The Epistemic Crisis of African American Studies: A Du Boisian Resolution

This essay is concerned with the epistemic and ideological crises in African American Studies. It is grounded in the possibilities emerging from an intersection of Du Boisian historical phenomenology and dialectical logic.1 As such it is an attempt to extend Du Boisian thought and the boundaries of African American Studies as a social science. This essay is a rereading of Du Bois; it locates his project within social theory, epistemology and logic. It seeks to expand conventional discourses on Du Bois in order to reground them as a contribution to African American Studies. Du Bois’s work, now the most cited body of work in African American Studies, can be eviscerated when grounded in anti-Du Boisian epistemologies and logics. Therefore, there is a need to do more than cite Du Bois and to append him to other more mainstream academic projects. We must recover the essence and meaning of his oeuvre and deploy them in understanding the problems of the 21st century.

The Du Boisian Epistemic Rupture

In its fullest sense, Du Bois’s work constitutes an epistemic rupture. Standing against the egoistic and universalizing project of Western civilization and scientific practices, Du Bois proposed an alternative civilizational grounding for thought and scientific inquiry.2 The Du Boisian epistemic rupture, therefore, transgressed the philosophical, theoretical, civilizational and practical modalities of European knowing. His was a strategic rupture creating what I consider was a revolution in social science.3 From his self-identified African theoretical and epistemological locations he sought to change the epistemic conditions of knowing and of the black struggle.4 He lived and worked on the margins of white academic and intellectual practices, in organic relationships to ordinary black folk and from within what he famously called the Veil;5 that is he worked as a black man in Jim Crow and white supremacist America. He confronted the reality that like black people generally he was devalued and his work generally dismissed. He emerged organically from the life worlds of Africans in America. He asserts in the most transgressive civilizational sense, (in a way that subverts the European notion of its universality and superiority) the centrality of Africa to black folks’ self-identity and to humanity’s knowledge of  its history and itself. He viewed himself as an African.6 This identity and his organic links to the black masses shaped his worldview and research.

A Revolution in Human and Social Science

Starting with his empirical studies of black folk and race he proceeded to radically rethink the human and social sciences.7 This led him to  new ways of engaging the global systems of race, class, national and gender domination and oppression. His rethinking emerged from the African lived world and equally from what he early on saw as the crisis of European democracy and hegemony. The color line, slavery and colonialism were the foundations of Europe and its hegemony, but they were also signifiers and sources of the crisis of Europe. When Du Bois spoke of the problem of the 20th century being the problem of racial oppression, he was suggesting that the color line produced a deep crisis of Europe and of European civilization (Souls of Black Folk, “Of the Dawn of Freedom” (1903/1986).8What he began and than carried out for most of his life, was a decisive break with the European view of humanity. He created new foundations of social knowledge. He invents a new way of scientifically studying Africans and ultimately humanity. His is the first decisive break with the idea that knowledge is essentially a European thing, and that European knowledge was universal. He insists and demonstrates in practice that the study of history and modernity from a European standpoint distorts knowledge.9 What comes out of European philosophy and human studies was Eurocentric and prejudiced in favor of humanity’s minority, white folk.

As he conceived things, to scientifically study race in the modern world, new epistemological foundations for the social sciences were necessary. In actuality, this meant superseding conventional sociology, which was white and essentially positivistic. The principal positivists of the 19th century were August Comte and Herbert Spencer. They viewed sociology as a discipline that could resolve human contradictions through knowledge. For Du Bois social and human science engages complexities in the human world. Social and human science as a species of thought – rather than a means to resolve contradictions and smoothing out complexities – engages them and in so doing generates further complexities, at the levels of thinking and consciousness.

Du Bois viewed transformative and purposeful action as the means to resolving the contradictions of the social world and of thought. He transgresses the epistemic egoism and racial and civilizational arrogance of European and American thinkers. He rethinks European constructions of world history, especially of Africa and Asia. He eschews Europeans notions of progress. He detaches time and being from their Eurocentric groundings. The conventional Eurocentric conception links time and being to European history and European events, begining with ancient Greece and Rome; African time and being, in the Du Boisian construal, is linked to African history and African events and proceeds to ancient Greece and Rome. It starts with humanity’s prehistoric beginnings in Africa. History is, as his work suggests, a measure of human time, not of progress as conceived as an upward linear trajectory culminating in European man. For him, human time did not proceed linearly, but could be both linear and cyclical. He rejected European teleology, with its sense of the inevitability of European domination of humanity. In its place he proposed the idea of historical uncertainty, conceived as irony, and human possibilities, coming out of the human striving for freedom.

