Life of Reason


Conclusion (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 6 of 6)

 It is on this basis that Du Bois was able to defend African Americans from the accusations of the scientific racists of his day even while accepting certain aspects of that science—such as race essentialism—that most scientists today would reject. In so doing, Du Bois raises important questions regarding the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. While Du Bois was able to make an argument against racism through his scientific approach to humane disciplines like history and philosophy, the arguments he formulated rebutted ideas that were accepted as scientific fact in his day. By framing his life as a refutation of the scientific racism popular in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and by applying scientific methods to the humane arts in an attempt to rebut racial pseudoscience, Du bois helped to define the relationship between the humanities and the sciences and points to a healthy engagement between the two in which each can inform the other. A scientism which ignores the human element severs itself from the experiential facts of the lives it hopes to explain while a humanism that disvalues scientific ways of knowing is incomplete and likely to result in navel-gazing prognostications with little meaning for the real world. By bringing the two together, Du Bois used his training in the humanities and his knowledge of the sciences as means by which to explain and to change for the better the lives of millions of people.

A History of Race in America (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 1 of 6)

The span of W. E. B. Du Bois’s life runs nearly from the end of slavery in the United States to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington. Born in 1868, less than three full years after the passage of the thirteenth amendment outlawing slavery, Du Bois died on the eve of the March on Washington in 1963. At the time that he was born, most African Americans were illiterate and lived in rural areas in the South. It was commonly assumed even by those who had been dedicated abolitionists just a few years before that these black peasants in the South were naturally inferior to whites and would be ultimately unable to rise from or to greatly improve their condition. From an early point in his life, Du Bois resolved to dedicate his life to fighting against the negative assumptions and low expectations attached to African Americans. He intended to do this both by himself becoming so well-educated as to act as living evidence against the innate intellectual inferiority of African Americans and by applying his abilities to demonstrating the real reasons behind the low social status of African Americans. In so doing, Du Bois became one of the first American American classicists, a founding figure in the then-incipient science of sociology, and a pioneer in research into African-American history.

        The idea of race has been a defining feature of American social and cultural life since long before the independence of the United States. As historian Nell Irvin Painter has noted in her masterful history of the origins and development of the idea of a white race, “most racial thought in the United States served to justify slavery,” arising, in part, as an ex post facto justification for the Atlantic Slave Trade and the subjugation of people of African descent.[1] The existence of a supposed cultural and scientific “racial hierarchy” which “placed the darkest-skinned and poorest people—Africans and Australians—at the bottom” became a standard feature in the rhetoric of the justification of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[2] 

Among the features which those at the bottom of this hierarchy were supposed to possess were low intelligence and a natural servility. John C. Calhoun, a vice-president of the United States from 1825 to 1828 and a United States Senator from South Carolina from 1832 to 1850 announced in a speech on the Senate floor that he would not “believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man” until he could “find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax.”[3] Clearly, his assumption was that he would never find such a Negro. Similarly, in his famous speech proclaiming slavery and racial hierarchy to be the “corner-stone” of the newly-formed Confederate government, Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America, argued that this new government was “the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society.”[4] The subordination of inferior races to superior races, he said, was a scientific truth like those discovered by the great scientists of the recent past:

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests?[5]

Just as Galileo had discovered the structure of the solar system, Adam Smith the laws of economics, and Harvey the movements of the heart and the circulation of blood, so the American South, says Stephens, had discovered the laws that properly govern the relations between the races.

Trained scientists among those in support of Southern slavery were eager to lend their authority to boost the credibility of such claims. In 1854, for example, George Gliddon and Josiah Nott published their Types of Mankind: Or, Ethnological Researches, Based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and upon their Natural, Geographical, Philological, and Biblical History, which, among the other supposed evidence it provided, featured a chart of skulls which placed that of an African American between a European and a chimpanzee.[6] “Gliddon and Nott and others” like them not only insisted that people of African descent were inherently inferior to people of European descent, but went as far as attempting “to prove that the Negro was of a different species from the white man.”[7] As Robert J. C. Young points out, by the middle of the eighteenth century, Southern slaveholders and their supporters “could claim that Southern slavery was a time-honored institution, authorized by history and science alike.”[8] 

