Black Folk and the Struggle in ‘Philosophy’

Lucius T. Outlaw


This essay is an attempt to deal with some of the complexities involved in the question "Is there a 'Black Philosophy'?" In a very real sense, it represents one installment in a continuing attempt to achieve increased self-transparency relative to my participation in some of the various intellectual traditions which we term "Philosophy." The need for doing so rests on the problems involved in attempting to share in these traditions, these enterprises of intellectual practice, on the basis of my being part of the historical development of Black people.

The earliest occasion I had to struggle explicitly with some of these problems in a way which led to this essay was provided by an invitation to speak to the students and faculty of the Department of Philosophy, Tuskegee Institute. Particularly for the benefit of the Black students who were engaged in their own study of 'Philosophy,' I assumed the responsibility of attempting to shed some light on the subject of a possible stance for Black persons involved in the practice of Philosophy and the responsibilities to be met when doing so. A later occasion for addressing the issues was provided when a sub‑committee of the American Philosophical Association—the Committee on Blacks in Philosophy—held a series of workshops during regional APA meetings in 1974 and 1975, to address the question "Is there a 'Black Philosophy'?" In slightly different form, this essay was shared in one of those workshops.

The essay is then an "occasioned" piece, part of a wider struggle with a complex and important issue: the place of Black folk in the enterprise of Philosophy; the degree to which our participation in it might/ought to take particular form and/or direction by virtue of our distinctiveness as an African people in America. The emergence of this issue is not accidental, neither the form in which the question is put ("Is there a 'Black Philosophy'?"), or the responses to it. For what is revealed, on one level, in the endeavors of Black folk to confront the issue of "Black Philosophy" is the expansion of the continuing historical struggles of African people in this country (and elsewhere) to achieve a progressively liberated existence as it is variously conceived. Even more concretely, the emergence of the question and responses to it reflect the increasing number of Black folk entering the ranks of trained academics in the 'field' of Philosophy on the downturn of yet another wave of resurged Black nationalist consciousness," [1] as many refer to it. Still, this development has been late compared to other fields such as Sociology, Political Science, Law, to name a few. The manner of assertion of intensified Black cultural and political consciousness within Philosophy is thus conditioned strongly by the forms of earlier struggles in other fields: 'Black Studies'; 'Black' Sociology; 'Black' Art; 'Black' Political Science, etc. Particular historical tendencies or developments are often not shared in the same way at the same time in all sectors of complex societies, even when the developments of tendencies involve particular sub‑groups. Yet they can be and do come to be shared. In this case, the development of intensified self‑consciousness shared by many Black folk is now present within academic Philosophy. Thus the question: "Is there a 'Black Philosophy'?" Thus the varied responses to it by Black folk and otherwise. So far, though hopefully not in the future, the debate has remained meekly academic. This is revealing with respect to both academic Philosophy and Black folk involved in the enterprise (though not necessarily with sufficient critical insight) at this point in the historical development of the discipline, the social order as a whole. It is with some of the aspects of this complex, yet extremely important, historical situation that I wish to deal.


Philosophy, both as notion and as praxis, remains seriously problematic today. To a great degree it has become almost wholly 'academic:' the activity of trained "professionals" whose primary function has been reduced to being overseers in museums of the history of ideas. In itself this is a valuable function, for it insures the preservation of (some) valuable insights and strivings and their perpetuation through the mediation of tradition. Still, it does not represent a fulfillment of a possibly larger historical and social function of Philosophy understood as a dynamic enterprise unifying a different theory and praxis. As an enterprise, Philosophy has suffered from the pervasiveness of the intensified historical tendency toward increasing specialization and the development of narrowness, overconcern with method and discipline immanent matters, and, in some forms, has degenerated into scientism. Moreover, as a response to the prevailing schemes of values of capitalistic-technological society, the study of Philosophy (i.e., participation in studies in the history of some ideas, almost wholly western) has increasingly suffered from the demands of the 'performance principle' which would have us judge our primary activities, particularly formal education, in terms of their performance potential, that is to say, their market value. Thus are students of Philosophy constantly struggling with the question (and its implied criticism that Philosophy is not useful for anything in terms of 'making a living'), "What are you/am I going to do with Philosophy?" The most immediate response to that question was, at one time, ". . . become a teacher of Philosophy. .. " Since, however, the market situation for post-secondary teachers is poor at best today, Philosophy has become a poor commodity.

