Sunday, November 22, 2015

On Certainty

Certainty is the state of being or feeling certain, and is freedom from doubt. If something is certain, then it is free from, or beyond, doubt.

To claim absolute certainty about the truth of a proposition may be to claim the right to ignore or be blind to further evidence affirming or denying the truth of that proposition.

Logically, if you say that you're certain about something, then you should be prepared to wager everything on it. If you're not prepared to wager everything on it, then you must not really be certain about it (unless there are psychological, social, or other factors that prevent you from making such a wager, despite your alleged certainty).

Of course, if you say that it's not in your nature to wage everything on something, then your reluctance to wager everything (or to wager anything at all) may be due to your recognizing that you can never be absolutely sure of, or certain about, anything.

Benjamin Franklin's well-known saying (now so often quoted that it has become a cliché) regarding certainty appeared in a letter to the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Leroy, written on November 13, 1789: "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."1

Other certainties may include mathematical certainties (such as "2+2=4"), physical certainties (such as "marble is harder than limestone"), cosmological certainties (such as "Ganymede is the largest moon of Jupiter"), and historical certainties (such as "The Battle of Bosworth Field occurred in 1485").

F.W.J. Schelling (1800) says that "for certainty in theory we lose it in practice, and for certainty in practice we lose it in theory" ("über der theoretischen Gewissheit geht uns die praktische, über der praktischen die theoretische verloren").2

I can't be more certain of anything than I am of the fact that some (though perhaps not all) lost opportunities are lost permanently. Perhaps this is merely a certainty of my own (and more generally of human) finitude. I may only be certain of my own fallibility and uncertainty.

Believable fiction may depend on fictionalization of the real and realization of the fictional.

If to be thoughtful is to be careful, and to be thoughtless is to be careless, then you might suppose that to think is to care. But unfortunately that's not the case.

Isn't the term "certain knowledge" redundant? Either we know something or we don't. If we're certain that we know something, then we may more precisely be said to have attained "certainty of knowledge" or "epistemic certainty."

It may always be possible to say "I don't know" with greater certainty than "I know."

If I'm feeling pain, and it's a pleasurable pain, then I may be uncertain whether I'm actually feeling pain.

Epistemic duty (or the ethics of knowledge) may require that we have adequate grounds for saying we're certain about something. It may also require that we have adequate grounds for saying we're doubtful about something.

Wittgenstein asks, "Doesn't one need grounds for doubt?"3 But it can be argued that we aren't required to believe a proposition to be true just because we can't prove it to be false.

If we qualify our statements about certainty by saying, "We think (but aren't sure) we're certain about that," then we may be saying we're relatively certain, but not absolutely certain. Relative certainty may be susceptible to doubt, while absolute certainty may be immune to doubt. The former may be much easier to attain than the latter.

If we tell others that we know something, then we may have a duty to let them know when we're not absolutely certain that we know. Our claim to know something requires some degree of certainty on our part. We don't always have to be absolutely certain about something in order to properly claim to know it. Relative certainty may be sufficient in some cases. But we must at least have met some threshold level of certainty about something in order to properly claim to know it.

The term "objective certainty" may be ambiguous, insofar as it may refer to the objectivity of the fact that certainty has been attained or the objectivity of the reasons for which certainty has been attained. In the first sense, certainty can objectively be said to have been attained, while in the second sense, certainty can be said to have been attained objectively. It may be important to distinguish between the two senses. For example, Bill can objectively be said to be certain about something without his having objective reasons for being certain about that thing.

Subjective certainty may include psychological and intuitive certainty. Objective certainty may include epistemic, propositional, and evidential certainty. 

One way of expressing subjective certainty may be to say, "I'm certain, but I could be wrong." This way of hedging one's bets about certainty may be a way of immunizing oneself from error—
or it may just be a way of equivocating.

Subjective certainty doesn't entail objective certainty. We may be subjectively certain about something, but objectively wrong about it.

There may be various kinds of certainty (psychological, moral, epistemic, deductive, and statistical). There may also be various degrees of certainty (which may be expressed by such adjectives as "absolute," "high," "low," or "relative.")

However, Peter Unger (1975) argues that there are no degrees of certainty, and that "certainty" is an absolute term, like "flat." Just as nothing (or hardly anything) in the world is (absolutely) flat, nothing (or hardly anything) in the world is (absolutely) certain. Unger thus argues for scepticism regarding the possibility of knowledge, by saying that since knowledge entails (absolute) certainty, nothing (or hardly anything) is known.4,5

Peter Klein (1981) also argues that knowledge entails absolute (psychological and evidential) certainty, and that if S knows that p on the basis of some evidence e, then e renders p absolutely certain for S. Klein argues that S knows that p only if p is absolutely certain for S, but he makes clear that he's not saying that the ordinary understanding of the meaning of the term "knowledge" restricts the term to only those cases in which a proposition p is absolutely certain.6 There may be relative as well as absolute uses of the term "certainty."

Harry Frankfurt (1962) says that there may indeed be degrees of certainty, and that some things may be regarded as more certain than others. We may be willing to wager more on the truth of one proposition than we're willing to wager on the truth of another proposition, if we regard the one's truth as more certain than the other's.7

Jason Stanley (2008) says that knowledge doesn't entail certainty, and as an example he provides the statement, "I know that Bill came to the party. In fact, I'm certain that he did," which seems to show that we can know something without being certain of it. As another example, he provides the statement, "John knows that Bush is a Republican, though, being a cautious fellow, he's only somewhat certain of it," which seems to show that we can know something without being completely certain of it. Stanley explains that there's nothing strange or odd about ascribing knowledge of something to someone who's not completely confident that she does indeed know that thing. We don't automatically object when someone is described as knowing something of which she isn't certain.8

Stanley also explains that fallibilism in epistemology (the theory that knowledge is compatible with a lack of certainty) is compatible with both "the knowledge norm for assertion" (that we should assert p only if we know that p) and "the certainty norm for assertion" (that we should assert p only if we're certain that p). Thus, while fallibilism holds that we can know p without being certain that p, it doesn't hold that we can say we know that p if we don't know or aren't certain that p.9

Gaining greater knowledge of something may sometimes lead us to feel less certain about that thing. By learning more about that thing, we may sometimes develop a greater appreciation of the limits of our knowledge. 

Second-order certainty may be exemplified by such statements as, "I feel certain that I'm certain."

The certainty of faith may be an example of psychological, moral, theological, or doctrinal certainty. It may be based on belief in truths that cannot be proved by reason or that surpass our understanding. It may be based not on empirical proof or scientific testing, but on the power of authority, scripture, testimony, or revelation.


1Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. XII, Letters and Miscellaneous Writings, 1788-1790.
2F.W. J. Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, translated by Peter Heath (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia,1978), p. 11.
3Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, translated by Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1969), p. 18c.
4Peter Klein, Certainty: A Refutation of Scepticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), p. 131.
5Peter Unger, Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 49.
6Klein, Certainty: A Refutation of Scepticism, p. 117.
7Harry G. Frankfurt, "Philosophical Certainty," in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 71, No. 3 (July 1962), pp. 303-327.
8Jason Stanley, "Knowledge and Certainty," in Philosophical Issues, Vol. 18, Issue I (September 2008), pp. 41-42.
9Ibid., p. 56.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Dispositional-Occurrent Distinction

What exactly is a disposition? Tim Crane (1996) offers the following preliminary definition: 

“a disposition is a property (such as solubility, fragility, elasticity) whose instantiation entails that the thing which has the property would change or bring about some change, under certain condtions.”1 

