Presentation by Dr. Robert W. Williams, Political Science, Bennett College,
at a Symposium Celebrating the 120th Anniversary of the
Atlanta Sociological Laboratory & the Work of W.E.B. Du Bois,
as part of the Ware Lecture Series, Clark Atlanta University,
on 25 February 2016.
(Note: This is a DRAFT version, with later clarifications; it is not in a finalized form.)
• To continue, click "NEXT" in the footer or press the letter "N" key •
W.E.B. Du Bois on Scientific Knowledge and Its Limits
Presentation by Dr. Robert W. Williams, Political Science, Bennett College,
at a Symposium Celebrating the 120th Anniversary of the
Atlanta Sociological Laboratory & the Work of W.E.B. Du Bois,
as part of the Ware Lecture Series, Clark Atlanta University,
on 25 February 2016.
(Note: This is a DRAFT version, with later clarifications; it is not in a finalized form.)
"W.E.B. Du Bois on Scientific Knowledge & Its Limits"
W.E.B. Du Bois conducted social research that directly challenged racial oppression and social injustice. Although many have written on Du Bois's production of social scientifically based knowledge, far fewer have studied his analysis of the limits of such knowledge—limits that he often discussed in terms of uncertainty and the unknowable. When scholars have studied his thoughts on the limits of scientific knowledge they have tended to focus on such works as "Sociology Hesitant" and "Of the Ruling of Men" in Darkwater. However, scholars have not scrutinized and have not compared the range of meanings that Du Bois ascribes to the known and the unknown.
My presentation explores some of the nuances of knowledge, uncertainty, and the unknowable conveyed by Du Bois in his published and unpublished works. From those texts I construct a typology—an un/knowable framework—covering several explicit and implicit knowledge claims. For each knowledge claim I specify the epistemological implications and the practical consequences for Du Bois's research and activism. Ultimately, my lecture documents the incompletely examined theme of knowability and unknowability found across his texts. I conclude with several suggestions about the relevance of Du Bois for current engaged research that combats injustice as well as with suggestions for scholarship on Du Bois and his intellectual context.
The main PRESENTATION BEGINS after proceeding through the following pages of the front matter: •Navigating the Hypertext Presentation (Help Page) •Online Availability of Texts [and access to the one-page version] •Acknowledgments •Dr. Robert W. Williams: Who I Am •Sub/Section Outline of the Presentation
Note 1: I consider the content of this presentation, which also includes subsequent clarifications, to be a draft version. Herein, I explore ideas and lines of interpretation that may change in a future, more finalized form. Indeed, some aspects of the text may require further elaboration. Thank you.
Note 2: I designed this hypertext-oriented presentation and coded it. I may modify or augment the functionality and appearance of the interface over time and without notice. The Navigation Help page (0.2.) contains details on the interface's features, but does not indicate what may have been added or changed. Thank you for understanding that this is a work in progress.
— Robert W. Williams
• To continue, click "NEXT" or press the letter "N" key •
W.E.B. Du Bois conducted social research that directly challenged
racial oppression and social injustice. Although many have written on
Du Bois's production of social scientifically based knowledge, far fewer
have studied his analysis of the limits of such knowledge — limits that
he often discussed in terms of uncertainty and the unknowable. When
scholars have studied his thoughts on the limits of scientific knowledge
they have tended to focus on such works as "Sociology Hesitant" and
"Of the Ruling of Men" in Darkwater. However, scholars have not
scrutinized and have not compared the range of meanings that Du Bois
ascribes to the known and the unknown.
My presentation explores some of the nuances of knowledge,
uncertainty, and the unknowable conveyed by Du Bois in his published and
unpublished works. From those texts I construct a typology — an
un/knowable framework — covering several explicit and implicit knowledge claims. For each knowledge claim I specify the epistemological
implications and the practical consequences for Du Bois's research and
activism. Ultimately, my lecture documents the incompletely
examined theme of knowability and unknowability found across his texts.
I conclude with several suggestions about the relevance of Du Bois for
current engaged research that combats injustice as well as with
suggestions for scholarship on Du Bois and his intellectual context.
Note: I consider this presentation, which also includes subsequent
clarifications, to be a draft version. Herein, I explore ideas and lines of
interpretation that may change in a future, more finalized form. Indeed,
some aspects of the text may require further elaboration. Thank you.
— Robert W. Williams
0.2. Navigating the Hypertext Presentation (Help Page)
Along with clickable links, keyboard shortcuts can be used for navigating the hypertext presentation. The shift key is not needed. •Next page: "N" or ">" [period key] •Previous page: "P" or "<" [comma key] •Start (title) page: "S" •End (Last) page: "E" or "L" •TOC (toggle to show/hide it): "T", and "C" to Close •One-page version (toggle to show/hide it): "O" or number "1" •Return to the hypertext format (from the one-page version): "R" •eXit the entire presentation (from the END page only): "X" •Help in brief (toggle to show/hide it): "H" •Display all hidden notes (=Show button): "D" •Whisk away (hide) all displayed notes (=Hide button): "W" •View the History queue of pages visited: "V" •Backwards to the prior page viewed (as listed in the History): "B" •Forwards to the following page viewed (as listed in History): "F"
See below for details on the navigation functions.
Footer: Next and Previous Pages; Start and End Pages
The footer at the bottom of the screen, will present several links that allow one to return to the PREVious page within the outline structure or else to proceed to the NEXT page in the outline. The footer links will vary depending on the current page that is being visited.
To access the start page or the final page within the flow of the presentation, click the TOC (Table of Contents) link. The footer will now contain links to the START and END pages.
When proceeding forwards through the presentation structure via clicking the NEXT link, one ultimately will arrive at the END page. Similarly, when clicking the PREVious link, the viewer will return eventually to the START page of the entire presentation.
Outline Tree within Sections
The outline that is displayed within each page (screen) has clickable links to other sections of the main content, as well as to subsections within the current section. Also, there are links to Navigation Help and to the one-page, full-text version of the presentation. (For more details on the one-page format see Section 0.3.3.).
The visible outline structure covers the main content of the presentation; it does not include the END (final) page or the front matter (and the START page of the entire presentation).
Table of Contents (TOC)
Clicking the TOC link will display a table of contents that lists all pages of the presentation, including the START page (and the rest of the front matter), as well as the END page.
In addition, the TOC contains a link to the one-page, full-text version as well as links for accessing Navigation Help and for exiting the presentation.
To open the TOC, you also can press the "T" key. To close the TOC, press the "T" key again or else the "C" key. Using the standard navigation operations described above, such as the clickable links or the "N" or "P" keys, will also close the TOC and take you to that new page.
The Show and Hide Buttons
Clicking the SHOW buttons found on some of the hypertext pages will display further information, such as notes and quotations.
Once the previously hidden text is displayed, clicking the HIDE button will conceal it from view.
The "D" key displays all hidden notes, which are marked by the Show buttons found on some hypertext pages. Conversely, the "W" key whisks away—hides—all revealed notes, which are labeled by the Hide buttons on a hypertext page. If either key is pressed where neither hidden nor revealed text is available, then a pop-up (alert) box appears indicating this.
Do Not Use the <Backspace> Key
Do *not* use the <Backspace> key to navigate, because (at least in some browsers) it may not function as expected or may exit the presentation.
If you wish to go to the previous sequential page, then click the PREV link in the footer or use the "P" shortcut key.
Exit the Presentation
To exit the presentation and go to the W.E.B. Du Bois site: •click the link to "webdubois.org" located on the footer's left side; or •click the EXIT link found at the bottom of the TOC menu; or •click the EXIT link located in the footer of the END page; or •press the "X" key while at the END page.
To exit the presentation and go to my Lectures page on the W.E.B. Du Bois site, click the "lectures" part of the link found on the left side of the footer.
Note: One cannot exit from the one-page version. One must be viewing the hypertext presentation.
While in the hypertext presentation, one can return again the pages previously viewed in the reverse order in which they were accessed. Press the "B" key for this backwards movement through the History queue. Once one has been moving through the History queue, press the "F" key to move forwards through it.
