|Monahan on the Ontology of Race: Race, Being, and the Politics of Purity
Professor Clevis Headley
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Florida Atlantic University
Department of Philosophy
777 Glades Road
Boca Raton, Florida
Michael Monahan’s The Creolizing Subject: Race, Reason, and the Politics of Purity1 analytically unsettles the dominant philosophical rhetoric purporting to theoretically anchor thinking about race. Indeed, the fashionable nonsense now in vogue, which passes for the normativity of race, declares that ontologically dubious talk about race causes racism. The concept of race is, accordingly, so intensely denigrated, that many thinkers consider the following claims as self-evident: (1) “a racially just future must be a raceless one[,]”2 and (2) “racial categories [are] inherently inconsistent with a commitment to human freedom.”3 Monahan’s text focuses on, among other things, various historical approaches to the concept of race, the ontological status of race, the meaning and significance of racism, the politics of purity, and creolization as it relates to the possibility of a more racially just future. Despite this diverse list of topics, my response to Monahan will focus primarily on the ontology/being of race. After reviewing a cluster of issues regarding the ontology of race, this essay will conclude with a few affirmative and evaluative remarks to reinforce Monahan’s position in defense of the realness of race.
The Question of the Being of Race
Monahan describes his task as being about, as well as vigorously participating in, “debates regarding the reality, or lack thereof, of race as a category of being.”4 Consequently, he singles out for criticism any “static and purified notion of the meaning of racial terms.”5
Monahan proposes the challenge to philosophically embrace race while simultaneously recognizing and acknowledging that the concept of race is fraught with ambiguity, indeterminacy, and outright contradiction. Accordingly, attempts to isolate the concept of race as a self-contained, formal, and abstract concept that definitively answers to necessary and sufficient conditions of identification conflict with the fact that the concept of race is situated in histories with contestation of meaning. Indeed, in not allowing a formal and abstract mode of critical analysis to dictate his investigations, Monahan confesses faithfulness to history, stating that he favors the “more historically sensitive argument regarding racial ontology.” As he writes:
Another crucial theme of this book will be the role of history in our efforts to grapple with [...] abstract questions concerning the nature of race and racism. Pure conceptual analysis, to use a favorite term in philosophical circles, is inadequate in these cases…. My claim is in part that a rigorous analysis of these particular concepts […] is not susceptible to pure conceptual analysis at all. The history of these concepts themselves, and also of the reality and phenomena they are attempting to describe, cannot be separated from each other.6
If there is a main question or issue dominating Monahan’s text, it is one about the being or reality of race. Indeed, Monahan frames the question as follows: “If race is not biological, does it follow that it cannot be real? If it can be real, what kind of reality does it have?”7 It is the realness of race, or rather, the ontological status of race that concerns Monahan.
The Politics of Purity
Monahan identifies a basic framework that structures the styles of thinking about race: Racial discourse is structurally dependent upon what he calls the politics of purity, which is a normative ideal dedicated to the purification of racial categories. Racial categories, based on this view, must be purified, so that, for any given individual, he/she determinately belongs to one and only one racial category. However, if racial concepts are not clearly defined in a way that includes all the necessary and sufficient conditions or criteria for the application of the concept of race, then the being or reality of race is suspect. In Monahan’s view:
[Either whiteness or blackness,] as a category, demands clear boundaries and distinctions, and when those boundaries and distinctions become fuzzy or indeterminate, something is bound to give way. Either the boundary will shift or the challenge to that boundary will be removed, or at least redescribed in a way that is no longer threatening to the underlying purity. Racial categories like whiteness [or blackness], according to this logic, are pure, unambiguous, all-or-nothing categories. One either is or is not a member of a given race.8
Here we encounter the reappearance of the old philosophical prejudice against vagueness, indeterminacy, and ambiguity as being corrosive to the normativity of thought. To the extent that one views these philosophical blemishes as detrimental to the formal functioning of our concepts and logic, hence as not conducive to the truth-preserving inferences, they should be condemned.
Why this focus on the politics of purity? Monahan insightfully connects the logic of the politics of purity to the concept of race. If the concept of race does not admit to sharp and distinctive boundaries, and if this feature of race makes it impossible to definitively determine whether or not an individual purely belongs to a distinctive racial category, then the concept of race must be rejected as bogus or counterfeit. Monahan claims:
The metaphysical presumption is that if race exists, it must be pure—it must consist of discrete, exclusive, and unambiguous categories admitting to necessary and sufficient conditions of individual membership—and if it is not pure in this way, then, it simply must not exist.9
Monahan seeks to show how the politics of purity functions as a transcendental ground for thinking about race. Even calls for the abolition of race and racism are conceptually dependent upon the politics of purity, and hence, they are committed to the view that to declare an entity to be real, the entity in question must be necessarily mind-independent. At this point, a brief review of Monahan’s insightful account of both the new abolitionist and the eliminativist paradigms is warranted.