Race, the Ever Present Concrete

Race is the ever-present concrete, and the central problematic in modern history  Du Bois’s research project. Race, for him, is not an abstract notion, nor  primarily a subjective reality; it is the over-determining concrete presence in the lives of Africans and the modern world. He studied race as concrete social relationships. He , therefore, sought to deploy philosophy as part of  his efforts to understand race  and race relationships scientifically. His concerns with philosophy were not with abstractions and pure essences, but with practical philosophy, that is, how philosophy could assist research practices in history and sociology. He sought to apply philosophy to history, so as to engage concrete social relationships and social structures.10 He believed that we could know the  world as it exists and through knowing it change it.

Race is not, in the first instance, a social invention. It is socially and historically constituted concrete relationships between human beings. What he calss race relationships include colonialism, national oppression, racialized slavery and the forms of racial discrimination and oppression in the United States. Hence, race manifested  in history and takes on concrete social structural forms. It is not primarily prejudices or subjective attitudes. He proceeds from the assumption of an objective material world which is independent of  our subjective or conscious recognitions of it. He held that human relationships are concrete and material relations. He therefore believed that they could be understood scientifically, rather than speculatively, as was the case with Herbert Spencer. Furthermore, as he argues in “Sociology Hesitant” (1905), are part of the  production and reproduction of the human order.  In works such as Black Reconstructiuon in America Du Bois’s notion that race relationships are concrete and produce and reproduce modernity parallels Marx’s in the Grundrisse and anticipates what Sartre asserts in Critique of Dialectical Reason.11 Truth for him is not Absolute or final, it is process. It is a movement of the subject – the agent of knowledge – to a fuller recognition of that which is not dependent upon her/his consciousness but which intersects with consciousness and subjectivity.

Du Bois’s idea of applying philosophy to history is his way of arguing that philosophy must be made practical. Philosophy for him was the science of the abstract and the ideal. He looked upon philosophy as the theoretical apparatus for empirical social science. At the same time he viewed history as the critical condition for understanding human relationships. How to make metaphysics practical is the question that engaged him at Harvard. One choice could have been the route of pragmatism as developed by William James. Another might have been modern phenomenology as initially articulated by Edmund Husserl. Each would have led away from the search for truth and understanding the concrete world scientifically and towards, especially in the case of Husserl, abstraction in methodology and an emphasis upon the individual subject in social analysis. A last choice, one he embraced, was to apply philosophy to history to produce a new knowledge field he called sociology. New in that he reimagined the field which since August Comte went under the name sociology. This is not to say he was the first to use the term, but that he re-imagines the field. Certainly he does something vastly different from what American sociologists were doing. He brings both history and philosophy to the table. But he unites them. He makes philosophy practical and he underpins social science with a sense of abstraction and conceptualization. He was, therefore, deeply concerned with the rational conditions of knowing. In this regard he was not a pure empiricist. At the level of thought he believed knowledge was grounded in social relationships. Yet he did not end there. He realized that the scientist must go from the abstract to the concrete and return to the abstract in a continual process, increasingly understanding the world more deeply. This continual tension between the abstract and the concrete is the definition of science as Du Bois argues in “Sociology Hesitant.” To avoid the abstract and the conceptual dimensions of sociology is to impoverish it, leaving it a shell that collects facts, with very little to say about the present or future worlds and without moral or ideological commitments – which were of paramount significance to Du Bois.

He is throughout aware of ontological, existential and epistemological issues – issues of being and knowing – in the discovery of truth and the working up of knowledge. Yet these issues only made sense to the extent that they informed his understanding of and research on the concrete social world. For him, the field of race and human studies is historical, practical and theoretical. Yet, in working through this he was in effect showing how the intellectual process of going from the abstract to the concrete, from the subjective to the objective, from the ideal to the material, could be carried out and what could be produced in terms of knowledge and research. Although he was not aware at this time (the early 20th century) of Karl Marx’s Grundrisse (notebooks on political economic methodology and theory and their relationships to Hegelian philosophy), his thought parallels Marx’s. Marx called his method “rising from the abstract to the concrete”; he saw this as the “only way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind” (1973: 101). Du Bois’s notion of making philosophy practical is similar. If one takes the entire body of his work, what we see is the constant back and forth between abstraction and concrete studies and returning again to the abstract and the conceptual. The change in his position on race over the course of his life was grounded in this approach. The process was a continual feedback loop. As new knowledge appeared, he would attempt to account for it accordingly.