If one has reached the beginning of the History queue (i.e., no earlier pages visited) or has arrived at the end of the queue (i.e., no further pages visited), then a pop-up, intra-browser window will appear notifying one of this condition. This pop-up window is actually a so-called alert box and is not a new browser window.
Note: Once pages have been visited or revisited in the hypertext presentation, then for each new page accessed the earliest page will be removed from the History queue so that the new page can be added to it. Pages removed from the queue in this process cannot be revisited through the History feature, only via the usual methods of navigation described herein.
To view all pages listed in the History queue, as well as the relative position of the currently viewed page, press the "V" key to display a pop-up, intra-browser window (alert box) with those details.
Note that when any page is accessed via the standard navigation methods (i.e., Next, Previous, TOC, Outline tree) and not via the Forwards or Backwards operations of the History feature, that page is placed at the end of the queue. Hence, even if the newly navigated page were accessed while stepping through the History, it is still placed at the end of the queue.
Access the Help Page within the Hypertext Presentation
To access this Help page, you will find clickable links at the bottom of the left-side navigation bar and at the bottom of the table of contents.
Note: Press the letter "B" key to retrace your steps to the page you were viewing before the Navigation Help was accessed. The number of pages involved in this retracing process depends on whether you were within the History queue or at its end point. Read Subsection 0.2.8. above to learn how the History feature operates.
Pressing the "H" key within any page (except this one) will activate a brief version of the Help function, emphasizing the keyboard shortcuts and the ways to exit the presentation. To close the "Help (in Brief)" press the "H" key again or else the "C" key. The standard navigation operations identified herein, including the clickable links or the "N" or "P" keys, will also quit the "Help (in Brief)" and put you on that other page.
0.2. Navigating the One-Page Format of the Presentation (Help)
This page contains the full text of the hypertext-oriented presentation
arranged sequentially in one window. Any info, including images, revealed via the
SHOW buttons of the hypertext version are displayed herein.
The one-page format does not display any images located on the pages that start each hypertext section.
Within this one-page, full-text version one will find a navigation menu at
the top and bottom of the page, as well as between the major sections.
To return to the hypertext-based lecture, click the menu link labeled "Return to Hypertext Format". Or press the "R" key, or the "T" key again.
Note: One can only exit the entire presentation while in the hypertext version. Read the hypertext Navigation Help Section 0.2.7. for details.
Do *not* use the <Backspace> key because it may exit the presentation.
While in the one-page version you can view the Help info by pressing the "H" key once. To go back to the place where you initially invoked Help, press the "B" key. Or else, pressing "H" a second time, but before pressing "B", will return you to your initial place (and render the "B" key moot). •Caveat: After tapping "H" to access Help, if next you scroll the page via navigation keys or mouse wheel without having pressed "B" once or "H" a second time, then a later tap of "H" takes you to Help and makes the "B" key moot. This caveat does not apply if scrolling via touch screen or scroll bar.
The Bibliography of works written or edited by Du Bois (Section 10.1) contains many links to online sources for his primary texts cited in this presentation, especially those that reside on my Du Bois website.
My website also provides links to other DuBoisian primary sources. One can check the site map or visit the Sources page.
The one-page, full-text version:
For purposes of reading or printing, the full text of this otherwise hypertext-oriented presentation can be accessed sequentially as ONE PAGE in the current window. Note that the images found on the pages that start each hypertext section are not displayed in the one-page version.
Also, one can access the one-page, full-text version via the left navigation menu and via the Table of Contents (TOC) menu.
Within the one-page version navigation menus are located at the top and bottom of the page, as well as between the major sections.
To exit the page of sequential text and resume the hypertext-based presentation, click one of the links labeled "Return to Hypertext Format". They are located at the top and bottom of the full text, as well as between the major sections.
Please do *not* use the <Backspace> key for navigation. Under specific conditions it will dump you completely out of the full-text page as well as the presentation itself, at least with some browsers.
The Bibliography of works written or edited by Du Bois (Section 10.1) contains many links to online sources for his primary texts cited in this presentation, especially those that reside on my Du Bois website.
My website also provides links to other DuBoisian primary sources. One can check the site map or visit the Sources page.
I wish to thank the many who helped me make this presentation a reality:
Dr. Earl Wright II and Dr. Obie Clayton.
Ms. Robin Stanley-Jones and Ms. Kamilah Cole, both at CAU.
Clark Atlanta University, the Department of Sociology and Criminal
Justice, and the Ware Lecture Series.
Prof. Yamu Kurewa and the Bennett College Faculty Development
Ms. Nadine McCain-Smith at Bennett College.
Copyrights and Fair Use
The various image files found in this presentation are copyrighted
by their respective owners or registrants. The image files herein are
used for educational purposes only and in accordance with the
guidelines of "educational fair use".
If anyone has a concern regarding an image file, please contact
Dr. Robert W. Williams.
As W.E.B. Du Bois often stipulated, scientific knowledge is based on evidence, whether derived from the scientific method used by the natural and social sciences or derived from historical methods; and whether based on quantitative or qualitative data, or based on historical sources.
Du Bois was trained in American and German social research techniques, which included the social sciences and history, and he maintained his support for such forms of inquiry across his lifetime.
In "The Study of Negro Problems" — Du Bois's programmatic statement of research — he indicated that his pursuit of "scientific knowledge" encompassed both "historical study" and "statistical investigation" (SNP 1898: ¶ 38).
[Quotation from SNP (1898: ¶ 33).]
"If we admit the deep importance of the Negro problems, the necessity of studying them, and certain shortcomings in work done up to this time, it would seem to be the clear duty of the American people, in the interests of scientific knowledge and social reform, to begin a broad and systematic study of the history and condition of the American Negroes."
[Note: Citations to Du Bois's primary works typically are referenced throughout this presentation via an abbreviated title and year of publication. The full citation is found in Section 10.1 of the Bibliographies.]
Du Bois was keenly aware of the limits of standard social research, including the assumptions, methods, and scope of the conventional social research of his era.
Du Bois came to support multiple sources of knowledge production, from trained scholars as well as from individuals, including
various types of knowledge derived from other methods and sources of knowing, such as phenomenology (e.g., Lewis Gordon 2000, Paget Henry 2006, Anthony Montiero 2000 and 2008, Reiland Rabaka 2008); and also
knowledge derived from fellow citizens in their everyday lives (e.g., "Of the Ruling of Men" in Darkwater: OROM 1920).
1.2. General Themes of the Presentation
Overaching Theme: the knowable and the unknowable for Du Bois. At a time of intense conventional social research, including the Atlanta University Studies, when Du Bois was seeking knowledge in order to challenge White supremacism, he also considered the limits of knowledge production derived from science as conventionally practiced.
Du Bois's definition of sociology conveyed his idea of the interrelationship between knowledge production and its limits, as well as the attendant philosophical implications for what is knowable and unknowable. In "The Atlanta Conferences" he wrote (ATLC 1904: ¶ 1):
"In reality we seek to know how much of natural law there is in human conduct. Sociology is a science that seeks to measure the limits of chance in human action, or if you will excuse the paradox, it is the science of free will."
Du Bois's concepts of uncertainty and unknowability are directly implicated in the knowable of knowledge production. He wrote about uncertainty and unknowability in various documents composed during the early 20th Century, and also across his lifetime.
1.3. Specific Goals of the Presentation
To set forth an interpretive framework for Du Bois's knowledge claims about what is known, what is uncertain, and what is unknowable.
Specifically, I will create a typology called the un/knowable framework.
To enumerate the practical consequences of the un/knowable for research and activism, especially as regards
the role of the literary imagination;
a grounding for democratic inclusion into the electorate and for the expansion of the scope of public control over private industries;
an indicator of some modification of Du Bois's elitism and masculinism (as delineated, respectively, by Robert Gooding-Williams 2009, R.A. Judy 1994, Cornel West 1996; and Hazel Carby 1998, Farah Griffin 2000, Joy James 1996); and
an examination of the conditions for the possibility of social change and justice, including faith and ideals.