Even after the end of slavery with the passage of the thirteenth amendment in December of 1865, theories of the inherent intellectual and moral inferiority of people of African descent persisted as a means by which to justify segregation laws and the withholding of opportunity for social and educational advancement from African Americans. The groundwork of the ostensibly scientific and historical research and writing that had been laid in defense of slavery now became a means by which to perpetuate the racial hierarchy of the United States in its new segregationist forms. As Carol M. Taylor writes, at the turn of the twentieth century, there was “virtual unanimity by the leading figures in American social science” as well as among “biologists, psychologists, and sociologists” on the subject of “the inherent and immutable inferiority of the black race.”[9]

[1] Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2011), 190.

[2] Ibid., 180.

[3] Margaret Malamud, African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism (New York: I. B. Taurus, 2016), 10.

[4] Alexander H. Stephens, “‘Corner Stone’ Speech,” Savannah, Georgia (March 21, 1861), (accessed March 28, 2017).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Malamud, 179–181.

[7] Alexander Crummell, “The Attitude of the American Mind toward the Negro Intellect,” in Destiny and Race: Selected Writings, 1840–1898, ed. Wilson Jeremiah Moses (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 292.

[8] Robert J. C. Young, “The Afterlives of Black Athena,” in Daniel Orrells, Gurminder K. Bhambra, and Tessa Roynon, eds., African Athena: New Agendas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 182.

[9] Carol M. Taylor, “W. E. B. Du Bois’s Challenge to Scientific Racism,” Journal of Black Studies 11, no. 4 (June 1981), 449.

Ways of knowing

Human beings, by their nature, seek to understand themselves and the world around them. Each of us is placed into a world which we neither created nor comprehend. It is as if we have woken up in a dark room with no knowledge of who we are or how we got here. As our eyes gradually adjust to the dark, we glimpse a variety of unknown objects, clues to our origins, the origins of the room and the task we have been place into the room to complete. Before anything else can be done, we must answer the questions: who am I and what am I doing here? Throughout history, many answers to these questions, of varying validity, have been offered.

Today, and since the Enlightenment, one way of answering these questions, the scientific, has come to predominate to the detriment of other ways of answering. While the means provided by science have provided numerous benefits, they have proven incomplete and unsatisfactory at best. While the scientific method may be able to measure the speed and quantity of the water pouring over a waterfall, its chemical composition and its erosive effects, scientists can say relatively little about its beauty and its evocation of a sense of sublimity in its human observers. This, rather, is the place of the poet and the artist, whose ways of understanding do not contradict those of the scientist but do indeed complete and even surpass them. Knowledge is the imposition of human order onto otherwise apparently disorderly experience of disparate phenomena with the bodily senses and the faculties of the mind. Genius, then, is the ability to form connections between what appear to others to be entirely unrelated experiences. With these definitions in mind, the poet is the genius par excellence; he is a creator of cosmos out of chaos through the use of metaphor.

Richard Wilbur is undoubtedly an outstanding modern example of such a genius. For Wilbur, in his poetry, there is nothing that is not both significant and signifying; each experience is both valuable in itself and valuable in its ability to represent or otherwise point beyond itself to something else, entering thereby into the cohesive network of all created (and, perhaps, uncreated) things. With this dual relevance of each thing as his axiom, Wilbur is able to transform the mundane into the infinitely meaningful and thereby imbue the mundane itself with infinite meaning. In “Transit,” Wilbur begins with a chance sighting of “a woman I have never seen before” exiting her townhouse on a city street. He describes her as “so beautiful that she or time must fade,” thereby entering through an otherwise prosaic event into a poetic meditation on beauty and time. In “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” Wilbur again exhibits his ability to begin with the banal and end in the eternal. The poem begins as Wilbur sees laundry drying on the line “outside the open window.” He begins immediately to imagine that the drying laundry is “angels,” some of whom “are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, some are in smocks.” Nearly at the climax of the poem, Wilbur records the cry of his soul: “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, / Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam / And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.” In the poetic genius of Wilbur, the daily drudgery of cleaning clothes and sheets has become a celebration of life, a spotting of angelic beings and an affirmation of the inherent goodness of the created world as it stands.