      Stephen Mumford (2011) offers another preliminary definition, by saying that the term “disposition” may refer to a type of property, state, or condition that, under certain circumstances, provides for the possibility of some further specific state or behavior.2 
      Thus, for example, if we say that “ice cubes have a disposition to melt at room temperature” (or simply that “ice cubes melt at room temperature”), we are saying that under those conditions (room temperature), the disposition of ice cubes to melt will be manifested.
      Jennifer McKitrick (2003) explains that some marks of dispositionality include the following: (1) a disposition has a characteristic manifestation, (2) a disposition is triggered in certain types of circumstances (it has certain circumstances of manifestation), (3) if something has a disposition, then certain subjunctive or counterfactual conditionals are typically true of it (e.g. if a fragile glass has a disposition to break when dropped, then the conditional “If it were dropped, then it would break” is true of it), and (4) once the manifestation and the circumstances of the manifestation have been identified, the disposition can be referred to by an overtly dispositional locution, such as “the disposition to so and so” (e.g. “the disposition to break when struck” refers to fragility, and “the disposition to dissolve in water” refers to water-solubility).3
      Dispositions may be ascribed to kinds (e.g. “paper is flammable”), objects (“that sheet of cardboard is flexible”), persons (“I tend to agree with you”), and conditions (“the weather’s likely to turn chilly today”).
      Crane (1996) explains that there has been much debate about the question of whether the ascription of a dispositional property to a thing entails that certain counterfactual conditionals are true of it. If this is indeed a criterion of dispositional properties, then, for example, saying that a glass is fragile entails the conditional: “if the glass were struck with sufficient force, then it would break.”4
      Another example of a conditional analysis of dispositions would be to say that the elasticity of a rubber band entails the conditional, “if the rubber band were pulled, then it would stretch, and if the pulling force were removed, then the rubber band would return to its original length.”
     However, C.B. Martin (1994)5 introduces the notion of a “finkish” disposition in order to show that the ascription of a dispositional property to a thing does not necessarily entail that an associated conditional is true of it. Thus, the testing of a “finkish” disposition may not result in the manifestation of the disposition, because the testing itself may cause the disposition to be lost. Alternatively, in a reverse finkish case, a disposition may be absent, but may be gained when it is tested for.6
      Sungho Choi (2011) explains that dispositional maskers have also been introduced as counterexamples to the notion that dispositional properties can be analyzed in terms of simple counterfactual conditionals. If a disposition is masked, or if there is an antidote to it, then it may not be manifested, even under the appropriate stimulus conditions. Choi argues, however, that the absence of dispositional maskers may be implicitly or explicitly implied by dispositional ascriptions, and that the failure of masked dispositions to be manifested does not necessarily threaten the simple conditional analysis of dispositions.
      Choi (2009) also explains that the two most widely debated versions of the conditional analysis of dispositions are the simple conditional analysis of dispositions (SCA) and the reformed conditional analysis of dispositions (RCA). The SCA may be expressed as follows:

      “Something x is disposed at time t to exhibit manifestation m in response to being situated in stimulating circumstance c iff, if x were to be situated in c at t, it would exhibit m.”7

The RCA, formulated by David Lewis (1997)8, may be expressed as follows:

      “Something x is disposed at time t to exhibit manifestation m in response to stimulus s iff, for some intrinsic property B that x has at t, for some time t’ after t, if x were to undergo stimulus s at time t and retain property B until t’, s and x’s having of B would jointly be an x-complete cause of x’s exhibiting manifestation m, where an x-complete cause is a cause complete in so far as havings of properties intrinsic to x are concerned, though perhaps omitting some events extrinsic to x.”9

Lewis’s RCA is designed to resist refutation by finkish dispositions or other counterexamples to the SCA. Choi argues that the intrinsic nature of dispositions doesn’t threaten either the SCA or RCA.10
      Dispositions have been understood as persisting properties or states that make possible other properties or states, and they have been contrasted with occurrences, which have been understood as more episodic or transient events. Mumford (2011) says that the distinction between dispositions and occurrences derives mainly from the work of Gilbert Ryle (1949), and that as the appeal of Ryle’s form of behaviorism has faded, interest has shifted from the distinction between dispositions and occurrences to the distinction between dispositional and categorical properties.11
      Ryle (1949) distinguishes between dispositional terms (which may describe tendencies, propensities, potentialities, abilities, etc.) and occurrent terms (which may describe episodic or actually occurring events). He argues that it is mistaken to assume that any term that has a dispositional use must also have a corresponding episodic use.12 For example, the dispositional terms “know” and “believe” may not have episodic counterparts, and the dispositional statements “I know” and “I believe” may not correspond to episodic acts of knowing or believing. (I can’t properly say, conceptually or grammatically, “I am, at this moment, knowing or believing such and such.”) Ryle thus argues that mental states are dispositions to behavior, rather than unseen and unobservable occurrences.
      Ryle also distinguishes between generic and specific dispositions. He offers the sentence, “He is a cigarette smoker” as an example of a disposition ascription, and the sentence, “He is smoking a cigarette now,” as an example of an occurrence ascription. To say that someone is a cigarette smoker is not say that he is currently smoking, but to say that he has a disposition or tendency to smoke. Cigarette smoking is a specific disposition, in contrast to more generic dispositions such as the disposition to seek a method of reducing stress, relieving pressure, managing anxiety, or producing euphoria. Dispositional properties are nothing more than habits, tendencies, or other behavior regularities.
      McKitrick (2003) explains that Ryle’s distinction between specific and generic dispositions also corresponds to the distinction between single-track dispositions (those that are triggered by only one kind of circumstance, and that have only one kind of manifestation) and multi-track dispositions (those that are triggered by more than one kind of circumstance, and that have more than one kind of manifestation).13
      Against Ryle’s view, it may be argued that there may indeed be occurrent, as well as dispositional, mental states. I may know or believe something at this very moment, and this knowing or believing may be an occurrent state.
      It may also be argued that dispositions themselves are occurrences. There may be occurrent dispositions and dispositional occurrences. Dispositions may not always be separable from occurrences.
      E.J. Lowe’s account (2006, 2009, 2013) of the dispositional-occurrent distinction may best be understood in the context of his four-category ontology. In this formal ontology, there are four fundamental ontological categories (or kinds of being): substantial universals (kinds), substantial particulars (objects), non-substantial universals (attributes), and non-substantial particulars (modes). Kinds (such as tomatoes) are characterized by attributes (such as redness), and are instantiated by objects (such as particular tomatoes). Attributes (such as redness) characterize kinds (such as tomatoes), and are instantiated by modes (such as the redness of a particular tomato). Objects instantiate kinds, and are characterized by modes. Modes characterize objects, and instantiate attributes.
      Lowe regards instantiation and characterization as the two fundamental or primitive metaphysical relations. Another metaphysical relation, that of exemplification, is not regarded as fundamental or primitive, since it may result from instantiation or characterization, and may come in two different varieties: dispositional or occurrent. An object (such as a particular tomato) dispositionally exemplifies an attribute (such as redness) when it instantiates some kind (such as tomatoes) that is characterized by that attribute, and it occurrently exemplifies that attribute (redness) when it (the particular tomato) is characterized by some mode (such as its own redness) that instantiates that attribute.14
      In addition to making a distinction between dispositional and occurrent exemplification, Lowe makes a distinction between dispositional and occurrent predication. The sentence, “This piece of salt is water-soluble,” is an example of the former, and the sentence, “This piece of salt is dissolving in water,” is an example of the latter.15 Universal terms (such as “salt”), as well as individual terms (such as “this piece of salt), may serve as subjects of dispositional and occurrent predication.16
      Martijn Blaauw (2013) distinguishes between dispositional and occurrent belief. An example of the former would be John’s belief that physical exercise is good for his health, and an example of the latter would be John’s belief, as he looks at his watch and sees that it is 3 o’clock, that it is indeed 3 o’clock. Blaauw also distinguishes the disposition to believe from dispositional and occurrent belief. For example, John may have a disposition to believe something, without ever having dispositionally or occurrently believed that thing.
      David Rose and Jonathan Schaffer (2013) argue that knowledge entails dispositional belief, since “if s knows that p, then s dispositionally believes that p.” Knowledge is not merely occurrent belief (conscious endorsement of a thought), but dispositional belief (information available to mind for endorsement).17
      The distinction between dispositions and occurrences may be complicated by the fact that there may be many different kinds of dispositions (moral, aesthetic, behavioral, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, social, and cultural), and many different kinds of occurrences (historical, geographical, environmental, evolutionary, physical, biological, physiological, genetic, epidemiological, and statistical).
      Another question to be considered is whether dispositions can conflict with one another. Thus, Choi (2012) asks whether opposing dispositions can be co-instantiated. He defines conflicting dispositions as dispositions that have mutually consistent characteristic stimuli but inconsistent manifestations, and he concludes that opposing dispositions cannot be co-instantiated by one and the same object at the same time. He admits, however, that there are opposing viewpoints.18
      There may also be disagreement about whether some dispositions are innate or acquired, intrinsic or extrinsic, “natural” or “unnatural.”
      There may also be positive and negative dispositions (“dispositions to” and “dispositions not to”).
      Dispositions may vary in their duration, strength, stability, and susceptibility to change.  They may also vary in the consistency with which they are manifested.
      Occurrences may be variously described as frequent, occasional, rare, unusual, expected, unexpected, regular, irregular, variable, invariable, timely, untimely, concomitant, or coincidental.
      Jennifer McKitrick (2009) describes “dispositional pluralism” as the view that there are many different kinds of dispositions,19 and “dispositional essentialism” as the view that all dispositions are essential properties of the objects that instantiate them.20 Dispositional pluralism is compatible with property dualism (the view that there are two fundamental kinds of properties: dispositional and non-dispositional) and with pandispositionalism (the view that all properties are dispositional), but not with anti-dispositionalism (the view that no properties are dispositional).21
      McKitrick (2003) says that there are extrinsic, as well as intrinsic, dispositions. Intrinsic dispositions are intrinsic properties of the things that have them, and do not depend on what is going on outside of those things. Extrinsic dispositions, on the other hand, are extrinsic properties of the things that have them, and depend on what is going on outside of those things.22
      The dispositional-categorical distinction may be even more difficult to define than the dispositional-occurrent distinction. Dispositional properties may be categorical, in the sense that they may categorically (rather than hypothetically) belong to things. Categorical properties may be dispositional, in the sense that they may take the form of dispositions. Properties may have both dispositional and categorical aspects.
      On the other hand, dispositional properties may be conditional in a way that categorical properties are not.
      According to the identity theory of dispositional and categorical properties, dispositional properties are the same as categorical properties. All dispositional properties are categorical, and all categorical properties are dispositional.
      Stephen Mumford (1998) describes property dualism as the theory that there are two fundamentally different kinds of properties: dispositional and categorical. Categorical monism is the theory that all properties are categorical, and dispositional monism (pandispositionalism) is the theory that all properties are dispositional.23
      Mumford also describes four types of property monism. Categorical reductionism is the theory that all dispositional properties can be reduced to categorical properties. Dispositional reductionism is the theory that all categorical properties can be reduced to dispositional properties. Categorical eliminativism is the theory that all properties are categorical, and that all reference to supposed dispositional properties should be eliminated. Dispositional eliminativism is the theory that all properties are dispositional (even those traditionally regarded as paradigmatically categorical), and that all reference to supposed categorical properties should be eliminated.24


