Transcript: 79. Leonard Harris on Alain Locke

Leonard Harris explains how Locke's value theory was the basis for his aesthetics and theories of democracy and race.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: It’s very exciting to have you on the series because you're a biographer of Locke and have worked a lot on his thought. Maybe we can start out by talking about his initial intellectual formation. He studied at Harvard University with such thinkers as Josiah Royce and George Santayana. And so that would have been a pretty exciting start for him in his philosophical career. What ideas did he take forward from that education into his later career?

Leonard Harris: Well, first, Locke comes to Harvard with a good degree of sensibility and education and desire, but not just from Josiah Royce or Santyana, whose philosophy he ultimately rejected because it was too romantic and abstract. He also studied with Hugo Munsterberg at Harvard, and he was in touch with him in England and said he had a deep interest in literature, which he gained in part from his own history, but also from an English teacher named Charles Copeland. He was focusing on issues of pragmatism and truth, but more importantly his final focus was on the value theories, on what counts as valuation and how it is that we create different value judgments. So I'd say from Harvard he gained a greater sense of himself and a greater sense of focus on issues of valuation, which he took with him when he went to Oxford in 1907, where – and there Hugo Munsterberg still figures as important with him – he began to work on Austrian value theory in the works of Christian von Ehrenfels. He went to Berlin in 1911 to study under Georg Simmel, the founder of sociology. So the notion of a value theory remained throughout his career, from that earlier education at Harvard. By the time he does his doctoral dissertation, which he submitted on September 17, 1917, he's criticizing James and Dewey, although he was enamored with them at Harvard, but he steps away from James and Dewey and further deepens the notion of value relativism. Reality, for Locke, is fluid.

Peter Adamson: So he's sort of gravitating towards a relativist position, away from the pragmatism of James and Dewey.

Leonard Harris: Yes, he develops his own orientation within the context of pragmatism, which is different than James and Dewey, and begins moving away from their influence. He didn't take courses with them, because they weren't teaching there. He did attend a lecture by Dewey when he was at Harvard, and another lecture by James, at least one of them, when he was at Oxford. But he steps away from their philosophical foundation to create a new orientation within that tradition.

Peter Adamson: So we're going to get on to talking about aspects of his value theory and especially his aesthetics. But before we do that, I just wanted to touch on the thing that he's probably most famous for, at least in the general public, is that he is somehow given credit for being a driving force behind the Harlem Renaissance. And so I'm wondering whether you think, is this true? I mean, to what extent does he help spark the Harlem Renaissance? To what extent was he just commenting on something that would have happened without him?

Leonard Harris: There are multiple answers to that. First, yes, he should be credited with motivating the Harlem Renaissance, but there's more than one version of the Harlem Renaissance occurring at that time. And yes, it would have happened without him, but it was the idea of the New Negro – Booker T. Washington had also written a book about the New Negro, it was in the air, so to speak, was a common theme, so to speak. Marcus Garvey was doing the same thing. W. E. B. Du Bois is doing the same thing. Hubert Harrison had been doing the same thing. So yes, lots of people were talking about the New Negro, and lots of people are talking about a Renaissance. A Renaissance is the definition of a new person, a new human being, a new conception of what it is to be. So Harlem simply becomes a kind of foci for that discussion, and it is very important to credit Locke for the book The New Negro in 1925, because it fundamentally alters the way in which you see African people. It is a fundamental break. This book changes the dialogue altogether, and it is a very different way of doing it than the kind of Garveyite picture or Du Boisian picture. Locke presents the New Negro in the introduction, and the first picture you see of the New Negro you have the Brown Madonna. This is a beautiful picture defining what it is to count as the beautiful – a Black woman holding a child, a dark-skinned Black woman holding a child, she's sanguine, she's peaceful, she's strong, she's determined. And at the same time, she's a mother. He gets criticized for thinking of this, how are you going to present a Black woman as a mother, defining what counts as the beautiful, what counts as symmetry, what counts as balance, what counts as poise, what counts as dignity? That's the first thing you're seeing. And before that you get pictures of African motifs. So this book changes the dialogue. You get 27 pictures by Winold Reiss, a German.

Peter Adamson: So that focuses our attention on especially visual artworks. But he also writes about artworks, and I guess basically every genre, like poetry, painting and photographs, as you just said, a little dance, theater. He even was involved in putting on theatrical productions. Does he have certain aesthetic principles that he thought should be observed or pursued in all media?

