James Baldwin as a Philosopher (of Sexuality)




This paper seeks to lay the groundwork for a philosophical reading of the work of James Baldwin. As an initial means of demonstrating the value of this manner of reading Baldwin, we shall turn to his reflections on issues of sexuality and, in particular, masculinity. This decision to focus upon Baldwin’s thinking regarding sexuality, rather than his more well-known writings on race and racism, is made out of the desire for his work to be opened up to broader interpretations.




Although still somewhat rare, it is not entirely uncommon for James Baldwin to be cited as a pragmatist thinker. When mentioned in the context of American philosophy, Baldwin is most often utilized as a resource for extending the tradition beyond the predominant influence of the Big Three (Peirce, James, Dewey) and/or to emphasize the contributions of African-Americans to the history of American thought. As examples of this trend we find, for instance, Richard Rorty’s praise for Baldwin as a melioristic public intellectual.[1] Cornel West has also routinely mentioned Baldwin as a thinker who was willing and able to confront the tragic dimension of American life head-on in the face of challenges such as death, apathy, ignorance, and white supremacy. And, more recently, Eddie Glaude has advocated a “return to James Baldwin” as a means of tempering this country’s overly facile optimism.[2] While I don’t dispute that these uses of Baldwin have been admirable and worthwhile, it is nevertheless important to note that more often than not (and Glaude’s work is an exception), pragmatist treatments of his thought focus almost exclusively upon the 1963 book-length essay The Fire Next Time. Certainly a remarkable document by any estimation, Fire has been rightfully described as one of the great achievements of 20th Century essay writing, but it comprises not even 1/10th of Baldwin’s significant non-fiction output, which is to say nothing of his achievements as a fiction writer (his main ambition, lest we forget). In any event, to this day there is no thorough consideration of the philosophical contribution which Baldwin has made throughout his career as playwright, novelist, essayist, and public intellectual.

While the wholesale remedy of this oversight is beyond the scope of this paper, I would like to draw attention to one aspect of Baldwin’s thought which has received remarkably little philosophical commentary: his writing on issues of sexuality. While it is certainly true that in his non-fiction writings and public appearances, Baldwin focused his analysis more regularly upon the problems of racism, themes of sexuality run throughout his body of work. Already in 1956, well before his involvement with the civil rights movement which would provide his most enduring legacy, Baldwin published a novel centering upon a homosexual love affair between an Italian and a white American living in Paris entitled Giovanni’s Room. After completing the work, Baldwin sent it to Knopf, the publisher of his first novel (the largely autobiographical Go Tell It On The Mountain) where it was rejected.

I would argue that already in this relatively early episode we can find a sign of the way that Baldwin’s refusal to forego the complexity of his identity in favor of the culture’s pre-ordained categories would complicate how he was to be remembered. As Americans today, let alone in Baldwin’s era, we simply lack the schema appropriate for adequately encountering the profundity of the man who Jack and Bobby Kennedy used to refer to as “Martin Luther Queen.” A prominent theme which runs throughout both Baldwin’s fiction and non-fiction is that, whether we like it or not, who we are is a story which never fits so easily into the names that others call us or that we call ourselves. As a means of extending and deepening our understanding of Baldwin’s philosophical contribution, the issue of sexuality cannot any longer be taken as one which is merely incidental to his corpus, as we have let it be for far too long.




As good of a place to start as any for encountering Baldwin’s thinking on sexuality is his seminal 1985 article “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood.” This article comprises both Baldwin’s most explicit statement regarding his own sexual coming of age and his most rigorous historico-sociological genealogy of the customs and norms surrounding American sexuality. As direct evidence for the fact that we have no public intellectual of Baldwin’s stature around today, consider the fact that this philosophical, academic, and personal indictment of the absurdity of American masculinity was first published in the pages of Playboy Magazine! Baldwin had a singular talent for tailoring his message to his audience in a rather iconoclastic way. Instead of telling an audience what they wanted to hear, Baldwin always seemed to tell them what they did not want but rather needed to hear. Another example of this strategy was his address to the World Council of Churches in 1968, which condemned Christianity and Christians for their role in perpetuating white supremacy. In its own way, “Freaks” is just as damning, and once again, delivered to the audience that needed to hear its message the most.