1Tim Crane, “Introduction,” in Dispositions: A Debate, by D.M. Armstrong, C.B. Martin, and U.T. Place, edited by Tim Crane (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 1.
2Stephen Mumford, “Dispositions,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011,
3Jennifer McKitrick, “A Case for Extrinsic Dispositions,” in Australasian Journal of Philosophy 81:2 (June 2002), p. 157.
4Tim Crane, “Introduction,” in Dispositions: A Debate, p. 5.
5C.B. Martin, “Dispositions and Conditionals,” in Philosophical Quarterly, 44, (1994), 1-8.
6Mumford, “Dispositions,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011.
7Sungho Choi, “Dispositional Properties and Counterfactual Conditionals,” in Mind 117 (2008), 795-841.
8David Lewis, “Finkish Dispositions” (1997) in Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 133-151.
9Sungho Choi, “The Conditional Analysis of Dispositions and the Intrinsic Dispositions Thesis,” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 3, May 2009, p 571.
10Ibid., p. 568.
11Mumford, “Dispositions,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011.
12Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1949), p. 119.
13Jennifer McKitrick, Dispositional Pluralism,” in Debating Dispositions: Issues in Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Philosophy of Mind, edited by Gregor Damschen, Robert Schnepf, and Karsten R. Stüber (Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), p. 188.
14E.J. Lowe, More Kinds of Being: A Further Study of Individuation, Identity, and the Logic of Sortal Terms (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2009), pp. 10-11.
15Ibid., pp. 142-143.
16Ibid., p. 144.
17David Rose and Jonathan Schaffer, “Knowledge Entails Dispositional Belief,” in Philosophical Studies (2013), Vol. 166, Issue 1, Supplement, p. 22.
18Sungho Choi, “Can Opposing Dispositions be Co-instantiated?”, in Erkenntnis, Vol. 8, Issue 1, Feb 2013, pp. 161-1182.
19McKitrick, Dispositional Pluralism,” in Debating Dispositions: Issues in Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Philosophy of Mind, p. 186.
19Ibid, p. 193.
20Ibid., p. 201.
21McKitrick, “A Case for Extrinsic Dispositions,” in Australasian Journal of Philosophy 81:2 (June 2002), p. 158.
22Stephen Mumford, Dispositions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 18-19.
23Ibid., pp. 172-175.


Martijn Blaauw, “Contrastive Belief,” in Contrastivism in Philosophy, edited by Martijn Blaauw (New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 90-91.

Sungho Choi, “What is a Dispositional Masker?” Mind (2011), Vol.120, Issue 480, pp. 1159-1171.

Sungho Choi and Michael Fara, “Dispositions,” 2012, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

E.J. Lowe, The Four-Category Ontology: A Metaphysical Foundation for Natural Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

E.J. Lowe, Forms of Thought: A Study in Philosophical Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Friday, October 2, 2015

Non-signs and Non-signification

If a sign can be defined as anything that signifies or stands for something other than itself,1 then a non-sign can be defined as anything that doesn’t signify or stand for something other than itself. A non-sign doesn’t signify, and also doesn’t indicate or represent anything.
      While a sign may consist of a signifier and a signified idea or concept,2 a non-sign may consist of a non-signifier and a non-signified or absent idea or concept. While the term “signification” may be used to describe the relationship between a signifier and a signified idea or concept,3 the term “non-signification” may be used to describe the relationship between a non-signifier and a non-signified or absent idea or concept.
      Non-signs do not designate, denote, imply, or refer to anything. They may be described as blank spaces, unfilled slots, or empty placeholders in systems of signification. They may also be described as non-signifying interruptions, pauses, silences, or discontinuities. They may also be breaks, gaps, or holes in language and communication. They may belong to the realm of non-language and non-communication.
      While the linguistic world may be a world of signs and symbols, the non-linguistic world may be a world of non-signs and non-symbols. The linguistic world (the world of “meaning”) may be subjectively or objectively derived from the non-linguistic world (the world of “non-meaning”).
      The intelligible world may be a world of signs and non-signs. Semiotics may therefore need to consist of not only a theory of signs, but also a theory of non-signs.
      Signs may have signifying and non-signifying elements or parts. A thing that is a sign of something may also be a non-sign of something else. Non-signs may also in some cases be non-signifying coincidental events or “meaningless” epiphenomena associated with signifying events or “meaningful” phenomena.
      According to Charles W. Morris (1971), all signs are signals or symbols. Signals are signs that are not interpreted to signify other signs, but symbols are signs that are interpreted to signify other signs.4 Non-signs are therefore neither signals nor symbols.
      Morris describes five modes of signifying: identificative, designative, appraisive, prescriptive, and formative. Signs signifying in these modes may be described as “identifiors,” “designators,” “appraisors,” “prescriptors,” and “formators.”5 Non-signs demonstrate none of these modes of signifying.
      The modes of “non-meaning” or non-signifying belonging to a non-sign may also be denotative or connotative, literal or metaphorical.
      A sign may be empty if it can’t signify something or if there is nothing for it to signify. However, an empty sign (if there is such a thing) may signify nothing and still be a sign (e.g. a sign of unsignifiability, meaninglessness, emptiness, or nothingness).
      While a floating signifier has a variable or unstable form of signification,6 a non-sign has no signification at all. While signs may always have some “meaning,” even if that “meaning” is empty or undefined, non-signs have no “meaning” at all.
      While a sign may not signify an actually existing object or event,7 a non-sign does not signify anything at all.
      Objects qua objects do not signify or “mean” anything. They only signify or “mean” something as ideas or concepts signified or symbolized by signs or symbols. On the other hand, signifying objects (objects qua signs) may signify ideas or concepts, while non-signifying objects may not.
      Signs that have outlived or lost their usefulness may be destined to become non-signs (or things that no longer signify anything). Signs may also become non-signs if their conventionally accepted signification is shown to be unwarranted or unjustified. Things that have not yet become signs (pre-signs, pre-symptoms, and other pre-semiotic phenomena) may also be seen or interpreted as non-signs.
      A sign must be adequate for the purposes for which it is used, if it is to function as a sign. Some signs may become so inadequate for the purposes for which they are used that they no longer function as signs, and thus become non-signs. Some signs may also become so obscure or ambiguous that they become non-signs. Some signs may also become so unstable and unreliable in their signification that they become non-signs.
      Non-signs do not signify statements or propositions. Nor do they signify beliefs, attitudes, moods, emotions, feelings, or other states of mind.
      The designification relation may be one in which the signification of a sign is destabilized, disrupted, revoked, or nullified. To designify a sign may be to render it a non-sign.
      Non-signs may in some cases be able to be ignored, because of their lack of “meaning” or signification. False signs, on the other hand, may require some degree of attention and response. For example, a false alarm may be a false sign of an emergency, but also a true sign of a defect in an alarm system requiring repair or correction.
      Non-signs have no “meaning” to be interpreted, but they may still need to be read or examined in some way in order to be understood as non-signs. They may also present a challenge to the hegemony and all-importance of signs and signification.8
      Signs may sometimes be misinterpreted as non-signs if their signification is overlooked or unrecognized. Thus, there may be some signs that are mistaken as non-signs, and whose supposed non-signification may be merely a matter of the interpreter’s ignorance or lack of understanding.9
      The mode of non-signification belonging to a non-sign may also depend on the non-sign’s relation to signs and other non-signs. Changes in the non-sign’s relation to signs and other non-signs may result in changes in its mode of non-signification.
      There may be no adequate signs for that which transcends signification. “Signs” for that which transcends signification may not be signs at all, and may actually be non-signs.
      Unlike signs that signify through other signs, non-signs do not signify at all. Nor do they express anything.
      Although there may be sign systems of “meaning” and signification, there can be no non-sign systems of “non-meaning” and non-signification, since non-signs do not signify or refer to anything, and therefore cannot have cohesive or coherent relations with one another.


1Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Volume 2, Paragraph 228, 1897 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960).

2Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics [1916], edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger, translated by Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 67.

3Ibid., p. 67.

4Charles W. Morris, Writings on the General Theory of Signs (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), pp. 366-367.

5Ibid., p. 364.

6Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), p. 74.

7Morris, Writings on the General Theory of Signs, p. 416.

8Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1987), p. 15.

9Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, Volume 2, translated by John Moore (London: Verso, 2002), p. 276.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Pre-texts and Pretexts

What is the difference between a pre-text and a pretext, and what is the significance of their difference for our understanding of literary, religious, philosophical, scientific, and other kinds of texts? What are their respective roles in determining the pragmatic, ideological, rhetorical, pedagogical, and sociolinguistic features of texts?
      A pre-text may be a precursor of a text. It may anticipate or prepare the way for a text. It may also provide the foundations or establish the conditions for the being of a text. It may also serve other functions: it may inspire the creation of a text and serve as a motive or stimulus for the production of a text. It may also be a (formal, structural, or empirical) model or prototype for a text, or an archetype from which subsequent texts are descended. It may also be an urtext (a source text from which a later text is derived, or an original text on which a later text is based).
      A pre-text may also serve as a metatext, explaining how a text is to be produced and interpreted. It may also be a stage in the composition of a text, and a stage in the textualization of elements (such as perceptions, thoughts, ideas, emotions, and feelings) that are to become a text. It may also be a stage in the becoming of a text (and in the becoming possible and becoming actual of a text).
      A pre-text may also be any kind of text that is presupposed by another text. A pre-text may in some cases be a pretext for something, and a pretext may in some cases be a pre-text for something.
      A pre-text may also be a “pre/text,” or a text that plays the role of both pre-text and pretext. Insofar as it is a pre/text, a pre-text is first and foremost a text, possessing its own kind of textuality.
      Pre-textuality may refer to the pre-textual nature of something or the state of being a pre-text. Pretextuality, on the other hand, may refer to the pretextual nature of something or the state of being a pretext.
      A pretext may be a supposed, but not actual, reason for something. It may also be a misleading explanation of something. Actions may be performed under the cover of false pretexts. A pretext may serve as a method of concealing the true motives for an action. A pretext may also be a text that is taken out of context1 and that is used as an excuse or justification for something.
      Pre-texts and pretexts may share coextensive and codetermining texts. They may share various subtexts, and they may be produced and interpreted in various (social, cultural, and historical) contexts.
      A text may serve as both pre-text and pretext for some other text. The text that serves           as pre-text for some other text may be a pretext for a particular interpretation (or way of reading) that text. There may be a pretext for a given pre-text, and a pre-text for a given pretext.
      The pre-text of a pretext may include a desire to provide an excuse for performing an action whose justifiability is arguable or questionable. It may also include a desire to provide an excuse for performing an action, when there is a concomitant desire to conceal the true motives for performing that action.
      Every word in a given lexicon or dictionary may function as a pre-text for some other word in that lexicon or dictionary. Synonyms may serve as pre-texts for one another. Rules of grammar and word usage may function as pre-texts for the construction of well-formed sentences. Each phrase in a sentence may function as a pre-text for the subsequent phrases in that sentence. Each sentence in a paragraph may function as a pre-text for the subsequent sentences in that paragraph. Each paragraph in a narrative may function as a pre-text for the subsequent paragraphs in that narrative.
     Every text may also function as a pre-text for some other text.  A text may therefore have   pre-textual, as well as intertextual, properties, and may be part of the textual setting in which some other text is read and interpreted.
      An answer to the question, “What comes before the text?” may be: “The pre-text.” An answer to the question, “What comes before the pre-text?” may be: “The possibility of textualization.”
      Textualization may be described as the process whereby textual elements (such as words, phrases, or sentences) are assembled and integrated into texts. It may proceed in conjunction with narrativization (the process whereby narrative elements are assembled and integrated into oral and written narratives) and discursivization (the process whereby discursive elements are assembled and integrated into spoken and written discourse). The textual cycle or sequence may begin at a pre-textual level and continue through successive stages of increasing complexity and progressive textualization.
      A text is an event, and it may therefore have to be interpreted in the context of other events. Pre- and post-text events may shed light on a text’s meaning and historicity.
      A pre-text may incorporate extratextual elements, such as (1) production rules (or writing rules) for the text, (2) determining procedures for transmission of the text, and (3) a social, cultural, and historical context that conditions the reading and writing of the text. The pre-textual properties of an idea, emotion, feeling, experience, etc. may also allow the crossing of textual (as well as formal, thematic, and discursive) boundaries to become possible.
      “Pre-texting” may be a means of testing the suitability of the conditions under which texting or textualization will occur.
      A series of text messages exchanged between two people may be a pre-text of, or a pretext for, their continued dialogue and interaction.
      A text message that is in the process of being composed and that hasn’t yet been sent may also be called a “pre-text.”
      Marie Maclean (1991) describes a “paratext” as a frame for a text that guides the reader’s approach to the text, and that may also define, enhance, and contrast with the text.2 Examples of paratexts include the title page of a book, the frame around a painting, and the wall on which a canvas is hung. A paratext may serve as a means of conditioning the reader’s expectations of the text, and of lending credibility and authority to the text.3 It may be a pre-text or context; it may also be a parallel text. It may also be an accompanying or companion text that brings further meaning to the text or that plays a metatextual role.
      Gérard Genette (1997) describes paratexts as “thresholds” of interpretation, and explains that they may include such elements of a book as its cover, title page, title, dedication, epigraphs, preface, chapter titles, notes, and publisher’s “epitext” or “peritext.”4 He also describes paratexts as transactional zones between the text and off-text, between the author and reader.5 Paratexts consist of “peritexts” and “epitexts.” Peritexts are texts (such as the book cover, title page, format, preface, and notes) that surround the core text of a book. Epitexts are texts (such as critical reviews not appended to the text) that externally present the text to the reader.6
      The relations between a text and its pre-texts, pretexts, and paratexts may also be dimensions of its intertextuality or transtextuality.7 A text and its pre-texts, pretexts, and paratexts may all be read intertextually or transtextually, and they may each be interpreted in light of their own, as well as one another’s meaning.


1D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996.
2Marie Maclean, “Pretexts and Paratexts: The Art of the Peripheral,” in New Literary History, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1991, pp. 273-275.
3Ibid., p. 276.
4Gérard Gennette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 2.
5Ibid., p. 2.
6Gérard Gennette and Marie Maclean, “Introduction to the Paratext,” in New Literary History, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1991, pp. 262-264.
7Julia Kristeva describes the intertextual and translinguistic nature of texts in her collection of essays, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, edited by Leon S. Roudiez, translated by Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 66.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Practical Applications of a Theory of Racial Justice

The theories of justice that have traditionally been proposed by Western political philosophy have been incomplete, insofar as they have not included a theory of racial justice. This disregard of the problem of racial injustice by traditional Western philosophy is unfortunate, since racial injustice has historically been one of the most fundamental moral problems confronting humankind. 
      What would it feel like to live in a world in which racial injustice did not exist? Is such a world possible? What steps could be taken to bring about such a world? What would such a world look like?
      What is racial justice? It may perhaps be characterized by a number of principles, including fairness, equity, respect for human dignity, and conformity to standards that are not racially biased or discriminatory. It may also be characterized by such principles as legal recognition of the civil rights of individuals, due process in the conduct of legal proceedings, and fulfillment of the moral, civil, and legal rights of individuals.
      Of course, for those who believe that racial categories do not really exist and that race as a concept of personal or group identity should be eliminated, the term “racial justice” may seem like an oxymoron. If there is something inherently false and misleading about racial categories, then there is no such thing as “racial justice”; there is only “justice.” For those who believe, however, that the concept of race has historically been, and continues to be, a significant and powerful social reality, there is indeed a need to explore the meaning of racial justice, and a need to determine how this kind of justice may best be attained. Even if the viability of the concept of race is questioned, the reality of racial prejudice and injustice is clear.

