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Contents:


  1. 2. Social Philosophy, The Negro Problem, and Race
  2. Internet History Sourcebooks
  3. W.E.B. Du Bois
  4. 1. Du Bois’s Life and Major Publications

Cultural backwardness is economic disadvantage, ignorance, and deficiency with regard to the art of organized social life. Each of these causes accounts for one of two distinct classes of Negro problems , 82—3. The concept of double-consciousness is the most extensively discussed concept in the humanities and social sciences secondary literature on Du Bois, and it has received substantial attention from philosophers. To put the point more precisely, and in an idiom that is familiar to contemporary philosophers, Du Bois holds that the same sorts of historical and social factors construct race both constitutively and causally.

We then turn to his definition of race, which he introduces to counter the objection that, because spiritually distinct races cannot be identified as races from the perspective of the natural sciences, they cannot be identified as races at all. In explaining and defining race, Du Bois participates in a turn-of-the-century conversation in German philosophy about the subjects and methods that distinguish the human from the natural sciences—that is, the Geisteswissenschaften from the Naturwissenschaften.


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When Du Bois arrived in Berlin in , the conversation was well underway and had already benefitted from the significant contributions of Wilhelm Dilthey and Wilhelm Wundt several years earlier. During the s there were further contributions, in particular the writings of Georg Simmel, Wilhelm Windelband, and Heinrich Rickert. It also maintains that each spiritually distinct race, as such, is causally constructed by historical and social factors, for it asserts that each spiritually distinct race causally owes its spiritual distinctiveness its peculiar message, which dictates its particular historical role to such factors—specifically, to the common histories, laws, religions, habits of thought, and conscious strivings that have caused it to be the cohesive, spiritually distinct race it is , 54— Du Bois also holds that the spiritual distinctiveness of a socio-historical race cannot be explained in terms of physical, biological facts.

Like Wilhelm Dilthey, whose Introduction to the Human Sciences had appeared a decade before Du Bois heard him lecture in Berlin, he expressly questions the possibility of causal explanations that reduce spiritual facts and differences to biological facts and differences. Spiritual differences have historical and social causes law, religion, and so on , which Du Bois takes to be causally independent of biological racial facts a, 54— That spiritually distinct groups may not be readily identified as races if one adopts the perspective of the natural sciences does not entail that they cannot be identified as races at all.

2. Social Philosophy, The Negro Problem, and Race

From this point of view, Du Bois proposes, it is possible to identify spiritually distinct races as races , [ 11 ] and thus to state a definition of race—or, in other words, to specify the historical and social factors that constitute a group of human beings as a race. It has not escaped notice that the list of historical and social factors that Du Bois identifies as causally constructing as explaining the existence and cohesiveness of spiritually distinct races—common histories, laws, religions, habits of thought, and conscious strivings—echoes the list of factors he identifies as constitutively constructing as defining a group of human beings as a spiritually distinct race—common history, traditions, impulses, and strivings see Gooding-Williams, , To be sure, the lists are not identical.

Still, we can reasonably assume that Du Bois means them to capture the same content, supposing that the traditions and impulses indicated in the second list include legal and religious traditions as well as persistent habits of thought. Du Bois holds not only that historical and social factors constitutively and causally construct spiritually distinct races, but, likewise, that the same kinds of historical and social factors constitutively and causally construct spiritually distinct races.

What, then, is a Negro? To be a Negro, Du Bois replies, is 1 to be a member of one of three biologically distinct races, and 2 to be a member of one of eight constitutively and causally constructed spiritually distinct races. The Negro is spiritually distinguished from other spiritually distinct races by its distinctive message, the content of which, Du Bois argues, is not yet fully articulated , 55— For Taylor and Sundstrom, Du Bois was a racial realist who cogently defended the thesis that race is a social kind.

According to Jeffers , the Appiah-inspired discussion of Du Bois has ignored the distinction Du Bois draws between political and cultural versions of the thesis that race is constitutively constructed. Regarding the former, he adduces an important conceptual point: Perhaps they serve simply to constitute them as cultural entities, or, as Du Bois himself sometimes writes, as nations Jeffers, , Absent that assumption, neither the historian nor the sociologist is entitled to identify the clearly defined, spiritually distinct groups he or she observes as races.

Here, Du Bois seems to reject biological concepts of race, and while he asserts that race is a cultural and sometimes an historical fact, his reference to the Jim Crow car suggests that he is no longer conceptualizing the Negro or any race as a group united by a distinct spiritual message. But if the cultural and sometimes historical fact of race is neither a biological nor a spiritual fact, what sort of fact is it?

Following John Searle , Taylor understands institutional facts, like marriage and money, to be ontologically subjective and epistemologically objective , ; a, ; b, Gooding-Williams interprets Dusk of Dawn as defending a genealogical concept of race. Nietzsche thought that making sense of the concept of punishment must be a matter of unpacking the dense, synthesis of meanings purposes, functions that, over time, have been willfully interpreted into and forcibly imposed on specific procedures for inflicting harm Nietzsche, , 50— More generally, he understood that conceptual analysis can take the form of genealogy—that is, of historical inquiry that separates the distinct meanings that have been joined together and even conflated through episode after episode of reinterpreting one and the same, more or less stable set of phenomena procedures, complexes of habits, feeling, ways of perceiving, and so forth.

