- Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah
One of the most brilliant and interesting thinkers in our contemporary moment trying to better understand one of the most brilliant and interesting thinkers in all of modern history—that would be a dramatic but not unreasonable way to describe and evoke the significance of Lines of Descent, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s latest book. It is about W. E. B. Du Bois and it is an effort to partially chart the development of this transformative figure’s thought, especially on the topics of race and social identity, paying special attention to the influences of German thought on his intellectual formation. I would characterize the book as useful, although disturbing, and as delightful yet frustrating. I will explain each of these pairs of characterizations in turn.
Appiah’s particular focus on the impact of German thinkers on Du Bois is a double-edged sword. It is useful because it is simply true that immersion in German ideas formed an important part of Du Bois’s training as an intellectual, most obviously through his time at the University of Berlin (or the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, as it was then known) from 1892 to 1894. Appiah is certainly not the first scholar to note this, but Lines of Descent is the first book-length work in which exploring this dimension of [End Page 127] Du Bois is a central aim.1 As philosophical attention to Du Bois continues to grow, carefully studying his influences will remain among the tasks that we scholars of Du Bois must be sure never to neglect. This makes further study of how German ideas shaped him philosophically welcome. There is something disturbing here, though, especially in light of the fact that Appiah is not the first to note German influence on Du Bois. There is the worry that placing so much emphasis on Du Bois’s connection to Germany may ultimately serve to link his greatness to Europe in a manner that supports racist patterns of devaluing nonwhite traditions of thought.
Tommy Curry has raised questions related to this worry in a recent article (2014). Like Curry, I think it is helpful for reflecting on this matter to provide some quotations from an interview conducted with Appiah by Cornel West on C-SPAN’s Book TV. Speaking about Lines of Descent, Appiah says: “You could say that what I’m trying to do in the book is to recover the sense in which Du Bois was, in fact, a German intellectual, and not just the American and African American and of course always cosmopolitan person that we already know.” He also explains the motivation behind this project of recovery as follows:
The temptation, thinking of him as a great American and a great African American, is to sort of push the American ancestry, to push the Emersonian ancestry, to push the continuity of his ideas with Alexander Crummell and Frederick Douglass and the great African American intellectuals who preceded him, and that’s all there, but I don’t think that part of the normal picture is yet the recognition that he was embedded in a framework of thought that comes from the late 19th century Germany.2
The suggestions concerning what has been sufficiently discussed and what has been ignored in the statement above strike me as a bit odd. There has undoubtedly been great work done linking and comparing Du Bois with African American predecessors like Crummell and Douglass, but I would also say that what has been done so far remains too little.3 Thinking just about those two figures, we are dealing with complex philosophical minds in relation to whom Du Bois explicitly positioned himself, on the one hand, as a kind of heir (most notably, in the third and twelfth chapters of The Souls of Black Folk) but with whom he also had, on the other hand, very serious differences. Much...