Du Bois's Pragmatism: William James and Beyond
Presented by Dr. Robert W. Williams, Bennett College, on the Panel "Du Bois and Pragmatism", 27 October 2018.
"Scholarship Above the Veil: A Sesquicentennial Symposium Honoring W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868-2018", 25-27 October 2018. Sponsored by the Departments of Sociology and of African & African American Studies at Harvard University. URL:
Note: This is a work-in-progress. —  
Introduction: The overarching theme/question In what ways does Du Bois's pragmatism contribute to his and to our understanding of how we research society in general, and race and racism, in particular?
Emphases of the Presentation General overview of pragmatic aspects in Du Bois's thinking. I wish to engage the topics on a meta-theoretical level.
Caveats to Interpreting Du Bois How do we understand influences on a thinker? Confluence of multiple intellectual traditions that Du Bois mediated. (Du Bois as the agent of the possibilities of intellectual confluence). Du Bois explicitly mentions "Jamesian pragmatism" as a way to understand society.
William James and pragmatism: A brief overview Some tenets of James's pragmatism: the many, not the one; no a priori and no telos; and pragmatism as a meta-method by which to situate empirical disciplines in relation to the truth that they seek to discern in the patterns of the data they collect. Sources: William James 1897, 1904, 1907, 1909. Also read Section 7.2 below for a quotation from James.
A few implications of pragmatism: What is significant for Du Bois? the role of our engaged participation in the production of knowledge (i.e., the subject/researcher/knower exists in relation to the object/society/the known, not as a passive observer recording data, but rather as an integral part of the production of the truth); the inescapable, mediating role of human embodiment; knowing as an unfinished process; and the potential for social improvement (meliorism).
What does Du Bois mean by "Jamesian pragmatism"? Du Bois discusses "Jamesian pragmatism", as he explicitly phrases it, in his 1956 letter to Herbert Aptheker. (Section 7.1 below presents a relevant quotation from that letter). It is a method that seeks to evaluate the "workable logic" of hypotheses if we assume their truth. (Section 7.2 below contains a pertinent quotation from James.) Du Bois uses the assumptions, as he calls them, of Africana humanity and agency across his life time, reflecting his understanding of Jamesian pragmatism, rather than William James's own views on pragmatism.
Research implications: Such assumptions permit Du Bois to continually study and conduct scholarship despite—​indeed, because of​—prevailing white supremacist norms and practices. Experiences and anecdotes, personal and otherwise, permit hypotheses to be formed that propel research forward seeking their confirmation (or not) in the world. Absolute truth is not possible, Du Bois indicates later (MEPF 1944; LHA 1956), so the evidence gathered is always provisional. But he also indicates that the evidence of research is often hopeful. If research points to regress or stasis, then the assumptions of chance and Africana humanity highlight the need to search for social causes.
Beyond William James He challenges James's ahistorical aspects and his diminished attention to African American oppression and marginalization. Du Bois incorporates racial content, such as Africana agency in historical contexts. Du Bois promotes varied forms of activism: political actions and aesthetic interventions via the arts.
Applying Jamesian pragmatism Du Bois often utilizes Jamesian pragmatism in situations when the evidence is lacking, is uncertain, or is unknowable in principle—but we still must act in order to avoid "social death" (MEPF 1944).
For Du Bois, research has inherent limitations regarding what we can know, or potentially know. We cannot recover much of the past, but we can use our historical imagination (PSOM 1957). We cannot scientifically prove or disprove that good deeds will triumph or that the world is becoming better but there are reasons why we can assume that they are and guide our actions thereby (TCAR 1933: ¶¶ 2-3). (See Section 7.4 below for an extract from Du Bois's "The Church and Religion"). We cannot know people's experiences directly (IASC 1905), but possibly we can know-about them through research.
These ideas build on my research agenda focusing on Du Bois's recurring idea of unknowability. For example: Our inability to know the knowledge and experiences of others, argues Du Bois in "Of the Ruling of Men", justifies suffrage so as to permit the "excluded wisdom" of others to be used in governance (OROM 1920: Chapter VI in Darkwater). Sources: R. W. Williams 2012, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018.
Textual example To illustrate the previous comments, I will very briefly sketch one example of Du Bois's application of Jamesian pragmatism. I will cite several more.
Du Bois's 1904 reply to Walter Willcox: "Intimate soul contact". Du Bois sends a collaborator, Walter F. Willcox, his article entitled "The Future of the Negro Race in America" (FNRA 1904). In the article Du Bois sets forth data indicating signs of African American progress. He argues that the evidence "is distinctly and emphatically hopeful, and in the light of history and human development it puts the burden of proof rather on those who deny the capabilities of the negro [sic] than on those who assume that they are not essentially different from those of other members of the great human family." ​[FNRA 1904: ¶¶ 36-37] In a letter to Du Bois, Willcox thanks him for sending the article, but disagrees with several points that Du Bois makes in the essay. In particular, Willcox's writes that he is "an agnostic on the subject" of whether the factors influencing African American "economic conditions" (as he