Racial Abolitionism and Racial Eliminativism
It is important to initially note that there is indeed a structural logic at the core of the abolitionist position: a logic connecting the ontological status of race, the nature of racism, and racial liberation. First, there is the concession of race as having been historically constructed to advance pernicious purposes. Second, because of the checkered ontological status and mischievous political career of race, the obvious conclusion that racism is synonymous with the utilization of insidious racial concepts follows. And third, a truly liberated society is one lacking these concepts. Monahan points out that once the “ontological position is accepted, the rest follows quite naturally, while at the same time, accepting the abolitionist prescription seems to necessitate an acceptance of the ontology on pain of incoherence. It makes sense to call for the [… ] abolition of race if it is both unreal and can only serve […] nefarious ends.”10
Like the abolitionists, the racial eliminativists also focus on the ontology of race. They quickly conclude that race is not real. Monahan effectively condenses the main thrust of the eliminativist position as follows:
[T]he move to […] elimination is coherent only because racial concepts and claims are ultimately taken to be false—they are misrepresentations of reality—and that, in addition to the harm they have caused, is why they must be abandoned. The claim that they are harmful alone would not be sufficient reason to eliminate them, they must also be in some significant way unreal—or at least, not really real.11
Why the obsessive calls for the abolition or the elimination of race? Why not pursue a salvaging project precisely because of the saliency of race in modern society? Both the abolitionists and the eliminativists are in agreement that the demand to satisfy the philosophical requirements of realness is nonnegotiable. For both eliminativists and abolitionists, our philosophical standards should not be compromised to accommodate bastard concepts such as race. As Monahan states, “both [abolitionists and eliminativists] hold that a really real notion of race must be biological, even if such a conception of race should prove untenable, then there is ultimately no such thing, and the misguided invention of the concept must be overturned, eliminated, or abolished.”12 Again it can be seen, as Monahan argues, that both abolitionists and eliminativists are active participants in the politics of purity. Racial categories, for both positions, must have sharp boundaries. If they lack sharp boundaries, then they fail to designate the being of entities and it follows that any entities these racial categories posit are, accordingly, unreal. Here, the operation of a structural logic is detected. As Monahan explains, both positions “describe the logic of racial reality as demanding […] conceptual purity, demonstrate […] that such conceptual purity is impossible, and conclude that race cannot be real.13
Monahan on the Realness/Being; A Phenomenological Approach
Clearly Monahan is correct in demonstrating that the concept of the real that is presupposed by abolitionists and eliminativists is not exhaustive of the real. There is another sense of being that is captured by the insight that human praxis can “generate categories of being that would not exist otherwise.”14
In order to demonstrate the plausibility of his alternative conception of the real and his conception of the being of race as informed by this approach, Monahan does not complacently retreat to the comfort of abstract and formal analysis. Instead, he integrates critical analysis and historical resources, and he illustrates this hybrid method through a study of the Irish in seventeenth-century Barbados. The example of Irish immigrants in Barbados is particularly interesting, because the English initially consider the Irish to be nonwhite. While agreeing that the application of necessary and sufficient biological categories does not govern the use of whiteness as a racial category, Monahan takes issue with the abolitionist’s insinuation that there is only one way to be white. He writes:
The story [of the Irish in Barbados] is not one of Irish servants alchemically transmuting from nonwhite to white, as if the meaning of whiteness were a fixed point, but rather it is one of the Irish entering this ongoing contestation of the meaning of whiteness—simultaneously shaping and being shaped by that unfolding process of contestation. They were not failing to be white but rather demonstrating a different way to be white.15
Monahan’s position is, most accurately described, as a diachronic reconstruction of race, and not a logical reconstruction. This approach is consistent with Monahan’s claim that “the meaning and significance of race has never been fixed and determinate but rather always characterized by ambiguity and contestation.”16
Monahan develops his alternative semantics and ontology of race, as well as his conception of being, through an appropriation of Husserlian phenomenology. He firmly agrees with the phenomenological turn, and he clearly recognizes why the rejection of positivism is a decisive move “away from simply attending to inherent qualities of the empirical world to that of taking up meaning and significance….”17 By endorsing this phenomenological turn, Monahan similarly argues that “the meaning and significance of racial categories are constituted by human beings.”18
Returning to the issue of the nature of being, Monahan acknowledges the difference between the idea of the world as existing totally independently of us and the possibility of the world as constituted. Substituting the metaphor of constitution in place of discovery enables Monahan to construe racial categories as assignments of meaning and significance to, for example, the idealities of whiteness and blackness. The world, as it takes on meaning and significance for consciousness, is a world constituted, not a pregiven world that is already determinately ordered into distinct and unique objects. The world, as it acquires meaning for human beings, is more than a mere collection of objects. According to Monahan:
Rather than simply positing a world of already meaningful objects which we then passively perceive, phenomenology points toward an active consciousness that confers meaning in the very act of perceiving, and in this way comes to constitute the world in which we live as a world of meaning.19
