The Problem of Definition: Toward a Conventionalist Framework

  • Alberto G. Urquidez
Part of the African American Philosophy and the African Diaspora book series (AAPAD)


This chapter explains the significance of later Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language for analyzing racism. It begins with a discussion of three approaches to the question “What is racism?”: metaphysical, descriptive, and prescriptive analysis. It then turns to the metaphysical approach, which currently dominates philosophical theorizing about racism. Scholars that in many respects advance vastly different conceptions of racism—for example, Leonard Harris, Clevis Headley, Tommie Shelby, and Jorge Garcia; all take the metaphysical approach for granted. For the metaphysician, the meaning of “racism” is the object which this word stands for, and a definition of “racism” is an ontological description of this object. These presuppositions are called into doubt by the author. The bulk of the chapter lays out and defends an alternative set of presuppositions, rooted in Wittgenstein’s conventionalist picture of language, grammar, and meaning. The author’s chief conclusion is that an explanation of racism is not the description of an ontological reality but the expression of a rule of representation. The upshot is that the problem of defining “racism” need not be construed as a debate about an ontological nature. It can instead be construed as a debate about determining the most normatively defensible representational practice.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alberto G. Urquidez
    • 1
  1. 1.Bowdoin CollegeBrunswickUSA

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