GWF Hegel and WEB Du Bois

George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831)

Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)

Key Quote:

For this consciousness has been fearful, not of this or that particular thing or just at odd moments, but its whole being has been seized with dread; for it has experienced the fear of death, the absolute Lord. In that experience it has been quite unmanned, has trembled in every fibre of its being, and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations. But this pure universal movement, the absolute melting-away of everything stable, is the simple, essential nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity, pure being-for-self, which consequently is implicit in this consciousness. This moment of pure being-for-self is also explicit for the bondsman, for in the lord it exists for him as his object. Furthermore, his consciousness is not this dissolution of everything stable merely in principle; in his service he actually brings this about. Through his service he rids himself of his attachment to natural existence in every single detail; and gets rid of it by working on it. (Phenomenology of Spirit)

Hegel's philosophy of language describes the stages of consciousness in both individuals and cultures.

There is a progression of the mind from sensory perception, to understanding, and then to reason, consummated in the German state as Geist. The mechanism is the Dialectic, with its highest manifestation Freedom in the bureaucratic state as revealed by codified laws.

The Dialectic in Hegel's philosophy of consciousness works with a pattern of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The Unhappy Consciousness is pathological until freedom removes its constraints. The consciousness is “for itself and in itself,” which means that an individual entity or collectivity must have self-awareness as history unfolds ineluctably toward its end.

Hegel addresses the problem of the objectification of the Other in the master/slave relationship, evidenced in alienation from the Spirit. The individual achieves freedom through the activity of work. How can we know the Other? Through work, there comes about a state of mutual recognition and reciprocity. There might be moments when historic actors kill the hostile Other to win freedom. There is a celebration of the French Bastille Day and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1791), which has a universal application.

In Hegel’s logic of history the forces in the conflict among cultures culminate in the Absolute, the universe of freedom where contradiction in the contingency of existence reconciles itself to the ideals of emancipation. The Absolute is the Rechtsstaat, which is the rule of law in the civil service in an era where modern Germany is emerging under Napoleonic domination. Germany becomes “great” as it rids itself of the tyrant and expands beyond its borders, fashioned during the Middle Ages, because it embodies Geistand virtue and is not corrupt like the French occupiers.

Phenomenology is the study of appearances in contrast to reality. The philosopher has to ascertain the logic of the phenomenon by recovering the “lost” self through labor and ultimately by dialoguing with others. The master is very dependent on the slave. Hence, slavery provides a thesis in history; work is its antithesis; and killing the master and appropriating his property becomes the synthesis of the Happy Consciousness in which subject and the object become transcended into a unity and history ends. The stages of history can be described progressively as mythology, metaphysics, and science. Mythology is religious fundamentalism in which history has its most abstract disembodiment. Metaphysics is the study of the ultimate nature of reality in general. Particularity and emancipation come with science as it objectifies reality by controlling nature and human nature. The Dialectic blends these contrasts of parts into the emergent whole, which is a series of overlapping dynamic events.

Hegel is a reaction to Enlightenment reason of Immanuel Kant, whose thinking is purely abstract and archetypal. Hegel reformulates reason in a dialectical form where the real is rational and the rational is real. Marx believed that both Kant and Hegel had it wrong. Reason is illusory and gives us ideology when it is fictionally presented in a world where social productivity creates a society’s labor value. This labor value is the residue of class conflict culminating in the communist society where all contradictions have been overcome.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868–1963)

Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, a classic empirical social science study of the condition of black people in the United States, at the turn of the twentieth century. Except for an elite minority, the plight of the black masses was deplorable. What emerged from this work was the concept of a double consciousness in blacks; they were alienated by biological racism from the mainstream of the white population in both the industrial North and the semi-feudal South, in a hereditary caste system that was not broken until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s during Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency.

Double consciousness describes the self divided by an awareness of being black and looking at oneself as a thing or object from a black person’s perception of being reified by white hate and loathing. Given their distressed economic condition in which education was almost entirely limited to manual training because of white misconception of blacks' limited intelligence, black people developed a conception of being a stranger in their own house. Du Bois believed that the top tenth of the black educated would lead the masses through liberal education into the promised land of a biracial democracy with equality in rights institutionalized in practice. By recovering your pride and hence the alienated self-consciousness of blacks from being defined by the Other (the oppressive white man with his system of racial apartheid), a true emancipation would be the result.

Du Bois borrowed heavily from Hegel's master/slave relationship, in which even the master is the slave when he is dependent on stereotyping and hence objectifying the Other. He himself lives in a delusional world with a presumption of racial superiority that is not biological but politically and economically conditioned. Du Bois became a radical who would accept nothing less than full constitutional rights for himself and his race. His main concepts pivoted about racism, classism, nationalism, and imperialism. He saw a forthcoming struggle with international characteristics; hence, he was heavily influenced by Marx’s Dialectic and historical materialism.

Du Bois felt ambivalent in the white world. He believed that white people viewed him as an object and that he would never be given respect or due recognition for his accomplishments. White people viewed all black people generically, as deviant from a human, white norm. This situation could only be overcome by education and racial struggle (even violence in which the oppressed kill the master). The Subject/Object schizoid personality in the black soul had to be sublimated by constructing a new man—the African American—who would attain Freedom. Race, class, achievement, and culture were the criteria for the Absolute in Freedom. The oppressed had to confront his oppressor to regain his humanity, even if violence resulted. Shedding blood sanctified black manhood and virility in a new America that would be socialist, because workers and women, too, had to be included in a redeemed democracy true to the ideal of the Founding Fathers.

Eventually, Du Bois saw the struggle as entailing a global dimension to free Africa from European domination. Influenced by Marx, he realized that class distinctions were a cause of racism, even if not the only one. The blind worship of the God of Money led to the need for cheap labor. The capitalist in alliance with the Southern Bourbon, by demeaning whole categories of others, such as workers, women, and people of color, as inherently sinful and genetically inferior, gave the powers that be the ideological justification to pay mere subsistence wages, since any raise in wages would not only drive down profits but augment the embrace of lifestyles incompatible with the work discipline of the masses. Hence, racism has an economic rationale, There is also a dynamic of social psychology in which whites feel superior as an inherent quality of their race, forgetting that white workers had common grounds with black workers to look at the dominant powers in the political economy.

Concepts of Du Bois

Talented Tenth

The Veil



Master/slave relationship

The Dialectic




Sorrow songs


Double consciousness


Atlanta Compromise

From The Souls of Black Folk: "the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."