Du Bois's Ethical Personalism


W. E. B. Du Bois, an American personalist?  I contend that Du Bois could arguably be classified as an American personalist, or at least that Du Bois's ethical personalism is compatible with certain varieties of American personalism.  This paper does not offer a conclusive and definitive argument substantiating the thesis mentioned above, however.  Instead, I intend for this paper to serve as an entry-point for self-identified American personalists and other scholars of classical American philosophy to examine Du Bois's writings and determine for themselves whether or not Du Bois is an ethical personalist whose thought is within the American personalist tradition.

The more I read W. E. B. Du Bois's writings, the more convinced I am that he is at least on the margins of the American personalist tradition.  His thought is on the margins of the American personalist tradition because he refuses to ground his ontology of personhood on any form of philosophical theism.[1]  That is, Du Bois's non-theistic personalist thought excludes him from being "a typical, thoroughgoing American personalist," as Rufus Burrow, Jr., would say, since all thoroughgoing American personalists (e.g., Borden Parker Bowne and Edgar S. Brightman) ground their personalism, ultimately, on the rock of philosophical theism.  Du Bois would argue that the interrelatedness (i.e., sociality) of persons is an empirically verifiable fact of our experience; therefore, substantiating such a conception of persons via a theistic philosophy is unnecessary.[2] 

In fact, Du Bois's type of personalism does not fit neatly into any of Burrow's classifications of American personalism.  Nevertheless, Du Bois's thought does have some affinities with Burrow's description of ethical personalism.[3]  Du Bois seems to regard human persons, their (ethical) relations to other persons, and their relation to their environment as the most legitimate and fruitful entryway into any investigation of the world.  While he would not say with traditional idealists that only mind is real, he would probably say with idealistic personalists that understanding persons and their interactions with one another is the key to understanding our world and, by extension, reality.

This paper contends that Du Bois could arguably be identified as an American personalist, or at least that Du Bois's philosophical thought resembles a personalism compatible with American personalism. I think the reader might appreciate a map of the intellectual terrain I have traveled, chronicling my examination of Du Bois as an ethical personalist.  To tell of my journey and discoveries within the time allotted to me, I shall restrict my analysis of Du Bois's ethical personalism to a brief examination of his ontology of personhood, his conception of metaphysical freedom, and the concrete manifestation of these philosophical notions in his life.

Ontology of Personshood: Persons & Intersubjectivity

A central concept in Du Bois's personalism is his notion of double-consciousness, as expressed in the following excerpt from his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.[4]

For Negroes,[5] particularly for educated Negroes in the early twentieth-century, their personal identity was constituted by a negative self-consciousness according to Du Bois. However, this negative self-consciousness is not a detrimental self-identity for Negroes; it involves a continuous struggle to construct a coherent identity that incorporates the noblest and most beneficial aspects of being a hybrid person – a person of African descent and an American, blended together in a single, ever-evolving self.[6]  Du Bois describes the hybridity of Negroes in this excerpt from The Souls of Black Folk:

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.  In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost.  He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa.  He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world.  He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.[7]

Double-consciousness, then, is not just a psychological concept, describing the mental anguish of Negroes in early twentieth-century America, but also a concept that describes the social condition of the entire Negro community of that era.  With this in mind, we are able to notice the philosophical significance of double-consciousness by interpreting The Souls of Black Folk from a personalist perspective.  Double-consciousness functions as the experiential evidence for Du Bois's contention that our encounters with other persons constitute who we are.  Remember, for Du Bois, asking the metaphysical question – what is a person, ontologically speaking? – is not a significant one; the empirical questions – how do we encounter other persons, and what does it mean to be a person? – are the much more significant questions.  As I mentioned earlier, he does not find it necessary to offer a metaphysical defense for the sociality of persons.  He regards this sociality between persons as an empirical fact, experienced as true for all living human beings.

