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W.E.B. Du Bois's 'The Individual
and Social Conscience' (1905):
The Primary Source & Its Interpretation

I prepared this page for the 1 January 2024 update, adding the "Note on the Religious Education Association (R.E.A.)" to the end below.

In mid-February 1905 W.E.B. Du Bois participated at several fund-raising and speaking events in Boston, all as part of his role as a faculty member at Atlanta Uni­ver­sity. A.U. President Horace Bumstead reported on those activities in an issue of The Bul­le­tin of Atlanta University — a report I did not find until after the circum­stances conveyed below. During this Boston trip Du Bois served as a discussant at the Third Annual Convention of the Reli­gious Education Association (R.E.A.) on a panel entitled "How Can We Develop in the Indi­vid­u­al a Social Conscience?"

I first became aware of this Du Boisian primary source in April 2008 when I located it via a search online. Google Books provided a page-facsimile of the entire 1905 R.E.A. conference proceedings in which Du Bois's con­tri­bu­tion was published [Google Books; HathiTrust; Internet Archive]. His words were untitled; they were pre­ceded only by his name and insti­tu­tional affiliation. A quick reading of the text revealed it as compelling in both its rhetorical and phil­o­soph­ical dimensions. (Even after innumerable readings in the course of my research, it is still remains fascinating). There also appeared to be an underlying — indeed, dialectically Hegelian — structure to its narrative form.

I did not recognize this work by Du Bois that I had serendipitously found. But I believed that it deserved more scrutiny, not the least of which for how the work might highlight on the relative influence of Hegel and James on Du Bois's thinking. I was working on another project at the time and decided to wait before conducting a more intense study. However, as the months passed several questions kept recurring. Did Du Bois refer to the 1905 text in other writings? Is it similar to other works by Du Bois? Have later scholars refer­enced it and analyzed it? Might it be found in some form in the archives of Du Bois's collected papers?

In early 2010 I commenced an analysis of the hitherto untitled text. My searches did not yield any direct reference by Du Bois to the 1905 discussant piece. I dis­cov­ered that scholars of the Reli­gious Education Association had noted Du Bois's participation at the 1905 con­vention and even briefly quoted his words there, but they did not analyze the text. However, no scholar of Du Bois seems to have mentioned this primary source. Over time, I did find an article that had been sent to Du Bois and was housed in the Uni­ver­sity of Mas­sa­chu­setts Special Col­lec­tions archive of his works. It was a clip­ping of a report of the 1905 con­ference and commented fa­vor­a­bly on his participation there; the report was published in the periodical, The Congregationalist and Christian World on 25 February 1905, at p.253 (LINK).[The link was added for the 1 July 2017 update.] In that vein I also located a few con­tem­po­rary notices of Du Bois's participation in several publi­ca­tions scattered in different repositories.

The work was untitled when it was initially published, so I called it "The Individual and Social Conscience" (IASC) in order to accord with the panel title. My first foray con­centrated on interpreting the text itself, especially with regard to its resonances with other intel­lectual traditions. I wished to under­stand the IASC in its phil­o­soph­ical context. This led me to delve into the Hegelian, pragmatic, and Africana intel­lec­tual traditions. This also led to my first publi­ca­tion on the IASC, which was published in the Journal of African American Studies (see below for the full citation as well as links to the abstract and to the peer-reviewed, final draft — i.e., the pre-publication — version). I listed Du Bois as the co-author because I included the full text of the IASC within my essay.

My further research has focused on arguing that the IASC is one of the pivotal texts — along with, for example, The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction — by which to understand Du Bois's developing and inter­secting thought and activism. The IASC helps us to become more aware of various recurring themes across Du Bois's life and writings, which is the subject of an on-going project. The IASC also provides new insights into how Du Bois's texts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries illuminated his crit­i­cism of the limitations of social research for furthering activism oriented to social justice. We are certainly aware of the later critiques of social research that he made in his 1944 essay "My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom" and elsewhere. Yet in 1905 he was establishing the need for methods other than empiricism to address imme­di­ate exis­ten­tial concerns, such as the sig­nif­i­cance of what it meant to live and be a Black person in an oppressive society, and the sig­nif­i­cance of grasping one's duty in terms of under­stand­ing one's inter­rela­tion­ship with others in society. This method, I argue, is a phe­nom­e­no­logical one that the IASC ably conveyed in its brief seven para­graphs.

