. A. Garcia. I also engage the work of Lawrence Blum and Charles Mills. My aim is not to offer a grammatical overview of racism’s vast conceptual terrain, but to focus on key manifestations of racism to dissolve confusion. Conceptual clarity does not merely undermine some theories of racism, for the confusions I dissolve are methodological in nature. The positive upshots include: • Clarity about the difference between a definition of ‘racism’ and a description of racism (introduction) • Clarity about the sense in which a definition of ‘racism’ is ‘correct’ (chapter 2) • Clarity about the role of ‘adequacy conditions’ in descriptive theories of racism (chapter 3) • Clarity about the nature of ‘disagreement about racism’ (chapters 4-5) • Clarity about the distinction between ‘descriptive’ and ‘prescriptive’ approaches (chapter 6) In each case, the dissolution of conceptual confusion is connected with greater clarity. What begins to emerge is a more nuanced understanding of ‘theory of racism.’ For example, empirical and a priori approaches are shown to pursue different goals. As such, these different approaches are not inherently incompatible. My dissertation makes two substantial contributions to the philosophy of race. First, it dissolves substantial forms of conceptual confusion in contemporary theories and approaches to racism. Second, my heuristic defense of Wittgenstein’s grammatical approach establishes its pragmatic value for the philosophy of race. My dissertation also makes a substantial contribution to Wittgenstein studies. It does four things, which, taken together, have not been done in the field: (a) it applies Wittgenstein’s method to the normative domain, (b) without rejecting his central claim that philosophy is purely descriptive; (c) without rejecting the possibility of normative approaches; and (d) without falling victim to the objection that his purely descriptive approach is “quiet” on social issues and is therefore politically conservative.




Harris, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Social research|Philosophy|Language

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