Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Alain Locke: Critical Pragmatist, Cultural Pluralist, and “Father of the Harlem Renaissance”

Painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau

Today is the birthday of the philosopher, Alain Locke: 
Alain LeRoy Locke (September 13, 1885 – June 9, 1954) was an American writer, philosopher, educator, and patron of the arts. Distinguished as the first African American Rhodes Scholar in 1907, Locke was the philosophical architect —the acknowledged ‘Dean’— of the Harlem Renaissance.” 
The following is from the introduction to the entry on Locke in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Jacoby Adeshei Carter: 
“Alain LeRoy Locke is heralded as the ‘Father of the Harlem Renaissance’ for his publication in 1925 of The New Negro—an anthology of poetry, essays, plays, music and portraiture by white and black artists. Locke is best known as a theorist, critic, and interpreter of African-American literature and art. He was also a creative and systematic philosopher who developed theories of value, pluralism and cultural relativism that informed and were reinforced by his work on aesthetics. Locke saw black aesthetics quite differently than some of the leading Negro intellectuals of his day; most notably W. E. B. Du Bois, with whom he disagreed about the appropriate social function of Negro artistic pursuits. Du Bois thought it was a role and responsibility of the Negro artist to offer a representation of the Negro and black experience which might help in the quest for social uplift. Locke criticized this as ‘propaganda’ and argued that the primary responsibility and function of the artist is to express his own individuality, and in doing that to communicate something of universal human appeal. 
Locke was a distinguished scholar and educator and during his lifetime an important philosopher of race and culture. Principal among his contributions in these areas was the development of the notion of ‘ethnic race,’ Locke’s conception of race as primarily a matter of social and cultural, rather than biological, heredity. Locke was in contemporary parlance a racial revisionist, and held the somewhat controversial and paradoxical view that it was often in the interests of groups to think and act as members of a ‘race’ even while they consciously worked for the destruction or alteration of pernicious racial categories. Racial designations were for Locke incomprehensible apart from an understanding of the specific cultural and historical contexts in which they grew up. A great deal of Locke’s philosophical thinking and writing in the areas of pluralism, relativism and democracy are aimed at offering a more lucid understanding of cultural or racial differences and prospects for more functional methods of navigating contacts between different races and cultures. 
Locke, like Du Bois, is often affiliated with the pragmatist philosophical tradition though somewhat surprisingly—surprising because Locke’s actual views are closer substantively to pragmatist thinkers Like Dewey, James, and Royce than are Du Bois’s—he does not receive as much attention in the writings of contemporary pragmatist philosophers as does Du Bois. Regardless, he is most strongly identified with the pragmatist tradition, but his ‘critical pragmatism’ and most specifically his value theory, is also influenced by Hugo Münsterberg, F.S.C. Schiller, Alexius Meinong, Frantz Brentano, and Christian von Erhenfels. From early on in his education at Harvard University, Locke had an affinity for the pragmatist tradition in philosophy. Locked developed his mature views on axiology well in advance of many leading pragmatists—e.g., Dewey and James. Among pragmatists, Locke has arguably the most developed and systematic philosophy of value, and offers many critical insights concerning democracy.” 
The Alain Locke Society was founded by Leonard Harris and Jacoby Adeshei Carter serving as its Executive Director: 
A Select Bibliography:
  • Cain, Rudolph Alexander Kofi. Alain Leroy Locke: Race, Culture, and the Education of African American Adults. Amsterdam, NY: Rodopi, 2003. 
  • Carter, Jacoby Adeshei and Leonard Harris, eds. Philosophic Values and World Citizenship: Locke to Obama and Beyond. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.  
  • Harris, Leonard, ed. The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989. 
  • Harris, Leonard, ed. The Critical Pragmatism of Alain Locke. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.  
  • Harris, Leonard and Charles Molesworth. Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 
  • Locke, Alain. Race Contacts and Interracial Relations: Lectures of the Theory and Practice of Race. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1916.
  • Locke, Alain (Charles Molesworth, ed.) The Works of Alain Locke. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 
  • Locke, Alain, ed. The New Negro. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925. 
  • Stewart, Jeffrey, ed. The Critical Temper of Alain Locke: A Collection of His Essays on Art and Culture. New York: Garland Publishing, 1983. 
  • Washington, Johnny. Alain Locke and Philosophy: A Quest for Cultural Pluralism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986. 
  • Washington, Johnny. A Journey into the Philosophy of Alain Locke. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.


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