Race Nominalism, Part III: Toward a Nominalism of Race

In Part 1 of this series, we began by examining the theoretical lay of the land. “Race realism” is an extremely important term in the anti-Cathedral discourse, spanning Neoreaction, the “alt-Right” and all its variants (“alt-West” etc.), Human Biodiversity (HBD), and so on. But there is as yet no standard definition of “race realism,” so I attempted to provide one. To recap, in brief, race realism is the belief that (a) universals are real; (b) race is a human biological universal; and, optionally, that (c) race has a mystical or trans-empirical existence. I designate “weak” race realism the position that race is a real human biological universal, but that it lacks such trans-empirical existence, in other words holding points (a) and (b) but not (c). Generally speaking, Neoreactionary and “alt-Lite” perspectives tend toward this view, while neo-Nazis and the “alt-White” accept point (c) and are thus categorized as “strong” race realists.

In Part 2 I spoke at some length about the philosophy of universals (like “chair-ness”) and particulars (such as a particular chair). The basic point is that, obviously, to be a coherent view, “race realism” necessarily requires that universals are real. This directly touches upon one of the central debates in philosophy, between nominalism—the view that universals do not really exist—and realism. I noted that the Western (Christian) intellectual tradition strongly tends toward realism, but the Buddhist intellectual tradition rejects realism out of hand. Now I turn to the task of formulating a Buddhist-philosophical response to all of these issues.

(One obvious question here is: why bother? This is a great question, and one that I will address in my next series of posts. The short answer is that I believe anti-Cathedral discourse is the single most important intellectual-historical development since at least the end of the Second World War. Most Western Buddhists fully buy into the ideology of the Cathedral, of course, but this is only because most Western Buddhists aren’t really Buddhist in any meaningful sense. So, I see the formulation of a Buddhist critique of the Cathedral, as an essential element of my broader critique, both of modernity in general and of Buddhist Modernism specifically. To the extent that the “alt-Right” is arguably the most visible and influential voice currently opposing the Cathedral, I believe it makes sense to start there.)

* * *

Despite all of this rather long and elaborate wind-up, the actual point I would like to make is relatively simple: we do not need to accept the metaphysical reality of universals, in order to benefit from the most salient insights of “race realist” analysis. For example, we can benefit greatly in terms of education policy.

One of my favorite bloggers is a teacher who writes under the name educationrealist. I’d like to zero in on one particular post. In this post, he goes through the numbers to demonstrate that the “achievement gap” between white and black students is best understood as an artifact of IQ distribution, rather than evidence of “systemic racism” or anything along those lines. (Differences in average IQ among racial groups are well-documented, and if you have a problem with this fact, I encourage you to do more research). His conclusion:

If IQ is the root cause of the achievement gap, the vast majority of those low income children with vocabulary deficits have cognitive abilities much lower than average. It would also follow that blacks and Hispanics, on average, have cognitive abilities lower than whites and Asians. Coupling those facts with previous research, it would mean the achievement gap can’t be closed with the tools we have at this time.

It would not follow that all poor kids are unintelligent, that “blacks/Hispanics aren’t as smart as whites/Asians”, or that IQ is genetically linked to race (emphases original).

Now, at a first glance, the second set of conclusions might seem to contradict the first. What else could the statement “blacks and Hispanics, on average, have lower cognitive abilities than whites and Asians” mean, other than “blacks/Hispanics aren’t as smart as whites/Asians”? Well, for one thing, it might mean that not every white student is smarter than every black student, but this is obvious and trivial. I think educationrealist is getting at something far more important here, which is why he adds the last conclusion, that IQ is not (necessarily) genetically linked to race. Educationrealist certainly knows that IQ is heritable (i.e., smart parents tend to have smart children). Indeed, this is one of his major points in the linked article. Implicit in this final conclusion, then, are two important points:

(1) The heritability of IQ between particular parents and their children does not entail a universally-valid IQ distribution among parents of similar race.

(2) Statistical distributions, of IQ or anything else, do not constitute prima facie evidence for the existence of race as a metaphysically-real universal.

