A Philosophical Text

My edition of The Souls of Black Folks has an introduction to the text by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. A fine introduction which situates the text in its historical context. Reading the introduction, though, I can see why Du Bois’ text hasn’t made it as a standard part of the philosophy classroom.

Du Bois’ mentors in philosophy at Harvard were William James and George Santayana. Gates writes, “Du Bois’ first love was philosophy. But, because employment opportunities were limited for black philosophers, he decided on graduate study in history.” What would academic philosophy in America have looked like if Du Bois had stayed in it? A fascinating thought. Ironically, while Gates makes clear Du Bois’s philosophical education, in the introduction he hardly makes it clear what could be the philosophical import of the text.

Gates emphasizes two dimensions of the text. First, that it is a literary and aesthetic masterpiece: “Long after the social issues with which Du Bois wrestled so intensely and so passionately have become chapters in the chronicle of African-American history, students and their professions continue to turn to The Souls to experience the power of its lyricism, the “poetry” of its prose.”

Second, and most importantly, that it is a seminal text in the African-American experience: “Du Bois … created a narrative voice, a fictional “I”, that functions as articulator for the American Negro people at the turn of the century. Even when apparently at its most personal or individual, Du Bois’s “I” represents the Negro people, in the relation of a part to a whole.”

That Du Bois’ use of “I” could represent blacks in America is a magnificent achievement; that he did it in 1903 is unbelievable. Nonetheless, if Du Bois’ “I” could only reach out to African-Americans as signaling their self, then the text would not be philosophy. For it to be philosophy, the “I” of Du Bois’ text must be something that any person must be able to identify with. Gates nowhere mentions in the introduction how this could be possible.

In order for The Souls of Black Folk to be a philosophical masterpiece it has to track not only the African-American condition, but the human condition. And in a way that is more substantive than: “Look how much blacks suffered! And we all suffer, so the book speaks to all of us!” This is absurd. Purely in terms of suffering, there can be no inference from that of a people who were enslaved to the suffering that any person goes through in one’s life. One can be inspired by a Du Bois’ fortitude in the midst of his, and his people’s, suffering, and draw courage or moral sustenance from it, but one can’t thereby identify with it.

Identification requires a similarity of context and situation. If Du Bois’ text is to be philosophy and any person can identify with it, it has bring out a context that we all share as human beings. What can that be?

Here there is a cruel paradox which has thwarted our society’s appreciation of African-American philosophy. The fact of slavery meant that African-Americans were not able until devote their energies to intellectual activities until after the Civil War. Du Bois is a fountainhead of this emergence of African-American intellectuality. But this has put a particular pressure on the 19th and 20th century African-American thinkers, at least in how their work is received, both by blacks and others. And that is: as something particular to the African-American experience. In order for blacks to have a written intellectual history that they can point to, the way whites or Asians can point to, it became imperative that their texts be seen as essentially African-American texts.

This is understandable, and in many ways, right. But it has come with the serious drawback that it has made it hard to see the universal dimension in the texts. So the very need to have a canon of texts of the African-American experience (where the “I” of Du Bois the author is the “I” of all African-Americans) has muted those texts in the context of philosophy, which, after the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, was seen to be something transcending particular cultural contexts in order to be universal.

Here we see with Du Bois’ text a particular paradox that culture and community is often forced into in our global times. Speak as a particular community, but be ready to then be told that your voice has to be limited so that in the pluralistic society other voices can have their say as well.

So there is the framework of universality and the content of the particular communities which live together within the universal framework. What texts constitute that universal framework? Check out the canon of the standard Western philosophy curriculum: Plato’s Republic, Descartes’ Meditations, Kant’s Critiques, and so on. The assumption is that these texts are not just European texts the way Du Bois’ text might be an African-American text. Rather, these texts are the framework of universality, which make it possible for a society to be able to appreciate a plurality of cultural contents.

This is the reason philosophy departments in America by passed the canon wars which the other humanities struggled with for the past 30-40 years. What was obvious after the civil rights movement was that American education was not actually enabling a plurality of cultural contents: the universal framework was constructed by the Europeans, and the content as well was basically European. After the 60s, the problem with this was too evident. So, the humanities started to change the content.

But structurally the philosophy departments couldn’t, and didn’t feel the need to, go along with such change because, after all, they are not content, but the universal framework. They are what make possible the plurality of contents in the other humanities. So ironically, while making the literature curriculum pluralistic was seen as appropriate, it was seen as if there could be no such change for philosophy because it was already universal. That, in fact, to change philosophy with an eye towards cultural backgrounds would be to kowtow to content forces which philosophy is supposed to float above.

No wonder then that philosophy as meta-science became such a dominant theme in the 20th century, and especially in the second half of the century. Because it was a way to emphasize that just as there is no issue of making physics or math pluralistic, so too there is no issue of making philosophy pluralistic; that is an oxymoron. While literature departments went from teaching F. Scott Fitzgerald to Toni Morrison, philosophy professors focused more on teaching Quine and Rawls, as if that was the way that philosophy can contribute to pluralism.