Leonard Harris: Well, The New Negro first changes the dialogue because it transformed the aesthetic secular. It has poetry, it has comedy, it has spirituals, it has serious articles as well. It insists on folk culture as the source of universal culture. So that changes the picture. It's an aesthetic pluralism, as opposed to an aesthetic realism. That is, it's an aesthetic which says what's important is the diversity of kind. We want to see humanity within the African American community as complex, not as simple. We're going to promote self-reliance and self-confidence, not the romanticism of the minstrel tradition, not the self-effacement. Not the romanticism, not the sentimentality of that tradition. Instead, we're going to promote boldness, aggressiveness, assertiveness, self-reliance, self-dependency – a whole range. His aesthetic principles are formalistic. He wants poise, dignity, form, structure, balance, complexity. But at the same time, Locke is very different than others, because he doesn't see reality as complete. He sees it as constantly changing information.

Peter Adamson: Do you think that there's even a tension there between his kind of classicizing aesthetic where he's always talking about elegance, form, poise, balance, symmetry, on the one hand, and then this love of pluralism and variety and change on the other hand?

Leonard Harris: Yeah, I think there's not a tension, but a complexity that you have to appreciate. Part of what it is he's saying, in terms of the principles of the aesthetics, is that you have to see people in their complexity and not in their simplicity. Now, another way of thinking about this is how he saw the book Home to Harlem, by Claude McKay. On the one hand, Du Bois criticized this, as did Marcus Garvey and others, as being tawdry. Whereas Locke says, look, it shows some complexity. He thinks it's pretty bad too, but it has character development. The hero marries a prostitute. The hero leaves Harlem, because Harlem is a decadent place, not because of sexuality, but because there's a bunch of hypocritical civil rights-oriented Black people who are attempting the civil rights movement. They're not very happy about this guy. He's not a dedicated American soldier. He's not promoting racial uplift. He's condemning this Harlem where Black people don't own anything. They don't want him in Harlem. They're just there, pretending it's this. They’ve ascended above the bulk. Locke’s aesthetic will allow you to see that complexity and allow you – but a Du Boisian aesthetic will not – will allow you incongruity, chaos, instability. It will allow you to see beauty in symmetry and also beauty in the constant transition of your condition. That's why you're having a New Negro. On the one hand, you've got some poetry which is promoting spirituality. And on the other hand, some poetry which might be a little risque. You have a spiritual, which is promoting God and worship, and on the other hand, some common.

Peter Adamson: And so this actually separates him, would you say, a lot from Du Bois? Because, I mean, Du Bois obviously is another author of the period who talks about aesthetics, and they disagree about – maybe, so far, it just sounds like they have different tastes or something that they actually, they have a deeper disagreement.

Leonard Harris: No, it's not just a taste. Locke has a fundamentally different philosophy which motivates this form of the New Negro. And motivates this form of the Harlem Renaissance. And so there are other forms now, but his is motivated by his own thought, by his own philosophy. Definitely Du Bois is an aesthetic realist. Locke is not. Du Bois wants art to show truth and promote moral uplift. Locke wants art to promote reality and simultaneously complexity, but moral uplift by virtue of a variety of arts. Another way to think about this, Du Boisian aesthetic – and they're both in some ways elitists, they're both trying to promote something special – but a Du Boisian aesthetic requires a certain kind of moral commitment to specific virtues. A Lockean aesthetic allows for more variety of complexities. Locke is the only one who knows that some of the people in The New Negro are bisexual. He knows this. The others do not.

Peter Adamson: And of course, it doesn't bother him.

Leonard Harris: No, no. You see my point.

Peter Adamson: So in a way, Du Bois would say that there is this absolute set of values that should be reflected in artwork, and artwork is good just insofar as it promotes and reflects those values, whereas as a relativist, I guess you would say Locke thinks that the purpose of artwork is to depict or reflect the complexity of value, seen from all of its different perspectives that we actually find in the world. Is that right?

Leonard Harris: Yes.

Peter Adamson: And actually maybe that connects to something else I wanted to ask you about, which is his theory of democracy. Because I suppose that his value of democracy is connected to what we were just talking about, because, of course, democracy is a political system that allows for a plurality of values to be expressed and to make themselves heard on the political stage. Do you think that's a good parallel to draw?

Leonard Harris: Let's define parallel, but let me point you to Jacoby Carter’s work, Philosophic Values and World Citizenship. Locke is certainly concerned with democracy, and he promotes these virtues of reciprocity, cultural equivalences, as a fundamental feature of any possible democratic world. He does a wonderful anthology that collects a whole series of articles on different forms of democracy, different features of democracy, different ways of talking about ethnic identity, world culture. OK, but Locke also has a piece called World Citizenship: Mirage or Reality? What does he mean? He's talking about what it is to be a world citizen. Not just an American citizen. Not just the American form of democracy, but what it is to be a world citizen. Remember, he’s coming out of Oxford, his best friend is Pixley Seme, one of the three founders of the African National Congress in South Africa. They are responsible for producing a new journal while they're in college, but Locke writes the piece for the journal, called Cosmopolitanism. And there it makes it very clear what he means by cosmopolitanism in some sense. A cosmopolitan is not dedicated to the gods of the city, but a cosmopolitan can be dedicated to each city-state across those lines. So his picture of democracy now is very, very different than the localized American notion of let's just have citizens participate in the existing social structures. He's thinking of it in terms of world citizenship, where you no longer are committed to romanticizing the delusion of American Puritanism and American exceptionalism.