And what of those of us who "teach" it? We are too often market managers, professionals at that, higher degreed and salaried. That phase of the enterprise—the teaching of Philosophy—has its rightful place in the overall scheme of things, but it has suffered none the less from its professionalization, and we along with it. To the question "How do philosophers exist in the modern world?", William Barrett answers:

Philosophers today exist in the Academy, as members of depart­ments of philosophy in universities, as professional teachers of a more or less theoretical subject known as philosophy . . . The profession of the philosopher in the modern world is to be a professor of philosophy; and the realm of Being which the philosopher inhabits as a living individual is no more recondite than a corner within the University . . . The price one pays for being a professor is . . . professional deformation . . . As a human being, functioning professionally within the Academy, the philosopher can hardly be expected to escape his own professional deformation, especially since it has become a law of modern society that man is assimilated more and more completely to his social function. And it is just here that a troublesome and profound ambiguity resides for the philosopher today. [2]

This deformation reveals itself in many ways. Particularly there is the deformed historical development of philosophical thought, evidenced by the degree to which too many "problems" in Philosophy continue to be, even in these very problematic times, discipline immanent, without foundation beyond the boundaries of the discipline itself. They have not emerged from the generalized practice of life. Prior, then, to the resolution of the issue regarding "Black Philosophy," the issue of philosophizing, its possibility and meaning today in the west, is in need of clarification.


The very debate itself regarding a "Black Philosophy" thus rests on unclarified grounds. We Black folk who would involve ourselves in it would be wise to be cognizant of this situation in its fullness: not only its present condition of deformation, and the deformation of those involved, but of those distorted historical developments in the west in general. Our rush to uncritical intellectual integration in a dangerously problematic situation might prove to be our undoing: we could fail to be sufficiently aware of historical tendencies and possibilities which we might struggle with others to realize and in so doing condition a line of historical development which might lead to enhanced conditions of life for all, and for presently "marginal" peoples, in the present order of life, in particular.

It might be asked, however, whether it is the case that this very debate regarding "Black Philosophy" is an attempt to avoid or correct the pitfalls of deformation. To some extent it is, though not necessarily fully so. And judging by some of our present endeavors (i.e., those of Black folk involved), and our history as a class of formally educated Blacks, I would say no. If we Black thinkers (and others) are to condition a different line of historical development in the practice of Philosophy more in keeping with the needs of Black people, then our involvement in this debate must be conditioned by a number of crucial factors the awareness of which must be reflected in our philosophizing.