1. Categories of Racial Justice

What kinds of racial justice are there? There may indeed be a variety, including distributive, corrective, reparative, compensatory, and other kinds. Distributive justice may perhaps be the most basic kind of justice, insofar as corrective, reparative, and compensatory justice must be distributed fairly among all members of society if the principles of justice are to be fulfilled.
    Distributive racial justice may be determined by the way in which social goods are distributed to various members of society, insofar as the way in which those social goods are distributed is or is not influenced by the racial identity of those members of society. The distributed goods may include rights, privileges, wealth, economic opportunities, educational opportunities, professional and employment opportunities, housing, health care, safety, access to natural resources, and other kinds of social goods.
      Corrective racial justice may involve the rectification of past or present racial inequities and injustices, and it may also involve the initiation of preventive procedures in order to avoid further inequities and injustices. It may also involve an attempt to correct the kinds of misperceptions that produce racially biased attitudes.
      Reparative or restorative racial justice may involve apologies or atonement for past acts of racial injustice, as well as repair of the harms done to those who have been victims of injustice. It may also include restoration of the rights, privileges, and other social goods that have been denied to victims of racial injustice.
      Compensatory racial justice may involve financial or non-financial compensation to the victims of racial injustice for the harms they have suffered. Financial compensation may take the form of "reparations." Some examples of non-financial compensation include public recognition (in the form of legislation, public records, or other documents) that wrongs have been committed, and other kinds of memorials to the victims.
      It should be noted that the concept of retributive justice (the concept that justice may sometimes be served by enabling victims of injustice to take retribution against those who have treated them unjustly) appears to be inappropriate for, and to have no rightful place in, a theory of racial justice. There is no moral justification for retributive punishment of an entire racial group because of the wrong actions of some members of that group. Retributivism based on the race of those who have acted unjustly is itself morally unjust.

2. Possible Approaches to a Theory of Racial Justice

Theories of justice include utilitarian, contractarian, entitlement, libertarian, and egalitarian theories. While utilitarian theories hold that justice is served by actions that have the greatest utility and produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, contractarian theories hold that justice is served by the fulfillment of a social contract between each individual and the rest of society.
      Entitlement theories hold that justice is served by fulfillment of the rights and entitlements that belong to individuals. The rights and entitlements of individuals to possess social goods may be determined by whether they have acquired or received those goods justly or unjustly.
      Libertarian theories hold that justice is served by rules and agreements that allow individuals the greatest amount of liberty that is compatible with the rights of other individuals. Libertarian theories also hold that justice is served by allowing markets to operate freely, and by not depriving individuals of wealth, goods, or property that they have obtained by rightful means.
      Egalitarian theories hold that justice is served by rules and agreements that assign equal rights and duties to individuals, and that ensure an equitable distribution of social goods.
      A weakness of utilitarian theories is that a racial minority that already suffers a disadvantage with regard to access to social goods may suffer an even greater disadvantage if a redistribution of goods is judged to produce a greater amount of happiness for the racial majority. Moreover, a racial majority that already enjoys an advantage with regard to access to social goods may gain an even greater advantage if a redistribution of goods is judged to produce a greater amount of happiness for that majority.
      A weakness of contractarian theories is that the parties of a social contract must have some incentive to cooperate with each other.1 If a racial majority already enjoys a position of power over a racial minority, then there may be no incentive for it to enter into a contractual arrangement with that minority for their mutual benefit.
      Another weakness of contractarian theories, as explained by Charles W. Mills (1997), is that a social contract may be a means of promoting racial injustice, rather than justice. A social contract may be made between members of a racial majority to subjugate and subordinate a racial minority. This “racial contract” may be formal or informal, and it may have political, moral, and epistemological dimensions.2
      A weakness of libertarian theories is that they may hold that private business owners should have the right to refuse to sell their services to whomever they choose. Thus, libertarians may argue for the right of private business owners to refuse to serve members of racial minority groups.
      Similarly, libertarians may argue for the right of private owners of natural resources to choose those to whom access to those resources will be granted, even if those who are denied access will be forced to undergo undue hardship or suffering.
      Similarly, libertarians may argue that private individuals should not be deprived of their wealth by the imposition of taxes or other means of funding social programs for the poor and needy.
      Some libertarians may also oppose regulation of “hate speech” that targets racial minorities, arguing that such regulation constitutes an unnecessary infringement of the right to freedom of speech.
      However, a possible weakness of egalitarian theories of justice is that they may fail to resolve the problem of whether distributive justice requires that each individual receive an equal share of social goods. Other methods of achieving distributive justice may need to be considered, including the distribution of goods to individuals according to their need, merit, investment of labor and capital, their right to be compensated for risks assumed, and their right to be compensated for sacrifices made.3
      John Rawls (1971) attempts to resolve this problem by introducing the “difference principle” as part of the second of his two principles of justice. Rawls's first principle of justice is that each individual should have an equal right to as much liberty as is compatible with the rights of other individuals. His second principle is that any social or economic inequalities among individuals should be designed to benefit every individual, and such inequalities should be equally available to all individuals.4 The first principle of justice is called “the principle of greatest equal liberty,” while the first part of the second principle is called “the difference principle,” and the second part of the second principle is called “the principle of fair equality of opportunity.”5
      Rawls says that if justice is to be attained, the first principle of justice must be satisfied before the second principle is satisfied, and the principle of fair equality of opportunity must be satisfied before the difference principle is satisfied. This means that infringements of basic liberties cannot be justified by the argument that such infringements may in some cases produce economic benefits for individuals. Similarly, infringements of fair equality of opportunity cannot be justified by the argument that such infringements may in some cases produce economic benefits for individuals.
      Rawls sees constitutional democracy as the kind of political system in which the principles of justice can be fulfilled. However, he notes that a common defect of constitutional democracy is that it may allow greater disparity in the distribution of wealth and property than is compatible with equality of economic, social, and political opportunity. He also explains that another defect of constitutional democracy is that it may allow political power to accumulate in the hands of a single group or party that may misuse the institutions of government for its own political advantage. In order for these defects to be avoided, political equality of opportunity (including equal rights of participation in the political process) must be constitutionally guaranteed.6
      Egalitarian theories of justice may lead to controversy regarding the question of whether distributive justice can best be achieved by capitalism or socialism. They may also lead to controversy regarding the question of whether human rights are better protected by capitalism than by socialism, or by socialism than by capitalism. They may also lead to controversy regarding the question of whether the economic status of all members of society is more likely to be improved by capitalism than by socialism, or by socialism than by capitalism.
      Economic justice is a part of racial justice, and racial justice is a part of economic justice. These two parts of justice are inseparable. Racial justice cannot be attained without economic justice, and economic justice cannot be attained without racial justice.

3. Practical Problems to which a Theory of Racial Justice May be Applied

In an ideal world, a world of social and economic justice, there would be no racial injustice. In such a world, people of color would not be overrepresented among the poor, and they would not be underrepresented among the wealthy. They would not be overrepresented among prison parolees, and they would not be underrepresented among investment managers and Wall Street bankers.
      Racial inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system have been well documented. Disproportionate numbers of black males are arrested and incarcerated. Disproportionate numbers of blacks are charged with felony crimes that carry mandatory minimum prison sentences. Disproportionate numbers of blacks charged with criminal offenses are subject to discriminatory sentencing guidelines. Disproportionate numbers of black males are sentenced to the death penalty. Disproportionate numbers of people of color are stopped and searched on the street by police officers. Disproportionate numbers of minority youth enter the criminal justice system and are charged as adult offenders.
      Racial inequities in the U.S. educational system have also been well documented. Black students are more likely to be suspended from school, and even black preschool children are more likely to be suspended. Black students are more likely to be enrolled in the lowest performing and most poorly run schools. Black, Latino, American Indian, and Native Alaskan students are less likely to have access to advanced math and science courses. Black and Latino students are less likely to have access to educational programs designed for gifted and talented students.7
      Racial inequities in the U.S. health care system have also been well documented, including disparities in the treatment of such diseases as coronary artery disease, cancer, HIV infection, diabetes, and end-stage renal disease.8
      William J. Talbott (2010) explains that equal opportunity rights include positive rights (to fulfill one’s personal and social capabilities) and negative rights (to not be discriminated against on unjust or arbitrary grounds). Positive opportunity rights include the right to physical security, the right to adequate and affordable health care, the right to an education, and the right to engage in gainful employment. Negative opportunity rights include the right not to be discriminated against in education, employment, housing, health care, public accommodations, and in other areas in which discrimination can be harmful.9
      Martha Nussbaum (2006) describes a “capabilities approach” to social justice, based on the theory that in order to be just, a society must enable its citizens to live with human dignity. She lists ten core entitlements or central capabilities that are necessary to a life of human dignity: (1) the ability to live a normal lifespan, (2) the ability to maintain bodily health, to be adequately nourished, and to have adequate shelter, (3) the ability to maintain bodily integrity and to be secure against bodily assault, (4) the ability to use the senses, to imagine, and to think, (5) the ability to establish and maintain emotional attachments to people and things, (6) the ability to engage in practical reason, (7) the ability to engage in social interactions and to be treated with fairness and respect, (8) the ability to live with concern for, and in relation to, animals, plants, and the world of nature, (9) the ability to play, to laugh, and to enjoy recreational activities, and (10) the ability to exercise some control over one’s environment by participating in political decisions that affect one’s life, as well as by being able to hold property, by being able to seek employment on an equal basis with others, and by being free from unwarranted search and seizure of property.10
      Nussbaum uses the phrase “worthy of human dignity” to describe the condition that meets the threshold requirement for fulfillment of the central capabilities. She explains that the list of core entitlements or central capabilities is the same for all citizens, and that the threshold level of each of the entitlements or capabilities is taken to be a minimum beneath which a decently dignified life for citizens is not available.11 All the capabilities must be guaranteed for all citizens in order for social justice to be achieved. A just society recognizes the equal dignity of all human beings.12
      Iris Marion Young (1990) explains that the problems of oppression and domination should be regarded as the starting point for any theory of justice, since these two problems impose fundamental constraints on the ability of human beings to live together harmoniously. When social groups are advantaged or disadvantaged in relation to each other, group differences in relative advantage must be recognized and attended to if social justice is to be sought, and if oppression of a disadvantaged social group is to be avoided.13
      Young defines oppression as the institutional constraint on self-development, and domination as the institutional constraint on self-determination.14 Oppression consists of institutional processes that prevent individuals from developing their personal and social capabilities, and that inhibit interpersonal communication and intergroup cooperation. Domination consists of institutional processes that prevent individuals from determining their own actions (or the conditions of their own actions), and that prevent them from participating in personal, social, and political decision-making.15
      Young describes race as “a structure of oppression,” and she argues that in the United States, racial minority groups such as blacks and Hispanics are exploited by a capitalist system that tends to reserve higher-paying jobs for whites and lower-paying jobs for blacks and Hispanics.16 She also argues that women are exploited by a capitalist system that tends to reserve greater privilege and opportunity to men. Other groups that are marginalized by capitalist society include the poor, the elderly, and the disabled.