phrases it) derive more from innate characteristics or from social conditions. He indicates that there is no data to support one factor as more influential than the other (Willcox 1904). Du Bois's response to Willcox carefully distinguishes his opinions that favor of a positive view of African Americans, on the one hand, from the data that would support such a claim, on the other. Nonetheless, Du Bois himself feels warranted to argue that African Americans in general can socially advance, or to use the language of the article, they can be deemed as fit as any race. Specifically, Du Bois's writes that his "intimate soul contact" with African Americans provides him with a basis​—​a pragmatic basis arguably​—​on which to act on the assumption of humanity and to conduct research to find out if socio-economic success is really happening. For Du Bois, in opposition to Willcox, there are real-world examples by which one can interpret whether economic success is occurring over time. Du Bois indicates that in his experience Blacks are becoming more socially successful within a social context of repression and segregation. Du Bois will continue to research the status of African Americans over time. Section 7.3 below contains the text of Du Bois's reply to Willcox.
Du Bois's repeated use of the idea of assumption to describe Africana agency (circum-1900, 1935): "The Study of the Negro Problems" (SNP 1898). "The Atlanta Conferences" (ATLC 1904). "To the Reader", the prefatory note in Black Reconstruction (BREC 1935).
In closing Du Bois utilizes multiple methods of empirical analysis and interpretation across his life. Nonetheless, I suggest that there is, so to speak, a "Jamesian deposit" in his thinking ​(pace John Dewey 1930).
The pragmatist elements of Du Bois's thinking are a necessary complement to the empirical methods of the social scientific and historical inquiries that he pursues and supports across his life.
Pragmatism helps Du Bois to foreground Africana experiences and "excluded wisdom", which all too often have been obscured by conventional research methods or delegitimated by many researchers themselves.
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Primary sources Du Bois's 1956 Letter to Aptheker (LHA 1956: ​[Excerpt]).
"I think in general I agree with your conclusions and criticism; but I would express my philosophy more simply. Several times in the past I have started to formulate it, but met such puzzled looks that it remains only partially set down in scraps of manuscript. I gave up the search of "Absolute" Truth; not from 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. I nevertheless firmly believed that gradually the human mind and absolute and provable truth would approach each other and like the "Asymtotes [sic] of the Hyperbola" (I learned the phrase in high school and was ever after fascinated by it) would approach each other nearer and nearer and yet never in all eternity meet. I therefore turned to Assumption—scientific Hypothesis. I assumed the existence of Truth, since to assume anything else or not to assume was unthinkable. I assumed that Truth was only partially known but that it was ultimately largely knowable, although perhaps in part forever Unknowable. Science adopted the hypothesis of a Knower and something Known. The Jamesian Pragmatism as I understood it from his lips was not based on the "usefulness" of a hypothesis, as you put it, but on its workable logic if its truth was assumed. Also of necessity I assumed Cause and Change. With these admittedly unprovable assumptions, I proposed to make a scientific study of human action, based on the hypotheses of the reality of such actions, of their causal connections and of their continued occurrence and change because of Law and Chance. I called Sociology the measurement of the element of Chance in Human Action."  ​[Du Bois LHA 1956:  5; capitalization in the original.]​  ​[Return]
William James's Pragmatism: "Lecture VI: Pragmatic Conception of Truth" (1907: ​[Excerpt]). [Observe that James utilizes the phrase "Grant an be true" whereas Du Bois uses the term "assumption" in his 1956 letter to Aptheker.]
"Pragmatism [...] asks its usual question. "Grant an idea or belief to be true," it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?"
The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we can not. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as.
This thesis is what I have to defend. The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its valid-ation."  ​[W. James 1907: pp.200-201; italics and word hyphenation in the original]​  ​[Return]
Du Bois's response to Willcox (LWWM 1904: ​[Excerpt]).
"The fundamental difficulty in your position is that you are trying to spin a solution of the Negro problem out of the inside of your office. It can never be done. You have simply no adequate conception of the Negro problem in the South & of Negro character & capacity. When you have sat as I have ten years in intimate soul contact with all kinds & conditions of black men you will be less agnostic. I have my prejudices but they are backed by knowledge if not supported. [. . . .] If you insist on writing about & pronouncing judgment on this problem why not study it? Not from a car-window & associated press despatches [sic] as in your pamphlet on crime but get down here & really study it at first hand. Is it a suffi­cient answer to a problem to say the data are not sufficient when they lie all about us? There is enough easily obtainable data to take you off the fence if you will study it first hand & not thro' [orig] prejudiced eyes?​—​my eyes, or those of others."  ​[LWWM 1904; emphasis added]​  ​[Return]
Du Bois's "The Church and Religion" (TCAR 1933: ​[Excerpt]).
"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."  [TCAR 1933 ¶¶ 2-3]​  ​[Return]
Works: Cited and suggested
Works written or edited by W.E.B. Du Bois