1.4. Robert W. Williams's Research Agenda
This presentation continues Robert Williams's previous research and also is part of a larger research agenda.
First, I discuss Du Bois's views on the role of sciences in producing knowledge and his views on what cannot be known with certainty or cannot be experientially (directly) known. Later scholarship will also be mentioned.
Next, I will present an un/knowable framework by which to interpret Du Bois's thought and activism. I will discuss the framework's components and caveats.
Then, I present the five types of knowledge claims that I have identified so far, involving what is knowable, is uncertain, or is fundamentally unknowable, according to Du Bois.
I end with lessons and suggestions for the continuing relevance of Du Bois for engaged research as well as for further research into Du Bois's works.
Du Bois increasingly is lauded for his scholarly research.
Scholars in various academic disciplines in U.S.A. have recognized Du Bois as important to their respective fields. Examples: sociology, urban studies, history.
Also, scholars have studied Du Bois with regard to his critique of conventional social science and developed techniques to study African Americans: e.g., Lewis Gordon 2000; Anthony Monteiro 2008; Lucius Outlaw 2000; Reiland Rabaka 2010; and Earl Wright II 2002 and 2016.
Du Bois admonished all to seek Truth (he often capitalized Truth). For example, see his "Evolution of the Race Problem" (EORP 1909: ¶ 28, ¶ 35).
We might interpret Du Bois as asking: Was conventional research generating accurate knowledge about African Americans? Was extant knowledge about African Americans replicable and generalizable?
For the early Du Bois seeking truth involved investigating the possible social laws of human actions.
In "The Atlanta Conferences" essay, Du Bois wrote about pursuing "real knowledge of natural law as locally manifest" from which to carefully seek generalizations across the country (ATLC 1904: ¶¶ 2-3).
"Now the work of the next fifty years is to bring theory and practice in sociology nearer together, to connect more logically the statement and the demonstration and to make in truth the science of human action a true and systematic statement of the verifiable facts as ascertained by observation and measurement.
"Now to bring about this result it is certain that we cannot at once compass all human action in time and eternity — the field is too vast and much valuable time has already been wasted in trying to do the impossible under the brilliant but questionable leadership of Herbert Spencer. We must more and more school ourselves to the minute study of limited fields of human action, or observation and accurate measurement are possible and where real illuminating knowledge can be had. The careful exhaustive study of the isolated group then is the ideal of the sociologist of the 20th century — from that may come a real knowledge of natural law as locally manifest — a glimpse and revelation of rhythm beyond this little center and at last careful, cautious generalization and formulation."
A further example from Dusk of Dawn.
In Dusk of Dawn Du Bois wrote (DUSK 1940: pp.590-1 [Ch.4]):
[...] "I determined to put science into sociology through a study of the condition and problems of my own group.
"I was going to study the facts, any and all facts, concerning the American Negro and his plight, and by measurement and comparison and research, work up to any valid generalization which I could. I entered this primarily with the utilitarian object of reform and uplift; but nevertheless, I wanted to do the work with scientific accuracy. Thus, in my own sociology, because of firm belief in a changing racial group, I easily grasped the idea of a changing developing society rather than a fixed social structure."
[Note: The excerpt is also found in Du Bois' 1968 autobiography (A68: Ch. XIII: p.206).]
Du Bois intentionally sought to challenge and refute what was purported to be knowledge about African Americans and Africana persons in general.
Du Bois stated his research agenda and protocols in "The Study of the Negro Problems" (SNP 1898: ¶ 38).
"The study of the Negro as a social group may be, for convenience, divided into four not exactly logical but seemingly most practicable divisions, viz:
1. Historical study.
2. Statistical investigation.
3. Anthropological measurement.
4. Sociological interpretation."
Du Bois posed a set of pointed questions in "Evolution of the Race Problem" (EORP 1909: ¶¶ 31-35).
"How far are Negro children being educated to-day in the public schools of the South and how far is the effort to curtail that training increasingly successful?
"How far are Negroes leaving the farms and rushing to the cities to escape work and how far to escape slavery?
"How far is this race designated as Negroes the descendants of African slaves and how far is it descended from the most efficient white blood of the nation?
"What does actual physical and social measurement prove as to the status of these descendants of black men?
"All these are fundamental questions. Not a single valid conclusion as to the future can be absolutely insisted upon without definite skillful scientific answers to these questions and yet not a single systematic effort to answer these questions on an adequate scale has been made in these United States from 1619 to 1909. Not only this but on all sides opposition ranging from indifference and reluctance to actual force is almost universal when any attempt to study the Negro problem adequately is proposed." [....]
[Note: Du Bois presented this paper at the National Negro Conference held in New York in 1909. Later, the work was printed in the Proceedings of the National Negro Conference.]
In "The Laboratory in Sociology at Atlanta University" Du Bois discussed how he conducted sociology classes (LSAU 1903: ¶ 5).
"The book most constantly referred to is Mayo-Smith's "Statistics and Sociology," and after that the United States censuses. Our main object in this year of work is to find out what characteristics of human life can be known, classified and compared. Students are expected to know what the average death-rate of American negroes is, how it varies, and what it means when compared with the death-rates of other peoples and classes. When they learn by search in the census and their own mathematical calculations that 30 per cent of the negroes of New York City are twenty to thirty years of age, they immediately set to work to explain this anomaly, and so on. A large part of their work consists of special reports, in which the results of first-hand study of some locality or some characteristic of negro life are compared with general conditions in the United States and Europe. Thus in a way we measure the negro problem." ["Negro" was not capitalized in the original]
Du Bois presented a list of specific topics studied by the Atlanta University Conferences in, for example, his 1968 autobiography (A68: 215-216).
"1896, Mortality among Negroes in Cities
1897, Social and Physical Condition of Negroes in Cities
1898, Some Efforts of Negroes for Social Betterment
1899, The Negro in Business
1900, The College-Bred Negro
1901, The Negro Common School
1902, The Negro Artisan
1903, The Negro Church
1904, Notes on Negro Crime
1905, A Select Bibliography of the American Negro
"I then essayed for the second decade a broader program, more logical, more inclusive, and designed to bring the whole subject matter into a better integrated whole. But continued lack of funds and outside diversions (like the request of the Carnegie Institution of 1907 for a study of co-operation) kept even the second decade from the complete logic of arrangement which I desired; finally, my leaving Atlanta in 1910 and at last the severing of my connection with the conference in 1914, left the full form of my program still unfinished. I did, however, publish the following eight studies:
1906, Health and Physique of the Negro American
1907, Economic Co-operation among Negro Americans
1908, The Negro American Family
1909, Efforts for Social Betterment among Negro Americans
1910, The College-Bred Negro American
1911, The Common School and the Negro American
1912, The Negro American Artisan
1914, Morals and Manners among Negro Americans
"With the publication of 1914, my connection with Atlanta ceased for 20 years. Although studies and publications were prepared by others at the university in 1915 and 1918, the war finally stopped the enterprise."
2.2. The Limits of Scientific Knowledge
Du Bois's critique of social science, as conveyed in "My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom" (MEPF 1944: ¶¶ 72-74):
lack of timeliness in the midst of possible "social death",
lack of comprehensive data and evidence,
questionable (practical) usefulness of social laws (indeed, Du Bois questioned himself about which social laws had he been looking?), and
non-receptive White Americans who would not use research findings to promote justice, thereby necessitating an emphasis on activism rather than increased research.
The later Du Bois abandoned the quest for absolute truth.
In a 1956 letter to Aptheker, Du Bois indicates that he stopped seeking "absolute truth".
"I gave up the search of "Absolute" Truth; not from doubts 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." [LHA 1956: ¶ 5]
Du Bois reimagined and refashioned human sciences to better understand Africana experiences, oppression, agency, and struggles for liberation and equality. Du Bois utilized other philosophical methods, even while never repudiating the importance of social research.