4. Racial Justice: Phenomenology and Epistemology

Racial justice may have a phenomenology, as well as an epistemology. Racial justice phenomenology may be a study of racial justice as a pure phenomenon (if it is possible to examine it as a pure phenomenon), rather than as an empirical reality. It may also be a study of racial justice as an intentional object (intentionality being a property of mental states whereby they are directed at, or are about, something17). Thus, racial justice phenomenology is to be distinguished from racial justice psychology, which is a study of the subjective, lived experience of racial (in)justice and is concerned with racial (in)justice as an empirical reality. Racial justice psychology may explore the possible motivations for seeking justice and opposing injustice, and it may also explore the psychological meanings and consequences of justice and injustice.
      What kinds of phenomena define the experience of racial injustice? What kinds of phenomena define the racial identity of an individual or group? What kinds of phenomena constitute the experience of racial sameness or difference?
      The phenomenology of race may study all the phenomena that are involved in the experience of race as a sociocultural reality. Such phenomena as the experience of being racially identified, the experience of being racially profiled, the experience of being racially excluded, and the experience of being exposed to racial discrimination may be objects of study for the phenomenology of race.
      Racial justice epistemology may be complementary to racial justice phenomenology, insofar as the way in which racial justice is defined may be socially determined and may be a matter of collective intentionality (and therefore a subject of study for racial justice phenomenology). Racial justice epistemology may be a study of the origins, nature, and limits of racial justice. It may also be a study of the possible definitions of, and criteria for, racial justice. It addresses such questions as: What is the meaning of the term “racial justice”? How do we resolve disagreements about how it should be defined?
      Racial justice epistemology may be normative as well as descriptive. It may propose normative definitions as well as descriptive accounts of racial justice. It may study the origin, nature, and limits of knowledge concerning racial justice. It may also evaluate the truth or falsehood of whatever claims are made about racial justice.
      This epistemology (or study of knowledge) may be combined with an agnotology (or study of ignorance). An agnotology may be able to explore the causes of the “cultural production of ignorance”18 regarding principles of racial justice. It may also be able to identify the sociocultural, political, and historical reasons for indifference to, and disregard of, the principles of justice, fairness, and respect for human dignity.
      A theory of racial justice may also find useful the kind of social ontology proposed by John R. Searle in his work on the construction of social reality (1995, 2010). Searle describes collective intentionality as a collective sharing by individuals of their intentional mental states, including their beliefs, desires, attitudes, and emotions.19 Collective intentionality assigns status functions to physical and social facts. Status functions are collectively recognized relational categories to which functions are attached.
      Physical facts are objective, says Searle, but social facts may be both subjective and objective. Brute physical facts, like mountains and valleys, exist regardless of our attitudes toward them, but social facts, like marriages and governments, depend for their existence on our attitudes toward them. However, social facts may become objective if they are generally recognized and accepted as facts. Thus, they may be epistemically objective, if they are not a matter of individual attitude or opinion, but ontologically subjective, if they depend for their existence on being recognized and accepted as facts.20
      Institutional facts, says Searle, are social facts that depend for their existence on institutions. Examples of institutional facts include money, private property, businesses, corporations, schools, sports teams, hospitals, families, partnerships, and governments.21 Institutional facts are also status functions, insofar as they imply or create “deontic powers,” such as rights, duties, obligations, permissions, and entitlements.22 Thus, they create and regulate power relationships throughout society.
      The implications and consequences of this social ontology for a theory of racial justice become evident when we recognize that if the status functions assigned to some institutional facts are illegitimate and unjustified, then so may be the deontic powers created by the assignment of those status functions. There may be no grounds for acceptance of the power relationships established by social institutions if those institutions are illegitimate and unworthy of the status functions assigned to them. We may contest not only the justifiability of the power relationships created by the assignment of particular status functions to institutional facts, but also the justifiability of those status functions themselves (and the fact that those institutional “facts” are regarded as facts).
      Searle describes social facts as collective intentional facts (facts that are generally recognized and accepted by collective intentionality). However, some facts may be recognized by a large number of people, and yet may also not be recognized by a large number of people. Groups of individuals may have differing viewpoints regarding the assignment of status functions to particular social facts, and thus they may also have differing viewpoints regarding the structure of social reality.
      If individuals are assigned, simply on the basis of their skin color or assumed racial identity, a social status that carries rights, privileges, obligations, permissions, etc., then that assignment is unjust insofar as it denies them the opportunity to be judged fairly and impartially as human beings. It is also unjust insofar as it may deny others the opportunity to be assigned the rights, privileges, obligations, permissions, etc. they are entitled to by virtue of their equal citizenship.
      Miranda Fricker (2007) describes epistemic injustice as a kind of social injustice done to a speaker by a listener, as a result of which the speaker’s trustworthiness as a knower is unjustly discounted. For example, listeners who are prejudiced against black people may unfairly discount the credibility of a black speaker, merely because she is black. Fricker thus explains that epistemic injustice may occur when the listener unjustly discounts the credibility of the speaker (testimonial injustice) or when the listener lacks the interpretive resources to adequately understand what the speaker is saying (hermeneutical injustice).
      However, epistemic injustice may also be a kind of injustice done to a listener by a speaker. This may occur when a speaker knowingly misleads or deceives a listener or when a speaker unjustly takes advantage of a listener’s willingness to take her utterances at face value. It may also occur when a speaker unjustly discounts or disregards a listener’s epistemic capacity. Thus, epistemic injustice may be the result of a social interaction or communicative process that proceeds in more than one direction.
      An example of testimonial injustice to a speaker might be the assumption by a white audience that a Hispanic law professor’s statements regarding her field of expertise are less trustworthy and authoritative than those of her white colleagues, simply because she is Hispanic and therefore assumed by the audience to be less competent.
      An example of testimonial injustice to a listener (or to a group of listeners) might be the signing of a contract by a party who has no intention of keeping the contract, such as in the case of treaties with Native Americans that were signed and broken by the U.S. government.
      An example of hermeneutical injustice to a speaker (or to a group of speakers) might be the inability of a white college student at a largely white institution to understand why black students might feel that racism or implicit bias might be a factor in the way in which they are perceived as students.
      An example of hermeneutical injustice to a listener (or to a group of listeners) might be a white racist’s statements to the press that black people have surrendered to a state of dependency, and that they should realize that they were better off as slaves.23