A Metaphysic of the Concrete

In a 1956 letter to Herbert Aptheker (1956/1978: 394) concerning Aptheker’s recently published book History and Reality, Du Bois once again talks about his philosophy. In this letter he anticipates what he would say in the Autobiography concerning philosophy, history and sociology. He tells Aptheker he went to Harvard seeking Truth, “which I spelled with a capital.” He continues, “For two years I studied under William James while he was developing Pragmatism; under [George] Santayana and his attractive mysticism and under [Josiah] Royce and his Hegelian idealism.” Out of these two years, he tells us, “I then found and adopted a philosophy which has served me since; thereafter I turned to the study of History and what has become Sociology.” He said he wished to express his “philosophy more simply”:

Several times in the past, I have started to formulate it, but met such puzzled looks that it remains only partially set down in scraps of manuscript. I gave up the search of “Absolute” Truth; not from doubt of the existence of reality, but because I believe that our limited knowledge and clumsy methods of research made it impossible now completely to apprehend Truth. I nevertheless firmly believe that gradually the human mind and absolute and provable truth would approach each other and like the “Asymptotes of the Hyperbola” (I learned the phrase in high school and was ever after fascinated by it) would approach each other nearer and nearer and yet never in all eternity meet. I therefore turned to Assumption–scientific Hypothesis. I assumed the existence of Truth, since to assume anything else or not to assume was unthinkable. I assumed that Truth was only partially known but that it was ultimately largely knowable, although perhaps in part forever unknowable.

Because of this partly “forever unknowable” aspect of Truth, Du Bois rejected Herbert Spencer’s search for Eternal Laws of human society and its extreme positivism. He returned in 1897 to the academic philosophy of his Harvard years and William James’s pragmatism. “The Jamesian Pragmatism as I understood it from his lips was not based on the ‘usefulness of a hypothesis, as you put it, but on its workable logic if its truth was assumed.” James was an agnostic in terms of the possibilities of knowing the world, and therefore pessimistic about changing it. He rejected the method of proceeding on the basis of a hypothesis about the world. For James we only know what is in our heads or what is given to our minds through the senses. There are no provable statements about the world that were valid or “useful.” Hence, logic, or games of grammar, manipulating statements about things, is the best we can hope for. Thus James, unlike Du Bois, became one the founders of American psychology rather than sociology. James was concerned with understanding and edifying the individual, Du Bois with uplifting his race; James pursued a science of the mind in isolation, Du Bois a science of social behavior. Du Bois puts history at the center of his intellectual and scholarly efforts; James’s method was a-historical. Each started from philosophy, but they ended up in opposite places.

Du Bois completes this short exegesis through philosophy and science with the following observation, “I assumed Cause and Change. With these admittedly unprovable assumptions, I proposed to make a scientific study of human action, based on the hypotheses of the reality of such actions, of their causal connections and of their continued occurrence and change because of Law and Chance.” And then a remarkable definition of sociology: “I called Sociology the measurement of the element of Chance in Human Action.” This connection of Law and Chance suggests Du Bois’s acute understanding of the possibility of infinite variation (à la quantum mechanics) and the connection of variation to Law or regular patterns. Reality, for Du Bois is complex, variable and changing.12 There exists a dynamic between variation and regularity, between Chance and Law, or between law and uncertainty. Sociology, therefore, not only studies the given regularities, or Laws in human behavior, but, in Du Bois’s definition, the measurement of Chance (I read possibilities) in Human Action. The social universe in the Du Boisian construal is a dynamic state, much like a quantum physical state or that envisioned by chaotic dynamic principles. The world, however, in spite of its complex dynamism is knowable, at least in part. The social scientist while attempting to know the object of knowledge is constantly developing methods of research that will make it possible to know more and more about a reality that is never absolutely knowable. However, when it comes to human action the realm of chance reveals the possibilities of laws.

Du Bois challenged a fundamental assumption of Eurocentric social thinking, the idea that only Europeans and only European societies were worthy of scientific investigation. Indeed Africans were civilized. In his 1897 paper before the American Academy of Social and Political Sciences, he says that the Negro “is a member of the human race, and as one who, in the light of history and experience, is capable to a degree of improvement and culture, is entitled to have his interests considered according to his numbers in all conclusions as to the common weal.” And he concluded, “The American Negro deserves study for the great end of advancing the cause of science in general.”  Africans, in the European mind, were no more than objects of history, having barely emerged from the state of nature. Social science as a study of human agency could, by definition, not extend to Africans. Biology and physical anthropology, in their 19th-century racist versions, were considered the appropriate fields for the study of Africans.13