See, for example, Robert Gooding-Williams 2009, Lewis Gordon 2000, Paget Henry 2006, Anthony Montiero 2008, Reiland Rabaka 2010, and
Robert W. Williams 2014a and 2014b.
2.3. Du Bois on Uncertainty
Our understanding of humanity could entail uncertain knowledge and even be unknowable in principle, according to Du Bois. Despite his strong assertions about seeking knowledge he was also aware that knowledge could be uncertain even if it were also the best information so far available and that some things might or could not be known at all in principle.
For Du Bois, as he can be interpreted, the uncertainty of knowledge about humans was based on the conjunction of human agency (and an associated free will) with the geo-historical contingency of contextual factors.
Human agency and free will were considered, in Du Bois's view, as "a something Incalculable" ("Sociology Hesitant" [SOCH], unpublished typescript, ca. 1904-1905: ¶ 9):
"For the Great Assumption of real life is that in the deeds of men there lies along with rule and rhythm — along with physical law and biologic habit, a something Incalculable." [Capitalization in the original]
He also described this "something Incalculable" as a paradox (SOCH: ¶ 10).
The geo-historical contingency of contextual factors co-exists with human agency and free will. In "Evolution of the Race Problem" Du Bois wrote (EORP 1909: ¶ 18):
"It is, to be sure, puzzling to know why the Soudan [sic] should linger a thousand years in culture behind the valley of the Seine, but it is no more puzzling than the fact that the valley of the Thames was miserably backward as compared with the banks of the Tiber. Climate, human contact, facilities of communication, and what we call accident have played great part in the rise of culture among nations: to ignore these and to assert dogmatically that the present distribution of culture is a fair index of the distribution of human ability and desert is to make an assertion for which there is not the slightest scientific warrant."
2.4. Du Bois on Unknowability
The concept of the unknowable — what cannot be known in principle — is a recurring theme in Du Bois's works across time.
From his "The Individual and Social Conscience" (IASC 1905):
"Here in this my neighbor stand things I do not know, experiences I have never felt, depths whose darkness is beyond me, and heights hidden by the clouds; or, perhaps, rather, differences in ways of thinking, and dreaming, and feeling which I guess at rather than know; strange twistings of soul that curve between the grotesque and the awful." [IASC 1905: ¶ 3]
From "Of the Ruling of Men", which is Chapter VI in Darkwater (DARK 1920):
"But remember the foundation of the argument [in support of democracy], — that in the last analysis only the sufferer knows his sufferings and that no state can be strong which excludes from its expressed wisdom the knowledge possessed by mothers, wives, and daughters. We have but to view the unsatisfactory relations of the sexes the world over and the problem of children to realize how desperately we need this excluded wisdom." [OROM 1920: ¶ 27]
[Another quotation from "Of the Ruling of Men".]
"In fact no one knows himself but that self's own soul. The vast and wonderful knowledge of this marvelous universe is locked in the bosoms of its individual souls. To tap this mighty reservoir of experience, knowledge, beauty, love, and deed we must appeal not to the few, not to some souls, but to all." [OROM 1920: ¶ 20; capitalization in the original]
In later years, we read that Du Bois explicitly mentioned the unknowable. For example, Du Bois wrote about unknowability in a letter (LCH), dated 13 December 1943, to Charles Hendel of the American Philosophical Association.
"I believe that what we need today is a frank admission of the limitations of scientific knowledge and a frank effort to lay down reasonable rules of logic in dealing with the unknown and the un-knowable world. As it is we are hampered by a Science which claims universality, and a Philosophy which seeks to come to grips with science on its own chosen and conquered territory." [LCH 1943; capitalization in the original; "un-knowable" was hyphenated in the original]
In his letter to Herbert Aptheker (LHA), dated 10 January 1956, Du Bois discussed unknowability as part of his overall philosophy.
"I assumed that Truth was only partially known but that it was ultimately largely knowable, although perhaps in part forever Unknowable." [LHA 1956: 394-395; capitalization in the original]
Later scholarship on Du Bois's concepts of unknowability and uncertainty:
Scholars have discussed the "uncalculable" with regard to "Sociology Hesitant": e.g., Chandler 2015; R.A. Judy 2000.
Scholars have discussed unknowability with regard to "Of the Ruling of Men": e.g., Balfour 2011; Bromell 2011 and 2013; Gooding-Williams 2009; C.E. Mitchell 1997.
Scholars have discussed the unknowable with regard to Du Bois's 1956 letter to Aptheker: e.g., Monteiro, 2008: pp.605-606.
However, scholars have not discerned the variations within and among Du Bois's concepts of uncertainty and unknowability, and also have not delineated some of the practical consequences of such nuances for research and activism.
For his part, Du Bois uses words invoking uncertainty (e.g., "uncalculable' in "Sociology Hesitant" [SOCH]) as well as the unknowable, but he does not emphasize any differences between those concepts.
Accordingly, I wish to construct an interpretive framework encompassing Du Bois's ideas on what is knowable, what is uncertain, and what is unknowable.
3.1. A Typology of the Knowable and the Unknowable
Du Bois's published and unpublished texts provide the sources for the un/knowable typology.
The typology offers an interpretive framework by which we can better understand how Du Bois approaches what is and what is not knowable, as well as the practical consequences for Du Bois's research agenda and activist politics.
The typology avoids dichotomizing the knowable and the unknowable by focusing on the nuances that Du Bois brings to the topic in his many writings.
The five types of knowledge claims: Current knowledge (current knowability); future knowledge; historical unknowability; uncertainty (3 subtypes); ontological unknowability (3 subtypes).
3.2. Categories of the Un/Knowable Framework
statements about what can be known with certainty, as implied by Du Bois (i.e., empirically observed and measured using extant methods and presumably replicable);
statements about what is uncertain (i.e., cannot be empirically validated or invalidated; and especially not in a generalizable sense); and
statements about what is unknowable in principle.
Each knowledge claim in the typology contains the following three elements.
As presented by Du Bois, what do the knowledge claims and their examples (i.e., the content of knowledge) tell us about how we know or do not know, especially with regard to observation, measurement, and data collection?
What do the knowledge claims and their examples tell us about the limits of scientifically knowing, as conveyed by Du Bois, including the uncertainty of empirically (dis)confirming normative values and the experientially unknowable thoughts and feelings of others?
Content of Knowledge: (or the lack of content when it pertains to the unknown):
This category refers to what we know or can know — with certainty or uncertainty — via observation and measurement, such as patterns of behavior;
and also to what we cannot directly experience (i.e. the unknowable), such as another's joys or sufferings.
The typology identifies examples from Du Bois's texts, published and unpublished.
Practical Consequences for Research and Activism:
For most elements of the un/knowable typology, Du Bois stipulates particular actions that can result or could be employed: for example, the use of literary imagination.
There may be theoretical consequences: e.g., the role of free will as one of the conditions for the possibility of social change.
For a very few of the elements, I have deduced resulting actions based on Du Bois's own responses, textual or personal.
3.3. Caveats of the Un/Knowable Framework
3.3.1. Exploratory Attempt: This is my exploratory attempt to encompass Du Bois's vast corpus of writings with regard to what he considers to be known/knowable, uncertain, and unknowable.
3.3.2. Intellectual Reconstruction: This un/knowable typology is an intellectual reconstruction created by examining the similarities and differences in Du Bois's own statements on what we know and do not know.
3.3.3. Conceptual, Not Chronological: This typology is oriented conceptually and does not necessarily convey a chronological and hence does not clearly or specifically trace any changes in Du Bois's thought over time.
3.3.4. Co-existence of Concepts: Du Bois's documents do seem to indicate that various conceptualizations of the known and the unknown exist simultaneously.
3.3.5. The Typology Is Tentative: Because Du Bois's published and unpublished writings are so extensive, it is possible that further sources and types will be discovered.
3.3.6. No Intellectual Context Is Provided: This typology does not reference direct or indirect allusions made by Du Bois. Also, it does not examine influences on Du Bois's thought or the influences of his thought on others.
