METAPHYSICS 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 said 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,” he begins, “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.” He then returns to science, in the instance the natural sciences and points out “Science adopted the hypothesis of a Knower and something Known.” This is not Du Bois’s approach. His, as he pointed out, is Asymptotic, rather than reificationist. Knowing is an active process of emergence predicated upon a dialectic between an active agent of knowledge and a living object of knowledge. While “assum[ing] the existence of Truth”, Du Bois “assumed that Truth was only partially known but that it was ultimately largely knowable”, and then the proviso or the conditionality of the activist quest or engagement with the living /changing objects of knowledge, “although perhaps in part forever Unknowable.” For this reason he rejected in 1897 Herbert Spencer’s search for Eternal Laws of human society and its extreme positivism. He returns to academic philosophy of his Harvard years and Williams James’ 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 method was a historical. Each, however, started from philosophy. Each 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 casual 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 suggest Du Bois’ acute understanding of the possibility of infinite variation (a la quantum mechanics) and the connection of variation to Law or regular patterns. Reality, for Du Bois is complex, variable and changing. 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, and here the Du Boisian definition of sociology, 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 is equal to or reveals the possibilities of laws.

Du Bois’ view was that the race question was unavoidable for American social science. Which meant studies of Africans and their histories was strategic to American social science. He is impelled towards a new historiography and a unique phenomenology.. In this respect positivism, in August Comte’s sense of metaphysical or general statements being tested against carefully collected facts, increasingly defined what it meant to be scientific in the social sciences. This method, which in philosophy of science language came to be called the nomological deductive method hog-tied European social science to metaphysical word twisting and endless abstraction. Du Bois sought theoretically sophisticated and practically realizable social science; one that united the actual worlds of Africans with the moral imperative of action that would lead to emancipation. Hence he united theory and practice on a level seldom seen in the social sciences. In this regard Du Bois moves beyond the speculative philosophy of Kant and Hegel, and the armchair socialism of his Berlin professor Schmoller and English Fabianism . (for a discussion of Du Bois in Germany see Sieglinde Lemke, “Berlin and Boundaries: sollen versus geschehen”; for Africana phenomenology see Henry (2005): chapter five further explores Henry’s notion of African phenomenology and Du Bois).

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 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 emerged little beyond the state of nature. Social science as a study of human agency was, by definition, not concerned with Africans. Biology and anthropology was considered the appropriate field for their study.

History, Structures, Totalities and Time
Hegel’s Science of Logic is unavoidable, while not being sufficient in understanding historical methodology. Hegel’s Phenomenology Of Spirit is his epistemology, which is his theory of knowing. The Logic is concerned with time, development, emergence and structures. Hegel’s profound impact upon historiography, especially as it concerns history as a dialectical process is decisive in investigating Du Bois’ notion of African Being. 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 consciousness that rose above immediate sensation. Therefore, in Hegel’s eyes, Black people were incapable of world historical consciousness. Du Bois’ historicism and phenomenology undermines Hegel’s racism, while appropriating to a Du Boisan project Hegelian logic and methodology. Of Hegel’s work, perhaps his Phenomenology of Spirit was most familiar to Du Bois. However, there is evidence throughout Du Bois writing of a familiarity with Hegelian logic that is dialectics. There is no sense of Hegelian teleology in Du Bois’ work, but Du Bois acknowledges historical possibilities that are present in the moment. Du Bois’ work treads the fine line between historical contingency and logical necessity. Like Hegel he situated himself in his time. He was part of, his moment yet at the same time, a scientific observer and analyst of his moment. His consciousness was both of the moment, and what was pregnant in it. For instance, Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness reflects a dialectical relationship, a unity and struggle of opposite forces in one dark body. However, what is reflected in the dark body manifests a larger dialectic, that between Europe, which is hegemonic by this time, which has enslaved and colonized Africans and Africa, which is ancient and the foundation of human civilization is oppressed. The working out of the dialectic within the consciousness of black individual is part of the struggle between two civilizations, one the hegemon of the modern world, the other the foundation of the ancient past. This dialectical engagement is the struggle for the future and the struggle for humanity. Pregnant within the conflict in each black person is the future beyond European hegemony. A historical movement from the Age of Europe to the Age of Humanity.

Fanon’s sociogeny (1967:11) or sociogenetic analysis, as he referred to it, is acutely attuned to historical time. Speaking in Black Skin White Mask, he says, “The architecture of this work is rooted in the temporal. Every human problem must be considered from the standpoint of time (12).” What Fanon means by sociogeny is that human social relationships produce human consciousness., hence, the start of his analysis is society. But, like Du Bois his investigations are historical. Molefi Asante’s Afro-centrism, on the other hand, is a postmodern situational or location theory. Afrocentrism does not historicize the African subject. The African subject invents him/herself as an act of consciousness and will. In this respect Asantean Afrocentrism is Nietzschean. Centrism in his understanding is a way by an act of consciousness the African subject calls him/herself into existence and locates her/himself in the world of conscious beings. The subject creates the world through his engagement with it. Asantean Afrocentrism, however, fails to engage concrete history. Edmund Husserl’s idea that Europe faces a civilizational crisis and the pessimism he demonstrates in his Crisis writings anticipates the postmodern moment of European and American thought. Philosophy, Husserl tells us, will save Europe. Without reconfiguring European philosophy and upon these foundations advance a new human science European civilization will not endure. He calls for a new European discourse and a new form of Eurocentrism. Husserl could not foresee the end of European civilization, as he knew it and more significantly the end of European hegemony, as Du Bois, Sartre and Fanon, among others will predict. Hortense Spillers, demands a new African American feminist discourse emerging from the crisis of blackness and Black identity. This crisis goes back to slavery and captivity rendering the black female subject invisible. Indeed, it is African Being and Time in the historical space of European hegemony, slavery, racial oppression and African/African American resistance that is the context of her inquiry. Africana female subjects exist in sociomoral environments that both constrain and liberate her. Spillers views the African American female writers as intellectual representative of the sociomoral environments of Black people. Time, geography, consciousness, identity, sexuality inform her writing. The Africana female subject for Spillers is socially and historically constituted, albeit out of immediate rather than large macro historical movements.

Little sense can be made of the tangles of philosophy and theory unless these investigations are ideologically anchored . While I am committed to a synthesis of multiple theoretical perspectives, and explanatory frameworks unless this synthesis is connected to the project of African and African American liberation it is sterile. I attempt a synthesis of the historical, temporal, existential, phenomenological and psychoanalytic. I do this using the works of CJ Munford, Lewis Gordon , Hortense Spillers and Paget Henry. To do so demands an interrogation, if not a complete break with notions of progress as asserted in European thought since the Enlightenment. I, therefore, attempt to transgress, problematize and subvert the comfort zone of time as assumed in European centered historiography and social theory. But not to reject notions of time and progress in general. The point understands the specifics of African

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, Race , class and sociological studies and theories, W.E.B DU BOIS AND HUMAN SCIENCE. Bookmark the permalink.

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