Notes on Bruce Kuklick’s
Black Philosopher, White Academy: The Career of William Fontaine

Review by Ralph Dumain


Kuklick, Bruce. Black Philosopher, White Academy: The Career of William Fontaine. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Bibliography, pp. 161-163.

While Bruce Kuklick neglected Black philosophers in his panoptic history of American philosophy, his biography of William Fontaine is a single case study. Kuklick decided to pursue the scanty historical record of Fontaine's life after discovering the existence of a Fontaine archive at the University of Pennsylvania, in which Kuklick found a letter of recommendation on his behalf written by Fontaine, who had been one of Kuklick's professors long ago. And so the saga begins . . . .

William Fontaine grew up in gruesome Chester, Pennsylvania, attended Lincoln University, got his BA in 1930, then taught Latin, history, and government there. He studied philosophy for a time at Harvard, got his PhD in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1936, taught at Southern University in Louisiana. Fontaine taught at Morgan State for a while, had formed friendships with leading Jewish-American philosophers, esp. Nelson Goodman, and was recruited into the Philosophy Dept. of the University of Pennsylvania in 1947, becoming the first Ivy League Black philosopher in the USA. His appointment was made permanent in 1949.

In 1947, Fontaine joined the American Philosophical Association, and signed up for the annual conference, held that year in Charlottesville, Virginia. He got a ride to the conference, his traveling companions being Nelson Goodman, Morton White, and the visiting Brit A. J. Ayer, all assimilated Jewish intellectuals. As Blacks were not allowed in white hotels in Virginia, Fontaine's colleagues dropped him off at a different hotel, helped him bring in his luggage, and all were acutely embarrassed at the situation. The following year the APA resolved never to meet at segregated hotels ever again.

In chapter 4, we begin to see Fontaine's original work. In his landmark 1942 essay "The Mind and Thought of the Negro of the United States as Revealed in Imaginative Literature, 1876-1940" Fontaine analyzes the evolution of Black consciousness through various historical periods. His influences from philosophy, besides being stuck with pragmatism, are Hegel, Marx, and above all Karl Mannheim's sociology of knowledge. Another landmark essay is "Social Determination in the Writings of American Negro Scholars" (1944), reprinted in Leonard Harris' Philosophy Born of Struggle.

Kuklick insightfully analyzes the cultural schizophrenia Fontaine was forced to live as the first Black professional philosopher permanently accepted into an elite white institution. Kuklick sums up Fontaine’s successes as a sociologist/historian of ideas and failures as a philosopher due to the severe constrictions of pragmatism and analytical philosophy as well as social marginalization.

New fact for me: the role of Marvin Farber in getting Fontaine's book Reflections on Segregation, Desegregation, Power and Morals published in 1967.

Farber spent most of his career at the University of Buffalo. He introduced phenomenology to the English-speaking world, and as a materialist criticized Husserl, all the while keeping his journal Phenomenology and Phenomenological Research open to all philosophical tendences. As a leftist Farber promoted materialism as the McCarthy era began, and resisted McCarthyism from his post in academia.

The liberal Jews who got Fontaine into the University of Pennsylvania and got the APA to halt its practice of patronizing segregated hotels at their philosophy conferences were analytical philosophers, and while friends and supporters, their intellectual range was far too narrow to support Fontaine's work beyond his derivative publications in boring technical questions of analytical philosophy. One of these was Nelson Goodman. When Farber temporarily took charge of the University of Pennsylvania's philosophy department, he and Goodman fought like cats and dogs, while Fontaine, friends with both, was stuck in the middle. Two Jews, three opinions, as they say . . . plus Negroes.

Book read & comments written July 10, August 17 & 31, 2014.


William T. Fontaine’s landmark "The Mind and Thought of the Negro of the United States as Revealed in Imaginative Literature, 1876-1940" (1942) is one of Fontaine's two most important articles, written while he was a professor at Southern University, an HBCU in Louisiana. This article was not published in a professional journal, but in the Southern University Bulletin, and died there. Once Fontaine was admitted to the Ivy League (the first Black philosopher to gain an appointment in an Ivy League institution), analytical philosophy had taken over and Fontaine could only do derivative work while slowly dying of tuberculosis.

I could not locate this article anywhere on my own, so I wrote to Bruce Kuklick and he kindly sent me his photocopy. It took me weeks to properly digitize and edit it.

Fontaine traces the evolution of black American consciousness following the destruction of Reconstruction through four periods: the nadir, regroupment and challenge, the New Negro and Harlem Renaissance, and the 1930s ‘red decade’, sketching out the dominant orientation of each. Fontaine begins with Paul Laurence Dunbar and ends with an extensive analysis of Richard Wright's Native Son. Fontaine derives his analytical ideas from Karl Mannheim's sociology of knowledge (Ideology and Utopia) and American philosopher George Herbert Mead's notions of the "I" and the "me", with some input from John Dewey as well. In 1940 Richard Wright represents the most advanced stage of Black consciousness to date.