History, Structures, Totalities and Time

Hegel’s Science of Logic, despite its centrality to his philosophy, is not sufficient for understanding his historical methodology. The Phenomenology of Spirit is his epistemology, his theory of knowing; the Science of Logic is concerned with time, development, emergence and structures. Hegel’s view of history as a dialectical process is critical to investigating Du Bois’s notion of African Being, especially as it emerges from history, rather than as a static phenomenon.14

While I embrace Hegel’s dialectical logic and dialectical methodology in understanding history and evolution, I reject his white supremacy and idea that Africans had neither history nor what he called world historic consciousness. Du Bois’s historicism and phenomenology undermine Hegel’s racism, by anchoring history to material and concrete human realities rather than idealism and speculation and by investigating the lived worlds of Africans.

Of Hegel’s work, perhaps his Phenomenology of Spirit was most familiar to Du Bois. However, there is evidence throughout Du Bois’s writing of a familiarity with Hegelian dialectical logic. There is no sense of Hegelian teleology in Du Bois’s work. Du Bois does, however, acknowledge historical possibilities and the inevitability of transcendence. His work treads the fine line between historical contingency and logical necessity. Like Hegel he situated himself in his time.15 He was part of his moment yet at the same time, a scientific observer and analyst of it. His consciousness was both of the moment, and what was pregnant in it. For instance, Du Bois’s notion of double consciousness reflects a dialectical relationship, a unity and struggle of opposite forces in one dark body. We literally have the worldviews of two civilizations in conflict and struggle within the black mind. This double consciousness is a manifestation of a clash of civilizations, a contradiction that will be resolved by the decline of European hegemony and the transformation of human civilization. The working out of the dialectic within the consciousness of the black individual is a struggle between the hegemon of the modern world, the other (the African past), and the human future. Pregnant within the conflict in each black person is the future beyond European hegemony, an historical movement from the Age of Europe to the Age of Humanity.

Historical Ontology and Civilizational Historicism

This leads us to a discussion of historical ontology. I consider civilizational historicism, Clarence J. Munford’s (2001) methodological and philosophical apparatus, to be a form of historical ontology. The existential philosopher Martin Heidegger (1925) precedes Foucault in attempting to understand the historical conditionality of being and what Hacking (20040 calls the historical ontological. Munford’s historical materialist perspective views historical Being as historically constituted concrete collectivities, such as races, civilizations, classes and nations. Nonetheless, historical ontology is a way of speaking about and understanding social phenomena, as they exist in historical time. Civilizational historicism is a way of understanding African historical Being in African historical time. It seems that Munford’s method works best in this robust relativist manner, attempting to understand the historically unique space occupied by Africans in the epoch beginning with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, the historical a priori, i.e. the civilizational dimension, would insist upon pinpointing those beliefs, values, modes of production, culture etc. that precede the African holocaust of slavery and colonialism. Subsequent evolution produced racialized civilizations – not only African and European, but also Chinese, Indian, Arab and South American.

In modern history, European cultures and peoples have congealed as a white civilization which, because of white supremacy, colonialism and imperialism, stands apart from the rest of humanity. This is Frantz Fanon’s argument in Wretched of the Earth. The racialization of civilizations is the decisive outcome of the socio-historical processes associated with modernity, as Du Bois argued in “The Conservation of Races” (1897). Hence, white civilization, and the concomitant predisposition among the majority of the world’s white people to white supremacy, overdetermines historical relations in the modern epoch. In the 21st century, however, a transition is taking place from the epoch of European civilizational hegemony to a human civilizational grid organized on the basis of civilizational equality. The nexus that defined the relationships between white civilization and the rest of humanity is on its way out.

Understanding this process requires methodological complexity and flexibility. This specific dialectics of African time and Being conditioned by African civilization and its negation – white supremacy and European capitalism – is the historical object to be understood, the concrete universal. Civilizational historicism tries to avoid the pitfalls of essentialism, so often associated with certain forms of Afro-centrism, while preserving the category essentiality as a part of the understanding of reality and the working up of knowledge. More importantly, what Munford seeks to capture in the historical a priori are those conditions that determine the historical moment, or the historical epoch. The historical a priori of white or European civilization for Munford is white supremacy, on the one side, and its opposite Africa without civilization, and Asia of inferior civilizations. The European historical a priori is grounded in this inevitable dialectic.