Just as consciousness is an active force in the constitution of the world, the active “role of human consciousness in the constitution of racial reality[,...]”20 is similarly underscored by Monahan. This approach challenges the view that, in order to be real, racial reality must possess a pregiven biological basis, or a biological foundation, that accommodates the necessary and sufficient set of properties utilized for demarcating races. The idea that race can only be real in the sense of claiming an existence that is totally independent of human beings and admitting to necessary and sufficient conditions of identification is, according to Monahan, a misrepresentation and distortion of racial reality. It should be noted that the realness or reality of race is not reducible to the idea of the real as indicative of a determination of the structures of things as they are in themselves. Rather, according to Monahan, race is real “in the sense of being an inescapable factor conditioning human subjectivity, and structuring the meaning of the social world.”21
In this context, the notion of the real is both ontologically and semantically emergent from the ways that human beings constitute the world, namely, processes of world-making made possible by various cognitive and linguistic resources. What makes race particularly real is that our lifeworld for the past three hundred to four hundred years has been shaped and continues to be profoundly shaped by race. Race, as Monahan maintains, is “the position from and through which we constitute meaning in and of the world, including especially the meanings of race itself.”22
Race, consequently, is not given, but is instead, in the language of phenomenology, intersubjectively constituted from different locations, which are in turn themselves shaped by a diverse set of discursive formations and structures of significance/meaning. As Monahan states:
Thus, in asking what race is, we should expect ambiguity, contention and contestation, and even contradiction in the various responses worthy of consideration. 23
That there is contention, contestation, ambiguity, and contradiction concerning race, however, is not an indication that race is irredeemably a candidate of semantic vagueness and referential opacity. Race cannot be immediately condemned as illusionary or as unreal simply because it courts contestability, contention, and ambiguity. On the contrary, it is the insistence of thinking of Being as static, as beyond change and process, that is even more responsible for declarations demanding the abolition and elimination of race due to its more dynamic and contested semantic and ontological profile. In any event, Monahan is confident that a phenomenological approach enables one to think of race as becoming, rather than static being. Monahan underscores the dynamism of race and the becoming of race when he writes:
Given a phenomenological approach, however race cannot be properly thought of as a matter of being but rather of constant becoming. There is thus a strong sense in which raising the question of what race is, insofar as the logic of the question itself demands a definitive and static answer, already capitulates to the politics of purity.24
Existential Reality of Race
I am in full agreement with Monahan’s firm conclusion that spirited calls for the rejection of race are fundamentally premature and based upon extremely misleading ontological assumptions. I consider the following claim by Monahan to be philosophically insightful, even though many would consider it controversial: “The issue is not one of whether there are essential characteristics that effectively dictate the way our species can be divided, but rather is one [regarding] the ways, means, and ends we employ to draw the distinctions that we take to be significant. It is not about a strictly descriptive account of a mind-independent reality but rather about the meaning and significance of that reality.”25 The concepts that we use to constitute the world may ultimately need to possess a certain degree of vagueness. The plasticity of human subjectivity precludes a determinate and complacent application of the concepts and the logic appropriate for thinking about inanimate objects to the creative expression of human subjectivity insofar as the latter is ontologically productive. Human subjects are not programmable beings whose behavior is dictated by mechanical rules, but rather are subjects inescapably constrained by, among other things, the need to critically negotiate and interrogate the concepts and practices that infuse their everyday existence. To the extent that humans must straddle facticity and transcendence while maintaining a delicate balance between these two poles of being, the law of noncontradiction is not always appropriate to the task of definitively preventing one pole of being from infiltrating the other. This ontological infiltration need not be rejected. Furthermore, if we consider actual human practices as our guide for formulating semantic norms, and if we also do not assume that we are obliged to take council from the a priori requirements of logic, then the contestability of race will be seen as positive rather than negative. Logic may not be able to tolerate vagueness and ambiguity, but it does not follow that human reality is similarly incapacitated in this regard. As Monahan points out:
The fact that [racial] categories have vague boundaries, and that individuals may occupy more than one at a given time […] does not mean that the categories are useless, or utterly without meaning. On the contrary, by taking seriously this complexity and underlying ambiguity, we can begin to articulate ways in which these categories can help us to make sense of that complexity. 26
To conclude, I want to radicalize Monahan’s position, and push it to its limits. Following Monahan, we do not have a good reason to seriously focus on either abolishing race or eliminating race. We should instead concentrate on developing better understandings of the complexity of race, and on using these understandings to avoid the errors complicit in efforts to foil the pursuit of racial justice. Nevertheless, because of the predominance of the saliency and persistence of race in modern society, we should attempt to think about ontology and semantics from the perspective of race. This development would require on our part the active resistance of the urge to conceive the ontology and semantics of race from the perspective of logical analysis, and the requirement that our concept of race possess sharp and definitive boundaries.
