Completing the Uncompleted Argument: An Existentialist Response to Appiah's Reading of Du Bois

Open Access
Oke, Ronke Abidemi
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
October 06, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Robert Lambert Bernasconi, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Robert Lambert Bernasconi, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Leonard Richard Lawlor, Committee Member
  • Kathryn Teresa Gines, Committee Member
  • Collins O Airhihenbuwa, Committee Member
  • individuality
  • Race
  • Identity
  • Critical Philosophy of Race
  • Du Bois
  • Existentialism
  • Kwame Anthony Appiah
  • cosmopolitanism
Almost 30 years have passed since Kwame Anthony Appiah began writing a series of responses to W.E.B. Du Bois’s definition of race in “The Conservation of Races” (1897). In his famous first essay, “The Uncompleted Argument: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” Appiah judges Du Bois’s conception of race in "The Conservations of Races" to be circular and, thus, incoherent. But in 2012 at the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. lecture series Appiah renounces his earlier statements on Du Bois and publishes a new book on Du Bois, Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity (2014). This publication, one year shy of the 30th anniversary of “The Uncompleted Argument”, begs the question of why, after a tense history and an even more contentious debate, Appiah returns to Du Bois and, more importantly, what does he find in the emergence of (a racial) identity that he did not 30 years ago. The central work of this project is to deploy existential critical philosophy of race to explore what might remain of Du Bois’s sociohistorical definition of race on the way to developing a new conceptual framework from which to understand racial identity. Using the resources of existential philosophy, broadly conceived, and without succumbing to the allure of Appiah’s interventions, I show that Appiah’s shift from racial eliminativism to cosmopolitanism is able to give us a more robust sense of the terrain we must traverse when theorizing identity. This can successfully be done, I argue, if Appiah’s arguments are unremittingly frustrated by the challenges of racism and racialized subjectivity, and framed according to a world structured by systematic racism. The goal of this project is to reconstruct a philosophical account of lived experience that does justice to the experience of race.