Autobiography, a narrative form of historical inquiry, is the vehicle through which Du Bois genealogically analyzes that web of interpretations, for to reconstruct the story of his life is, in his view, to disentangle these interpretations, one from the other, in order to show that and how they have been exemplified in his life Gooding-Williams, , — Contradiction can inhabit the race concept, because Du Bois, like Nietzsche, allows that historically formed concepts may comprise discordant interpretations of the meaning of one and the same set of phenomena.

Reminiscent, again, of Nietzsche, he holds that historically formed concepts can function as mechanisms of power and control Gooding-Williams, , Specifically, Du Bois conceptualizes whiteness as a privileged position of social standing that has 1 afforded white workers a public and psychological wage compensating them for their low economic wages; and 2 formed the basis of a cross-class, political alliance uniting white workers and capitalists against black workers black slaves included.

More generally, he maintains that whiteness has historically functioned as a mechanism of power for recruiting white workers to police and reinforce the economic exploitation of black workers. Prior to the industrial revolution, he argues, there was but one science that studied the phenomenon of human action: But what is the point of sociological inquiry—that is, of a sociological science of human action? For Du Bois, the immediate aim of science is knowledge; the mediate aims may vary, but social reform is the mediate aim upon which Du Bois focuses throughout his career see Green and Driver, —; Lewis, , —26; Reed, 47; and, especially, Bright, 5—7.


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  • But how can scientific knowledge advance social reform? Du Bois sketches at least three distinct answers to this question, each of which corresponds to a different conception of the object of social scientific knowledge. In an early statement Du Bois, ca. For Du Bois, sociology is the science of human action, not the science of society as such, or the science of society as a whole. In presupposing chance, sociology presupposes free will.

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    Then, too, for what Law was I searching? In accord with what unchangeable scientific law was the world of interracial discord around me working? I fell back upon my Royce and James and deserted Schmoller and Weber. I saw the action of physical law in the actions of men; but I saw more than that: I saw rhythms and tendencies; coincidence and probabilities; and I saw that, which for want of another word, I must in accord with strict tenets of Science, call Chance.

    I went forward to build a sociology, which I conceived as the attempt to measure the element of Chance in human conduct. This was the Jamesian pragmatism, applied not simply to ethics, but to all human action, beyond what seemed to me, increasingly, the distinct limits of physical law. Weber was methodologically agnostic with regard to the dispute between metaphysical determinists and indeterminists, arguing that neither position entailed consequences bearing on the research practices of the historical and cultural sciences, and taking Schmoller to task for his profession of faith in metaphysical determinism see Weber, a, —, ; Ringer, , 57—58, In addition, James insists that the science of psychology must methodologically reject the assumption of chance.

    Law, he believed, marked the limit of chance, and chance, he believed, marked the limit of law. Knowledge of social laws and regularities can contribute to social reform by enabling the social reformer causally to explain social problems and rationally to chart plans to solve those problems. Can all this be omitted and half suppressed in a treatise that calls itself scientific? The problem here, Du Bois believes, is not with the effort to identify the causal uniformities governing human events.

    If history is to be a science of human action and not to pretend to be a science of nature, then, Du Bois believes, it must take account of the subjective meanings of actions and events. More generally, Du Bois insists that the historian of slavery ask: To understand slavery, knowing what it meant to the owned is no less important than knowing what it meant to the owners. Du Bois stresses the importance of interpretive understanding because he is committed to the view that moral judgment is a critical component of historiography.

    Unlike Weber, Du Bois is a moral realist who believes that historical inquiry can afford us knowledge of moral facts—knowledge, that is, of the proper distribution of moral responsibility and of the extent to which actions are right or wrong. Du Bois sketches a similar line of argument, five years later, in Dusk of Dawn , In both cases, the point would be the same: In Souls , Du Bois contends that a politics fit to respond to the American, Jim Crow version of racial apartheid must satisfy two conditions.

    For Du Bois, a politics suitable to counter Jim Crow had to uplift the black masses—to assimilate them to the constitutive norms of modernity—and to heed the ethos of the black folk. In short, it had to be a politics that embraced and promoted the core values of modern life while expressing the spiritual identity of the folk. Elite control of black politics can be authoritative and effective, he argues, only if it expresses a collective spirit that unites black people.

    Washington held that if blacks endeavored to help themselves—to discipline their bodies, to cultivate entrepreneurial virtues e. In short, he believed that black self-help efforts were sufficient to engender business success, and that business success was sufficient to persuade whites to extend to blacks the civil and political rights they required for incorporation into the mainstream of American society Washington, Contra Washington, Du Bois argued that self-help efforts, while necessary for black social progress, were not sufficient.