3.3.7. Not a Philosophical Examination Per Se: The typology does not offer a philosophical analysis of Du Bois's ideas on knowledge and unknowability.
Epistemological Implications: We know via conventional empirical research techniques.
Content of Knowledge:
"Primary rhythms" of, e.g., birth and death rates ("Sociology Hesitant" [SOCH] ca.1904-5: ¶ 27):
"That there are limits is shown by the rhythm in birth and death rates and the distribution by sex; it is found further in human customs and laws, the forms of government, the laws of trade, and even in charity and ethics. As, however, we rise in the realm of conduct, we note a primary and a secondary rhythm. A primary rhythm depending, as we have indicated, on physical forces and physical law; but within this appears again and again a secondary rhythm which, while presenting nearly the same uniformity as the first, differs from it in its more or less sudden rise at a given tune, in accordance with prearranged plan and prediction and in being liable to stoppage and change according to similar plan. An example of primary uniformity is the death rate; of secondary uniformity, the operation of a woman's club; to confound the two sorts of human uniformity is fatal to clear thinking; to explain them we must assume Law and Chance working in conjunction — Chance being the scientific side of inexplicable Will." [Capitalization in the original]
Four conditions attending the development of peoples (TDAP 1904: ¶ 10).
"The average American community of to-day has grown by a slow, intricate and hesitating advance through four overlapping eras. First, there is the struggle for sheer physical existence — a struggle still waging among the submerged tenth, but settled for a majority of the community long years ago. Above this comes the accumulation for future subsistence — the saving and striving and transmuting of goods for use in days to come — a stage reached to-day tentatively for the middle classes and to an astounding degree by a few. Then in every community there goes on from the first, but with larger and larger emphasis as the years fly, some essay to train the young into the tradition of the fathers — their religion, thought and tricks of doing. And, finally, as the group meets other groups and comes into larger spiritual contact with nations, there is that transference and sifting and accumulation of the elements of human culture which makes for wider civilization and higher development. These four steps of subsistence, accumulation, education and culture-contact are not disconnected, discreet stages."
Synchronous knowledge of specific places: e.g., Farmville, VA; Philadelphia; Georgia.
[List of primary texts by Du Bois.]
"The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia" (NFVA 1898);
The Philadelphia Negro (TPN 1899);
"The Negro in the Black Belt" (NBBS 1899);
"The Negro Landholder of Georgia" (NLGA 1901); and
Atlanta University Publications (AUPs 1896-1916).
Contributions of Africana peoples to the U.S.A. and the world.
[List of primary and secondary sources.]
From Du Bois's works we can read, among others:
"The Conservation of Races" (TCOR 1897);
The Souls of Black Folk (SBF 1903);
The Gift of Black Folk (GBF 1924);
Black Reconstruction (BREC 1935); and
Black Folk, Then and Now (BLFO 1939).
From other scholars we can read, for example:
Lucius Outlaw 2010; and
Cornel West 2003.
Practical Consequences for Research and Activism: Use research to guide action.
Du Bois commented on the relationship of research to activism in "The Study of the Negro Problems" (SNP 1898: ¶ 35).
"Students must be careful to insist that science as such — be it physics, chemistry, psychology, or sociology — has but one simple aim: the discovery of truth. Its results lie open for the use of all men — merchants, physicians, men of letters, and philanthropists, but 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 frequent alliance of sociological research with various panaceas and particular schemes of reform, has resulted in closely connecting social investigation with a good deal of groundless assumption and humbug in the popular mind. There will be at first some difficulty in bringing the Southern people, both black and white, to conceive of an earnest, careful study of the Negro problem which has not back of it some scheme of race amalgamation, political jobbery, or deportation to Africa. The new study of the American Negro must avoid such misapprehensions from the outset, by insisting that historical and statistical research has but one object, the ascertainment of the facts as to the social forces and conditions of one-eighth of the inhabitants of the land. Only by such rigid adherence to the true object of the scholar, can statesmen and philanthropists of all shades of belief be put into possession of a reliable body of truth which may guide their efforts to the best and largest success." [SNP 1898: ¶ 35]
[Note: This knowledge claim does not imply that the human subjects being studied are necessarily static in their development.]
Epistemological Implications: Continue to use extant tools and methods based on observation and measurement.
Content of Knowledge (or the optimistic anticipation thereof): facts are unknown now, but possibly we will discover in the future the following knowledge:
The laws of social living: See previous Section 2.1.2.c.
Diachronic knowledge is made possible by the 100-year project of the Atlanta University studies, as envisioned by Du Bois. Example: In "My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom" Du Bois discussed his long-term goals of the Atlanta University conferences (MEPF 1944: ¶¶ 48-50).
"What I was laboriously but steadily approaching in this effort was a recurring cycle of ten studies in succeeding decades; with repetition of each subject or some modification of it in each decade, upon a progressively broader and more exact basis and with better method; until gradually a foundation of carefully ascertained fact would build a basis of knowledge, broad and sound enough to be called scientific in the best sense of that term.
"Just what form this dream would eventually have taken, I do not know. So far as actually forecast, it had assumed in 1914, some such form as this:
1. Population: Distribution and Growth
2. Biology: Health and Physique
3. Socialization: Family, Group and Class
4. Cultural Patterns: Morals and Manners
6. Religion and the Church
8. Law and Government
9. Literature and Art
10. Summary and Bibliography
"I proposed as I have said, to repeat each of these every ten years, basing the studies on ever broader and more carefully gathered data. Eventually I hoped to keep all the inquiries going simultaneously, only emphasizing and reporting on one particular subject each year. This would have allowed some necessary shifting or combination of subjects as time and developments might suggest; and adjustments to new scientific advance in fields like anthropology and psychology. The plan would have called in time for a large and well-paid staff of experts and a study of method and testing of results such as no group of Americans were engaged in at the time; beginning with a definite, circumscribed group, but ending with the human race. If it could have been carried out even imperfectly and with limitations, who can doubt its value today, not only to the Negro, but to America and to the still troubled science of sociology?"
Humans are not necessarily static and can progress or regress. For example, Du Bois in his Crisis editorial, "Races", wrote (RTCA 1911: ¶ 4):
"2. The civilization of a people or race at any particular moment of time offers no index to its innate or inherited capacities. In this respect it is of great importance to recognize that in the light of universal history civilizations are meteoric in nature, bursting out of relative obscurity only to plunge back into it."
Practical Consequences for Research and Activism: Continue to gather data, not only because of what we do not know now (yet optimistically will know in the future), but also because individuals, groups, societies, and situations change over time.
5.2. Knowledge Claim:
We Do Not Know Now But Might Know in the Future
Epistemological Implications: We do not at present have the necessary methods or data sources to know about "X" — or perhaps even to know that there is an "X" to study.
Over time we might develop new methods or tools. We also might discover new data sources.
Du Bois did not seem to specify this knowledge claim. He appeared to emphasize "Historical Unknowability" (see Section 6 below).
Content of Knowledge (or its conditional anticipation): Not applicable to Du Bois.
Practical Consequences for Research and Activism: Not applicable to Du Bois.
We Do Not Know Now & Never Will, Because We Cannot Know Anymore
Epistemological Implications: The boundaries of historically based research are delineated by evidence.
We know the past via gathering our evidence from written and material sources and artifacts, and from oral traditions and histories based on personal experiences.
Without those sources, Du Bois implied, historical research is not possible. Consequently, our knowledge of the past will be neither complete nor comprehensive.
Content of Knowledge (or its limited scope): We will not know specifically what has been lost, and we will not know what some actors did, or what other actors thought.
With no extant data sources, we can only approximate details. Du Bois discussed this in "The Development of a People" (TDAP 1904: ¶ 10).
"I want then to mention briefly the steps which groups of men have usually taken in their forward struggling, and to ask which of these steps the Negroes of the United States have taken and how far they have gone. In such comparisons we cannot, unfortunately, have the aid of exact statistics, for actual measurement of social phenomena is peculiar to the Nineteenth century — that is, to an age when the culture Nations were full-grown, and we can only roughly indicate conditions in the days of their youth. A certain youth and childhood is common to all men in their mingled striving. Everywhere, glancing across the seas of human history, we note it."
