American Philosophy

C.I. Lewis

Who was Alain Locke?

Alain LeRoy Locke (1885–1954) was the first African American Rhodes scholar. He wrote a dissertation in philosophy at Harvard University in 1918, but was told that he would not be hired to teach philosophy, except at a black institution. Locke’s dissertation was The Problem of Classification in the Theory of Value. Ralph Barton Perry (1876–1957) was his adviser.

In 1921 Locke returned to Howard University, where he had previously taught English, to chair the philosophy department; he held that position until 1953. Locke has been primarily remembered for his work in the creation and support of the Harlem Renaissance, and for his writings on black art and music. However, he also developed his studies in pragmatism and applied them to issues of racism and racial identity in complex ways that were only first recovered in the late-twentieth century. Locke’s principle pragmatic philosophical work was When Peoples Meet: A Study in Race and Culture Contacts (1942). Locke’s other philosophical writings have since been edited and re-interpreted by Leonard Harris (1948–) and others.

Although Americans are taught that their country is a wonderful “melting pot” of races, race relations and cultural pluralism prove to be complex issues. Alain Locke was well known for studying their dynamics (iStock).

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