In Black Skin White Mask (1967: 12), Fanon identifies European or white civilization as a massive psycho-existential complex. Its existence assumes the African, or African civilization, as the objectified racial other of white history. By removing the African from history as subject or agent you distort her/his historical being and consciousness, designating it as false or pathological, or, as with Hegel, outside of history because the African stands outside world consciousness, hence lacking human identity. Munford’s project assumes, with Fanon, the centrality of Black folk to the existence of the white world system and to its eventual replacement. Lewis Gordon in Frantz Fanon and the Crisis of European Man (1996) understands his intellectual project as a disruptive intervention into European consciousness. Gordon believes that investigations of black and white consciousness and bad faith, i.e. denial of racial oppression, expose the functions of anti-black racism and white supremacy. Praxis for Gordon is the philosophico-ideological investigation of white bad faith. Gordon’s perspective is philosophically grounded in Husserl’s phenomenological method; as such, it is ahistorical. The African subject’s identity is realized through her/his relationships with white subjects. Gordon in the end replaces Fanonian and Du Boisian historicism with Husserlian intersubjective investigation. His research focuses on the subject of social reality.16

Methodological Mutations and Evolutions within Race Research

Theories should be subjected to regular critique and self-criticism; furthermore, the objects of race inquiry themselves are constantly evolving and mutating. Races, as Du Bois understood, are dynamic historically constituted social and cultural groups. Races are subject to mutations, sometimes quite dramatic ones. Just as races mutate, so do racial identities. Methodologies must similarly evolve and mutate to account for this. The idea of absolute and unchanged epistemologies and methodologies goes against the grain of scientific and philosophical inquiry. Thomas Kuhn (1996: chs. IX, X) drew attention to this, capturing the mutability and changeability of paradigms, including at times the emergence of revolutionary and subversive paradigms. Imre Lakatos (1986: 47-62) spoke of the evolutionary processes whereby the research landscape experiences challenges leading to new revolutionary research programs and new possibilities for investigation.

Most historical writing proceeds quite conventionally. It is quite simply a narrative, often without explicitly stated philosophical or ideological commitments. In this respect the historical object is reified, made an abstraction (an abstract identity to be analyzed) rather than being investigated in all of its complex concreteness. In knowledge development, it is the misuse of the abstract, making it a thing in itself. There has recently been a trend toward a more existential historical narrative. This often takes the form of biography. There is also a surrealistic turn, wherein history is a narrative about dreams and visions. Some construct black history and being as encounters with absurdity, as a way of explaining Black consciousness in its encounters with white supremacy. Marxist historiography, historical materialism, in current intellectual and academic discourses, is more often seen in its influence upon conventional and existential narratives than as a full-blown research project. Each of these stances, at its best, suggests a moment in the attempt to capture the historical object/subject, African and African American struggle and liberation. In certain senses each manifests a political moment. As the radical 1960s and 1970s were replaced by conservatism and open political reaction, the boldness of black discourse was replaced with a tempered and more academically acceptable tone.

In current scientific and scholarly efforts to explain race and black oppression, the angles of observation have been multiplied. However, the richness of academic discourse is often limited by the convention of seeking to stand above ideology and political commitments. This is especially the case for black thinkers, who are closely policed by the academic gatekeepers and thought police in the elite white academy. This desire not to appear to be ‘one-sided’ or a race activist lends itself to neutrality on the pressing issues of black oppression and the general systemic crises of US capitalism. A good part of this aloofness goes under the banner of post-structuralism and post-modernism. Each suspends concerns with the object of history and turns to a single-minded engagement with its subject, in ways suggesting that the only verifiable reality is subjective.

C.J. Munford’s materialist historiography – his insistence upon the crucial role of political economy in macro social explanation – is his way of countering this trend. An opposite approach is taken by magical realism, the popular trend in fiction, which constructs characters and events outside of and beyond history. This is a turn to the psychological dimension of black realities. History is suspended for the sake of the novel as the reader is led to focus on the characters’ understandings (or confusions) with their multiple subjective or psychological realities.

Conclusion

The epistemic and ideological crisis of African American Studies occurs at the same time that capitalism is in a historic crisis. If, therefore, African American Studies is to surmount its crisis, it must do so by moving to the political, philosophical and ideological left.  This should occasion a move to a new engagement with black working people.

Du Bois’s body of work was anchored to a radical philosophical and social scientific perspective, which moved his politics progressively to the left. After years of struggle as a radical democrat, fighting for bourgeois democracy for African Americans, he concluded that capitalism had failed as a social economic system for solving race oppression and working-class exploitation and oppression.  His commitments to black and working people and to their liberation were deepened. In the end he joined the Communist Party, declaring that capitalism could not work and had to replaced by socialism.