An initial interpretive question we might ask when approaching the essay is to ask why Baldwin chose that particular historical moment to discuss his views on sexuality both more extensively and more publicly. By 1985, more than halfway into the Reagan presidency, the influence of the civil rights movement of which Baldwin was a vital component was significantly waning, partly a victim of its own successes and largely a victim of the conservative political backlash. The crack cocaine epidemic had appeared in the country’s urban centers and was primarily affecting lower-income minorities. Three years earlier in 1982, HIV was identified as the carrier of AIDS and was generally regarded by mainstream society as being a homosexual problem, or even more perversely, it was seen by some as a “cure” for the problem of homosexuality. The supposed “sexual revolution” of the 60s had come and gone and left its own backlash, but not without altering the country’s mores to the point that by 1985 figures like Boy George and Prince could give a public face to androgyny. This, in short, was the context in which Baldwin was writing and to which he was responding with “Freaks.”

There is some similarity between Baldwin’s reflections regarding sexuality and those made by Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality Vol. 1. Both Baldwin and Foucault question the accepted narrative that Western culture simply became “more” sexual following the 60s, as if the increased visibility of sexual issues in public areas of discourse such as politics and popular culture could itself be taken as meaning that sex was more important for the later generation. Whereas Foucault turned to an historical investigation of the complexities of Victorian society, by contrast, Baldwin drew upon his own experiences growing up in the 1940s as a means of dispelling the “repressive hypothesis” concerning the past. Baldwin discovered first hand that the society’s explicit prohibitions were not at all the same thing as its private desires when he found that the very men who directed homosexual epithets at him were often the same ones that would later solicit sexual favors from him when they were not among their peer group. Part of what makes “Freaks” so interesting as a piece of prose is Baldwin’s facility for incorporating personal narrative as one mode of analysis while also offering something of the nuanced academic investigations concerning the social, historical, and economic contexts of sexuality which one thinks of, perhaps incorrectly, as more proper to Foucault.

Baldwin begins the essay by pointing out that, whether we like it or not, androgyny is part and parcel of the human condition. To be a man or a woman is to achieve an identity which can only be articulated at all by the constant reference to, and the constant presence of, one’s opposite. However, for Baldwin just as for Hegel, the identity which we negate in the process of becoming ourselves is never simply external to us. Without somehow containing and even being the very opposite which we are to overcome, we could never be our properly male or female selves at all. If this was not always the case, Baldwin tells us, then the human species would be incapable of love for “love between a man and a woman, or love between any two human beings, would not be possible did we not [each] have available to us the spiritual resources of both sexes.”[3]

As an illustration of this general dialectical point, Baldwin turns to an examination of those who embody the ever-present human condition of androgyny too closely for our collective comfort, the hermaphrodite (which you will recall, was also an important example for Foucault). Concerning the way that hermaphrodites are viewed in our society, Baldwin writes: “the existence of the hermaphrodite reveals, in intimidating exaggeration, the truth concerning every human being—which is why hermaphrodite is called a freak. The human being does not, in general, enjoy being intimidated by what he/she finds in the mirror.”[4] There is a great price to be paid by those individuals who have the unenviable task of showing us the truth about ourselves. However, if the hermaphrodite was simply as other as we like to tell ourselves he/she is, then there would be no need to continually inscribe and re-inscribe the otherness of such individuals. The fact that we must constantly let the freak know that he/she is a freak and continually put the freak in his/her place suggests that the boundary between he/she and the rest of us is never quite as distinct as we would imagine it to be.

