- W. E. B. Du Bois’s Fugitive Writing, or Sociology at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
W. E. B. Du Bois, Sociology, Neo-Kantianism, Immanuel Kant, Heinrich Rickert, Social Sciences, Auguste Comte
What sort of science is a science without laws?—W. E. B. Du Bois
For it is the peculiarity of problems in social science, as distinguished from physical science, that the thing studied as well as the student, is a living breathing soul, all of whose numberless thoughts and actions must be ascertained and allowed for in the final answer.—W. E. B. Du Bois [End Page 171]
The epigraphs that introduce this essay are taken from two until quite recently obscure and indeed unpublished essays from what some might still describe as the further recesses of Du Bois’s corpus. “Sociology Hesitant” and “The Afro-American,” the two essays cited above, present a picture of Du Bois that the reader would understandably consider utterly unfamiliar, a Du Bois animated by concerns that are at some distance from the themes we recognize from that high school history class devoted to The Souls of Black Folk or from our early morning undergraduate African American literature survey. In fact one might even argue that Du Bois’s near totemic status in African American cultural and literary studies stems indeed from his distance from the concerns exhibited in these epigraphs. In other words, a Du Bois concerned with the philosophy of science, or that betrays an interest, let alone a passing familiarity with questions of philosophical epistemology, seems to fly in the face of the Du Bois we have so carefully inherited. That Du Bois is the paterfamilias of black politics, the fount from which all else seemingly flows. Even if this narrative has come under increasing scrutiny over the past several years, its continuing centrality is a testament to its success in organizing the broad lines of inquiry that define the field of African American literary and cultural studies. Under the impetus of this variant of the Du Boisian inheritance, the key terms that circulate in the field—that is, race, politics, culture, experience—are introduced with a degree of self-evidence at odds with the role they assume in Du Bois’s own work. We thus arrive at a point where the resources Du Bois offers that may well reconfigure the conceptual landscape in which we operate are lost among the dutiful self-evidence of our given terms. Anchored by the conceptual binaries that grant them their coherence, these terms align black experience with the logic informing the nascent disciplinary fields that will increasingly come to speak for it.1 Therefore making black experience an object of knowledge is also part of what’s involved in accepting this particular narrative of Du Bois’s significance. If the Du Bois of black politics is also the Du Bois of a comfortable disciplinary enclosure, then what of that other Du Bois referenced in the epigraphs? What I wish to suggest is that these two Du Boises—one legitimate, the other far less so—are linked. [End Page 172] In other words, the Du Bois who clears a space for the emergence of a discourse of black politics and whose stature in African American intellectual history is firmly linked to that achievement as incarnated in The Souls of Black Folk is connected to the other Du Bois, and that aspect of his thought that is more often than not forgotten; namely, his attempt to think the Negro’s relation to those discourses of knowledge intent on circumscribing it, with foremost among them the new discipline of sociology.
I don’t want to be misunderstood here. The singular role played by W. E. B. Du Bois in the trajectory of twentieth-century African American thought and politics can’t be minimized. The Souls of Black Folk rightly stands as a remarkable achievement, reconfiguring the prism through which African American experience is thought. Its influence in the 112 years since its publication is undeniable. Souls, perhaps more successfully than any of his texts that preceded it, “describes, explains, and dramatizes,” in the words of a recent critic, “how...