Peter Adamson: Does that mean that he would have actually welcomed something like a world government, like a democratic government like the United Nations, but a democracy?

Leonard Harris: That’s right. He was one of the founders of what was prior to the United Nations. Yes he was very much a part of that project. Locke was a member of a number of associations: American Negro Academy, Associates in Negro Folk Education, International Institute of African Languages and Culture, the League of American Writers, Negro Society of Historical Research, corresponding member of the Académie des Sciences Coloniales, honorary fellow of Sociedad de Estudios Afro-Cubanos. So he's a member of a variety of cultural formations, and he spends a year in Haiti, writes this series of articles, edited by Jacoby Carter again, on democracy. The Haitian democracy is not seen as some sort of massive failure, but as paradigmatic of what it is to be a democracy. They're suffering all right. But he writes this series of articles, which Jacoby Carter has now published, on African American culture, on what it is to be transcendent of this local simplistic notion of the American democracy and the Constitution, where it's the predominant and paradigmatic kind.

Peter Adamson: It's an interesting contrast, I think, to the Pan-Africanism of figures like Garvey and even Du Bois. They were saying, well, let's seek union between Diasporic Africans, people of African heritage living outside of Africa, and Africa itself. Whereas Locke seems to be shooting for something even bigger or broader, which is this truly universal Pan-Humanism, maybe, instead of Pan-Africanism.

Leonard Harris: Yes. It's non-contradictory. He's a part of that movement, that African movement, but also much broader, to the world citizenship and what has to be a cosmopolitan. He sees it as much more fluid and open.

Peter Adamson: Maybe there's also a connection to, going back to his aesthetics, to something that he says about things like folk music, because he values folk music, and he wants to celebrate the way that the particularity of folk music tradition can express the values of that community. But he also wants artwork to somehow express the universal, right?

Leonard Harris: Remember, he's a relativist, right, so there's not going to be this metaphysical universal essence which is undetermined, unaltered, and unchanging. There's not going to be some foundation. One of his primary concerns is how can he ground moral values, given the reality of ethical transitions? How is this going to be possible? So what his solution, in part, is to see what many other authors did not see, what happened with the New Negro. He says, I'm going to take the particularity and see how it manifests itself as the universal. That's what he does in, for example, in The Negro and His Music, for jazz. He says, look, these are local musics, all right. But there's something about them which can have a universal content. He does the same thing with the Golden Gate Quartet, with the folk music. He says, this is music that comes out of that hard condition of slavery. But at the same time, there's an intonation, which speaks to that which is universal.

Peter Adamson: Can I ask, when he talks about speaking to the universal – does that mean just that it has universal appeal, like everyone can appreciate it? Or does it mean something beyond that?

Leonard Harris: No, it means that it has value, for argument is generally good. It's not saying everybody necessarily appreciates it or somehow it's intrinsic to the nature. He’s saying here it is something which can arguably be considered valuable, across lines of ethnicity and race and culture.

Peter Adamson: So it's like we have value like beauty, let's say, and then beauty can only ever be realized in all of these local, particular ways.

Leonard Harris: That's right. In other words, there's something systematically misleading about thinking about a generality and abstraction, and then you're going to reduce it to the particular. That doesn't really work a lot. It's the other way around. It's the particular from which you derive certain kinds of generality. But without romanticizing them. And he fights against absolutism, dogmatism. He fights against what he calls universality uniformitarianism. That's also what he does against it in the New Negro, the idea that somehow there is the Negro, one Negro, uniform, reducible to this one essence. This is defeated in The New Negro. The first article is by a white man.

Peter Adamson: And he also wouldn't, for example, say everyone should start playing jazz, right?

Leonard Harris: Right. It's not going to work.

Peter Adamson: Yeah. Is there a connection there – that there's one other area of his thought that I want to ask you about, and I'm wondering again if this is connected, which is his theory of race. Because of course one way of thinking about race is that we're talking about a particular group of people, right? And he denies again that there's this kind of absolute, non-relativistic set of divisions between people like white race and Black race and so on.