In "Postscript" to The Ordeal of Mansart Du Bois wrote of the limits of historical sources (PSOM 1957: ¶¶ 2-3).
"It may well be asked, and as one who has done some historical research I join in the asking, why should one tamper with history at all in order to write truth? The answer of course is Never, if exact truth can otherwise be ascertained. But every historian is painfully aware how little the scientist today can know accurately of the past; how dependence on documents and memory leaves us all with the tale of the past half told or less. The temptation then comes to pretend we know far more than we do and to set down as accurate history that which is not demonstrably true. To me it seems wiser and fairer to interpret historical truth by the use of creative imagination, provided the method is acknowledged and clear.
"When in this world we seek the truth about what men have thought and felt and done, we face insuperable difficulties. We seldom can see enough of human action at first hand to interpret it properly. We can never know current personal thought and emotion with sufficient understanding rightly to weigh its cause and effect. After action and feeling and reflection are long past, then from writing and memory we may secure some picture of the total truth, but it will be sorely imperfect, with much omitted, much forgotten, much distorted."
Practical Consequences of historical unknowability for research and activism: Du Bois will use literary imagination.
Du Bois wrote several books of "historical fiction", including The Quest of the Silver Fleece (QSF 1911), Dark Princess (DRKP 1928), and the Black Flame trilogy (including BFOM 1957, BFMB 1959, and BFWC 1961).
Du Bois wrote about "historical fiction" in the "Postscript" to The Ordeal of Mansart (PSOM 1957: ¶¶ 4-8).
 "This is the eternal paradox of history. There is but one way to meet this clouding of facts and that is by the use of imagination where documented material and personal experience are lacking.
 "In the great tragedy of Negro slavery in the United States and its aftermath, much of documented history is lacking because of the deep feeling involved and the fierce desire of men to defend their fathers and themselves. This I have sought to correct in my study of the slave trade and of Reconstruction. If I had had time and money, I would have continued this pure historical research. But this opportunity failed and Time is running out. Yet I would rescue from my long experience something of what I have learned and conjectured and thus I am trying by the method of historical fiction to complete the cycle of history which has for a half century engaged my thought, research and action.
 "I have personally lived through much of the history of the American Negro from 1876 to 1956. Yet wide as my experience has been, by travel, seeing, hearing and knowing, I of course actually knew but an infinitesimal fraction of all that happened. The gaps of knowledge I can in part supply by the memory of others, by reading published and unpublished matter. Yet with all this I am far from being able to set down an accurate historical account of those fatal eighty years.
 "Therefore I have assayed first to gather such verifiable facts as I can. This body of knowledge I have compared with the reports of others. But even with all this, much, indeed most, is missing: just what men thought, the actual words they used, the feelings and motives which impelled them — those I do not know and most of them none will ever know. These facts are gone forever. But it is possible for the creative artist to imagine something of such unknown truth. If he is lucky or inspired, he may write a story which may set down a fair version of the truth of an era, or a group of facts about human history.
 "This I have attempted to do: adhering as closely as I can to historic fact so far as I can ascertain. I have added the fiction of interpretation so as to make a reasonable story. I may have blundered in places; I may have widely misinterpreted what seemed truth to me. But I have tried and I believe the effort was worth while."
Epistemological Implication: The scientific method and tools cannot predict human behavior with accuracy. The actions originating from human free will are not something we can or will know with certainty.
Content of Knowledge (or its limitations):
Example: "Secondary rhythms", as mentioned in "Sociology Hesitant" (SOCH ca.1904-5: ¶ 27), do not convey knowledge of deterministic behavior. See Section 4.1.2.a. above for the quotation.
Geo-historical contingency generates uncertainty. Read "The Evolution of the Race Problem" (EORP 1909: ¶ 18).
"When a social policy based on a supposed scientific sanction leads to such a moral anomaly it is time to examine rather carefully the logical foundations of the argument. And so soon as we do this many things are clear. First, assuming that there are certain stocks of human beings whose elimination the best welfare of the world demands; it is certainly questionable if these stocks include the majority of mankind and it is indefensible and monstrous to pretend that we know to-day with any reasonable certainty which these stocks are. We can point to degenerate individuals and families here and there among all races, but there is not the slightest warrant for assuming that there do not exist among the Chinese and Hindus, the African Bantus and American Indians as lofty possibilities of human culture as any European race has ever exhibited."
Practical Consequences for Research and Activism: Free will is one of the conditions necessary for the possibility of meaningful social change.
7.2. Knowledge Claim:
Normative Uncertainty of Values and Ideals
Epistemological Implication: Values and ideals cannot be empirically validated. Ought does not derive from Is.
Content of Knowledge (or the lack thereof): We cannot scientifically prove or disprove that good deeds will triumph, that the world is becoming better, or that there is value in love for family and neighbors — as Du Bois wrote in "The Church and Religion" (TCAR 1933: ¶¶ 2-3).
"Now in both these things there are certain facts that are naturally indisputable. The first is that science, organized human knowledge, does not pretend to give a complete answer to the riddle of the universe. It frankly acknowledges that there are a great many things that we do not know and perhaps never can know. The right of any person to go beyond this scientific position and say that they believe certain things to be true, even though they cannot prove them is undoubted. It may lead down to the petty superstition of avoiding black cats or it may lead up to the belief in a divine personal ruler of the universe. It may be criticized as dangerous to logic and mental integrity for a person to assume too much beyond what can be proven. But to this there is a valid answer in saying that all the time we are making certain assumptions; we are assuming that the world which we see and hear and touch is the real world. We are assuming that the sun will rise tomorrow as it did yesterday[.] Life is largely and must be a series of assumptions. In so far as these assumptions are confirmed by the recurrent happenings of the world, we have a right to assume that they are approximately true. But we must even go beyond this. There is, for instance, faith in the triumph of good deeds; hope that the world will grow better; love of our relatives and our neighbors and of all humanity.
"It would be difficult to adduce scientific proof that these hopes and faiths are justified, and still there is good reason for our assuming that they are and guiding our conduct accordingly."
Practical Consequences for Research and Activism: We have faith and ideals to guide us in our social duty. See "The Church and Religion" above (TCAR 1933: ¶ 3). Also read Du Bois's "The Negro Ideals of Life" (NIOL 1905), as well as Blum (2007) and Kahn (2009).
7.3. Knowledge Claim:
Epistemological Implication: The sciences have discovered non-deterministic outcomes and behaviors that are conveyed in evolutionary theory and quantum physics, according to Du Bois.
Content of Non-deterministic Knowledge:
Du Bois on Darwin in "The Evolution of the Race Problem" (EORP 1909: ¶ 19).
"What the age of Darwin has done is to add to the eighteenth century idea of individual worth the complementary idea of physical immortality of the human race. And this, far from annulling or contracting the idea of human freedom, rather emphasizes its necessity and eternal possibility — the boundlessness and endlessness of possible human achievement. Freedom has come to mean not individual caprice or aberration but social self-realization in an endless chain of selves, and freedom for such development is not the denial but the central assertion of the revolutionary theory. So, too, the doctrine of human equality passes through the fire of scientific inquiry not obliterated but transfigured; not equality of present attainment but equality of opportunity for unbounded future attainment is the rightful demand of mankind."
The speech by Aba Aziz, a fictional character in Du Bois's novel, Worlds of Color (BFWC 1961: p.89).
"We admit that clear knowledge of Things is the best way to understanding. Yet an embarrassing question may here be asked: What do we really know of the Things we think about if indeed there are any real Things beyond our thought of them? Common sense comes to support Science and says, let us act as though this outer world really exists and proceed to know and measure it. On this hypothesis we build up a world of mass and energy which moves in Time and Space and shows astonishing regularities. Indeed, last century we had reached the place where we believed we were on the track of the Universal Laws of action among Things and closing in on analogous laws governing all life, vegetable, animal and human. Then in our day came a halting.
