A new name for some old ways of thinking: pragmatism, radical empiricism, and epistemology in W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Of the Sorrow Songs”

International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 87 (2):173-192 (2020)
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When William James published Pragmatism, he gave it a subtitle: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. In this article, I argue that pragmatism is an epistemological method for articulating success in, and between, a plurality of practices, and that this articulation helped James develop radical empiricism. I contend that this pluralistic philosophical methodology is evident in James’s approach to philosophy of religion, and that this method is also exemplified in the work of one of James’s most famous students, W.E.B. Du Bois, specifically in the closing chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, “Of the Sorrow Songs.” I argue that “Sorrow Songs” can be read as an epistemological text, and that once one identifies the epistemic standards of pragmatism and radical empiricism in the text, it’s possible to identify an implicit case for moderate fideism in “Sorrow Songs.” I contend that this case illuminates the pluralistic philosophical methodology James worked throughout his career to develop, and that the James-Du Bois approach to philosophy may even help locate the epistemic value of other religious practices, beyond the singing of hymns, and identify terrain mainstream philosophy has long neglected.

Author's Profile

Walter Scott Stepanenko
York College of Pennsylvania


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