W.E.B. Du Bois

Sunday, February 7, 2021
First Aired: 
Tuesday, February 7, 2006

What Is It

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. from Harvard University, DuBois died in Ghana after having renounced his American citizenship. In between he co-founded the NAACP and wrote The Souls of Black Folk (1903) as well as a number of other influential books that had a decisive impact on the development of African-American culture in the twentieth century. John and Ken discuss DuBois' life and thought with Lucius Outlaw from Vanderbilt University, author of On Race and Philosophy.

Listening Notes

Ken remarks that Du Bois was a highly critical thinker who was largely ignored by philosophy until recently. John thinks that he fits into the history of philosophy between the transcendentalists, pragmatists, and existentialism. Du Bois had a concept of double consciousness, one consciousness of what we do based on our first-person narrative and another consciousness of how other people see us. Du Bois thought that it was particularly difficult for African-Americans to reconcile these two. Ken introduces the guest, Lucius Outlaw, professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. Outlaw says that Du Bois was driven to leave the academy because, after he saw the violence of racism, he felt rational discussion was not the way to change the status quo.

Du Bois argued against Booker T. Washington's program of slow integration. Outlaw thinks that this confrontation was a big moment in Du Bois's development. Du Bois thought that it was easy to misinterpret Washington's message as accommodating racism and he also thought that education was essential to changing the social status of African-Americans. Du Bois argued that racial groups are created through historical and cultural facts, not biological facts. How can Du Bois then claim that African-Americans and Ghanaians are of the same race? Outlaw thinks that there will be some non-trivial similarities and some non-trivial differences. Outlaw thinks that it will be conceptually complex.

Would a colorblind society eliminate race problems? Du Bois did not think that it would solve any problems. Outlaw thinks Du Bois wanted a world of diverse peoples who had their own histories and shared them with everyone. The concepts of race are recent constructions. Ken suggests getting rid of them since they are so problematic. Du Bois emphasizes that race is important because it has been so central to the development of humanity. Outlaw closes by saying that he thinks the problem of the color line will remain a big problem in the next century.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 04:45): Polly Stryker interviews Michelle Elam about Du Bois's message in The Souls of Black Folk, Lanier Anderson about the social message of Du Bois's work, and Arnold Rampersad about Du Bois on race.
  • Conundrum (Seek to 46:45): Anne from Portland, OR is a quilter who was asked to make some quilts for the children of a close friend. The children blew her off for a year, and Anne does not want to give them the quilts although she had intended to give them to them. She asks whether she should give them the quilts or punish them by giving the quilts to another friend?



John Perry  
Coming up on Philosophy Talk: we'll look at the works of W.E.B. Dubois.

Ken Taylor  
Author of "The Souls of Black Folk."

Comments (2)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, February 10, 2021 -- 3:34 PM

@ Lucius and Ken @ 38:00 mark

@ Lucius and Ken @ 38:00 mark when Ken asks if the project of identity is premised on race. This is likely never our conscious choice. This just runs too deep. To consciously ask that question is the project ... again and again. Race has always been fundamental to our identity. When race is no longer an issue it is only hiding in our nonconscious past.

This was an awesome show. Dr. Outlaw is incredibly well-spoken. here and timely 15 years past.

What does it mean to be Ghanian... I will never know. I will likely never complete the identity project Ken references.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, April 18, 2021 -- 6:07 AM

Well. DuBois wore a lot of

Well. DuBois wore a lot of hats. Heretofore, I had not known of him as philosopher. Just shows you learn some things way down the line. Or, as an outcome of cultural change. Or both.