Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Linda Alcoff

Committee Members

Frank Kirkland

Charles Mills

Serene Khader

Lawrie Balfour

Subject Categories

Continental Philosophy | Ethics and Political Philosophy | History of Philosophy


W.E.B. Du Bois, Modern Freedom, Political Philosophy, Africana Philosophy


My dissertation defends W.E.B. Du Bois’s philosophy of modern freedom, which he grounds in the historical reconstruction of the American civic community on the moral basis of free and equal citizenship. Rather than ascribe to him an elitist politics of racial ‘uplift’ and assimilation to Anglo- American folkways, I instead argue that he defends black moral and political autonomy for securing state power and civic equality. Additionally, he challenges both historical and the contemporary political philosophers, including John Rawls, Axel Honneth, and Philip Pettit, to articulate the racial dimension of the development of a social order that actualizes the moral meaning of free and equal citizenship. In establishing his novel philosophy of freedom, I adduce three critical components:

(1) Contra standard interpretations of Du Bois that claim he espouses a controversial racialist doctrine, I argue that his racialism is best understood as conceptualizing the ethical salience of racial difference in the context of a democratic plurality. In the light of dominant accounts of plurality that do not foreground race, pace Margaret Gilbert and John Rawls, Du Bois deemphasizes individuals’ free choice in social group formation. In accepting the importance of free choice, he stresses collective historical experience as furnishing the normative salience of racial identity, which prefigures individuals’ free choice. A racialist model of racial difference in a democratic plurality exacts the civic obligation to confront the historical legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

(2) In advancing the moral value of citizenship, Du Bois affirms the moral obligation of the modern American state to represent black interests from Reconstruction onwards. Drawing on G.W.F. Hegel’s normative theory of the modern state, I justify Du Bois’s analysis of postbellum federal policies concerning black freedmen and refugees of the Civil War. Du Bois observes that the Freedmen’s Bureau – established with the passage of the 1865 Radical Reconstruction Amendments – democratically facilitated a ‘social revolution’ by promoting the integration of black freedmen on the moral basis of free and equal citizenship under the aegis of the federal government. Implicit in his analysis is a normative commitment to representational government that in attending to the needs of the postbellum black community incorporates black political will in the public adjudication of the common good – a historically unprecedented phenomenon.

(3) With the rise of Jim Crow, when the U.S. federal government skirted its moral obligation to defend black interests, Du Bois argues that the black church and college assumed a civic function. Habits of citizenship flourished there, affirming the moral agency of African Americans as American citizens. Inasmuch as these institutions groomed disenfranchised black citizens for the assumption of political power, I articulate the challenge they present to John Rawls, Axel Honneth, and Philip Pettit to chart the civic dimension of ‘private’ social institutions. Because they neglect to theorize the historical experience of racial subordination, their views of freedom omit a formulation of social cooperation guided by the notion of the civic within the institutional context of civil society. Specifically, their accounts of the interrelation between citizens, social institutions, and the modern state fail to capture the civic function of the black church and college during Jim Crow. Thus, Du Bois’s dynamic, institution-based account of freedom highlights the racial dimension in the historical contestation of the legitimate scope and ends of the American civic community.