On the metaphysics of cultural identity: A Darwinian paradigm


Constructing a theory of cultural identity requires that we first understand the metaphysics of identity and the ontological status of cultural groups. What are cultural groups? Are cultural groups objectively discernable identities with real and essential properties (essentialism)? Or are cultural groups socially constructed entities that have no basis in reality (eliminativism)? Regardless of the view we accept, some metaphysical theory of group identity will have to provide the basis for an intelligible and consistent account of cultural groups. In this article, I propose a metaphysical theory of cultural identity based on Darwin's view of the order of nature that can avoid the extreme views of essentialism and eliminativism. First, I discuss the theories of identity of Linda Martin Alcoff, J. Angelo Corlett and Jorge J. E. Gracia and evaluate their success as models for determining cultural identity. Second, I explore the various metaphysical views of group identity, and I expound a Darwinian view of the ontological nature of group identities. Finally, I illustrate how a Darwinian taxonomy can help us understand cultural identity and Gracia's Familial-Historical View of ethnic identity.

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  1. 1.

    For a discussion of the unique complexity experienced by second-generation Latinos in the United States, see Oboler, 1995, 157–175.

  2. 2.

    I use the terms “essentialism” and “eliminativism” to remain consistent with the most recent literature on identity (McGary, 2007, 155–169; Gracia, 2008, 11–12). Another term that is common in the literature is “imagined communities” (Oboler, 1995, 158; Alcoff, 2006, 5–129; Gracia, 2007, 79).

  3. 3.

    There is confusion between cultural identity and cultural affiliation (Garcia, 2001). Individuals can belong to various cultures and ethnicities simultaneously, and therefore we cannot say that they have various identities in the strict and logical sense. When identity is used in this context, it is meant as affiliation or membership in a group. For the purposes of this article, when I speak of cultural identity, I mean the individuation of a cultural group.

  4. 4.

    For other important views on cultural and ethnic identity, see Zea, 1989; Appiah and Gates, 1995; Oboler, 1995; Appiah, 1996, 2007; Schutte, 2000 and Nuccetelli, 2007.

  5. 5.

    This is the subtitle to Gracia's Chapter 3: “What Makes Us Who We Are?” (Gracia, 2000).

  6. 6.

    Gracia raises this same point as an objection to his theories (Gracia, 2000, 55–56).

  7. 7.

    For instance, consider Jorge Garcia's rejection of the Wittgensteinian family paradigm: “Professor Gracia's familial-historical conception of Hispanic ethnicity (being Hispanic) is deeply problematic in its central imagery of family, and perhaps incoherent as an account of anything so grand as Hispanic identity” (Garcia, 2001, 40).

  8. 8.

    See Gracia's discussion of the various forms of identities (2007, 89).

  9. 9.

    By idealism, I mean “that the inquiring mind itself makes a formative contribution not merely to our understanding of the nature of the real, but even to the resulting character we attribute to it” (Rescher, 1995, 227).

  10. 10.

    By objectivism, I mean “that judgments about it [cultural identity] are objectively true or false, meaning that they are true or false independently of us, or of our perspectives or of our opinions” (Blackburn, 1995, 368).

  11. 11.

    The issue of who selects the properties and on what basis is a complicated issue that requires greater analysis. However, with respect to cultural identity, a substantial part of these determinations should come from within the group itself.

  12. 12.

    In the next section, I distinguish two types of classifications: one governed by a constructed/ artificial purpose and another governed by natural order.

  13. 13.

    See also John Dewey: “The conception of eidos, species, a fixed form and final cause, was the central principle of knowledge as well as of nature. … Since, however, the scene of nature which directly confronts us is in change, nature as directly and practically experienced does not satisfy the conditions of knowledge;” (1973, 34).

  14. 14.

    There are various schools of thought with respect to modern taxonomy of natural organisms. First, there are the Phyletcists, who use as the basic principle of taxonomy evolutionary relationships. There are two kinds of Phyletcisist: (1) Cladists, who are primarily concerned with one true genealogy or tree of life; and (2) Traditional Evolutionary Taxonomist, who take into account both genealogy and resemblance or the total amount of change that has occurred in the evolutionary history of an organism. Another school of thought, the Pure Resemblance Measurer's, also can be divided into two groups, (1) the Pheneticists and (2) the Transformed Cladists. What these two groups share is that they move away from using the principle of genealogy as their basis for classifying organisms. Instead they depend primarily on resemblance. I have interpreted Darwin as a Phyletcist-Cladist. (Dawkins, 1986, 269–284).

  15. 15.

    There are two schools of thought with respect to how to treat species within a Darwinian taxonomy: (1) the punctuationist and (2) the nonpunctuationist. “To a non-punctuationist, ‘the species’ is definable only because the awkward intermediates are dead. An extreme anti-punctuationist, taking a long view of the entirety of evolutionary history, cannot see ‘the species’ as a discrete entity at all. He can only see a smeary continuum. … A punctuationist, on the other hand, sees a species as coming into existence at a particular time. Moreover, he sees a species as having a definite, or at least a rapidly accomplished, end, not a gradual fading into a new species” (Dawkins, 1986, 264). I interpret Darwin as a non-puntuationist.

  16. 16.

    For a well-developed argument of this external thesis, see (Nuccetelli, 2007, 137–151).


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I wish to thank the editor and anonymous referees for their many helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. I would also like to thank Jorge Gracia for his invaluable assistance with this article.

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Canteñs, B. On the metaphysics of cultural identity: A Darwinian paradigm. Lat Stud 7, 167–196 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1057/lst.2009.5

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  • cultural identity
  • ethnic identity
  • social identity
  • Darwin taxonomy