5. The Utility of Ideal vs. Non-Ideal Theory

The question, “What is racial justice?” may perhaps be relativized or qualified by asking, “For whom, or in relation to whom, are you trying to define racial justice?” or “Whose concept of racial justice are you talking about?” Is racial justice for white people any different from racial justice for black people? Is racial justice the same for whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other racial groups? Does racial justice for one racial group promote or come at the expense of justice for another racial group?
      Charles W. Mills (2010) has argued that in an ideal society, race would not exist, and that ideal theory may thus be unable to shed light on the nature of racial justice.  He explains that “ideal theory” concerning justice in a perfectly just society must therefore be replaced by “non-ideal theory” concerning justice in an imperfect, unjust, or racialized society.24 He provides a number of very cogent criticisms of ideal theory, including the criticism that it may divert attention from real-world problems, and the criticism that we do not necessarily have to be able to envision justice in an ideal world in order to be able to correct injustice in the real world.25
      Tommie Shelby (2013), however, explains that ideal theory and non-ideal theory may be complementary, and that ideal theory may serve as a guide for non-ideal theory. Ideal theory (the study of the principles of justice that guide a perfectly just society) may provide standards of justice for non-ideal theory (the study of the principles that should guide our responses to injustice).26
      Marcus Arvan (2014) distinguishes between three kinds of non-ideal theory: (1) partial compliance theory, in which a society does not strictly comply with principles of justice, even though there are reasonably favorable conditions for social cooperation, and there are conditions under which social cooperation is both possible and necessary (this latter set of conditions is described by Rawls as “the circumstances of justice”27), (2) unfavorable conditions theory, in which a society does not strictly comply with principles of justice, and there are unfavorable conditions for social cooperation, even though there are “circumstances of justice”; and (3) no circumstances of justice theory, in which a society does not comply with the principles of justice, and there are neither reasonably favorable conditions for social cooperation nor “circumstances of justice” (as in the case of a society where there is an extreme scarcity of social goods, or a society where there is systemic violation of human rights and the rule of law, or a society where there is no recognized or functioning government). Arvan thus explains that the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory is complicated by the fact that there may be more than one kind of non-ideal theory.28
      Theorizing about justice may seem a pointless exercise to those who believe that we should not have to formulate a theory of justice in order to recognize cases of blatant injustice when we see them. Some cases of injustice are so blatant that they are, or should be, intuitively recognizable. But not all cases. Some cases may be more easily recognizable than others. In some cases we may have to defend our claims that particular acts, decisions, arrangements, demands, or requirements are morally unjust. If we have to defend those claims against counterclaims made by some adversary, then we may also have to be able to rationally justify our claims before a third party.
      To argue that all moral truths are intuitively recognizable may be for us to deny any obligation to rationally justify our moral beliefs, and it may also be for us to forgo any attempt to better explain and understand those beliefs. Intuition alone may not always be a reliable guide to moral truth. Prima facie truths may sometimes be superseded by truths that become evident only after investigation. Some moral duties may be intuitively evident, but others may be evident only after some reflection.
      A logically consistent and rationally defensible theory of justice may therefore enable us to provide our claims about injustice with a firmer and more secure foundation.

6. The World of Racial Justice

In a world of racial justice (WRJ), there is procedural justice, legal justice, institutional justice, and justice in public policy. There is no institutional bias or discrimination on the basis of race, and there is no socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage assigned to individuals, groups, or institutions on the basis of racial considerations.
Insofar as there is procedural justice in a WRJ, civil and legal procedures are fair, just, impartial, and non-discriminatory with regard to the racial identity of individuals, groups, and institutions.
      Insofar as there is legal justice in a WRJ, the legal system functions to enact laws, resolve disputes, enforce contracts, protect civil rights, prevent and punish civil and criminal offenses, facilitate redress of grievances, maintain public order, and perform other functions in a fair, just, and impartial manner.
      In a WRJ, individuals are not arbitrarily arrested and detained without charges being brought against them. They are not forced to make false confessions or false admissions of guilt. They are not forced to face charges when evidence against them has been fabricated or evidence exonerating them has been concealed. They are not arbitrarily deprived of adequate legal representation. They are not forced to undergo trial in front of biased judges and juries. They are not subjected to cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment or punishment (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5). They do not receive, because of their race, ethnicity, political opinions, religion, or nationality, unduly harsh or unduly lenient sentences for crimes of which they have been convicted. They are not, because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, etc., convicted of crimes that they did not commit, nor are they are exonerated of crimes that they did commit.
      In a world of racial justice, the integrity of the judicial system is uncompromised by such misdeeds as bribery, perjury, witness intimidation, police brutality, manufacturing of evidence, tampering with evidence, concealment of evidence, jury tampering, and other acts of police or judicial misconduct. If such acts occur, they are promptly recognized, corrected, and remediated.
      Insofar as there is institutional justice in a WRJ, all institutions fulfill their social, moral, legal, and economic duties to society. They are also fair, equitable, honest, and socially committed with regard to such principles as membership duties, personnel management, workplace management, corporate governance, provision of services, and treatment of clients or consumers.
      Insofar as there is justice in public policy in a WRJ, laws are administered fairly, justly, and impartially. Legislation and adjudication are not racially biased. Public policy regarding such issues as immigration, taxes, unemployment benefits, the minimum wage, food stamps, public housing, and drug policy is not decided on racially biased grounds. Debates about government spending are not driven by racially biased agendas.
      A world of racial justice may therefore be defined in such a way that if racial injustice occurs in that world, it is promptly recognized, corrected, and remediated. In such a world, the victims of injustice are also promptly and fairly compensated.
      Thus, there may be more than one possible WRJ. There may be an ideal WRJ in which racial injustice never occurs, and a real WRJ in which injustice may occur but is promptly recognized, addressed, and remediated.
      There may also be a plurality of possible worlds of racial justice that differ to varying degrees from the actual world. Racial justice may be a “transworld” property of all such possible worlds. The world of racial justice that is least different from the actual world may perhaps be the easiest to visualize.
      For those who believe (perhaps because of insensitivity or indifference to racial injustice) that we actually live in a present-day WRJ, RJ is not merely possible, but actual. The possible worlds of racial justice may be possible alternatives to the actual world that have not yet been, but could be, actualized. These nonactual worlds may be more or less perfect than the actual world.
      For those who do not believe (perhaps because of despair, disappointment, or cynicism) that a WRJ is possible, the actual world, a world of racial injustice, is the only real world. Possible worlds of RJ are therefore mere fictions or illusions; they are not real worlds.
For those who believe that a WRJ is possible, but that it has not been actualized, its possibility may be logical, ideal, and/or real. Its possibility may also be remote, approximate, or nearly at hand, depending on the personal viewpoint of the observer. Thus, a WRJ may be seen as not merely a theoretical construct or hypothetical situation, but an attainable set of relations between individuals, communities, and nations.
      Indeed, a world of racial justice (WRJ) is no mere thought-experiment. It is a moral exigency requiring our urgent and sustained attention.
      The schools of thought regarding the possibility of a WRJ may thus include the “actualists” (those who believe that we actually live in a WRJ), the “skeptics” (those who are skeptical about the possibility), and the “possibilists” (those who believe that a WRJ is possible, but not yet actual).
      For the “skeptics,” any talk about possible worlds of racial justice may arise from a kind of modal fictionalism. For the “possibilists,” however, any such talk may arise from a kind of modal realism, if it is grounded in the real possibility of at least one WRJ.
      Belief in the real possibility of racial justice does not imply some sort of utopianism. The continuing struggle for racial justice arises from the need to affirm our common brotherhood and sisterhood, and from the need to promote respect for human dignity.