    Assuming that both racial prejudice and cultural backwardness cause Negro problems, Du Bois claims that a self-help politics that attends to the backwardness of the Negro group itself without attacking racial prejudice is doomed to fail. Washington had argued that there was no need to attack prejudice for the present, because self-help efforts that contended with entrepreneurial-economic backwardness for Du Bois, a form of cultural backwardness would suffice to defeat it.

    Internet History Sourcebooks

    Du Bois rejects this argument on the grounds that the persistent, prejudice-sustained denial of rights to blacks undermines their self-help efforts and prospects for business success. It also required institutions of higher learning to train these elites. Thus, Du Bois takes Washington to task for promoting an educational philosophy that emphasized vocational education at the expense of higher, liberal arts education Du Bois, a, chapter 3. In Souls , Du Bois sketches a biographical portrait of his mentor, Alexander Crummell, and a fictional portrait of a tragic hero, John Jones, to show how double-consciousness can compromise black elite political leadership.

    The reception of Du Bois by contemporary political theorists attests to the extraordinary, topical scope of his political thought, especially as it evolved after the publication of Souls. In several post- Souls writings, Du Bois returns to the theme of black political leadership. Whether or not Du Bois ultimately rejected his earlier conception of elite black leadership Du Bois, b is an issue of scholarly dispute.

    Joy James holds that Du Bois eventually repudiates the idea of a black intelligentsia vanguard James, Du Bois defines democracy in terms of criticism when he attacks Booker T. His argument for inclusiveness, for extending the right of democratic participation to women and blacks, for example, is essentially epistemic: Cornel West interprets Black Reconstruction as promoting a Deweyan notion of creative democracy West, To reorient democratic theory in dark times, Balfour argues, we would do well to think politically with Du Bois.


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    • Du Bois endorsed black political solidarity, Shelby argues, as a temporary and, possibly, long-term strategy for establishing a multiracial, culturally pluralist American polity that embodied those ideals. Shelby follows Du Bois in maintaining that black political solidarity in the pursuit of a racial justice that is consonant with American democratic and liberal ideals requires a motivational foundation that unites self-interest, moral principle, and racial identification Shelby, , 6—7, 67, In chapter 1 of Dusk of Dawn , Du Bois describes his thought regarding the causes of the oppression of the darker races as evolving through three stages—roughly, from thinking that racial oppression was caused by ignorance; to thinking that it was caused by ignorance and ill-will; to thinking that it was caused by ignorance and ill-will and a conjunction of economic motives and unconscious, irrational acts and reactions.

      Corresponding to each stage, Du Bois tells us, was an increasingly complex account of the political strategies the darker races require to upend racial oppression. Where ignorance is the problem, science and education is needed to fight racial injustice; where ill-will is the issue, the black world must fight for its freedom, relying on truth, boycott, propaganda and mob frenzy as instruments of sudden and immediate assault. Still, Dusk of Dawn is remarkable for the prominence it gives to the role of unconscious and irrational psychological forces in accounting for the existence and perpetuation of racial oppression.

      Washington, he defends the importance of liberal arts education Gooding-Williams, , — Self-development through the acquisition of culture is the purpose of the education elites require to uplift the masses. For the Du Bois of Souls , the art that sovereign souls appreciate is high art—or, in other words, art that shares with the sovereign souls that appreciate it the property of holistic self-development.

      W.E.B. Du Bois

      Considered in historical perspective, the musically embodied spirit of the black folk, as it actualizes itself through time, in folk song after folk song, acquires a spiritually comprehensive breadth that overcomes racial prejudice and provincialism. Du Bois claims that artists rely on beauty to communicate truth and goodness in all its aspects of justice, honor, and right —in the first case to promote universal understanding, and in the second to gain sympathy and human interest.

      The freedom that the apostle of truth and right can claim in relation to these parameters is akin to self-legislation—it is the freedom she enjoys in creatively responding to them, in working out her relationship to them and, in effect, making them her own Taylor, , 96— By exercising her freedom, finally, by creating beautiful works of art that promote the ends of sympathy and universal understanding, the artist may undertake to widen the ethical and cognitive horizons of her intended addressees, and thus to expand their capacity for judgment.

      What is the nature of beauty such that it can achieve these ends through the communication of truth and goodness? Du Bois never states a clear answer to this question. It is always new and strange. The Second Sex Betty Freidan: Cultural Feminism Sylvia Plath Poems [At Stanford] Adrienne Rich Intercourse , [At Dworkin Online Library].

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      1. Du Bois’s Life and Major Publications

      Speech at the Atlanta Exposition , Booker T. A Negro Schoolmaster in the New South , The Atlantic Monthly, January , [At The Atlantic, subscription required] Du Bois recounts some of his own experiences as a rural schoolteacher in Tennessee, and expresses frustration at the barriers that confronted some of his more ambitious students. The Civil Rights Movement: Homosexuals in Government , Queen Bees are Stinging.