There is a clear analogy to be drawn here between the dialectic of the sexes and that of the races. Just as the hermaphrodite makes us uncomfortable by disclosing the precariousness of our engendered identity, so it is that the mulatto or the mestizo forces us to question the myth of racial purity. It is no wonder that Louis Menand could identify the fear of miscegenation as lying at the heart of this country’s white supremacy and as a temperament almost just as likely to be found in the abolitionists of the 19th century as it was among slaveholders.[5] More feared than the question of whether the slaves should or should not be slaves was the question of who the slaves themselves were, and by extension, who we thought ourselves to be. As long as the other can be kept at arm’s length, we can continue to maintain the illusion that he/she truly is other. As soon as he/she comes closer to us and starts to appear as too near and/or neighborly (proche/prochainement) we will be faced with the ethical choice that Levinas captures as the face-to-face encounter. However, many Levinasians routinely gloss over the fact that the scene of the face-to-face is just as likely to result in the total negation of the other as it is to be that of the embracing of his/her alterity.[6] Whether or not this fact has been acknowledged by philosophical and theological ethicists, it is one which is spoken to quite directly by America’s genocidal history and by the continuing brutality directed at freaks of all kinds be they ethnic, sexual, cultural, or religious.

By describing the other as a freak, Baldwin offers us an account of the face-to-face encounter that is more direct in its acknowledgement of the violence that is so often occasioned in such scenes. Baldwin’s phenomenological description posits that a freak is anyone different enough from us so as to not fit into our categories without accommodation and yet similar enough to make us realize that we ourselves only fit into our categories by virtue of certain accommodations. Clearly, then, the class “freaks” denotes not just an infinite set but indeed one from which one’s self can never be definitely excluded as a member.

The experience of coming face-to-face with one’s own inadequacy—the irreducible difficulty in attempting to be who one thinks one’s self to be—is rarely a positive one. Our illimitable androgyny is one of the many ways in which our reality as human beings is infinitely more complex than the names which we give to that reality. Baldwin writes: “To be androgynous, Webster’s informs us, is to have both male and female characteristics. This means that there is a man in every woman and a woman in every man. Sometimes this is recognized only when the chips are, brutally, down—when there is no longer any way to avoid this recognition.”[7] More often than not, whoever it is that makes us see this other side of ourselves becomes a convenient scapegoat for our anxieties—as if by killing the messenger, the message would somehow read differently. The freak is called a freak out of this very condition of desperation.




Before we go on to discuss Baldwin’s explication of masculinity more properly, it is worth saying a few words regarding his methodology as can be gleaned already from the opening reflections regarding the social function of the hermaphrodite. Baldwin effectively argues that the hermaphrodite is simply an overly blatant representative of the class of androgynous persons which includes us all in one manner or another. This is a fairly easy concept to grasp as soon as we give up the hopeless project of excluding the possibility of being a freak from our own experience. In other words, it is not just our category mistakes but indeed the mistake of relying too heavily upon categories that prevents us from understanding ourselves. The means by which we may free ourselves from this mistake is not to dismiss, but rather to critically interrogate, the assumptions concerning who and what we are that we receive in and as “common sense.” We shall reflect upon the significance of this method in greater detail at the conclusion of the essay, but the outline of this investigative framework is very helpful for elucidating what Baldwin wants to say regarding masculinity.

To return to the language of set theory as a preliminary means of sketching Baldwin’s point concerning masculinity, we may say that whereas the category “freaks” refers to an infinite set, “males” is by contrast the name for an empty one. Baldwin demonstrates this by pointing out that masculinity is no more of an actual thing than it is a set of lived behaviors or of embodied characteristics. Making use of some of the Platonic baggage of the word while also distancing himself from other aspects of that baggage, Baldwin tells us that masculinity is an ideal. By emphasizing the ideality of masculinity, Baldwin is attempting to illustrate the irreducible gap which presents itself between the nature of an ideal qua ideal and the reality of lived experience, such as it is. On the one hand, he wants to assert in an unqualified sense that masculinity does not actually exist; that if it is any kind of description of experience at all it is a piss-poor one. However, at the same time, Baldwin also wants to assert that even in failing to obtain to reality in any proper sense, masculinity nonetheless affects and frames the way that we view the experiences that we do have. On this point, he writes: “This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden—as an unpatriotic act—that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.”[8]

The process of growing up—of evolution as Baldwin refers to it—is one in which whether we like it or not, we are each at some point going to have to experience things that we don’t yet have categories for—things that confuse us, frustrate us, and may even bring us to doubt our very place in the world. This is after all what we mean when we call something a “life experience”—we are more likely than not to appraise the class of things described by this phrase as unpleasant and/or unfavorable, quite possibly in the extreme. And yet, despite or even precisely because of their negativity, experiences of this sort provide us with the raw material that we need in order to grow up and develop into complexly adult persons. In fact, the very mark and measure of maturity is nothing other than the phronesis which can only come from the experience of difficulties and the difficulties of experience.