"This moving mass, at one end infinitely small and at the other a vast reach of stars, with earth between, when interrogated not only refused to exhibit the same regularities, but differed widely and disturbingly. They contradicted each other so that at least among the atoms we could speak only of Probability and even of sheer Chance which the pre-scientific students had rather infelicitously called Free Will. Time and Space seemed to be but aspects of one Thing and the universe could only be explained scientifically if we mathematically assumed that we had measured what was at present Unmeasurable unless and until we know what is now apparently Unknowable.
"All this the oldest, exact scientist resented, the Priest ridiculed, but the mathematician proved true by splitting and fusing atoms; while bending rays of light and blending motion and mass. All of which challenges the present day student. In this complex the present conference, as I understand, takes its place. It will, so far as it can, measure human conduct in a distinct and controlled area and there either discover Law or delimit the boundaries of Chance." [Capitalization in the original]
Practical Consequences for Research and Activism: The natural sciences and the human sciences are analogous with regard to, on the one hand, the incalculable dimensions of subatomic particles and evolutionary "boundlessness", and on the other hand, the endless possibilities of non-determined human actions. Seemingly, Du Bois implies that the limits on knowledge originating in and delineated by chance and contingency posit a realm of human agency and free will — just as he conveyed in his definition of sociology.
Epistemological Implication: We cannot experientially know another's thoughts or feelings. We can only know about others' experiences via using scientific methods and techniques; this "knowing about" involves the claim to "current knowledge" (See Section 4 above).
Content of Knowledge (or the lack thereof): Because we have no direct knowledge of the joys and sufferings of others, we do not have knowledge per se, but rather only resemblances and guesses. Read "The Individual and Social Conscience" (IASC 1905), which was quoted above in Section 2.4.1.a.
Practical Consequences for Research and Activism: To prompt an individual towards social duty. Social duty is implicated in the vital role that Du Bois accorded faith and ideals (see Section 7.2. above).
Du Bois wrote in "The Individual and Social Conscience" (IASC 1905: ¶ 5):
"Once this [common humanity amidst bodily differences] is recognized, then comes the only practical synthesis in this world of self-sacrifice and self-development: the recognition of myself as one of a world of selves, not as all, but as one; not as nothing, but as one." [Emphasis in the original]
8.2. Knowledge Claim:
We Cannot & Never Will Know Another's Knowledge
Epistemological Implication: Knowledge is based on personal experiences (in addition to being scientifically derived).
Content of Knowledge (or the lack thereof): No direct knowledge of another's wisdom and knowledge. Each person can offer her or his own insights that might usefully inform public policies (e.g., Jane Addams 1913; Elsie Cole Phillips 1912).
Practical Consequences for Research and Activism:
Secure the electoral franchise.
[Quotation from "Of the Ruling of Men" (OROM 1920: ¶ 20).]
"In fact no one knows himself but that self's own soul. The vast and wonderful knowledge of this marvelous universe is locked in the bosoms of its individual souls. To tap this mighty reservoir of experience, knowledge, beauty, love, and deed we must appeal not to the few, not to some souls, but to all. The narrower the appeal, the poorer the culture; the wider the appeal the more magnificent are the possibilities. Infinite is human nature. We make it finite by choking back the mass of men, by attempting to speak for others, to interpret and act for them, and we end by acting for ourselves and using the world as our private property. If this were all, it were crime enough — but it is not all: by our ignorance we make the creation of the greater world impossible; we beat back a world built of the playing of dogs and laughter of children, the song of Black Folk and worship of Yellow, the love of women and strength of men, and try to express by a group of doddering ancients the Will of the World." [Capitalization in the original]
Expand public control over industry, basing this on science and also on widening the scope of citizen participation.
[Quotation from "Of the Ruling of Men" (OROM 1920: ¶¶ 56-57).]
[...] "The real realm of freedom was found in experience to be much narrower than this in one direction and much broader in another. In matters of Truth and Faith and Beauty, the Ancient Law was inexcusably strait and modern law unforgivably stupid. It is here that the future and mighty fight for Freedom must and will be made. Here in the heavens and on the mountaintops, the air of Freedom is wide, almost limitless, for here, in the highest stretches, individual freedom harms no man, and, therefore, no man has the right to limit it." [Excerpted from ¶ 56]
"On the other hand, in the valleys of the hard, unyielding laws of matter and the social necessities of time production, and human intercourse, the limits on our freedom are stern and unbending if we would exist and thrive. This does not say that everything here is governed by incontrovertible "natural" law which needs no human decision as to raw materials, machinery, prices, wages, news-dissemination, education of children, etc.; but it does mean that decisions here must be limited by brute facts and based on science and human wants." [¶ 57]
8.3. Knowledge Claim:
Unknowability of "Ultimate Reality"
Epistemological Implication: Scientific methods cannot be used to produce knowledge of or about ultimate reality and its meaning.
Content of Knowledge (or the lack thereof): In his "Immortality" piece Du Bois wrote that an afterlife and "the real essence of life" cannot be proven or disproven (IMMT 1935).
"My thought on personal immortality is easily explained. I do not know. I do not see how any one could know. Our whole basis of knowledge is so relative and contingent that when we get to argue concerning ultimate reality and the real essence of life and the past and the future, we seem to be talking without real data and getting nowhere. I have every respect for people who believe in the future life, but I cannot accept their belief or their wish as knowledge. Equally, I am not impressed by those who deny the possibility of future life. I have no knowledge of the possibilities of this universe and I know of no one who has."
Practical Consequences for Research and Activism: Religious faith is an important element of the pursuit of justice. Du Bois linked faith and science in his book, Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (CDCP 1945: p.137):
[...] "No light of faith, no matter how kindly and beneficent, can in a world of reason guide human beliefs to truth unless it is continually tested by pragmatic fact.
"On the other hand, I must fairly acknowledge that the majority of the best and earnest people of this world are today organized in religious groups, and that without the co-operation of the richness of their emotional experience, and the unselfishness of their aims, science stands helpless before crude fact and selfish endeavor."
9.1. Suggested Lessons from the Un/Knowable Framework
Continue social research: the framework, especially the current and future knowledge claims, speaks to the importance of continued research in order to address our contemporary and recurring social problems.
The on-going importance of engaged social research. For example: empirical studies of traffic stops by police in Greensboro, NC.
[Links to online sources.]
The literary imagination: the un/knowable framework illuminates the relationship between the limits of scientific research and the need for literary imagination. This can be widened to include the many fine arts and the performing arts — a point that resonates today.
A democracy of differences: the framework illuminates the relationship between the limits of scientific research and a democratic politics of difference and inclusion. This lesson remains valid nowadays.
Other philosophical methods needed: the un/knowable framework illuminates the relationship between the limits of scientific research and the use of other philosophical methods, especially in order to offer critiques of extant ways of knowing and understanding
Knowledge production challenged: the framework challenges the view that knowledge production is the sole preserve of elite males of any race.
Here Du Bois anticipates aspects of Michel Foucault's concept of "subjugated knowledges" (Foucault 1980).
Also, Du Bois prefigures the study of indigenous knowledges, which supports communities being the subject of research, not only the object of research.
9.2. Future Explorations of Du Bois Based on the Un/Knowable Framework
There are more things still to understand about Du Bois's thought and activism than are dreamt of in our current interpretations (to paraphrase the Bard).
The framework speaks to Du Bois's definition of sociology conveyed in "Sociology Hesitant" (SOCH) and "The Atlanta Conferences" .(ATLC).
The limits of chance that Du Bois seeks can be interpreted in terms of the four conditions for "The Development of a People": Racist norms and policies that interfere with those conditions would hinder the opportunities for a group to progress and also would obstruct individuals within a group from progressing according to their own particular plans and actions.
Regarding the Progressive Era of U.S. History: the un/knowable framework might illuminate the tensions between science as democratic and science as technocratically elitist.
