Du Boisian Epistemic Ruptures

Epistemic ruptures are transgressions of the philosophical, theoretical, civilizational and practical modalities of knowing. They challenge existing worldviews. They often change the ideological conditions of our very beings. Epistemic ruptures can lead to revolutionary changes in societies and the logics of historical transformations. W.E.B Du Bois from his self identified African theoretical and epistemological locations sought to change the epistemic conditions of black struggle. He sought to transform the modalities of kwnowing the world and of black folk in the world. He existed and worked on the margins of white academic and intellectual practices and from within what he famously called the Veil; 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 dismissed. He emerged organically from the life worlds of Africans in America. He asserts in the most transgressive civilizational sense the centrality of Africa to black folks’ self-identity and to humanity’s knowledge of itself. He viewed himself as an African.

W.E.B Du Bois was a revolutionary thinker. Beginning with his empirical studies of black folk and race he proceeded to radically rethink the social sciences. He created new ways of knowing the world and identifying the functions of scholars and intellectuals in it. His was an epistemic rupture, a revolutionary rethinking of how we view the human order. It produced a new way 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 the crisis of European hegemony. The color line, slavery and colonialism were the foundations of Europe and European hegemony, but they were also signifiers and sources of the crisis of Europe. When Du Bois spoke of the problem of the twentieth century being the problem of racial oppression, he was suggesting that the color line produced a deep crisis of Europe and of European civilization. What he began and than carried out for most of his life, was the first 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 and decisive break with the idea that knowledge is essentially a European thing, and that European knowledge was universal. It shows that the study of history and modernity from a European standpoint distorts knowledge. What comes out of European philosophy and human studies was Eurocentric and prejudiced towards 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 would mean superseding conventional sociology which was white. He transgresses the epistemic egoism and racial and civilizational arrogance of European and American thinkers. He rethinks European contruals 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 conceptions links time and being to European history and European events. It begins 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 progression culminating in European man. For him , human time did not proceed linearly, but could b e both linear and cyclical. He rejected the European teleology, with the 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 for Du Bois. Race, for him, is not an abstract notion, it was the over determining concrete presence in the lives of Africans and the modern world. He, therefore, studied race as concrete social relationships. His concerns with philosophy were not with abstractions and pure essences, but practical philosophy, or better how philosophy could assist research practices in history and sociology. He sought to apply philosophy to history to engage concrete social relationships and social structures. He believed that we could know the concrete world as it exists and through knowing it change it. Du Bois’ research was always pushing against the lure of subjectivism and solipsism. Race is not for him in the first instance, a social invention. It is social and historically constituted concrete relationships between human beings. Hence, race is neither an invention, without historical and social structural foundations, nor a mere prejudice or subjective attitude or bias. Du Bois, therefore, has a sense of an objective world, which is not dependent upon our subjective or conscious recognition of it. 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’ idea of applying philosophy to history is his way of arguing to make philosophy practical. Philosophy for him was the science of the abstract and the ideal. This is the intellectual region we call metaphysics. 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, solipsism and abstraction. A last choice, one he designed, was to apply philosophy to history to produce a new knowledge field he called sociology. Which is not to say he was the first to use the term sociology. 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 a metaphysic. 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 and more deeply understanding the objective and concrete worlds. This continual tension between the abstract and the concrete is the definition of science as Du Bois argues in the essay “Sociology Hesitant” (1905). 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. Moreover, it is left without moral or ideological commitments. Issues of paramount significance in Du Bois’ life.

He is throughout aware of ontological, existential and epistemological issues in the discovery of truth and the working up of knowledge. Issues that were concerned with being and knowing. Yet these issues 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. It accounts for time. Yet, in working through this he was in affect 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. He, in his historical and sociology research demonstrates the ascendance, from the abstract to the concrete. 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’. Marx called his “the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete”. Marx continued, this is the “only way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind. (p101)” It is similar to Du Bois’ notion of making philosophy practical. If one takes the entire body of Du Bois’ work what we see is the constant back and forth between abstraction and concrete studies and returning again to the abstract and the conceptual. His changes in his position on race over the course of his life was grounded in this conceptualization, concrete research and conclusions therefrom, observing changes in the concrete, returning to the conceptual and reconceptual. The process was a continual feedback loop. Furthermore, when new knowledge, new discoveries and new research appeared he would attempt to account for them in his conceptualizing of the concrete.

About Anthony Monteiro

I am a activist and scholar who is a professor in the Department of African American Studies at Temple University.
This entry was posted in LOGIC , METHODOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY, W.E.B DU BOIS AND HUMAN SCIENCE. Bookmark the permalink.

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