Above anything else, the American ideal of masculinity is a refusal to take experience seriously. What it names is something that simply cannot be attained or obtained by anyone. However, in a peculiar fashion, the concept’s referential nullity is precisely what gives it the power that it has. By its very nature, an ideal is the assertion that what it names is beyond or outside of experience altogether. And so it is that, as a consequence of its ideality, masculinity so conceived does not have the burden of ever having to be checked and/or verified by experience. However, far from making it disappear as one might think, it is on the contrary precisely its inability to ever be directly experienced which compels the American ideal of masculinity to be so vigorously pursued. Try as he might, insofar as the masculine ideal is what he is aiming for, the American boy will never become a man—which is to say, he will never be able to accept and live with that part of himself which is both male and female and thereby able to give and receive love.

To say that the American ideal of masculinity is a denial of experience is not yet to specify exactly what sort of form this denial takes, or in other words, what the nature of this ideal is. It is precisely with this concern in mind that Baldwin shifts away from these dialectical reflections and comes to offer something of an historical genealogy regarding the development of the present notion of American masculinity. Baldwin begins this analysis by asserting that we cannot properly consider our culturally specific notion of masculinity without considering the manner in which its development proceeded alongside that of capitalism. In a passage which sounds almost like the quasi-anthropological reflections that one finds in the later Engels, Baldwin writes:


The exigencies created by the triumph of the Industrial Revolution—or, in other terms, the rise of Europe to global dominance—had, among many mighty effects, that of commercializing the roles of men and women. Men became the propagators, or perpetrators, of property, and women became the means by which that property was protected and handed down…. One may say that this was nothing more than the ancient and universal division of labor—women nurtured the tribe, men battled for it—but the concept of property had undergone a change. This change was vast and deep and sinister.[9]


Here Baldwin is working against the conservative argument which posits that the current form of the relationship between the sexes is in itself natural, the way things have always been, and/or ordained by God. This argument sometimes claims to be grounded in the empirical fact that the vast majority of the world’s cultures have some sort of division of labor between the sexes and that some sort of broader social distinction of gender roles is materially implicated by that division of labor. In response to such a claim, a comparative ethnologist would point out that while a division of labor between the sexes may be relatively common in a highly general sense, nevertheless, the function and the meaning of this division varies greatly across cultures. It is interesting to note that Baldwin does not utilize this exact line of reasoning in refuting the conservative argument regarding gender, even though his remarks on the function of property in establishing kinship structures betray a sympathy for certain findings of anthropology.[10]

Examining the cultural and contextual variability of gender can be an effective means of refuting the notion that any single set of gender roles, such as that achieved in the United States in late modernity, has been and will forever be as it is. However, while the recognition of the contingency of cultural norms may provide a useful point of departure, as a conclusion it amounts to little more than a generality. The aim of Baldwin’s critical analysis is the more profound one of offering an explanation, however incomplete it perhaps may be, of how the uniquely and specifically American concept of masculinity came to be. Keeping this end-in-view in mind helps us to understand the rhetorical function that is being played by positing the socio-historical development of capitalism as the point of origin for the masculine ideal. The point is not that capitalism can be isolated as a causal factor among others—though the two certainly can be seen as “conjoined” in Hume’s sense of the term—so much as it is that by focusing on the break from the past that capitalism inaugurated we will have glimpsed something essential to the functioning of the contemporary iteration of masculinity. In this respect, Baldwin is every bit as much the genealogist as Nietzsche, Foucault, or Machiavelli.