In the case of Negroes during his era, they had two general sets of ideals that they embodied in their being – the American ideals of equality of persons before the law, equal opportunity to pursue human well-being, and liberty and the African ideals of rhythmic creativity, sensual embodiment of life, and communitarianism.[8]  These two ideals warred with each other because they had yet to merge into an enlarged set of harmonious ideals.  The task of American Negroes was to harmonize these apparently conflicting sets of ideals into a viable social identity, an identity which they could share with other peoples as an equal partner in world civilization.[9]

In describing double-consciousness, Du Bois articulates his belief that intersubjectivity is the ontological ground of our personhood.  To be a person, Du Bois thought, is to be an agent of choice; more specifically, to be a person is to be free to choose to be loyal to an ideal – preferably an inclusive and enriching ideal or set of inclusive and enriching ideals rather than other less inclusive, ones.  These ideals should enable the persons who act on them to improve themselves and others economically, politically, and (most importantly) spiritually.  His notion of ideals appears in some of his earliest writings, but does not fully articulate itself until he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk: "[...] to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living – not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold.  The worker must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame."[10]

Since I have an unusual interpretation of Du Bois's thought, I should briefly explain how I came to interpret Du Bois in the way I do.  I came to my interpretation of Du Bois's thought through a close reading of David Levering Lewis's discussion of Du Bois's paper, "The Renaissance of Ethics: A Critical Comparison of Scholastic and Modern Ethics," a paper Du Bois wrote for William James's PHIL 4 course at Harvard.  In that paper, he attempted to justify moral conduct via empirical observations.  He advanced this philosophical thesis by first arguing that ethics prematurely divorced itself from metaphysics and empirical science.  Then, he argued that ethics should use empirical observations of actual moral phenomena to guide our investigation of what conduct promotes the most beneficial ends for persons in actual, real-life situations.  Moral phenomena, in turn, were instances where duty manifests itself in our lives.  Later, in "The Renaissance of Ethics," Du Bois asserted "that the 'whole purpose of duty hangs upon the Cause and Purpose of this great drama we call life,' and to understand duty we must know Ends."[11]  Finally, Du Bois, following James, defined duty relationally (instead of in a relativistic way, as Lewis asserts) as: "the obligation to know 'how much better is the best that can be than the worst?'"[12]

Du Bois could have avoided the logical difficulty of bridging the chasm between observing phenomena and prescribing what we ought to do based on those observations by adopting a personalist stance where the end of every act is immanent in the means used to actualize that end.[13]  Ethics, then, would not involve committing either the naturalist fallacy or the genetic fallacy, but instead involve evaluating what human conduct has historically promoted human flourishing, subject those previously successful types of conduct to rational scrutiny, and recommend that we conduct ourselves in ways which currently promotes human flourishing in a consistent and more inclusive manner.  As long as a particular form of conduct survives critical reflection, then we should continue to act in that manner.

Following these general alterations to his thesis, Du Bois could have removed a lot of ambiguity in his definition of duty by describing duty as our loyalty to an ever-inclusive cause or set of causes that would, if acted upon consistently, would better our lives and the lives of more and more persons.  Such loyalty to an ever-inclusive cause or set of causes should control the means by which we pursue these causes.[14]  As a result of this slight correction of Du Bois's conception of duty, the personalist elements of Du Bois' philosophical thought emerges in its embryonic stage.

Not everyone agrees with Du Bois's notion of double-consciousness, especially as I have sketched it above.  Indeed some contemporary Du Bois scholars question whether Du Bois's notion of double-consciousness actually refers to an existential reality experienced by any actual historical community, in general, and to early twentieth-century American Negroes in particular.  Since Du Bois constructs the notion of double-consciousness through empirical observations of Negroes and a major portion of his philosophy depends on this concept, any criticism claiming that double-consciousness is merely an abstraction would be a devastating critic of Du Bois's entire philosophy.  Ernest Allen, Jr., for example, contends that Du Bois's notion of double-consciousness did not describe the social or psychological reality of Negroes in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century America.  Allen contends that Du Bois's existential dilemma was a concern only for college educated Negroes, if not solely a figment of Du Bois's tortured imagination, and that assimilationist Negroes and the multitude of working-class Negroes of that era did not experience any such existential dilemma.[15] 

Allen's dislike of Du Bois's Victorian sensibilities and its prominent place in Du Bois's discussion of double-consciousness in Souls of Black Folk is obvious.  I agree with Allen that Du Bois was often elitist in his sensibilities and that his notion of the "Talented Tenth"[16] is evidence of his elitism.  And however well-meaning his elitism was, Du Bois's tendency to be elitist led him to neglect, ignore, and sometimes distain the common person and their folk culture.  This elitism, in turn, negatively affected his ability to appreciate the potential contributions "common folk" could make to secure their own liberty and recognition as persons.  I even find it plausible that Du Bois's notion of double-consciousness could be a product of his own personal discomfort with American racism, as Allen contends. Yet, Du Boisian double-consciousness does describe an empirically verifiable phenomenon in the Negro community during his era – the feeling of disrespect Negroes felt, regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, or educational level, because they were discriminated against legally and/or socially.[17]  For this reason alone, we should regard Du Boisian double-consciousness as an existential reality and that Du Bois has the right to ground his personalism on this conceptual notion.

