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A Secondary Source
Embracing Philosophy: On Du Bois's 'The Individual and Social Conscience'
— Outline of Robert W. Williams's Presentation
at the W.E.B. Du Bois 50th Anniversary Commemorative Conference,
Clark Atlanta University (20 February 2013)

Robert W. Williams' Notes:
n1. The Presentation: This page contains the outline of a talk that I gave at the W.E.B. Du Bois 50th Anniversary Commemorative Con­fer­ence, which was held at Clark Atlanta University during February 2023, 2013 [web page].
As an outline it was not a manuscript to be read verbatim, but rather was a sequential list of (often brief) points on which I elaborated during the talk itself. I have slightly modified the outline below in the interests of clarity.
Based on this pres­en­ta­tion I have written an article published in the journal Phylon (see Note n4 below).
In addition, this website offers more details on Du Bois's primary source "The Individual and Social Conscience" as well as other aspects of my research on it.
The Lectures page lists my presentations that are available online.
n2. Summary: The presentation — and subsequent article — is my recon­struc­tion of Du Bois's thinking about the relationship between research and activism. Much of the criticism leveled by Du Bois in the 1940s offers us the basis for interpreting his reservations (never repu­di­a­tion) of social research in general and social science in particular.
Du Bois's "The Individual and Social Con­science" (IASC), via my intellectual reconstruction, provides us with a way by which to high­light the philosophical implications of his works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, through the lens of the IASC we can glimpse how Du Bois's later critiques grew out of his various con­cerns ex­pressed in those early texts, including the importance of subjec­tiv­ity and the research assumption of humanity. Further­more, via the IASC Du Bois can illuminate the limits of con­ven­tion­al social sci­ence and its method­ol­o­gies as a way to know about and to act in the world.
For Du Bois the tenets of conventional social research were not necessarily conducive to promoting activism, especially the tenet of the knower/known distinction which separated the researcher from the objects of research (e.g., humans). Such a distinction between knower and known hin­dered the researcher from a fuller under­stand­ing of the humanity of the objects of research and hin­dered the ability of the researcher to under­stand her/his own relation­ship to the society in which s/he lived. A different method­ol­o­gy was needed for activism oriented to social justice: specifically, a phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cally inspired method that permitted the observer (e.g., researcher or fellow human) to grasp his/her relation­ships with others. The IASC provided this method.
n3. Relevant Sources: In the outline below I have added links to sources that are available on this website.
n4. Published Version: Please note that this is an outline which I expanded quite exten­sive­ly in a published essay. Accord­ingly, any references to my inter­pre­ta­tion of the IASC should cite the article:
Williams, Robert W. 2014. "Embracing Philosophy: On Du Bois's 'The Individual and Social Con­science'." Phylon, 51:1 (Fall): 42-56.  [This citation was added on 1 April 2015.]
— Robert W. Williams, Ph.D.  [Bio]

"Embracing Philosophy: On Du Bois's 'The Individual and Social Conscience'"
Presented by Dr. Robert W. Williams,
Bennett College,
20 February 2013
at the
W.E.B. Du Bois 50th Anniversary Commemorative Conference,
Clark Atlanta University, 20–23 February 2013
[Draft Version Only. Please reference the published article (see Note n4 above).]
1. Topic: A virtually unknown primary source by Du Bois
1.1. "The Individual and Social Conscience" (IASC): Du Bois was a discussant at the Third Annual Religious Education Association in Boston, 1905. Scholars have discussed the humanistic aspects of DuBois' research, but not in light of the IASC.
[The Religious Education Association still exists and has joined with the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education. For more information visit their website at This external link was added on 1 December 2015.]
1.2. General goals of presentation:
1.2.1. to reconstruct the intellectual context of the IASC,
1.2.2. to highlight the IASC's significance with regards to Du Bois's views of research and activism,
1.2.3. ultimately, to contend that the IASC was a pivotal Du Boisian text of the early 1900s.
1.3. Specific points of presentation:
1.3.1. The IASC conveyed a philosophical justification for Du Bois's move to The Crisis editorship at a time of intense social research.
1.3.2. The IASC illuminated philosophical concerns expressed in other circum-1900 works, especially subjec­tiv­ity and the research assumption of humanity.
1.3.3. The IASC spoke to the significant role of a phenomenologically oriented method within struggles for racial and social justice.