I have pursued this avenue, and further elaborations of it, in subsequent works. In particular, I began to use the term "nescience" to express what, for Du Bois, we cannot know with certainty or cannot know-about at all. Such a concept also allowed me to juxtapose nescience with science. It is a juxtaposition that bespoke, I argue, a dynamic relationship by which we could thematize Du Bois's developing thought and its implications for activism. I fashioned this formulation: In addition to (social) science informing activism, Du Bois argued in numerous works across his life that what we do not know-about​—​our nescience​—​also must inform and motivate our struggles. I expounded on this topic in several conference presentations, including at the Second Annual Conference of the African American Intellectual History Society in March 2017 [presentation], and at the Symposium on Race and Economic Inequality on the Anniversaries of the Birth of W.E.B. Du Bois and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which was convened in February 2018 by Clark Atlanta University's Center for Undergraduate Research and Creativity [presentation]. See a list of my other lectures and publi­ca­tions pertinent to the IASC below.  [The paragraph was expanded for the 1 September 2019 update.]
Scholarly lectures relevant to Du Bois's IASC include:
I delivered a con­fer­ence presentation on the IASC at the W.E.B. Du Bois 50th Anni­ver­sary Com­mem­o­ra­tive Con­fer­ence, that convened at Clark Atlanta Uni­ver­sity in February 2013. The OUTLINE is available on this website. That pres­en­ta­tion has been amplified and rendered into prose as a publica­tion in Phylon. [On 1 Decem­ber 2015 I updated the outline page with links to several references.]
On 25 February 2016 I presented "W.E.B. Du Bois on Scientific Knowledge and Its Limits" at the "Symposium Celebrating the 120th Anniversary of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory & the Work of W.E.B. Du Bois". The PRESENTATION is accessible on this website as a web-based hypertext. The symposium was held at Clark Atlanta University and was sponsored by the Department of the Sociology and Criminal Justice. I built on Du Bois's idea of unknowability in the IASC and created a typology of knowledge claims found in his works. [On 1 March 2016 I added the previous paragraph.]
I presented "Du Bois's Pragmatism: William James and Beyond" on 27 October 2018. I was attending the "Scholarship Above the Veil: A Sesquicentennial Symposium Honoring W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868-2018", a very interesting event sponsored by the Departments of Sociology and of African & African American Studies at Harvard University during 25–27 October 2018 [website]. In my presentation I discussed Du Bois's Jamesian pragmatism in relation to unknowability, as well as the implications of that confluence for research conducted under conditions of racist oppression. The PRESENTATION is available for perusing. One can read more details about the presentation on my LECTURES page.
In an effort to cross-list resources on this website, I added the paragraph above for the 1 February 2021 update.
In September 2021 I presented a paper at the virtual conference of the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities. I enjoyed discussing my paper "One Challenge, Not Two Problems: Regular Expressions for Researching a Single-Author Corpus" [JADH 2021 PRESENTATION] and watching the other presentations by DH scholars.
In my paper I used DH and corpus linguistics techniques to search for synonymous ways by which Du Bois conveyed his idea of the unknowable. In particular, I use regular expressions (a notational system that searches for and matches patterns in documents) with a concordancer (software to explore and search a large assemblage of texts).
The IASC provides one example of how Du Bois expressed the concept of the unknowable in a variety of ways within various texts:
"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;..." [¶3]
We can contrast this use of to "know" with his statement in the previous paragraph, where he said
"We can only be interested in men by knowing them​—​knowing them directly, thoroughly, intimately;..." [¶2]
We possibly can know something about others, he argued, but that knowledge of something has its limitations. Such contrasts and nuances can spark research inquiries. Indeed, the IASC launched my scholarly journey to locate the traces of Du Bois's idea of the unknowable among and across his numerous writings.
You can read more details about my JADH 2021 presentation on my LECTURES page.
I added the above paragraph for the 1 April 2022 update.
Scholarly publications relevant to the IASC include:
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. The article was initially published online at "SpringerLink" on 23 March 2011. Only the abstract is freely available online, but the peer-reviewed and revised draft version is accessible as per the copyright agree­ment with the Journal of African American Studies: PDF file ​[~379K]. The abstract is also available here on this site.
Williams, Robert W. 2014. "Embracing Philosophy: On Du Bois's 'The Individual and Social Con­science'." Phylon, 51:1 (Fall): 42-56. [This article is based on a 2013 con­ference pres­en­ta­tion (OUTLINE). On 1 April 2015 I updated the outline page with a citation to the published version.]
Williams, Robert W. 2014. "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: University of Missouri Press).
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, ed. by Nick Bromell. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. [I added this citation for the 1 May 2018 update.]

I have other projects on Du Bois, as well as on "The Individual and Social Conscience," in various stages of completion.
A digital humanities project involving the IASC:
I developed Retextualizer as a digital humanities application to interact with literary works. It rearranges text randomly so as to provide the conditions for new interpretations. To view the IASC retextualized: [I added this paragraph for the 1 October 2016 update.]
My biography and C.V. (with a list of my other publications) are located on this site.
Note on the Religious Education Association (R.E.A.)
The original REA was founded in 1903. One century later it merged with the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education to form the REA:APPRRE.
For the organization's history in its two forms:
For various "Historical Articles Celebrating 100 years of REA":