We Black folk must, first of all, be clear as to our own being, not only individually, but, most importantly, collectively. Our being must be viewed in its historical sweep, its cultural, socio‑political, economic complexities, its future possibilities. Our reflections on our future possibilities as a people must be particularly insightful. The achievement of a seemingly integrated position within the ranks of professional academic philosophers and teachers of Philosophy, must not leave us blind to the generalized condition of Black people in this country and elsewhere and, most importantly, to the realities of the basis of politicaleconomic power in this country in various groupings. Such power concentrations are not sufficiently grasped by traditional theory regarding the class structure of capitalistic society. An appropriate grasp of this situation must, in turn, be reflected in our struggles to come to grips with the activities which constitute Philosophy. Our personal situations as a class of Black people characterized by our degree of formal study must not lead us into a form of philosophizing which would imply that reason had been realized in contemporary history, that reasonableness had come to pervade the relations among men and women, among different racial, ethnic, religious groups and economic classes in this society, and relations among nations. We must not be guilty of a premature leap into a belief in the existence of universal peace and reason in the absence of its historical realization. Black people are still an oppressed ethnic group in this society, are still struggling against colonialism and neo­colonialism in other parts of the world. So too are other peoples. And there is not sufficient indication that major powers, particularly the U.S., are either moving or are capable of moving toward a world of peace and increased liberation for all peoples grounded in a politics and ethics involving political, economic, cultural, and social democracy. The struggle of our people continues to be that seeking progressive liberation at a level capable of being shared given the level of development of the culture of a whole. It is too a continuing struggle of the culture as a whole. It is too a continuing struggle for many who are non‑Black, including many whites. It is, overall, the struggle to harness and direct the capabilities of the society as a whole in the maximum utilization of resources with minimum waste and environmental destruction toward the satisfaction of essential human needs with minimum exploitation and oppression—the struggle for the realization of a life based increasingly on reason democratically envisioned and realized. Toward this end, however, the concrete realities of the politics of the past, present, and foreseeable future demand that we approach the struggle from the level of a group, i.e., ethnic (or nationalistic, as some would say), position, the only viable position in terms of which to achieve limited goals within the present order of things. In order to realize ends beyond the present order, however, it will be necessary to move beyond the important yet limited program of group‑centered politics as the prime mode of political activity. The pursuit of progressive possibilities which might lead to the radical transformation of the present order of life, thus, hopefully, to greater benefits for greater numbers of people, will require a social democracy based on pluralistic integration. Even so, we cannot be premature (i.e., unilateral) in this regard.


A very serious phase of our preparation for our task of philosophizing in the interest of Black people (and others) includes the need to come face to face with the history of the relationships of Black thinkers to the historical thrusts of Black people and, most importantly, with where this history leaves us today. We Black folk involved in Philosophy must, in other words, become transparent to ourselves as a class in terms of our history, our responsibilities, our possibilities.

Many very significant insights into the history of Black thinkers are to be had in the work by Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. [3] A controversial book, to say the least, still its uneven but very often penetrating analyses harbor a core of truth which is, in my judgment, very substantial. From the historical side there emerges from his analyses a picture of essential failure on the part of Black intellectuals (i.e., writers, social critics, artists, etc.) in not having forged a collective vision for Black people based on an appropriate grasp of the realities of the socio‑politico‑econornic and cultural scheme. For Cruse this failure rests fundamentally on the erroneous commitment on the part of Black intellectuals to the ideal of integration. Even more, the failure of left‑looking, 'radical' Black intellectuals, in his judgment, has been/continues to be a non‑critical commitment to Marxism‑Leninism and to the sufferance of intellectual apprenticeship to white, particularly Jewish, liberal, left‑wing intellectuals. The pervasive reality of American life, says Cruse, is that its politics, cultural systems, economics, are group based: power resides in ethnic/national groupings, primarily. The struggle for integration on the part of Black people without having first developed, cultivated, and consolidated our own group solidarity has resulted in—and will continue to result in—the unsuccessful realization of the struggle for equality and 'freedom' within the present scheme of things. The struggle for the most part has not been revolutionary, including separatist schemes (which, argues Cruse, seek to avoid the problem via escape) or those seeking systemic reform.

The arguments advanced by Cruse call for serious critique. However, a number of insights which emerge are immediately clear. Particularly important in the context of this essay is the need, Cruse stresses, for us to be clear as to our grounding as Black thinkers. That grounding, given present realities and the near and mediate future, is the historical struggle on the part of our people for an increasingly liberated existence. Out of this grounding emerges our first task: the struggle to achieve a critical understanding of our situation, our real needs, and the means by which they might be met. In struggling to meet these responsibilities we must work against the tendencies leading to deformation, and we must, particularly, be prepared to commit "class suicide" in order that our energies be given unequivocally in service to the historical struggles of our people, here and elsewhere. In this regard there is a particular turn which we must make in our development the importance, of which is heightened by the debate regarding "Black Philosophy." That turn of development and its ground of necessity is clearly set out by Cruse:

Every other ethnic group in America, a 'nation of nations,' has accepted the fact of its separatedness and used it to its own social advantage. But the Negro's conditioning has steered him into that perpetual state of suspended tension wherein ninety‑five percent of his time and energy is expended in fighting prejudice in whites. As a result, he has neither the time nor the inclination to realize that all of the effort spent fighting prejudice will not obviate those fundamental things an ethnic group must do for itself. This situation results from a psychology that is rooted in the Negro's symbiotic 'blood‑ties' to the white Anglo‑Saxon. It is the culmination of that racial drama of love and hate between slave and master, bound together in the purgatory of plantations. Today the African foster child in the American racial equation must grow to manhood, break the psychological umbilical ties to intellectual paternalism. The American Negro has never yet been able to break entirely free of the ministration of his white masters to the extent that he is willing to exile himself in search of wisdom, into the wastelands of the American desert. That is what must be done, if he is to deal with the Anglo‑Saxon as the independent political power that he, the Negro, potentially is. [4]

The insights of Cruse thus uncover our historically conditioned vocation which is fixed for us even more specifically by Vincent Harding:

. . . the fact still remains that for the life and work of the black scholar in search of vocation, the primary context is not to be found in the questionable freedom and relative affluence of the American university, nor in the ponderous uncertainties of "the scholarly community," nor even in the private joys of our highly prized, individual exceptionalisms. Rather, wherever we may happen to be physically based, our essential social, political, and spiritual context is the colonized situation of the masses of the black community in America. [5]

The vocation of the Black intellectual/scholar thusly grounded structures, in Vincent's words, our calling:

. . . to speak the truth to our people, to speak truth about our people, to speak truth about our enemies—all in order to free the mind, so that black men, women, and children may build beyond the banal, dangerous chaos of the American spirit, towards a new time. [6]


Still, the struggle to hear our calling, to respond, in part by taking a pilgrimage through the desert in search of wisdom, in part by speaking the truth, all directed by the concern to contribute to the historical movement toward the realization of a more reasonable life, takes us beyond the limited goals which emerge from group consciousness (i.e., nationalism, ethnicity). It will, in fact, drive us beyond the boundaries of the present order of life, and, necessarily, bring us into serious conflict with it. Again, many of the more fundamental needs of Black people are shared by many others. And there are, on the other hand, needs to be met in the lives of others which, while we might not suffer them either at all or in the same intensity, do require our concern and attention in the struggle to realize a life of progressive liberation. This world historical struggle thus draws us beyond limited peoplehood to a generalized peoplehood which recognizes peoples in their diversities. It makes for toil to achieve unity in diversity: reasonableness in life as a unity based on democratically agreed upon notions of 'reasonableness' in a diverse, pluralistic, finite world.

Judged against these goals, limited and generalized, the vocation of philosophizing, for those of us who would choose it, takes on decisive meaning: it is to share in the refinement and perpetuation of critical intelligence as a practice of life which has as its goal raising to consciousness the conditions of life, historical practices, and blocked alternatives which, if freed, might lead to life experienced as qualitatively— progressively—different. So conceived, "philosophy explores and evaluates the totality of the human condition in society. It represents society's most general and most fundamental theoretical‑critical self-consciousness. No other form of human intellect is as condemned to aspire to totality as is philosophy." [7] Thus, the social function of Philosophy is to develop critical, dialectical thought, according to Max Horkheimer: "Philosophy is the methodical and steadfast attempt to bring reason into the world," [8] a crucial moment of this process being the radical critique of what is, at a given time, prevalent:

By criticism, we mean that intellectual, and eventually practical, effort which is not satisfied to accept the prevailing ideas, actions, and social conditions unthinkingly and from mere habit; effort which aims to coordinate the individual sides of social life with each other and with the general ideas and aims of the epoch, to deduce them genetically, to distinguish the appearance from the essence, to examine the foundations of things, in short, really to know them. [9]

And the 'dialectical' aspect of critical thought? As Marcuse has characterized it:

Dialectical thought starts with the experience that the world is unfree; . . . man and nature exist in conditions of alienation, exist as ‘other than they are.’ . . . Dialectical thought thus becomes negative in itself. Its function is to break down the self-assurance and self‑contentment of common sense, to undermine the sinister confidence in the power and language of facts, to demonstrate that unfreedom is so much at the core of things that the development of their internal contradictions leads necessarily to qualitative change: the explosion and catastrophe of the established state of affairs. [10]


For us Black folk who would philosophize, that is to say, who would live a life conditioned primarily by the activity of critical, dialectical thinking, a very first task is to bring this activity to bear on the practice of Philosophy today to the extent that we are to have any contact with its traditions and practices in the academy. Beyond this, however, the need to be grounded in the historical struggles of our people, in particular, and the struggles of people toward more reasonable forms of existence, in general, sets our tasks. While it is not possible to list exhaustively all particular tasks to be performed toward the realization of goals in either set of struggles, still it is possible to indicate some.

On the one hand, there is the need to be met in terms of interpretations of the experiences of Black folk toward a number of ends: the recovery of historical meaning as a means of radicalizing our own present and future possibilities as a people; the restoration and repair of broken communication among the various groupings of our people; the mediation of our people's traditions; and, most importantly, the achievement of increased self‑transparency. In total, such hermeneutical (interpretive) endeavors would aim at the full disclosure of the life world and life‑praxes of Black people and provide much needed guidance in the formulation of our projects.

On the other hand, there is the need, in terms of the struggles on the part of others in the world, to increase the degree of freedom, happiness, and well‑being which they might enjoy, to be with these struggles in our own life‑practices and our own historical endeavors. The increasing disclosure of the interdependence of all our lives on this planet, an interdependence grossly and distortingly exaggerated by monopoly, imperialistic capitalism, reveals the broad directions we must take in the world historical struggles of oppressed peoples to increase the range and quality of their well-being. As beneficiaries of the advanced level of cultural development, in some ways, of the West in general, the U.S. in particular, based as it is in large part on the oppression of others, our responsibilities to these peoples and to ourselves are immense.

In terms of all of this, our struggle as Black folk involved in "philosophizing" is but a moment in the whole. We must therefore be clear as to our position regarding a "Black Philosophy." For in doing so—or in failing to do so—we will significantly condition our histories: as a class, as a people, as people in struggle in world history.


1. John Bracey, Jr., et. al., Black Nationalism in America, Bobbs‑Merrill: New York, 1970.

2. Irrational Man, Doubleday & Co., Inc.: Garden City, N.Y., 1962, pp. 4‑5.

3. William Morrow & Co.: New York, 1967.

4. Ibid., p. 364.

5. "The Vocation of the Black Scholar," Education and Black Struggle: Harvard Educational Review, edited by the Institute of the Black World, Monograph No. 2, 1974, p. 6.

6. Ibid., p. 8.

7. Svetozar Stojanovic, Between Ideals and Reality: A Critique of Socialism and its Future, translated by Gerson S. Sher, Oxford University Press: New York, 1973, p. 12.

8. "The Social Function of Philosophy," Critical Theory, Herder & Herder: New York, 1972, p. 268.

9. Ibid., p. 270.

10. Herbert Marcuse, "A Note on Dialectic," Reason and Revolution, Beacon Press: Boston, 1968, p. ix.

SOURCE: Outlaw,  Lucius T.  “Black Folk and the Struggle in ‘Philosophy’,” Radical Philosophers’ Newsjournal [Somerville, MA], no. VI, April 1976, pp. 21-30.

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