Du Bois on the Metaphysical Freedom of Persons

Du Bois's ontology of personhood leads him to implicitly adopt a Franciscan understanding of metaphysical freedom.[18]  I say that Du Bois's ontology is Franciscan because genuine freedom does not only involve a guarantee from some political entity that it will not infringe on persons' rights to conduct themselves as they see fit as long as their conduct does not harm others wrongly (i.e., negative freedom), but also involves the freedom to act according to chosen ideals (i.e., positive freedom).  These ideals should, ideally, obligate persons to act in ways that enlarge their moral spheres to include once-excluded persons as respected members of the moral community.  Thus, a person should regard their fellow persons' well-being as something worthy of respect and act to promote it.  For a morally mature person, the freedom to act should include willingly choosing causes that better oneself as well as others in the community and assist others in attaining their most ennobling ideals.  However, Du Bois would further contend that for a person to be truly a person that person must also be able to live out that freedom.

Du Bois depends on this conception of freedom to argue for the political and economic freedom of Negroes. By continuously writing devastating invectives against white racism, Du Bois sought to shame America into recognizing the intrinsic moral dignity of Negroes and granting them their deserved political rights and economic freedom, thus enabling Negroes to live out their lives without being unduly coerced.  A classic example of Du Bois's effort to awaken white America's conscience was his chapter in The Souls of Black Folk entitled, "Of the Coming of John."

In "Of the Coming of John," Du Bois describes the injustice of America racism through his short story about a young, educated Negro man named John. John returns to his native Southeastern Georgia after receiving a college education up North. Something is different about John when he returns home.  He is no longer the subservient, docile boy who accepted racism as a natural occurrence.  His education and experiences while in the North transform him from a nigger into a dignified man who knows he is a person worthy of other persons' respect; whites included.

Yet, he can no longer function in Southern society because he now sees through the illusions of white superiority and black inferiority and recognizes racism as the spiritual sickness it is.  His defiance of the racist norms of Southeastern Georgia alienates him from his fellow Negroes, with the exception of his sister who yearns to escape ignorance like her brother already has.  His dedication to the ideals of a late Victorian gentleman leads to his lynching by the whites in town. Indeed, acting on his duty to defend his sister from a rapist by killing him, even if the attempted rapist happens to be the white judge's son, costs John his life.  Instead of being heralded as a hero by his community for preventing a rape, the white townspeople – lead by the judge – hunt him down like an animal and lynch him like a criminal.  The irony of this story is that John receives his long sought freedom from racism at the end of a rope, with a noose snugly around his neck. John could only be free as he dies, pitying the ignorance and inferiority of his murderers.

Such fictional accounts of American racism were meant to get white Americans to recognize the essential injustice embedded in the American way of life and alter their conduct to actualize the ideals of the U.S. – to let every person enjoy the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  For Du Bois knew, even in 1903 when this story was published in Souls of Black Folk, that as long as any person of African descent was being oppressed, then all persons, including their oppressors, were not genuinely free.  Moreover, neither oppressed nor oppressor could exercise proper moral agency in such an immoral environment because no one possessed the freedom to pursue genuinely ennobling ideals.  One could say that Du Bois spent his entire adult life telling others about the interrelatedness between Negroes and all other persons – especially between American Negroes and other ethnic, economic, and cultural minorities worldwide – because if some persons are oppressed then the dignity of human personhood, as such, is degraded.[19]

Du Bois on Persons & Intersubjectivity Later in His Life

By the early 1930's, frustrated at America's unwavering racism, Du Bois adopted a more separatist tone in his writings.  As a result of already being politically and economically segregated in America, he realized that Negroes could self-segregate as a pragmatic tool, at least temporarily, to construct a vibrate community and to cultivate their cultural heritage.[20]  By self-segregating, Du Bois thought black intellectuals, artists, and ministers could advance the most inclusive and enriching ends for Negroes that they could pursue in such a hostile environment.  For nearly a decade, he thought that Negroes had to separate themselves from American society to preserve and cultivate their personhood, hoping to build a stronger social and economic infrastructure in the black community until American society could no longer deny the personhood of Negroes. 

