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  • William James, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Art of New Religious Ideals
  • Kolby Knight (bio)

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been batteredI don’t have a friend who feels at easeI don’t know a dream that’s not been shatteredOr driven to its knees. . .Oh, and it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alrightYou can’t be forever blessedStill, tomorrow’s going to be another working dayAnd I’m trying to get some restThat’s all, I’m trying to get some rest

—Paul Simon, “American Tune” (1973) / Recreated by Allen Toussaint (2016)

William James and W. E. B. Du Bois believed that an artful life could produce new and world-changing religious ideals. As cosmopolitan scholars who studied in the United States and Europe, both men confidently interlaced original interpretations of Shakespeare, Wagner, and Goethe into their academic accounts of individual and social behavior. Beyond their patronage of the arts, James and Du Bois also saw themselves as scientists and artists who had the responsibility to create new pathways and religious ideals at a time when many European and American intellectuals depicted Western civilization as the endpoint of history.

This article explores the pragmatic visions of science, art, and religion respectively offered by James and Du Bois. Pragmatism, here, refers to an active mode of study that looks closely at the interaction between specific thoughts and behaviors in particular situations without assuming a standard of truth which influences or evaluates human life from the outside of experience. As pragmatists, James and Du Bois did not believe their work consisted of merely the explication and description of preexisting truths, but more importantly the religious creation of what James called “new facts,” including healthier habits of thought and practice.1 [End Page 71]

In this article, I will trace how the two men, as religious naturalists and leaders in the development of a pragmatic social science at the turn of the twentieth century, challenged evolutionary theories which envisioned Western civilization as the highest standard of aesthetic and intellectual development. Part one demonstrates how James, as a psychologist who prioritized the study and development of “first-hand” experiences, worked against visions of science that saw “lower” emotions as a hindrance to impartial intellectual discovery. It also explores how James centered personal religious experiences in his effort to de-center “impersonal” scientific frameworks which depicted human behavior and thinking as beholden to evolutionary laws which transcended individual experience. Part two considers James’s dissatisfaction with the “bad habits” of his privileged intellectual class, and how his own experience of “soul-sickness” and “stage fright” led him to contest both celebratory histories of Western progress and institutional arrangements which juxtaposed his “mystifying” intellectual performances to the lives of everyday people.

Part three moves to how Du Bois, as a sociologist and former student of James, refocused James’s religious pragmatism within the context of his experience of anti-Black racism in the United States. This section traces how Du Bois saw his intellectual career as a work of art which could empower Black individuals to see themselves beyond what David Lloyd describes as “the racial regime of aesthetics” which imagines the progress of “lower humans” as dependent on higher civilizational and educational agents. This section also offers a tripartite interpretation of Du Bois’s experience of “double-consciousness” that considers its aesthetic, social, and political dimensions.2 While James expressed a desire to discard his own sense of double-consciousness, Du Bois’s experience of anti-Black racism made his two-ness more enforced and insidious. The fourth section looks at Du Bois’s disillusionment with white standards of beauty and intelligence as an experience akin to what James described as “soul-sickness.” It shows that whereas James believed that his negative emotional experiences could lead him to “new religious ideals” taking shape within the spiritual energy [End Page 72] and discomforts of his own individual body, Du Bois’s negative experience of racism led him to immerse himself in the religious and artistic vitality of Black social worlds which resisted the oppressive mechanisms and caricatures of...