ATLC. 1904. "The Atlanta Conferences." Voice of the Negro, 1:3 (March): 85-90. URL:​dbAtlantaConfs.html.

AUPs. 1896-1916. Atlanta University Publications, various years. [Links to the AUPs are available at].

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.

DARK. 1920. Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. NY: Harcourt, Brace and Howe. URL:

FNRA. 1904. "The Future of the Negro Race in America." The East and the West. v.2 (January): 4-19. URL:

IASC. 1905. "The Individual and Social Conscience" [Originally Untitled]. Pp.53-55 in Religious Education Association, The Aims of Religious Education. The Proceedings of the Third Annual Convention ..., 1905. Chicago: Executive Office of the R.E.A. URL:​details/​proceedings​of​ann03​reliuoft  ​[Alternate URL:​dbIASC.html].

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.

LWWM. 1904. "Letter from Walter F. Willcox to W.E.B. Du Bois, March 13, 1904". [Du Bois's Reply dated 29 March 1904, as indicated by a handwritten "29" placed under the typewritten date of Willcox's letter.] Credo Repository. URL: http://credo.​library.​​view/​full/​mums312-b006-i174. ​[Alternate URL:​dbWillcox.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:​dbMyEvolvingPrgm.html.

NFVA. 1898. "The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia: A Social Study." Bulletin of the Depart­ment of Labor, No.14. (January): 1-38. URL:​books?​id=-MtGAQAAIAAJ.....

OROM. 1920. "Of the Ruling of Men." Ch. VI in Du Bois, Darkwater (DARK 1920).

PSOM. 1957. "Postscript". Pp.315-316 in Du Bois, The Ordeal of Mansart. NY: Mainstream Publishers.

SNP. 1898. "The Study of the Negro Problems." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 11 (January): 1-23. URL:​dbStudyofnprob.html.

SOCH. Ca. 1904-1905. "Sociology Hesitant." Credo Repository. URL: http://credo.library.​​view/​full/​mums312-b212-i003 [Metadata indicates "ca. 1905" as the possible date of creation].

SBF. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg. URL:​wdb-souls.html.

TCAR. 1933. "The Church and Religion." The Crisis, 40:10 (October): 236-237. URL:​dbChurchAndReligion.html.

TPN. 1899. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia: Ginn. URL:​wdb-phila.html.

Works written or edited by others

Campbell, James. 1992. "Du Bois and James." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 28:3 (Summer): 569-581.