Or phrased differently: what are the conditions under which the sciences can serve democracy and under what conditions do the sciences serve elite interests?
The argument that Du Bois's work is transdisciplinary (e.g., Rabaka 2010: Against Epistemic Apartheid) is supported by the un/knowable framework.
Un/knowability highlights that more than one method is needed and thus more than one academic discipline (such as are organized nowadays) is needed.
The participatory implications of Du Bois's idea of unknowability — i.e., his support for the franchise across gender and class lines — possibly can modify our understanding of his elitism and masculinism, even while they do not fully eradicate other elitist and masculinist dimensions.
To illustrate this claim consider two sets of passages, one from his pamphlet "Disfranchisement" (DISF ca. 1912: ¶¶ 15-16) and the other from "Of the Ruling of Men" (OROM 1920: ¶¶ 27-28). Both deal with unknowability in the form of the "excluded wisdom" of women and African Americans.
[Image: Passages from DISF collated with OROM.]
[Note: Click (or tap) the image to
9.3. Du Bois Continues to Inspire & Guide Engaged Research
Public intellectuals increasingly have become more common: witness the rise of public sociology, public history; public anthropology, and so forth.
Websites of engaged research and researchers have proliferated. For example:
Note: The in-text citations to W.E.B. Du Bois's works usually include an abbreviated title and year of publication. Below, the works are alphabetized by their abbreviated titles, not by their full titles.
A68. 1968. The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. NY: International Publishers.
BLFO. 1939. Black Folk, Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race. NY: Henry Holt and Company.
BREC. 1935. Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. NY: Harcourt Brace & Company. URL: http://archive.org/details/blackreconstruc00dubo
CDCP. 1945. Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace. NY: Harcourt Brace.
CDSL. 1948. "Color and Democracy" [Typescript of speech to be delivered at the St. Louis Book Lovers Club, February 27, 1948]. W.E.B. Du Bois Papers. Special Collections & University Archives.University of Massachusetts Amherst Library. URL: http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b273-i078
IMMT. 1935 . "Immortality." P.18 in We Believe in Immortality: Affirmations by One Hundred Men and Women, Second Edition. Edited by Sydney Dix Strong. NY: Press of the Pioneers.
LCH. 1943. "Letter from W.E.B. Du Bois to American Philosophical Association, December 13, 1943." [Letter to Charles W. Hendel]. W.E.B. Du Bois Papers. Special Collections & University Archives. University of Massachusetts Library. URL: http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b099-i286
LHA. 1956. Letter from W.E.B. Du Bois to Herbert Aptheker, 10 January 1956. Pp.394-396 in W.E.B. Du Bois, The Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois, Vol. III: Selections, 1944-1963. Herbert Aptheker (Ed.). Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1978.
LSAU. 1903. "The Laboratory in Sociology at Atlanta University." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 21:3 (May): 160-163. URL: www.webdubois.org/dbLabSocAtUni.html
MEPF. 1944. "My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom." Pp.31-70 in Rayford W. Logan (Ed.), What the Negro Wants. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. URL: www.webdubois.org/dbMyEvolvingPrgm.html
Addams, Jane. 1907. Newer Ideals of Peace. NY: Macmillian Company.
Addams, Jane. 1913. "Why Women Should Vote." Pp.139-158 in Frances Maule & Annie Porritt (Eds.), Woman Suffrage: History, Arguments, and Results. NY: National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Balfour, Lawrie. 2011. Democracy's Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W.E.B. Du Bois. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Blum, Edward. 2007. W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Bromell, Nick. 2011. "W.E.B. Du Bois and the Enlargement of Democratic Theory." Raritan, 30:4 (Spring): 140-161.
Bromell, Nick. 2013. The Time is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of US Democracy. NY: Oxford University Press.
Carby, Hazel. 1998. Race Men. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chandler, Nahum D. 2015. "Introduction." In W.E.B. Du Bois, The Problem of the Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: The Essential Early Essays. Edited by Nahum D. Chandler. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Edited by Colin Gordon. NY: Pantheon Books.
Gooding-Williams, Robert. 2009. In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gordon, Lewis. 2000. "Du Bois's Humanistic Philosophy of Human Sciences." Annals, AAPSS, 568, (March): 265-280.
Gordon, Lewis. 2008. An Introduction to Africana Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Griffin, Farah. 2000. "Black Feminists and Du Bois: Respectability, Protection, and Beyond." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 568 (March): 265-80.
James, Joy. 1996. "The Profeminist Politics of W. E. B. Du Bois with Respects to Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells-Barnett." Pp.141-160 in Bernard W. Bell, Emily R. Groshoz, & James B. Stewart (Eds.), W. E. B. Du Bois on Race and Culture. NY: Routledge.
Judy, Ronald A.T. 1994. "The New Black Aesthetic and W.E.B. Du Bois, or Hephaestus, Limping." Massachusetts Review, 35.2 (Summer): 249-82.
Judy, Ronald A.T. 2000. "Introduction: On W.E.B. Du Bois and Hyperbolic Thinking." boundary 2, 27:3; pp.1-35.
Kahn, Jonathon. 2009. Divine Discontent: The Religious Imagination of W.E.B. DuBois. NY: Oxford University Press.
Mayo-Smith, Richmond. 1896. Statistics and Sociology: Science of Statistics, Part 1. NY: The Macmillan Company.
Mitchell,Charles E. 1997. Individualism and Its Discontents: Appropriations of Emerson, 1880-1950. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Monteiro, Anthony. 2000. "Being an African in the World: The Du Boisian Epistemology." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 568 (March): 220-234.
Monteiro, Anthony. 2008. "W.E.B. Du Bois and the Study of Black Humanity: A Rediscovery." Journal of Black Studies, 38:4, (March): 600-621.
Outlaw Jr., Lucius T. 2000. "W.E.B. Du Bois on the Study of Social Problems." Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Science, v.568 (March): 281-297.
Phillips, Elsie Cole. 1912. "Statement of Mrs. Elsie Cole Phillips, of Wisconsin." In "Woman Suffrage. Hearings before a Joint Committee of the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Woman Suffrage, United States Senate, ... on March 13, 1912." U.S. Senate. [62d Congress, 2d Session.] Document No. 601. Washington, DC: GPO.
Rabaka, Reiland. 2008. Du Bois's Dialectics: Black Radical Politics and the Reconstruction of Critical Social Theory. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Rabaka, Reiland. 2010. Against Epistemic Apartheid: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Disciplinary Decadence of Sociology. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.
West, Cornel. 1996. "Black Strivings in a Twilight Civilization." In Henry Lois Gates & Cornel West, The Future of the Race. NY: Vintage Books.
West, Cornel. 2003. "Philosophy and the Afro-American Experience." Pp.7-32 in Tommy Lee Lott & John P. Pittman (Eds.), A Companion to African-American Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Williams, Robert W. 2006. "The Early Social Science of W.E.B. Du Bois." Du Bois Review, 3:2 (September): 365-394.
Williams, Robert W. 2014a. "W.E.B. Du Bois and Positive Propaganda: A Philosophical Prelude to His Editorship of The Crisis." Pp.16-27 in Amy Helene Kirschke & Phillip Luke Sinitiere (Eds.), Protest and Propaganda: W.E.B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.
Williams, Robert W. 2014b. "Embracing Philosophy: On Du Bois's 'The Individual and Social Conscience'." Phylon, 51:1 (Fall): 42-56.
Williams, Robert W. & W.E.B. Du Bois [Primary source]. 2012. "'The Sacred Unity in All the Diversity': The Text and a Thematic Analysis of W.E.B. Du Bois's 'The Individual and Social Conscience' (1905)." Journal of African American Studies, 16:3 (September): 456-497.
Wright II, Earl. 2002. "The Atlanta Sociological Laboratory 1896-1924: A Historical Account of the First American School of Sociology." Western Journal of Black Studies, 26:3 (Fall): 165-174.
Wright II, Earl. 2016. The First American School of Sociology: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing.
Zamir, Shamoon. 1995. Dark Voices: W.E.B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888-1903. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.