Finally, I wish to consider the matter of dialectics, the logic and methodology of human and social evolution and transformation. Dialectics is founded upon the idea of the unity and conflict of opposites leading to a new moment and a new synthesis. Herein lies the key to joining history and social structure – in the first instance, structures of oppression and domination – with individual actions, in a holistic explanation. Modern dialectics emerges from Hegel’s science of logic. However, Du Bois’s body of work demonstrates the embedding of dialectics in the explanation of black consciousness, the social structures of black life, and the movement of history. Du Boisian philosophical and ideological stances reject static and essentialist ways of explaining the black situation. By his uses of dialectics he introduces the inevitability of social and historical transformation and change onto the understanding of the African American situation. For him this made manifest a growing anti-capitalism.

African American studies, armed with the logic and methodology of dialectics, especially as applied by Du Bois, becomes a project of social change, leading towards a new social, historical and existential moment. The radical reconstruction of African American studies as a new type of academic and intellectual discipline (invested in social justice and black and working-class liberation) is necessary and possible.

A Du Boisian critical intervention into the discourses of African American Studies is something of a life and death matter for the discipline. A critical center of this discourse must be engaging the philosophical and social theoretical assumptions of the discipline, as well as its relationships to movements for radical social transformation.

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Notes

1. For me the notion of historical phenomenology is what Sartre in Search for Method refers to as joining historical materialism and existentialism. I do not seek to link Du Bois’s historicism with Hegelian phenomenology, but to propose something more radical, i.e. to link Du Bois’s concerns with the African lived world – and his phenomenological method of investigating that world – to his concerns with African and world histories. Africans are enmeshed in the histories they make, hence as Sartre insists in Critique of Dialectical Reason (2004: 71), “necessity [i.e., history], as the apodictic structure of dialectical investigation, resides neither in the free development of interiority nor in the inert dispersal of exteriority; it asserts itself, as an inevitable and irreducible moment, in the interiorisation of the exterior and in the exteriorization of the interior.” As for dialectical logic, it is the method and logic of investigating phenomena in movement, in time and as totalizing structures. As Sartre suggests, dialectics is the logic and method that investigates concrete realities from the perspective of the developmental unity of single processes (2004: 15). Within the Marxian tradition there are several approaches to dialectics, among them E.V Ilyenkov 1982, 2008). See also Aleksandrov 1980, Oizerman 1979, Schmidt 1982. For a non-Marxist interpretation of Hegelian dialectics, see J.N. Findlay’s foreword to Hegel 1977.

2. In “Sociology Hesitant” (1905), he draws attention to the theoretical poverty of existing social science and its inability to unite the objects of research with the subject of knowledge. He criticizes its turn to positivism as against what he did to apply the phenomenological method as a way to transcend the problem of objectification. In The Autobiography (1968: 205), he says that while at Harvard and the University of Berlin “I began to conceive the world as a continuing growth rather than a finished product.” And he speaks of social science as engaged in “fruitless word twisting.” As he faced “the facts of my own social situation and racial world, I determined to put science into sociology through a study of the conditions and problems of my own group.” Of the white world, he says in Dusk of Dawn that it was “thinking wrong about race, because it did not know” (1986: 596).

3. I have argued (Monteiro 2006, 2007a) that Du Bois must be viewed outside of the conventional framework of a “Negro thinker” concerned only with “Negro Problems.” His epistemology and logic disrupted the conventional social science of his day, as it does that of the present. His ways of knowing the world were shaped not only by his African identity (a radical and subversive identity in the American life world of the early 20th century), but also by his radical political ontology.

4. It is too often claimed that Du Bois was Eurocentric. Molefi Asante, Cornel West (1999), and Kwame Anthony Appiah are examples of this stance. Du Bois, however, thought differently. In “Of The Souls of Black Folk,” he said that he wrote The Souls of Black Folk as an African (see Du Bois 1904/1996). In “The Conservation of Races” he locates black folk as Africans and part of a civilization rooted in Africa. See also Dusk of Dawn (1940/1986: 639-46) for references to the African civilization foundations of African Americans and African American culture. His studies of the black church (e.g. Du Bois 1899/1995) point out African cultural foundations and modes of organization and administration of human relationships. In The Souls of Black Folk chapter “Of the Faith of the Fathers,” he locates black religious practices in Africa and the Sorrow Songs as originating in African melodies transformed through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

5. The Veil of race is a metaphor invented by Du Bois for the color line and racial inequality. It appears for the first time in The Souls of Black Folk in the “The Forethought” and in the chapter “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” Speaking of an incident during his primary school days when a white student refused a greeting card from him he says, “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil” (1903/1986: 364). Speaking of the intellectual perspective from which he wrote Souls, he says that he left the white world and “stepped within the Veil” (ibid: 359). The Veil has social and epistemological significance; it is the existential standpoint from which Du Bois writes Souls and from which he constructs his unique approaches to social and human science. It informs his African centeredness. See also Monteiro 2000.

