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Introduction to the Philosophy of Race

Session A: July 13 – July 23, 2020
1:30 p.m. - 4 p.m.
Philosophy and Society
Ian Peebles

What is race?  What is the function of race in society?  What is racism? Should we use race-talk?  What is the role of racial identities?  These are some of the questions students will explore, as we survey the analytic philosophical literature regarding the metaphysics, semantics, and ethics of race and race theory.  This module will provide a brief survey of some of the most influential race theories in Western culture from the 17th century onward, as well as the ethical and social implications of these race theories.  In the process, students will learn how to use the tools of analytic philosophy to critically read, write, and engage in current debates in the philosophy of race.  The module will culminate in the students weighing in on live debates in the philosophy of race through a group presentation

This module will consist of both synchronous and asynchronous meetings.  For each day, readings, reading responses, and asynchronous sessions should be completed prior to the synchronous session.  The major platforms to be used include Zoom, Canvas, and Flipgrid.

Learning Outcomes:

  1. To familiarize students with the tools of analytic philosophy, specifically deductive reasoning and first order logic. 
  2. To give students the vocabulary and concepts necessary for confidently listening to and discussing the topics of race and racism with their peers and larger communities.
  3. To learn how to critically read philosophical texts and charitably engage others through Socratic discussion. 
  4. To allow students to critically reflect on how race and one’s perception of race impacts everyday interactions.
  5. To introduce students to contemporary metaphysical and ethical debates in the philosophy of race.


  1. Reading responses (daily assignment) – Students will summarize (in no more than a paragraph) one of the assigned readings (student’s choice) and ask a few questions that they think are important regarding the text.  When applicable, this summary will consist of an argument reconstruction, in standard form, of the main argument of their chosen article.
  2. Group presentation (final day of module) – In groups, students will present an argument responding to one of the questions listed below.  Their presentation will include defining key terms, highlighting key distinctions, and presenting their argument in standard form, as well as the rationale for each premise and responses to potential objections.  They will have 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of Q&A with their peers.

    Potential questions include (but are not limited to): What is race?
    1. Should we use race-talk?
    2. Should we use racial classifications in medical practice and research?
    3. What is racism?
    4. Should race persist after racism?
    5. What is the role of racial identities?

Please note, while there may be class time for groups to meet, students should expect to meet outside of class in order to prepare their presentations.

Tentative Schedule:

Day 1 – Module Introduction

  1. Asynchronous
    1. Student introductions.
    2. Introduction to argumentation, deductive reasoning, and first order logic.
  2. Synchronous
    1. Module introduction and syllabus presentation.
    2. Survey class: What is race? How does race function in society today? What is racism? Does racism still exist?  If so, how is it manifested?
    3. An exercise in arguing.

Day 2 – Race Theory: Its Beginnings

  1. Asynchronous
    1. How to read philosophy.
  2. Synchronous
    1. How are racial classifications constructed and how are racial categories determined?
    2. Introduction the Morton-Gould debate.
  3. Readings
    1. Bernier, “A New Division of the Earth” (1684).
    2. Selection from Blumenbach, De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa (1795).
    3. Selection from Morton, Crania Americana (1839).

Day 3 – Race as Biologically Real

  1. Synchronous
    1. Is race biologically real?  Should we ever use biological racial classifications?  Review arguments in favor and against the use of biological racial classifications.
  2. Readings
    1. Spencer in What is Race? (2019).
    2. Optional – Responses to Spencer in What is Race? (2019). 
    3. Optional – selection from Roberts, Fatal Invention (2011).

Day 4 – Antirealism about Race

  1. Synchronous
    1. What does it mean for a thing to exist? 
    2. What does it mean to be an antirealist about race?
  2. Readings
    1. Selection from Glasgow, A Theory of Race (2009).
    2. Optional – Glasgow in What is Race? (2019).

Day 5 – Race as a Sociopolitical Construct

  1. Synchronous
    1. What are socially constructed entities?  In what sense are socially constructed entities real?
    2. What is (or, what ought to be) a sociopolitically constructed racial classification?  What is its function?  How do we determine racial categories using a sociopolitically constructed racial classification?
  2. Readings
    1. Haslanger in What is Race? (2019).
    2. Selection from Roberts, Fatal Invention (2011).
    3. Optional – Responses to Haslanger in What is Race? (2019).
    4. Optional – Haslanger, “Race and Gender” (2000).

Day 6 – Race as a Sociocultural Construct

  1. Synchronous
    1. What is (or, what ought to be) the role of a socioculturally constructed racial classification?  How do we determine racial categories using a socioculturally constructed racial classification?
    2. What are the key distinctions between a sociopolitically and socioculturally constructed racial classification? 
  2. Readings
    1. Jeffers in What is Race? (2019).
    2. Optional – Responses to Jeffers in What is Race? (2019).
    3. Optional – Jeffers, “The Cultural Theory of Race” (2013).

Day 7 – What is Racism?

  1. Synchronous
    1. What is racism? An overview of theories of racism - racism as false belief, racism as volitional, and racism as ideology.
    2. What is the difference between racialism and racism?  Does racism still exist (in the US)?  Do we need to know what racism is in order to combat it? 
  2. Readings
    1. Appiah, “Racisms” (1990).
    2. Garcia, “The Heart of Racism” (1996).
    3. Shelby, “Is Racism in the ‘Heart’?” (2002)

Day 8 – Race After Racism

  1. Synchronous
    1. Should race persist in a post-racist world?  What, if anything, does it mean to identify as part of a race?  Do people have special obligations to the race(s) they identify with?
  2. Readings
    1. Peebles, “Race After Racism” [penultimate draft].
    2. Optional – Selection from McGary, The Post-Racial Ideal (2012).

Day 9 – Presentations

  1. Synchronous
    1. Each group will have 10 minutes to present, with 5 minutes for Q&A.