No need to put down Quine and Rawls, but those authors loom prominent only on the assumption that academic philosophy as it is already tracks a universal framework. But in a cultural context where there is a great need for African-Americans to see Du Bois’ text as expressive of their experience, this pits Du Bois as content as opposed to Rawls as framework. One way to read Gates in the introduction not pressing Du Bois as philosophy is his accepting precisely this breakdown, and so embracing that Du Bois is great as content, and that academia is now better because it is now able to accept such content.

In a deep way, this does a great disservice both to Du Bois and to the African-American experience. As long as it is accepted that the universal framework has been constructed by whites, and that the most blacks can do is be free to be publically black, as if no deep change or question of the frameworks themselves are needed, then that is a great obstacle for African-Americans to see themselves as intellectuals. For philosophy is the root of the tree of knowledge, and if a community does not identify its tradition as philosophical – as concerned with the universal framework – then in an important way their intellectual potential will go untapped.

The greatness of Du Bois’ text as philosophy lies precisely in the rich challenge he poses to the idea that European philosophy by itself has already marked a universal framework for all human beings. A great philosophical text provides a great challenge to great philosophical traditions. The Souls of Black Folk poses precisely such a challenge.

2 thoughts on “A Philosophical Text

  1. Alex Scott

    A very insightful and eloquent essay.
    Perhaps some of the difficulty that traditional philosophy may have with recognizing works such as The Souls of Black Folk as philosophical, and not just social-cultural-historical, texts might be related to what is traditionally seen as the nature of philosophical problems–entities that philosophers can stand apart from and be abstract about. Du Bois points out that for some social majority members, the existence of social minority members may seem like a “problem.” The majority may have difficulty accepting the existence of minorities and the rights of minorities to equal citizenship. Thus, Du Bois explains that minorities may be confronted by the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” To be a member of a social minority may be, in some cases, to be seen in various ways by the social majority as being “problematic.” Thus, for example, being black while driving, being black while walking down the street, etc. may be seen as a “problem” by some members of law enforcement agencies (requiring surveillance, interrogation, detainment, arrest, or other measures). But this is a different kind of problem than the kinds of problems with which philosophers have traditionally wanted to engage. “The problem of the color-line,” the kind of problem with which Du Bois is concerned, is somewhat different from problems like “how do words get their meaning?” or “what is the relation between language and reality?” or “is justified true belief knowledge?”, at least insofar as we cannot simply stand apart from or merely speculate abstractly about it without having to reflect on our own conduct and think about what we should do to try to promote a more equitable and just society.


  2. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Alex, great comment. There is a tendency to treat Du Bois’ text as indicative of a problem in the sense that there is something particularly unfortunate about blacks or their situation. The problem is treated as a distinctly black issue rather than as a problem of the human condition, a kind of issue everyone faces. Not all philosophy is as impersonal as how do words get their meaning, since there is a lot of first-order normative philosophy about how we should live; for example, a lot of Singer’s work. Interestingly, Du Bois is seen to not fit here either, because he is seen to be raising not a normative question of how we should live, but a purely “practical” question of how to end racism, or even just cheerleading to end racism. As if there is nothing here intellectually to figure out, but only how to get people to not be bigoted. Like what is left over is only an engineering problem associated with protesting and community organizing.

    It seems to me Du Bois was trying to do two things at once, and our current intellectual framework doesn’t allow to see how the two can happen at once. Du Bois wanted to highlight some key issues of the African-American exprerience, and suggest how blacks have contributed to and can continue to participate in the univeral dialogue of humankind. He thought that the former ultimately requires the latter. But this runs square into the Enlightenment sense of secularism, which assumes that universal dialogue requires setting aside contingent issues of a person or a people. Contemporary philosophy is founded on this model of secularism, and so the only way it can bring up race issues is as something not philosophical in the highest sense, and so which gets turned into a protest mode, as if Du Bois was only doing the first thing of highlighting the black experience. The Enlightenment framework insists on a kind of compartmentalization, which is what Du Bois is trying to avoid. This is the deep issue Du Bois’ text raises: what is a framework on which blacks are not a problem? Our current academic philosophy structures aren’t such a framework since the only way they acknowledge Du Bois is as a problem, a reminder of our collective failure, rather than as a Socrates or a Kant, who are seen as examplars of what we can be, not just of what we have failed to do.

    This is philosophical racism: Kant can speak to all people such that they can identify with him in some abstract sense, but Du Bois can only speak to blacks. Du Bois thought ending ordinary racism requires ending philosophical racism. Most academics are oblivious to philosophical racism and think they are progressive simply by acknowledging that Du Bois did a lot in the fight against ordinary racism.



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