Dewey, John. 1930. "From Absolutism to Experimentalism." Pp. 13-27 in George P. Adams & William Pepperell Montague (Eds.), Contemporary American Philosophy: Personal Statements. NY: Russell and Russell. Online:​MeadProject/​Dewey/​Dewey_1930.html.

Foust, Mathew. 2007. "William James and the Promise of Pragmatism." William James Studies, 2:1 (Summer).

Glaude Jr., Eddie S. 2007. In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gooding-Williams, Robert. 2017. "W.E.B. Du Bois." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philos­o­phy ​(Fall 2017 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (Ed.). URL:​archives/​fall2017/​entries/​dubois.

James, William. 1880. "Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment." Atlantic Monthly, 46:276 (October): 441-459.

James, William. 1897. "On Some Hegelisms." Pp.263-298 in William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. NY: Longmans Green & Co.

James, William. 1899. "What Makes a Life Significant." In William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals. London: Longmans Green & Company.

James, William. 1904. "The Pragmatic Method." Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 1:25 (8 December): 673-687.

James, William. 1907. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

James, William. 1909. "Hegel and His Method." Pp.83-129 in William James, A Pluralistic Universe: Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy. NY: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Kloppenberg, James T. 2004. "Pragmatism and the Practice of History: From Turner and Du Bois to Today." Metaphilosophy, 35: 1/2 (January): 202-225.

Kloppenberg, James T. 2010. "James's Pragmatism and American Culture, 1907-2007." Pp.7-40 in John J. Stuhr (Ed.), 100 Years of Pragmatism: William James's Revolutionary Philosophy. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

McBride, Lee. 2004. "James and Du Bois: Overcoming Certain Blindnesses." Conference presentation, 31st Annual Meeting of The Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, Birmingham. Online: SAAP.

Milligan, Nancy Muller. 1985. "W.E.B. DuBois' American Pragmatism." Journal of Ameri­can Culture, 8:2 (Summer): 31-38.

Morris, Aldon. 2015. The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociol­ogy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Posnock, Ross. 1999. "Going Astray, Going Forward: Du Boisian Pragmatism and Its Lineage." Pp.33-45 in Winfried Fluck (Ed.), Yearbook on Research in English and American Literature, Vol. 15. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr Verlag.

Rath, Richard Cullen. 1997."Echo and Narcissus: The Afrocentric Pragmatism of W.E.B. Du Bois." Journal of American History, 84:2 (September): 461-495.

Shaw, Stephanie J. 2013. W.E.B. Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Taylor, Paul C. 2004. "What's the Use of Calling Du Bois a Pragmatist?" Metaphilosophy, 35:1/2 (January): 99-114.

U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor. Bureau of the Census. 1904. Negroes in the United States. Bulletin 8. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

West, Cornel. 1989. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Wiener, Philip P. 1949. Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Willcox, Walter F. 1904. "Letter from Walter F. Willcox to W.E.B. Du Bois, March 13, 1904". Credo Repository. URL: http://credo.​library.​​view/​full​/mums312-b006-i174. ​[Alternate URL:​dbWillcox.html].

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. & 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. [Available online as a PDF preprint version].

Williams, Robert W. 2014. "Embracing Philosophy: On Du Bois's 'The Indi­vid­ual and Social Conscience'." Phylon, 51:1 (Fall): 42-56.

Williams, Robert W. 2016. "W.E.B. Du Bois on Scientific Knowledge and Its Limits." Presentation: "Symposium Celebrating the 120th Anni­ver­sa­ry of the Atlanta Soci­o­log­ical Laboratory and the Work of W.E.B. Du Bois," ​Clark Atlanta University, 25 Feb­ru­ary 2016.

Williams, Robert W. 2017. "W.E.B. Du Bois at the Horizon of History and Soci­ol­ogy." Presentation: Second Annual Conference of the African Amer­i­can Intellectual History Society, Vanderbilt University, 24 March 2017.

Williams, Robert W. 2018. "A Democracy of Differences: Knowledge and the Unknowable in Du Bois's Theory of Democratic Governance." Pp.181-203 in A Political Companion to W.E.B. Du Bois. Nick Bromell (Ed.). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

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.

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