2. Du Bois's Social Research and Activism
2.1. Du Bois's social research in history and social science is well known.
[Note: The Sources page on this site provides links to various works by Du Bois.]
2.2. Du Bois's activism as a public intellectual is also well known.
2.3. Du Bois in his 1968 Autobiography wrote: he "put no special emphasis on reform effort, but increasing...the collection of a basic body of facts...." (A68: p.214)
2.4. Du Bois on research vis--vis activism: "the aim of science itself is simple truth. Any attempt to give it a double aim, to make social reform the immediate instead of the mediate object of a search for truth, will inevitably tend to defeat both objects." ("The Study of the Negro Problems" 1898: par.35)

3. Du Bois's Practical Critique of Social Research
3.1. Practical problems of social research vis--vis activism ("My Evolving Program" 1944; "Post Script": The Ordeal of Mansart 1957 [The book online at HathiTrust Digital Library (catalog page). This external link was added on 1 December 2015.]):
3.1.1. lack of timeliness in the midst of possible "social death",
3.1.2. lack of comprehensive data and evidence,
3.1.3. questionable (practical) usefulness of social laws,
3.1.4. non-receptive White Americans, and
3.1.5. questionable conventional research tenet of disinterested inquiry.
3.2. Du Bois's critiques from 1940s and later partially explained his choice to become Crisis editor.
3.2.1. Related factor: shortage of funds for Atlanta University Studies and college.
3.2.2. Another factor: pressing historical events (e.g., race riots).
3.3. Du Bois commented on his move to The Crisis editorship: "my career as a scientist was to be swallowed up in my role as master of propaganda" (Dusk of Dawn 1940: Ch.4).
3.3.1. Du Bois used the term propaganda both in negative and positive ways.
[For a classic example of Du Bois's critique of negative propaganda, see the last chapter of his Black Reconstruction (page on this site), which is entitled "The Propaganda of History". This reference was added on 1 December 2015.]
3.3.2. "Positive propaganda" ("Criteria of Negro Art" 1926 [CNA]) could portray African Americans as humans who were "lovable and inspired with new ideals for the world" (CNA: par.32).

4. Du Bois's Philosophical Critique of Extant Empirical Methodologies
4.1. [R.W.W.'s Contention] Du Bois's practical critique of social research vis--vis activism was also a philosophical critique of empirically oriented methodologies.
4.1.1. This philosophical critique was implied by circum-1900 works: e.g., "The Conservation of Races" (1897); "Strivings of the Negro People" (1897); "The Negro Ideals of Life" (1905).
4.1.2. Implicit philosophical concerns: subjec­tiv­ity and research assumption of humanity.
4.2. Subjectivity (the meaningfulness of experience):
4.2.1. The Souls of Black Folk (SBF)(1903) exemplified the subjec­tiv­ity of African Americans in the face of oppression (e.g., double consciousness).
4.2.2. Du Bois's own self-appraisal of Souls published in The Independent (1904): "Through all the book runs a personal and intimate tone of self-revelation. In each essay I sought to speak from within to depict a world as we see it who dwell therein" (SBFI: par.3).
4.3. An inclusive conception of humanity:
4.3.1. Necessary assumption for research ("The Atlanta Conferences": pars.8-9 [1904]).
4.3.2. Du Bois's conception of human agency entailed both deterministic (i.e., sociological regularities) and free-will dimensions ("Sociology Hesitant" ca. 1904-05).
[Note: "Sociology Hesitant" was unpublished during Du Bois's lifetime, but was subsequently printed in the journal boundary 2, 27:3 (2000). It is viewable online at the Special Collections & University Archives, University of Massachusetts Library.]
4.3.3. Meaningfulness of ideals to humans.
4.4. [R.W.W.'s Contention] For Du Bois the limitations of empirical research for activism arose in the scope of research:
4.4.1. Only what can be operationalized can be measured, and thereby might become part of knowledge qua science.
4.4.2. Everything else is idiosyncratic and whim (as per David Hume; A.J. Ayer; Karl Popper).
4.5. Nevertheless for Du Bois:
4.5.1. Values and ideals are meaningful and motivational to humans seeking justice, even if not empirically verifiable themselves or not discerned or not discernable as patterns in the data, and
4.5.2. Scientific method cannot discover everything:
"The Church and Religion" (The Crisis, October 1933).
4.6. [R.W.W.'s Contention] Another methodology was needed to supplement conventional empirical methodologies.
4.6.1. Such a method should bridge knower/known framework of conventional social research, which separates subjective from objective.
4.6.2. Subjective values and ideals were integral to understanding others, but also for the researchers themselves in order to understand their roles as citizens in society.
4.6.3. Implicated here: researcher activists could follow empirical techniques to reinforce scientific objectivity, but they were not neutral because all are embodied within social relations of power and cannot fully remove themselves.