6. See Du Bois 1904/1996, where he says he wrote The Souls of Black Folk as an African: “In its larger aspects the style is tropical—African. This needs no apology. The blood of my fathers spoke through me and cast off the English restraints of my training and surroundings” (305). At the same time, he increasingly came to observe strategic weakness in the modern African political situation. He wrote three histories of Africa, and drew scientific attention to ancient Africa’s role in the rise of human civilization. Europe, he insisted, came late to the game; present-day Africa should modernize on the basis of its own model. It need not follow Europe; it could learn from, among others, the revolutionary examples of China and the Soviet Union. In 1959, while in the Peoples Republic of China, he called upon Africa to learn from China, not the West. He saw China and the Soviet Union as genuine allies of Africa’s rise from colonialism. He declared in the speech “China and Africa” (2007: 199), “Africa arise, and stand straight, speak and think! Turn from the West and your slavery and humiliation for the last 500 years and face the rising sun.”

7. Ronald Judy’s “On W.E.B. Du Bois and Hyperbolic Thinking” (2000) is by far the best effort at explaining Du Bois’s philosophy of science and his practice of science. He shows him breaking with positivism in the Comtean sense of searching out ‘facts’ to justify metaphysical statements and the British empiricism that held that the facts were everything. Judy says, “For Du Bois not only are facts products of complex social and historical processes, but science as a particular activity is a moment in the social process of production and is not self-sufficient. The fact that concerns Du Bois above all others is the Negro, his status as an object of analysis within the particular and various field of science, both physical and social” (29).

8. “Problem” for Du Bois corresponds to what we understand by crisis. I understand the famous phrase “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,” to mean that the crisis of the 20th century is the crisis produced by, to use Du Bois’s language, “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea” (1903/1986: 372). However, we see in the chapter of Souls “Of the Dawn of Freedom” that in the post Civil War period, race produced a crisis for bourgeois or liberal democracy. Du Bois advanced this perspective in Black Reconstruction in America. He periodizes the crisis produced by slavery and racial oppression as lasting from1860 to 1880: a long and profound crisis of the democratic system, from which the nation and bourgeois democracy never recovered and which it never transcended. I have argued this point in Monteiro 2003 and 2007b.

9. See especially “The Hands of Ethiopia” (1920/1986), Black Reconstruction in America (1935), The World and Africa (1947).

10. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) is considered one of the founders of 20th-century phenomenology. Phenomenology for him was a scientific method of inquiry. He believed his method to be a turn away from idealism, especially Hegelian idealism, and towards the concrete.

I don’t believe that Du Bois and Edmund Husserl knew one another or were aware of each other’s work. However, there are significant parallels to how they viewed philosophy as a scientific and practical endeavor. Husserl, though essentially concerned with thinking about logic and the relationships between the subjective dimension of knowledge and the objects of knowledge, acknowledged the existence of the social world of human relationships that were not mere mental pictures and psychological constructs. Moreover, he sought to deploy philosophy in practical ways as part of the scientific understanding of the world. Du Bois in his effort to apply philosophy to history in order to understand the social world (or as he put it to create sociology) is deploying philosophy as part of scientific investigation. Both Du Bois and Husserl displaced speculative metaphysics, the method that characterized Herbert Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy, with scientific investigation. Each proposed that phenomenology was a method of investigating living things. For Husserl, phenomenology was about  thinking , but thinking as relational and intersubjective. Du Bois’s phenomenology was of the concrete world, the social world. In this respect his phenomenology of race relations anticipates the existential phenomenology of  Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Frantz Fanon’s (see Demot Moran’s Introduction to Husserl 2001: xxxvii; Heidegger 1927/1996: “Introduction”; 1935/2000: “The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics”; 1925/1992: “Emergence and Initial Breakthrough of Phenomenological Research”; Sartre 1943/1984: “Husserl, Hegel, Heidegger”).

11. Marx begins with social relationships, proceeds to time and history and finally imbeds social structures in time and history. “The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse,” Marx asserts (1973: 101). The diverse of which he speaks is the social relational. Sartre (2004) articulates this point in his idea that human relations of production are the concrete materiality that concerns historical materialism. Sartre, like Du Bois, sought to make philosophy practical by joining existentialism and historical materialism (see Dusk of Dawn where Du Bois says he sought to make philosophy practical by joining it to history). The effect in both cases was to move philosophy beyond ontology and epistemology to concerns with social relations: in the case of Marx and Sartre, relations of production; in Du Bois’s case, race relations.