At this point it will serve us to attempt to further flesh out the theoretical entailments of the point of origin that Baldwin suggests. As it has been described by a host of authors such as Marx, Veblen, and Lefebvre, the birth of capitalism occasioned not just a profound change in the methods, means, and social relations of production but also an equally profound transformation in how the world’s objects are to be perceived. As is by now well-known, Marx described the thing as it shows itself to us in capitalism as having an essentially two-fold nature: commodities may be described in terms of their use-value and their exchange-value. What is too-often passed over in the discussion of these terms is that neither one has anything whatsoever to do with the nature of the thing itself. Exchange-value is a purely symbolic relation which pertains only to the commodity’s relative place within the marketplace as a whole. The spectral nature of use-value is initially less obvious, though as even its very name indicates, as soon as the thing has been conceived as a commodity, its value is no longer something at all inherent to it, but is instead indistinguishable from and generally limited to the uses to which it may be put, including the commodity’s destruction in the process of producing other commodities.

This essentially empty nature of the commodity has everything to do with the development of the modern notion of property which Baldwin implicates as being responsible for the American ideal of masculinity. Finally, a commodity amounts to little else other than something that can be owned. As Locke pointed out long before Marx, the mineness of a thing is the single most fundamental property of property, in itself more important than whatever the thing owned may or may not be. In fact, it is only a thing which is thought to be in itself devoid of world, essence, and meaning that can be owned in any proper sense of the term.

 This theme can even be seen in a writer who was as otherwise unconcerned with economic analysis as Heidegger. Whatever else his limitations as a theorist of modernity, Heidegger nevertheless clearly saw that a different relationship to the thing stands at the core of the epochē that separates us from the societies that have come before. Consequent to the development of thought as the technological enframing (Gestell) of the world is the fact that things no longer speak to us as sacred, but only as a standing-reserve of materials to be potentially utilized in one production process or another. As Baldwin points out, once this logic attained a fundamental status for our relationship to the world, it is hardly a surprise that it would come to shape our perception of our fellow human beings.


For the first time in human history, a man was reduced not merely to a thing but to a thing the value of which was determined, absolutely, by that thing’s commercial value. That the pragmatic principle dictated the slaughter of the native American, the enslavement of the black and the monumental rape of Africa—to say nothing of creating the wealth of the Western world—no one, I suppose, will now attempt to deny.[11]


While slavery and oppression were both certainly nothing new to the world, the supremacy of this “pragmatic principle” quite possibly was. Terrible as his or her reality was, the slave of antiquity was nevertheless regarded as having an essential and unique place within the social framework and even the cosmos—namely, the role of maintaining the productive aspect of the oikos. Consequent to the development of trade and then finance capitalism, the primary site of productive activities shifted increasingly from the home to the firm. The social meaning of labor and the place of the laborer within society shifted accordingly. The logic of capital mandates no a priori value to the function of labor as such, but instead pays the worker what the market deems his or her work to be worth—if a person’s labor offers no discernible value to the market, then the laborer him or herself is simply worthless. Moreover, when an individual’s physical existence gets in the way of the profit motive, such as in the cases which Baldwin cites above, the most economically sensible course of action is often to simply dispose of him or her. As was pointed out by the young Marx, it is considerably less than a coincidence that this pragmatic principle took hold at precisely the same historical moment in which it became necessary to articulate the inherent and fundamental rights of human beings—those very rights which were being negated in practice.  

The ascendancy of the logic of capital came with the effect of recasting the entirety of the social sphere in its image and the relation between the sexes was no exception. Judged in accordance with the pragmatic principle, Woman ceased to be simply the depository of traditional feminine virtues (e.g., chastity, purity, devotion, silence, domesticity, etc.) and instead came to be regarded in the manner of any other commodity. As such, she may be prized for her productive abilities (e.g. in the service of home economics, increasingly as a wage-earner outside of the home, and above all else, as the primary source for the raw materials which will be fashioned into the next generation of laborers) and/or as a signifier of scarce and therefore desirable qualities (these being primarily: social status and beauty). However, when Woman is appraised as an object unto herself apart from her productivity and commodity status, which are in themselves both finite and contingent and in any event unlikely to last as long as the life of the woman herself, she amounts to little more than a burden—in the end, a tragically overgrown child that any sensible homme d’affaires would just as soon do without, as Schopenhauer was the first to explicitly disclose.