As Du Bois's philosophical and political thought reached its maturity in the 1940s, he came to believe that his trust in the Talented Tenth to improve Negro life in America was misguided.  Indeed, the Talented Tenth had failed to live up to their primary responsibility of culturally enriching the Negro community and fostering a spirit of genuine personhood, or what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Reverend Jesse Jackson call somebodiness, in the Negro underclass.  In response to their failure, Du Bois fleshed out his internationalism and economic criticism of Western civilization, expressed in such early works as The Negro,into an active political program.  In a matter of years, he transformed his early calls for international justice and recognition of non-white persons' dignity worldwide into a vigorous agenda for international protest against Western imperialism in Africa and Asia.

After he became a social pariah in the 1940's – first in the white liberal establishment and then among the middle-class Negroes he once praised – he discovered that his only audience consisted in the disenfranchised, the disillusioned, and the radical communists  – i.e., those persons that capitalist and racist America had tossed aside.  These were W. E. B. Du Bois's spiritual kin.  These persons were not merely asking to be included in the American dream; they also wanted to heal their country and their world, which had failed to live up its noblest ideals and had, instead, perpetuated the very antithesis of those ideals.  In this period, he gradually expanded his efforts from battling for American Negroes' civil rights to helping non-white persons worldwide acquire their human rights.   He committed himself wholeheartedly to the international Pan-African liberation struggle and international communism, even though his faith in international communisms turned out to be misplaced.

By living a life dedicated to ethical personalism, particularly in the last decades of his life, Du Bois's personalism manifested itself in at least three different, yet interrelated, ways. First, his personalism led him to expand his concern for persons to include the very persons, i.e., the underclass, that he had relegated to a secondary role in the international struggle for freedom of non-white persons worldwide.  Second, he realized that his personalism could only manifest itself concretely in an international liberation movement, and he consequently became a principal participant in that movement.  Third, only by battling the emerging dominance of global capitalism on earth could he live a life where he could realize the most global vision of personalism – to dedicate one's life to helping oppressed persons live a meaningful life as full members of a global community while they retain their distinctive individual and cultural identities.

Du Bois's emphasis on the mutual interdependence between individual persons and their communities in his later life resembles Walter G. Muelder's notion of persons as being "born into community, nurtured by it, and influenced by it in numerous ways.  But persons also influence the community in many ways.  Both persons and their groups affect the community."[21]   In other words, Du Bois and Muelder both agree that there is a reciprocal relationship between persons and their communities so intimate that an apt description of human persons in community is "persons-in-community."  When viewed from the perspective of Muelder's ethical personalism, Du Bois's commitment to personalist thought is an excellent example of Muelder's Law of the Ideal of Community: "All persons ought to form and choose all of their ideals and values in loyalty to their ideals (in harmony with the other Laws) of what the whole community ought to become; and to participate responsibly in groups to help them similarly choose and form all their ideals and choices."[22]


I have completed my attempt to map my expedition into the foreign terrain of W. E. B. Du Bois's ethical personalism.  In the course of mapping my excursion into Du Bois's ethical personalism, I discussed Du Bois's understanding of persons as fundamentally interrelated and metaphysically free.  I admit that my project of classifying Du Bois's philosophy as a type of American personalism is an incomplete one.  Yet, as a result of my analysis of Du Bois's writings, I conclude that Du Bois deserves at least some consideration by other personalists and other scholars of classical American philosophy as being an ethical personalist.

Dwayne A. Tunstall
Graduate Student
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

[1] See Rufus Burrow, Jr., Personalism: A Critical Introduction (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999), 35, 85-89 for a list of characteristics associated with thoroughgoing, or typical, American personalism.

[2] Both Borden Parker Bowne and Edgar S. Brightman thought that their personalisms could be substantiated with empirical evidence alone, thus not differing with Du Bois on this point at all.  However, Du Bois would not claim, as Bowne and Brightman would, that practicing empiricism without a theistic ontology is unwise and leads to an incoherent worldview, i.e., a worldview that does not necessarily refer to anything we experience in the world.  Du Bois probably would respond to Bowne's and Brightman's concerns by saying that our empirical investigations of events in the world and of ourselves are sufficient in themselves to establish a coherent worldview.