7. The Moral Necessity that the World of Racial Justice be Actualized

A world of racial justice (WRJ) is also a world of global justice (WGR), inasmuch as in order for racial justice to be achieved, global justice must be achieved. Given the high rates of extreme poverty in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, the correction of racial disparities with regard to access to social goods (such as adequate nutrition, housing, health care, clean air, and clean water) will require a global, as well as targeted, approach.
      Of the approximately 7 billion people in the world today, more than 1 billion live on less than $1.25 a day.  Some of the highest rates of extreme poverty are found in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In 2010, 48% of people in sub-Saharan Africa lived on less than $1.25 a day, and 31% of people in South Asia lived on less than $1.25 a day.30
In 2012, more than 6 million children worldwide died before the age of five. More than half of those deaths were caused by preventable or treatable conditions, such as malnutrition, pneumonia, diarrhea, or malaria.31
       In 2011, more than 700 million people had inadequate access to clean water, and more than 2 billion people had inadequate access to basic sanitation.32
In sub-Saharan Africa, women spend more than 40 billion hours each year walking to get water for their families.33
      In 2013, more than 1 billion people were without access to electricity, including 550 million people in Africa and over 400 million in India.34
      Strategies to promote economic growth and development in developing countries include international trade reforms, removal of trade barriers that hinder access to international markets, reduction of debt burdens of heavily indebted countries, boosting of telecommunications infrastructure, improvement in access to technology, private direct investment, and empowerment of women (Goal 3 of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals). Promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women can be accomplished by encouraging entrepreneurship among women, protecting women’s legal and civil rights, promoting gender equality in education and employment, and promoting opportunities for women to participate in the political process.
      Other strategies to promote economic growth and development in developing countries include partnerships between governments of developing countries and governments of more developed countries, as well as partnerships between developing countries and international trade organizations, international financial institutions, international corporations, non-governmental organizations, and academic institutions.
      Some examples of the kinds of specific goals advocated by Jeffrey Sachs et al. (2004) to promote economic growth and development in sub-Saharan Africa include (1) improvement in rural road and highway infrastructure, (2) improvement in electric power generation capacity, (3) improvement in water supply infrastructure, (4) integrated water resources management, with protection and allocation of water resources to agricultural, domestic, and industrial uses, (5) improvement in sanitation infrastructure, (6) improvement in health services, nutrition services, and family planning services, including expanded delivery of vaccinations for preventable diseases, improved access to HIV prevention and treatment, improved access to directly observed treatment of tuberculosis, and expanded delivery of insecticide-treated nets to prevent malaria, (7) improvements in education, through improvements in school infrastructure, recruitment and training of teachers, delivery of updated textbooks and other learning materials, implementation of curriculum reform where necessary in order to improve education content, provision of school meals, and expansion of adult literacy programs, and (8) improvement in urban infrastructure, including upgrading of roads, street lighting, storm drainage, communication infrastructure, transport infrastructure, and improved delivery of basic services, such as refuse collection, solid waste disposal, policing and security, fire protection, pollution control, and improved electric power generation capacity.35
      In a world of racial justice (WRJ), there is a just and fair distribution of social and economic advantages to all members of society, regardless of the racial groups to which those members belong. There is also fairness and equality of opportunity with regard to employment, housing, access to health care, access to education, political participation, access to social and cultural resources, and access to other social goods.
      Martin Luther King, Jr. (1957) said that the struggle against injustice must be waged non-violently.  Those who struggle against racial injustice must recognize that the conflict is not between races, but between justice and injustice. The struggle for human dignity must be based on love for others; it cannot be based on enmity toward others.36
      According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), all people are entitled to all basic human rights and freedoms, regardless of their race, color, sex, language, religion, political opinion, nationality, or other status (Article 2). All people are equal before the law, all are entitled to equal protection under the law, and all are entitled to equal protection against discrimination (Article 7).37
      Racial, social, and economic justice issues affecting women of color are global in scope and dimensions.  Some of the most significant issues include (1) gender discrimination in employment (including discrimination in hiring, promotion, wages, and benefits), (2) gender discrimination in education (including gender-based cultural barriers to education, lack of accessible and affordable education, and gender bias in the classroom), (3) gender discrimination in legal rights (including barriers to voting rights, barriers to marriage and divorce rights, infringements of property rights, barriers to inheritance rights, and barriers to credit opportunity rights), and (4) gender discrimination in reproductive rights (including barriers to availability of family planning services, maternity care, and preventive health care). Some other equally significant social justice issues affecting women of color include (5) sexual violence, (6) domestic violence, (7) child marriage, (8) child labor, (9) forced marriage, (10) sexual harassment, and (11) human trafficking.
      What duties do we have to try to actualize a world of racial, social, economic, and global justice? John Rawls (1971) distinguishes between our positive duties (to uphold justice, to offer mutual aid, and to express mutual respect) and our negative duties (not to injure or harm one another).38 Similarly, Thomas Pogge (2013) says that we have a (positive) duty to intervene in cases where human rights are not being respected, and a (negative) duty not to contribute to violations of human rights. Thus, we have a duty not to contribute to the design or imposition of social and economic institutions under which human rights foreseeably and avoidably remain unfulfilled.39
      The U.S. Human Rights Fund (2011) has proposed a number of strategies to overcome racial injustice, including (1) legal strategies (such as utilization of international human rights treaties and commissions, utilization of human rights standards in U.S. court rulings, and utilization of local and state human rights laws and commissions), (2) international mechanisms, (3) advocacy campaigns, (4) funder-advocate partnerships, (5) public communications (including media outreach), and (6) community organizing.40
      Another strategy to overcome racial injustice is affirmative action (in job hiring and promotion, university admissions policies, etc.). Although it is controversial, it may be an effective means of remedying the underrepresentation of racial minority groups in various educational and employment settings. Although opponents may describe it as “reverse discrimination,” it should not be defined in the way that its critics attempt to define it, as a policy of giving unmerited, undeserved, and unfair preferential consideration to racial minority groups. It should rather be defined as a means of recognizing that promotion of cultural diversity can benefit various kinds of educational and employment settings, as well as society as a whole.
      Many arguments, which will not be enumerated here, have been made for and against affirmative action. However, many of the arguments against affirmative action have presupposed the inferiority of blacks to whites as applicants for educational and employment opportunities. Many of those arguments have also assumed that there is a necessary conflict between affirmative action and the right of every white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, or other applicant to be judged objectively on the basis of his/her individual merit. Such arguments do an injustice to those applicants who have had to overcome cultural barriers to their being able to compete against others on a level playing field, and who have had to confront racial injustice in order to pursue equality of opportunity.
      Racial justice legislation (and adjudication) may deal with such problems as employment discrimination, housing discrimination, racial segregation of public facilities, racial segregation of public schools, infringements of voting rights, racially discriminatory admissions policies of schools and universities, racially biased lending practices of financial institutions, racial discrimination in consumer markets, racial profiling by law enforcement officers, racial harassment, hate crimes, and human slavery.
      The degree to which racial justice has been achieved may be measured by its presence in the political, legal, economic, and social systems of a society, nation, or world order. The WJP Rule of Law Index, developed by the World Justice Project, is an example of a useful instrument for measuring the rule of law, based on forty-seven indicators organized around nine factors: constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, criminal justice, and informal justice.41
      According to the WJP Law Index, principles of the rule of law include (1) legal accountability of government and its officials, as well as accountability of individuals and private entities, (2) impartiality of application of the law, and protection of fundamental rights, (3) fairness of the process by which laws are enacted, administered, and enforced, and (4) adequacy of access to the justice system. The rule of law provides a foundation for the political, legal, economic, and social systems of a society to function effectively.42
      The process of attaining racial justice may go hand in hand with the process of reconciliation. As the victims of injustice seek redress for the indignities and harms they have suffered, they may also, in some cases, feel the need to go through a process of healing in order to be able to fully exercise their moral, civil, and legal rights. This process of healing may therefore also entail a process of reconciliation between the victims and the perpetrators of injustice, so that society can be made whole.


1Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 263.

2Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 9.

3Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 187.

4John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 53.

5Ibid., pp. 57-73.

6Ibid., pp. 197-199.

7U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, “Civil Rights Data Collection,” March 2014.

8Brian D. Smedley, Adrienne Y. Stith, and Alan R. Nelson, editors, “Summary” in Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care (Washington, D.C.: The National Academic Press, 2003), pp. 5-6.

9William J. Talbott, Human Rights and Human Well-Being (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 260-261.

10Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 206), pp. 76-78.

11Ibid., p. 179.

12Ibid., p. 292.

13Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 3.

14Ibid., p. 37.

15Ibid., p. 38.

16Ibid, p. 51.

17John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1995), p. 18.

18Robert N. Proctor, “Agnotology: A Missing Term to Describe the Cultural Production of Ignorance (and its Study),” in Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance, edited by Robert N. Proctor & Linda Schiebinger (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 1.

19John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1995), p. 23.

20Ibid., p. 8.

21John R. Searle, Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 91.

22Ibid., p. 9.

23”A Defiant Rancher Savors the Audience that Rallied to His Side,” by Adam Nagourney, in The New York Times, April 23, 2014, p. A1.

24Charles W. Mills, “Realizing (Through Racializing) Pogge,” in Thomas Pogge and His Critics, edited by Alison M. Jaggar (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), p. 102.

25Ibid., p. 153.

26Tommie Shelby, “Racial Realities and Corrective Justice: A Reply to Charles Mills,” in Critical Philosophy of Race, Vol. I, No. 2, 2013, pp. 155-156.

27Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 109.

28Marcus Arvan, “First Steps Toward a Nonideal Theory of Justice,” in Ethics and Global Politics, Vol. 7, No. 3 (2014), pp. 95-112.

29John Divers, Possible Worlds (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 211.

30The World Bank Group, 2014,

31World Health Organization, Fact Sheet 178, September 2013,

32WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation, 2013

33UNICEF – Press Centre, “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene,” 2014,

34The World Bank Group, 2013,,,contentMDK:22855502~pagePK:210058~piPK:210062~theSitePK:4114200,00.html.

35Jeffrey D. Sachs, et al., “Ending Africa’s Poverty Trap,” in Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2004, No. 1, 117-240.

36Martin Luther King, Jr., “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” in Christian Century (The Christian Century Foundation, 1957), pp. 120-121.

37Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations General Assembly, 1948),

38Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 94.

39Thomas Pogge, “Global Justice: What are the Responsibilities of Citizens?” (Lecture at the University of Scranton, Sept. 21, 2013),

40U.S. Human Rights Fund, 2011,

41The World Justice Project, The WJP Rule of Law Index 2014 (Washington, D.C., 2014), p. 1.

42Ibid., p. 4.


Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.