On the alternative view, as previously stated, we should use race as a paradigm of the real or of being. This perspective would support resisting the cravings for purity, sharpness, and clarity as the definitive characteristics of a legitimate concept; we should view and embrace our concepts as ambiguous, indeterminate, and even vague. To put this point somewhat metaphorically, what I am suggesting, building upon Monahan’s position, is that we come to view our concepts as contested and as always infused and contaminated by psychological, social, political, historical, and other factors. And just as one cannot unscramble an egg, our concepts cannot be purified and treated as being in possession of a certain immaculate core of meaning. Put differently, we should not assume that through surgical, analytical processing, we could in principle eliminate the semantic impurities of ambiguity and vagueness from our concepts, and leave behind as a remainder a solid logical core.
I am obviously not advocating the action of embracing irrationality, but am instead suggesting the adoption of the guiding principle that, although we must tame our concepts from time to time, there is no final semantic closure. Concepts live and die, and they are susceptible to the intensity of our cognitive processes, because we use them when they serve our purposes, we abandon them when they are no longer beneficial to us, they become rigid and contextually inefficacious, or they fade away due to excessive underutilization. This dynamic process is certainly a characteristic of the socio-cultural concepts that populate the everyday world of being. Because of the persistence of racism, viewing race as a socio-cultural concept can better assist our understanding of how to effectively contextualize and construe abstract concepts such as equality, freedom, and love that do not satisfy the lofty requirements of logic, but are still indispensable companions in the drama of our daily lives.
From the perspective of race, ontology is primary and logic is secondary, an ontological ordering that implies that our logic should originate from our ontology and not the reverse. If we insist that socio-cultural concepts, such as race, are defective and cause harm by sustaining illogical thinking, then the elimination of these concepts would severely curtail our social, economic and political interactions precisely because so much of our everyday communication is dependent upon the utilization of vague and ambiguous concepts. Perhaps vagueness and ambiguity, instead of contributing to ontological and semantic decay and decline, actually promote healthy sociality because of the constant need to critically negotiate and revise our concepts to create shared meanings. Furthermore, this critical activity encourages the development of receptivity to the other possible meanings inhabiting our concepts. It cultivates an ethics of semantic openness and ontological hospitality. Monahan has done an outstanding job of applying these fundamental insights to the reality of race.
1 Michael Monahan, The Creolizing Subject: Race, Reason, and the Politics of Purity (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011).
2 Ibid., p. 79.
3 Ibid., p. 103.
4 Ibid., p. 5.
5 Ibid., p. 74.
6 Ibid., p. 6.
7 Ibid., p. 20.
8 Ibid., p. 71.
9 Ibid., p. 72.
10 Ibid., pp. 23-24.
11 Ibid., p. 44.
12 Ibid., p. 47.
13 Ibid., p. 72.
14 Ibid., p. 45.
15 Ibid., p. 74.
16 Ibid., p. 99.
17 Ibid., p. 97.
19 Ibid., p. 98.
20 Ibid., p. 124.
21 Ibid., p. 120.
22 Ibid., p. 136.
23 Ibid., p. 115.
25 Ibid., p. 103.
26 Ibid., p. 100.