[3] Burrow defines ethical personalism as being a personalistic ethics that contends "persons possess inherent dignity not merely because they are persons, but because they are summoned into existence, loved, and sustained by God.  Persons possess inviolable worth because they belong to God, who imbues in each of them the image and fragrance of God" [Personalism: A Critical Introduction (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999), 184].  While Du Bois's personalism is not a theistic ethical personalism, we could classify Du Bois's personalism as an ethical personalism if we adopt a more inclusive definition of ethical personalism.  Ethical personalism – where it be theistic, atheistic, or non-theistic – would hold, at a minimum, "the view that the person is the fundamental moral unit and is the highest – not the only – intrinsic value" (Burrow, 229).

[4] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Signet Classics, 1995), 45.

[5] I decided to use the term 'Negro' to describe Americans of African descent throughout this paper because 'Negro' was the term that W. E. B. Du Bois and other African-American intellectuals used in their writings.

[6] David L. Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993), 282.

[7] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 45-46.

[8] These ideals were neither explicitly mentioned by Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk nor were they systematically articulated in any other Du Bois text, to my knowledge.  I extrapolated these descriptions of American and African ideals from Du Bois's continuous references to the ideals of the U.S. Declaration of Independence for the American ideals and from his aesthetic descriptions of African art and culture for the African ideals.

[9] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 46.

[10] Ibid., 119.

[11]Lewis, Biography of a Race, 94.

[12] Ibid.  

[13] One could say this about John Dewey's ethics, as articulated on pages 57-58, 85-86, 88, 311, and 325 of Experience and Nature, reprinted in Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 1: 1925, 3-326, ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

[14] Notice the similarities between Du Bois and Josiah Royce on this point.  See Lewis's discussion of Du Bois's affinities with Royce's thought in Biography of a Race.

[15] Ernest Allen, Jr., "On the Reading of Riddles: Rethinking Du Boisian 'Double Consciousness,'" Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy, ed. and intro. Lewis R. Gordon (New York: Routledge, 1997), 53-55.

[16] The notion of the "Talented Tenth" arose in Du Bois's thought as a response to Booker T. Washington's approach of uplifting the Negro population in America.  Unlike Washington, Du Bois thought that only by getting white Americans to recognize the worth of Negro cultural institutions, music, and literature could Negro effectively combat de jure segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North.  In other words, Du Bois thought Washington narrowed the ideal end of education merely to the inoculation of economic values – i.e., thrift, patience, and industrial skills – in the Negro populace instead of having education produce excellent, well-educated Negro persons.  Du Bois advanced the idea that these well-educated Negroes should help their fellow Negroes recognize their intrinsic value as persons.  Du Bois called these well-educated Negroes, the "Talented Tenth," for most of his career.

[17] Allen, 53.   Allen would probably agree with me here, but with some moderate qualifications.  The major difference between our positions is that I think that Du Bois included this phenomenon in his description of 'double-consciousness' while Allen thinks that Du Boisian 'double-consciousness' is too narrow of a concept to account for this phenomenon.

[18] Du Bois's understanding of metaphysical freedom resembles the metaphysical freedom discussed by Luca Parisoli in "The Anthropology of Freedom and the Nature of the Human Person," The Personalist Forum, 15/2 (Fall 2001): 1-25 (forthcoming).

[19] Du Bois's contention that if some persons are oppressed then the dignity of personhood per se is degraded underlines all of his sociological, editorial, and activist writings.  This contention appears implicitly as early as his closing speech at the Pan-African Congress in London (1900):

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line, the question as to how far differences of race...are going to be made, hereafter, the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.  To be sure, the darker races are today the least advanced in culture according to European standards.  This has not, however, always been the case in the past [...].  In any case, the modern world must need to remember that in this age...the millions of black men in Africa, America, and the Islands of the Sea, not to speak of the brown and yellow myriads elsewhere, are bound to have great influence upon the world in the future, by reason of sheer numbers and physical contact...If, by reason of carelessness, prejudice, greed and injustice, the black world is to be exploited and ravished and degraded, the result must be deplorable, if not fatal, not simply to them, but to the high ideals of justice, freedom, and culture which a thousand years of Christian civilization have held before Europe. (Biography of a Race, 250-51)

[20] W. E. B. Du Bois, Current History, 42 (June 1935): 265-70, reprinted in W.E.B. Du Bois: A Reader, ed. David L. Lewis (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995), 568-69.

[21] Burrow, 211.

[22] Walter G. Muelder, Moral Law in Christian Social Ethics (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1966), 119. Italics in original.