Leonard Harris: Let me give you several pieces of Locke, that will be somewhat controversial. One, he’s an eliminitavist. He wants to get rid of race, period. Ultimately. But he missed in 1939. He was a little bit more modest when talking about race genius. He missed that. And you also remember something interesting about Locke that's different from all the other persons operating in Black American philosophy at that time: Locke’s associated with the Baha'i faith. Baha'i believe that race is a sin against God. Locke had already visited the Middle East. Locke was always a member of the Amity Committee his whole life, as a doctrinaire member of the Baha'i faith. And almost nobody knew this, except the Baha'i . So he's not coming out of the Christian Black American tradition where he's looking for a savior. He writes for the Baha'i World. Let's look for religious syncretism, ways in which various religions are common. So he’s not promoting a hidden agenda, if you will. He's not promoting the Christian motifs of Protestantism. I can have a personal relationship with God, and God is going to tell me what to do. That's not there. He’s not promoting this redemptive project. So the next piece of this is that yes, he sees race as a social construction and a fabrication. It's unreal, but at the same time it's being used. And we have to use it to work through it. So you have this tension all right, that's there because Locke is a race man. But he's a race man who’s getting rid of race.

Peter Adamson: I was just going to ask that, because it seems like he would just have to reject ideas like Du Bois’s Black gift thesis or something like that, because if if the Black race is just socially constructed, and furthermore it's something that we want to get rid of eventually, and presumably other thinkers of the time would have rejected this quite strenuously.

Leonard Harris: Quite vehemently, yes, definitely. But at the same time he's talking about race. He's doing Negro recognition, representation. Because it's an Negro self-expression, the Negro in Art, the Negro in Music. He has a Bronze Booklet, so at the same time he's promoting a sort of ethnic reality, which is not identical to a racial reality.

Peter Adamson: And something else that seems kind of centralizing about his writing is that he often talks about the need for Black artists to look back to, for example, aesthetic motifs from Africa. So you actually mentioned in The New Negro like the patterns of African textiles or whatever, that they're using this graphic design.

Leonard Harris: Remember what a Renaissance is. It is a redefinition of humanity, which also includes revising the past. Locke is always connected to Africa. One of the reasons is Albert Barnes, who just like Locke, has his own conception when it comes to African art. In Albert Barnes's definition, African art is much more moralistic. It's much more connected to spirituality than African American art. But at the same time there are some similarities. And he draws these similarities, he points out as many similarities as he can, in the many ways in which African culture has continued within the African American culture, but also the distinction between. How is it they're not alike? How is it they’re different? Remember, Locke is very versed with the languages of African people. He knows that, for example, in the 1800s there were a large number of African populations with different languages. The Igbo, the Mandingo, the Hausa, the Yoruba, Arabic. They spoke different languages and have different religions. They become Christianized, they become Anglophile. You know Harriet Tubman doesn’t speak any English until she’s an old woman. She spoke Dutch. A lot of other Black people didn't speak any English either. There are various forms of pidgin language, which she spoke. So Locke is very sensitive to that reality. He's very sensitive to this African Spanish reality. He's thinking differently about this.

Peter Adamson: And of course, his pluralism would have put him in an excellent position to both appreciate and celebrate that, and in fact, to notice it in the first place, right?

Leonard Harris: It's there throughout The New Negro, and that's why the book The New Negro, you see it in South Africa being used as a model of what is to be modern. How does an African become modern? It’s at the Bantu Men’s club. The book is being used by Africans to be African literary artists. What do they look at to do that?

Peter Adamson: Do you see that as sort of his lasting legacy that this kind of celebration of the –

Leonard Harris: I think Locke’s lasting legacy is his philosophy.

Peter Adamson: His value theory.

Leonard Harris: That’s right, his value theory. The way in which he redefines reality into a kind of fluidity. The way in which it is possible to see human life as a continuing flow. I think his legacy is aesthetics, the way in which it is possible to see poise, dignity, as features of the aesthetics and simultaneously see the particularity as valuable as a source. That's why he appreciates classical work, learned Italian arts. There were a bunch of thieves, made a lot of money, could pay for artists to perform classics. That's what they were, a bunch of robber baron thieves who had no class, the aristocracy was broke, so they paid classical artists, Beethoven and Bach, to write wonderful works for them. So Italian art is full of liars and thieves and murderers. That's all it is. It's a low-class art made into high-class performance. That's what it is. What Italian opera have you ever gone to, a classical play when it wasn't murderers and thieves and liars? Every last one of them, she cheated on her husband. He stole some money, they robbed the place. And that's happy-go-lucky. That's the good times. You know they're getting murdered, stabbed in the back. Who are these people, a bunch of low-class rich people, who want plays and songs performed about their reality. That's classics. That's what he sees.

Peter Adamson: And he finds a way to value all of that.

Leonard Harris: That's right.

Peter Adamson: OK. Well, that seems like a good note to end on, especially the idea that it's his philosophy that is his lasting legacy. What could be more appropriate for our series than that.

Leonard Harris: “All philosophies,” according to Locke, “are in ultimate derivation philosophies of life.” Alain Locke, 1935. 


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