And here, I think, is the point I have been driving at in this series. It is foolish and irresponsible to pretend that blacks and whites and Asians and Hispanics do not have statistically significant differences in average IQ. Throwing money at the “achievement gap,” under the facially ludicrous assumption that better and/or higher-paid teachers can make low-IQ students perform as well on average as high-IQ students, is not going to make it go away. Nor is asserting that this inconvenient truth is solely the result of “systemic racism” and other sociocultural factors, rather than being at least in part due to biology, going to fix anything. On the contrary, any policy response predicated on IQ or HBD denialism is only going to make the problem worse and exacerbate racial tensions.

At the same time, nothing in the preceding necessitates committing to “race realism.” Point (2) above is especially important in this regard: at the end of the day, probability distributions (such as the likelihood of having a given IQ) are the integral of many different particular data-points. Now, it is certainly possible to argue that universals are real, and race is a real universal. To continue with the mathematical metaphor, we may treat integrals as discrete objects. However, my point is that we are not obligated to do so, and that there is no straight and clear line from mathematics to philosophy, far less to politics.

In other words, we may notice the racial distribution in IQ, and plan accordingly, without thereby committing to the view that “whiteness” and “blackness” are ultimately real property-universals, or that the “whiteness” universal possesses the sub-property of greater intelligence than certain other race-universals, etc. In fact, we may notice this distribution, and rightly consider it an extremely important fact to guide our practical action in the world, without committing to any explanation of why it exists. It may indeed prove to be the case that sociocultural factors are, in the end, the underlying causal factors driving the differences in IQ distribution. This would not make a whole lot of difference for any individual student currently alive–IQ can change a bit over the course of a lifetime, but only within certain relatively small congenital limits–but would have enormous implications for social policy.

Of course, it could also be the case that the opposite is true, and IQ will prove to be definitively linked to genotype. This would still have very little to do the point I am making, which is that the conceptual utility of “race” as a universal exists whether or not “race” is ultimately real. In other words, even if “science” ends up “proving” that “whites are smarter than blacks,” this would still be at most a statistical reality, a conceptual universal superimposed upon actual particular individuals. It would tell us nothing a priori about any of those individuals. It cannot, in principle, serve as evidence for realist metaphysics, about race or anything else.

Dharmakīrti developed an entire theory of language based on a completely nominalist ontology. Now, in Dharmakīrti’s view, language necessarily involves the use of universals. However, if we investigate these universals, we find that they only possess a kind of “transactional” (vyavahāra) existence. They’re only “real” insofar as they are useful for communication; they aren’t ultimately or “really real” (paramārthasat). According to Dharmakīrti, the only things that are really real are particulars. But this did not prevent him from acknowledging the central importance that universals play in our ordinary, day-to-day discourse, or the influence they can exert over our thinking and our lives. The key is to remember that these universals are, at the end of the day, nothing more than figments of our imagination, artifacts of ignorance.


3 thoughts on “Race Nominalism, Part III: Toward a Nominalism of Race”

  1. Thanks for the quote and the compliment, but I am absolutely not alt-Lite as is currently being discussed: Milo and twitter freaks. And while neoreactionaries like me, I’d reject their political objectives.

    If I understand you correctly, I am a race nominalist, although even that seems a tad wonky. I accept the likelihood of the science, but it doesn’t really interest me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well first of all, thanks for stopping by!

      To be clear, I didn’t mean to imply that I thought you were “alt-Lite,” and I apologize if it came across that way. My point in the first paragraph was only that both alt-* and NRx embrace race realism. So, to the extent that you reject race realism, for whatever reason(s), that would preclude you from being included with them in any case–even though you are clearly a critic of the Cathedral.

      As for the terminology, I agree that “race nominalism” is a bit wonky, but I’m a wonk, what can I do? More to the point, I think it captures something important, which is why I bothered writing this series. As things currently stand, “race realism” is the only alternative to the HBD-denialism of the Cathedral. The choice before us is therefore either to deny the clear, if whispered, scientific consensus; or to get uncomfortably close to neo-Nazis. I don’t like those choices, so I’m trying to forge a third option. As you keep hammering in your own work, it is socially and scientifically irresponsible to deny the statistical correlation between race and IQ. At the same time, the metaphysical commitments (to universals) and simplistic etiology (“race” –> IQ) of “race realism” strike me as its weakest features. “Race nominalism” threads the needle.


      1. Did you read my piece Defining the Alt Right? I come at the problem from a different angle, but point out the same fuzzy areas.

        Also, do you read Spotted Toad? A while back, he did a bit on IQ malleability that did the whole weak-strong thing, too.


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