12. Contemporary chaos theory parallels this understanding in the sense of its understanding of change, fluidity, infinite mutability, and effects that occur from points of equilibrium. It is my contention that Du Bois, working from the margins of US and European intellectual life, saw behavior as far less determined than did mainstream social thinkers. He was beginning to see the world and human behavior more dynamically. His idea of chance is a suggestion of variation, multiple outcomes, and unintended consequences. While he does not abandon the notion of Law, i.e. those levels of determination that constrain the individual’s freedom to choose and act, he suggests that Chance occupies an equal status in understanding human action. This is a critical break with positivism and what he termed the speculative character of social science as it existed at the time he began his sociological research.

13. Lee Baker (1998: 26) argues that anthropology, in its early, mainly physical focus, provided a “scientific” cover and justification for slavery and genocide against Native American peoples. Speaking of the three founding fathers of American anthropology, Baker points out that each articulated an evolutionary paradigm imbued with notions of racial progress and racial inferiority. Their views supported US imperialism and Jim Crow racism. However, the biological approach best expressed in the eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th century insisted that the best way to study black folk was through some type of biological model. The point was to prove black inferiority (see McKee 1993: 57). The race essentialist stance, paraded as new biology of race or eugenics, was viewed as the method by which to study ‘inferior races’ (see Barkin 1992: 142, 151). If social science was the way to study ‘civilized races’ then biology would suffice for the ‘uncivilized.’ Physical anthropology and eugenics tended to come together as a ‘scientific research agenda’ wherein anthroplogy would take up the measurement of the brain, the skull, height and other dimensions of inferiority or superiority. Of course whites, and mainly Northern Europeans, were believed to represent the normal physical type. There was a counter trend represented by Franz Boas in anthropology and Lester Ward and Charles Horton Cooley in sociology. Yet, it was Du Bois who made the strongest arguments against racism in the social sciences.

14. It has been argued that in understanding dialectical processes, rather than Hegel’s Science of Logic, it is better to go directly to Marx’s own writings on dialectics and temporality. Guglielmo Carchedi (2008: 416) points out that the dialectical method which was concretized by Marx is a social research method that inquires into the origin, present state and further development of social phenomena. Du Bois, for his part, increasingly viewed African Being as emerging from historical and dialectical processes. The importance of this is that Du Bois was not a race essentialist and did not view Africans outside of world history (see Monteiro 2006).

15. J.N. Findlay observes that Hegel did not desire to step out of his time and his own thought situation. Says Findlay (Hegel 1977: vii): “To seek to transcend one’s time is only, he [Hegel] says, to venture into the ‘soft element’ of fancy and opinion.” The Hegelian method with respect to the phenomena of history surely influenced Du Bois, especially in this sense of historical specificity and situatedness. Furthermore, the sense of the unique is highly developed in Du Bois’s writing, i.e. that the historically concrete must be accounted for in historical research. Du Bois would have never countenanced Hegel’s universalizing whiteness and trivializing the rest of humanity. Nor could Du Bois accept Hegel’s casual dismissal of Africa. He opposed not only Hegel’s racism, but also the racist metaphysic that informed his theory of history. Moreover, Du Bois did not view an existing historical sequence as the only possible historical trajectory. Hence he conceived of several possible historical futures. He increasingly stakes his claim upon an alternative to European modernity. Nor did he believe in an absolute outcome. Du Bois, unlike Hegel, placed the greatest emphasis upon human collective agency, which for Du Bois was increasingly that of the black worker and the working masses of Africa and Asia.

16. Gordon (2000) explains “the usefulness of a phenomenological analysis” in these terms: “It explores the intersubjective framework of meaning, the impact of multiple intentions and sociality, to present interpretations that at the same time do not fall into the trap of bad faith” (85). The strength of Gordon’s phenomenological approach to social relationships is that it avoids the positivist trap of, in the name of science and objectivity, treating human relationships as a species of nature and hence treating them as we would treat objects of nature. There is, though, a profound difference between Gordon’s phenomenological attitude – his privileging of the subjective (albeit as “intersubjective”) – and Du Bois’s and Sartre’s (1960, 1963) linking dialectics, historicism, and materialism. The latter approach brought Sartre into the Marxian intellectual zone and Du Bois to a more radical epistemology, which was not Marxian, yet paralleled it. For this reason I refer to Du Bois’s method as a Du Boisian historical phenomenology.

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