There is an extensive treatment of colorism. Fontaine finds that in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, despite the black-is-beautiful rhetoric, the works themselves show a demonstrable preference for lighter skin.

There are some interesting remarks on religion and skepticism and interesting quotes from philosophers. Fontaine references Nietzsche, while refuting Nietzsche’s biologism.

Apparently, Fontaine incorporated George Herbert Mead’s conception of the social self into his analysis of Black consciousness, but the entire analysis reads like Hegel's notion of recognition.

Scattered additional thoughts:

It is interesting how Fontaine deploys the ideas of Mannheim, Mead, and Dewey in this treatise. It also occurs to me that the essay confirms George Lipsitz's contention that Black consciousness reached a watershed stage in the 1940s. It looks like the ‘red decade’ of the 1930s made a decisive contribution to that development.

This essay sparked a sudden inspiration to formulate a new lecture/article/podcast on Richard Wright (I had long been thinking of doing one) that also formulates the relationship between imaginative literature and professional philosophy, in both "Black" and "White" intellectual history. I never got around to following up on Richard Wright, but I composed my definitive essay "‘Philosophy’ and ‘Literature’: Relationships of Genres and the Frontiers of Thought".

References

Dumain, Ralph.  "‘Philosophy’ and ‘Literature’: Relationships of Genres and the Frontiers of Thought," February 1, 2015.

Fontaine, William T. “Avoidability and the Contrary-to-Fact Conditional in C. L. Stevenson and C. I. Lewis,” Vol. 48, No. 25, December 6, 1951, pp. 783-788.

_______________. Fortune, Matter, and Providence: A Study of Ancius Severinus Boethius and Giordano Bruno. PhD dissertation. Scotlandville, LA, 1939.

_______________. “An Interpretation of Contemporary Negro Thought from the Standpoint of the Sociology of Knowledge,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 25, No. 1, January 1940, pp. 6-13.

_______________. “Josiah Royce and the American Race Problem,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 29, No. 2, December 1968, pp. 282-288.

_______________. “The Means End Relation and Its Significance for Cross-Cultural Ethical Agreement,” Philosophy of Science, Vol. 25, No. 3, July 1958, pp. 157-162.

_______________. “The Mind and Thought of the Negro of the United States as Revealed in Imaginative Literature, 1876-1940,” Southern University Bulletin, 28 (March 1942), pp. 5-50.

_______________. “The Negro Continuum from Dominant Wish to Collective Act,” African Forum, Vol. 3, Spring-Summer 1968.

_______________. “The Paradox of Counterfactual Terminating Judgments,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 46, No. 13, June 23, 1949, pp. 416-421.

_______________. “Philosophical Aspects of Contemporary African Social Thought,” in Pan-Africanism Reconsidered (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), pp. 244-254.

_______________. “Philosophical Implications of the Biology of Dr. Ernest E. Just,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 24, No. 3, July 1939, pp. 281- 290.

_______________. “‘Segregation and desegregation in the United States : A philosophical analysis,” Présence Africaine, Nouvelle série, No. 8/10, Le Ier Congrès International des Écrivains et Artistes Noirs, June-November 1956, pp. 154-173.

_______________. “'Social Determination' in the Writings of American Negro Scholars,” with rejoinders by E. Franklin Frazier & E. B. Reuter, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 49 (1944), pp. 302-13. Reprinted in Philosophy Born of Struggle: Anthology of Afro-American Philosophy from 1917, edited by Leonard Harris (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1983), pp. 89-102, with rebuttal by E. Franklin Frazier, pp. 102-106.

_______________. Reflections on Segregation, Desegregation, Power and Morals. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishing Company, 1967.

_______________. “Vers une philosophie de la littérature noire américaine,” Présence Africaine, Nouvelle série, No. 24/25, Deuxième Congrès des Écrivains rt Artistes Noirs, February-May 1959, pp. 153-165.

Frazier, E. Franklin. “The Failure of the Negro Intellectual,” Negro Digest, February 1962, pp. 26-36. Reprinted in:

Edwards, Franklin G., ed. E. Franklin Frazier on Race Relations: Selected Writings (University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 267-279.

Ladner, Joyce, ed. The Death of White Sociology: Essays in Race and Culture (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1973), pp. 52-67.

Kuklick, Bruce. Black Philosopher, White Academy: The Career of William Fontaine. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Bibliography, pp. 161-163.

____________. A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.

Links:

"Going South: William Fontaine’s Trip to Virginia, 1948" (book excerpt) by Bruce Kuklick

William Thomas Valeria Fontaine 1909 – 1968 (University of Pennsylvania)

William Fontaine - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Fontaine, William Thomas (1909-1968) (Black Past)

Review of Bruce Kuklick’s Black Philosopher, White Academy: The Career of William Fontaine by Andrew Hartman (USIH Review, November 2008)

George Herbert Mead - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Written Oct. 20, 24 & 25, Nov. 10, 18 & 19, Dec. 7, 2014.
This page compiled & text edited Dec. 4, 2020.


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