That all of this may be far from the way most people experience the world, with all of its necessities and drudgeries, is precisely an argument in favor of Wilbur’s genius. He has taken up our shared sense impressions and the ideations they produce and reoriented them in an exuberant and original way. The laundry is indeed still laundry and the laundry must be done, but it is also something else; it is fuel for the often forgotten but most essential aspect of man: his eternal soul. Wilbur himself provides the most succinct, and, of course, poetical, description of his genius in his poem “A Wood”:

Given a source of light so far away
That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,
Would it not take a proper fool to say
That any tree has not the proper spirit?
Air, water, earth and fire are to be blended,
But no one style, I think, is recommended.

Wilbur has here avoided an error reciprocal to scientism. He has not asserted the tyranny of his position but rather acknowledged that if his understanding is correct, if indeed each thing is both significant and signifying, there must, then, be as many ways of metaphoring, as establishing connections between apparently disparate elements, as many ways of knowing as there are ways of being human, which is to say, they must be as numerous as are human beings themselves.

Review: Human Dawn, Pre-history-3000 BC

Human Dawn, Pre-history-3000 BC
Human Dawn, Pre-history-3000 BC by Time-Life Books

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This entire series of books is a great general introduction to the important events, figures, places, etc. of history. I keep a copy of the series in my classroom and at home and frequently use it to teach both my students and my own children. I recommend this entire series for anyone with little historical knowledge who wants a good introduction to the subject as well as for those who desire to make children historically literate.

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Review: Science & Human Values

Science & Human Values
Science & Human Values by Jacob Bronowski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is excellent from opening to finish. The author brings with him a mastery of and a clear love for both the arts and the sciences, bringing the two together and showing us how these two strands of human activity are not separate and in opposition but, rather, have a single source (creativity) and a single goal (the making of truth through experience in the recurring discovery of what it means to be human). This book is excellent reading for all and I believe will be of special interest to those who wish to bring a more “human” approach to their understanding of both art and science. Bronowski’s ideas tie in well with those of, for example, Karl Popper, and make for an interesting comparison. His focus on looking deeper, thinking poetically, and tolerating diversity in explanations of the human experience are especially fascinating points.

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Science as an art

The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations — more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness. The discoverer or the artist presents in them two aspects of nature and fuses them into one. This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art. But it is not therefore the monopoly of the man who wrote the poem or who made the discovery. On the contrary, I believe this view of the creative act to tbe right because it alone gives a meaning to the act of appreciation. The poem or the discovery exists in two moments of vision: the moment of appreciation as much as that of creation; for the appreciator must see the movement, wake to the echo which was started in the creation of the work. In the moment of appreciation we live again the moment when the creator saw and held the hidden likeness. When a simile takes us aback and persuades us together, when we find a juxtaposition in a picture both odd and intriguing, when a theory is at once fresh and convincing, we do not merely nod over someone else’s work. We re-enact the creative act, and we ourselves make the discovery again. At bottom, there is no unifying likeness there until we too have seized it, we too have made it for ourselves.

How slipshod by comparison is the notion that either art or science sets out to copy nature. If the task of the painter were to copy for men what they see, the critic could make only a single judgment: either that copy the copy is right or that it is wrong. And if science were a copy of fact, then every theory would be either right or wrong, and would be so for ever. There would be nothing left for us to say but this is so, or is not so. No one who has read a page by a good critic or a speculative scientist can ever again think that this barren choice of yes or no is all that the mind offers.

Reality is not an exhibit for man’s inspection, labelled ‘Do not touch.’ There are no appearances to be photographed, no experiences to be copied, in which we do not take part. Science, like art, is not a copy of nature but a re-creation of her. We re-make nature by the act of discovery, in the poem or in the theorem. And the great poem and the deep theorem are new to every reader, and yet are his own experiences, because he himself re-creates them. They are the marks of unity in variety; and in the instant when the mind seizes this for itself, in art or in science, the heart misses a beat.

Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values, pp. 19-20