5. Methodological Questions Posed by Circum-1900 texts
5.1. Question # 1: How might we theorize an understanding of our relationship with others in society?
5.2. Question # 2: How might we theorize the fundamental humanity of all?
5.3. Question # 3: How might duty be grounded?
5.4. [R.W.W.'s Contention] The IASC provided a methodological response to such questions.

6. "The Individual and Social Conscience" — Full Text
[Note: The text of "The Individual and Social Conscience" is available in its entirety on this site.]

7. The Answers Provided in the IASC
7.1. IASC set forth a dialectically-structured path for the self-development of social responsibility and for the support of the equal treatment of all.
7.2. The IASC involved an Hegelian-inspired method (so as to theorize the structure of an individual's experiences with and of others) that was tempered by the concerns of Jamesian pragmatism (so as to counter an Hegelian determinism and teleology) and also moderated by the Africana thought and activism of Alexander Crummell, Anna Julia Cooper, and Frederick Douglass (so as to emphasize agency in the struggles against oppression).
7.3. Individual experiences were not aggregated or statistically analyzed, as with empirical methods.
7.3.1. The IASC described experience as it was grasped and reflected upon by an individual, who was coming to an awareness of her/his subjec­tiv­ity vis--vis others [ad Question # 1 (5.1. above)] ...
7.3.2. ...via a dialectical process wherein the lack of knowledge of others' experiences implicated a more inclusive conception of the humanity of all [ad Question # 2 (5.2. above)], ...
7.3.3. ...leading ultimately — hopefully — to a personal acknow­ledg­ment by the individual that his/her social embodiment entailed social responsibilities to others [ad Question # 3 (5.3. above)].

8. The Significance of the IASC as a Pivotal Du Boisian Text of the Early 1900s
8.1. Due to the limitations of conventional social research there was a need for phenomenological methods to augment social science in the support of activism for social justice.
[Note: Du Bois never disavowed social science, as witnessed by his attempts to rekindle an AU-style research agenda in the 1940s.]
8.2. The significance of the IASC includes the following points:
8.2.1. The IASC resonated with Du Bois's intellectual context: Hegel, James, Africana thought and actions.
8.2.2. The IASC addressed philosophically the practical question of how to motivate us to activism.
8.2.3. The IASC addressed practically the philosophical concept of duty in terms of our reflections upon our embodiment in society. (We are neither alone in society, not autarkic; egalitarianism is supported).
8.3. The IASC provided the philosophical background for Du Bois's decision to become Crisis editor.
[Note: Activism for social justice required more than empirical research and the distribution of its findings. As the IASC implied, activism also required an understanding of how an "I" could be — rather, could come to be — a "we", and thereby why an individual should act in ethically egalitarian ways.]
8.4. Of course, the IASC is important in other ways within Du Bois's own thought over time and also for us in the 21st Century.
[End of Outline.]  

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Robert Williams