Sociologist, historian, philosopher, editor, writer, and activist, W.E.B. DuBois was one of the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century. The first African-American Ph.D.
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 .