Thoughts on the Doubling of Consciousness

06 February 2006


W.E.B. DuBois's most famous writing was his wonderful book with the title "The Souls of Black Folks." The plural "souls" refers not just to the plurality of souls, one per person, of the many black folk, but to the two souls in each of them:

...the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, --- a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciouisness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of other, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, --- and American, a Negro; two worlds, two thorghts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

DuBois related the beginning of his second soul, his second self-conception, in this incident:

I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England...In a wee wooden schoolhouse, someting put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visitng -cards---ten cents a package---and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card---refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddeness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heard and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.

We all carry around two self-conceptions. Imagine having amnesia. The amnesiac knows whose mouth he has to put food in to relieve his hunger; he knows that things detected visually are things that he sees; he knows that the aches he feels belong to his body. So, in one sense, he knows who he is; his most basic self-concept, as the person whose pains he feel, whose hunger he can relieve by eating, whose environment he learn about by the deliverance of sense, remains.

But there is another part of our concept of ourselves that is comprised of information, and misinformation, that is tied to more public avenues of knowledge. We each have a name, and to that name is tied all sorts of information that others use to classify us, to honor us or condemn us, to appreciate us or demean us. Information and misinformation about the person with that name can be found in the phone book, in files in various offices, in newspapers and books in
the case of a person like DuBois, and for all of us in countless conversations to which are not privy, that shape our fate as much as the information we get about ourselves in that special way that sense and reflection provide. It is all of this that the amnesiac, who doesn't know his name, and doesn't remember the past events that define him, has lost.

As Charles Watson, a recent Stanford Ph.D. argues, that public conception, integrated for most of us in our total sense of who we are, has a great role to play in our lives. An important part of it is a set of roles, of jobs, professions, and ambitions that are available for us to adopt as what we are, or strive to become. These roles are made available to us in large part on the basis of how others see us, and how they teach us, in this sense, who we are and whom we can be.

A doubling of consciousness, where our two self-conception don't fit together is potentially present in all of us. Our sense of what we are like may not fit with what our parents or siblings or teachers think we are or might be. It is a rare individual, Watson argues, who can, like Frederick Douglass did, adopt as his own roles that are do not fit into the public conception of him. Most of us form our self-images and ambitions from the alternatives put before us.

Even if one has freedom to choose among those roles --- is allowed, say, to become a philosopher rather than a lawyer, as his parents might have thought more reasonable --- our freedom is ultimately limited by our imaginations, by what we can imagine ourselves being and doing. And this is shaped by the family and neighborhood and culture in which we find ourselves.

Watson argues that a deficiency of perceived-as-available roles can be as damaging as lack of nourishment or other "basic goods," and that this fact needs to be better appreciated in ethical and political theory. He draws on Douglass, DuBois, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Rawls and Mead to make his case.

An interesting counterpoint to DuBois is Borges (very) short story, "Borges and I," which you can find on the web. Borges has become somewhat alienated from his own public conception, which it seems has veered out of his control. DuBois would appreciate the phenomenology of his predicament, but might say, "I should have such problems."

Our discussion of DuBois with the gifted philosopher Lucius Outlaw should be interesting on several levels, not only as to the social, political and cultural issues with which DuBois concerned himself, but with the philosophical implications of what was perhaps one of his central missions and accomplishments, to define, develoop and provide positive roles to fill the consciousness of black Americans.

Watson's dissertation is:

Watson III, Charles Herman: Self-expression as voice : a Nietzschean
study of the material production of authenticity

Comments (6)

Guest's picture


Monday, February 6, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

I really don't care about what the other thinks.

I really don't care about what the other thinks. I have found that my thought is more correct than other peoples and i should never allow it to be constrained by the other. This is especially true when you tally up the times that you are right to the times the other is wrong.
My thought is only a servant to God. It will not allow itself to be contrained by my fellow men. My reflection of myself is only that of myself and it's relation to God. To allow myself to be molded by other men would mean that I would be their slave, and I would suffer when they are wrong, which as I have previously stated is more so than when I am wrong.
The individual must also not allow himself to be controlled by the multitude of people as a whole. The multitude of mediocrity seeks to keep an individual down and in a low place, because they fear the power of a free spirit. A person must not surrender their the special gift that they were given by God, their own ability to think and create. It must only be subservient to God and not to man.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, February 7, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

Interesting post, John. This reminds me of someth

Interesting post, John. This reminds me of something rather different but perhaps related. Robert Kane in a J Phil. paper talks about "double trying", or something like that. His idea is that when we have a conflict about what to do, we can be said to be trying to do (say) two incompatible things. We are simultaneously trying to do two things (things that we know are incompatible). Arguably, we can't (conceptually speaking) intend to do two believed to be incompatible things, but Kane thinks we can try to do X and try to do Y, while believing that we can't do both. This can explain (according to Kane) how either action would be a genuinely free action (in our control).
I don't know if I find Kane's view plausible, but I thought I'd mention it as another "doubling" mental phenomenon.
I look forward to listening to the show! (Should I have said, "we look forward to listening to the show??)

Guest's picture


Monday, February 13, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

?I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. A

?I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I walk arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, they all come graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil." --WEB DuBois, "The Souls of Black Folk"

Guest's picture


Monday, February 13, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

Soul #1 - Titus Andronicus Soul #2 - Coriolanus (

Soul #1 - Titus Andronicus
Soul #2 - Coriolanus (erosirony's model)
Shakespeare's commentaries on the "tragedy" of the single-souled.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

What happened to the Philosophy Talk february epis

What happened to the Philosophy Talk february episodes? I hope you guys are still going strong and that all is well with you! Anyway, us web listeners are looking forward to those clips and the other upcoming episodes.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

The Doubling of Conciousness (I= Intro/personal;

The Doubling of Conciousness
(I= Intro/personal; II= philosophical viewpoint)
Is this similar to the Id and the Ego? Perhaps not strictly in a Freudian sense, but something similar. I, as a black-man born in Texas, completely understand the feeling of having a double conciousness 'forced' upon yourself. (i.e. you know what/how to correctly avoid a bad/confrontational situation, and do your best to avoid it, but somehow you get thrown in the middle and then blamed for the whole ordeal.)
The things that make us doubt ourself only arise when there is conflict that questions these views. And for one person to make another question his/her whole being must cause some great conflict w/in that person's cosmology of personal ideas. When reading about DuBois it is important to remember the circumstances that DuBois lived 'under', as in a the weight/burden of being an Afro-American, every day. That is to say, fear of violent reprisal does not as often dictate peoples actions as much in America as it did during the 'pre-Civil Rights Movement era.' (i.e. i still see, with my own eyes, cops harassing young black males in my neigborhood, while they walk down the street to go play basketball. However, they could have been lynched during DuBois era anywhere and anytime simply because of who they were.)
That being said, the double conciousness I refer to consists of that part that "asks the question" and that which "answers the question." People (well at least most of us, most of the time) do not act without a reason. That reason may prove to inefficient, ineffective or ineconomical, none-the-less a reason si present. During that process the "person" asks "him/her-self" if they should carry out a/n action. So, the side that asks the question is the side that the outside world interacts. The side that answers the question, rarely emerges to the surface of the individual to become the lead representative for overall person. Perhaps, DuBois meant something along those lines when he said, "One ever feels his two-ness."
When someone/something questions the person, that implies a wrong directive given by that person's "self." If the self cannot explain/accept the new results of its reason then the person will continue to question him/her-self until a another process is developed to provide a reason for an answer to the so-called wrong directive. Thus, doubling of conciousness and the importance of commune and community.
--someone, anyone, please tell me(the person, my representative) what you think about all this.