What then is the place of Man in this most violent equation? Ostensibly it would be that of being the owner rather than the property, the sovereign rather than the subject, the master rather than the slave. However, the logic of capital knows no master beyond that of its own calculus and any man who thinks himself above or outside of this law will find this naivety brutally wrested from him in the course of experience. The fact that it may be upset or taken from him at any moment—and most probably has been already if he only cared to look with any great attention—is exactly what makes Man cling all the more desperately to the fantasy of his dominance and to the systematic fury with which he oppresses his supposed possessions (among which are thought to include, the Earth, his fellow Man, and Woman). The brutal fact of the matter is that apart from his labor, Man is just as worthless as Woman—nay, more worthless still since he lacks the essential place she has in the reproduction of the means of production and unlike Woman he can scarcely afford to get by on his looks.[12] If according to the pragmatic principle Woman is in essence an overgrown child, then apart from the value of his labor Man is simply a vermin which should be exterminated with no more or less forethought than is given to the riddance of any other pathetically self-aggrandizing, relentlessly breeding, and hopelessly ineducable species. This, in short, is the core of the American ideal of masculinity: the desperate desire to continue to exist amidst the demonstrated evidence of one’s own obsolescence.

Should it really continue to surprise us when our society deals with human beings on the basis of the central most principle upon which it has built itself? Upon brief reflection, much more remarkable are the exceptions to this principle: those cases, few and far between as they may be, in which for some unknown reason we recognize the value in another human being, without conditions and without expecting repayment for our temporary generosity. Though these exceptions give us a much needed hope in the course of soldiering through our time on this earth, it would be patently absurd to expect that anything resembling a just society could be pursued without first overturning the rule in the name of which we toil until finally, at last, we expire. The infantile notion of manhood which comes to its apotheosis in the America of late modernity is in the end simply a particularly instructive case of the disease which has infected nearly every aspect of our being. This ideal, just as the pragmatic principle which produced it, are by no means solely unique to America but the brief history of the European domination of this continent should be taken as instructive as to the true nature of these trends, wherever they may be found.

This being said, while it would perhaps be deserved for us to condemn modernity as the name which stands for all of the more ineluctable processes that brought this reality upon us and ruptured our sacred relationship to the earth, we must at the very least hesitate in doing so. For one thing, this very longing for a more authentic relationship to the world and the things in it is itself a symptom of the very rupture which we seek to reconcile. Moreover, the de-essentializing and de-sanctifying of the world that was achieved in modernity may in fact have provided us with the first step in moving beyond both the logic of capital and the arbitrarily assigned and codified categories of experience which preceded it. For example, it would be little more than a cheap and undeserved romanticism of the past to say that the place of women under feudalism was inherently better than the an-archic one with which they are faced in late modernity. The pragmatic principle—that the worth of things and bodies lies solely in their productive power—demonstrates the arbitrariness of its own foundation as soon as it is turned upon itself and forced to demonstrate its own utility. The value of production, i.e., what it is actually thought to accomplish for us as a society, can never be decided by the criteria of production alone.

If we live this way, and value production above all else, it is because we do so out of ignorance and/or because, misguided as this may be, we genuinely believe that a society dominated by the mandates of production is the best means we have of pursuing the good life of those available to us. In either case, an initial task suggested to those of us who don’t feel that the world or the people in it are best served by these values is that of demonstrating the ways in which the notion of the good life as it is articulated by the hierarchies of production might not be quite as good as it seems.[13] Etienne Balibar uses the phrase “ultra-objective violence” in order to signify the injustices inherent in the very operation of the status quo that we often fail to notice simply because we have grown habitually accustomed to them.[14] Unmasking this violence which operates in and as that which we take most for granted was the very project that Baldwin so beautifully realized, both throughout his career and in the “Freaks” essay in particular.




In conclusion there are two points that we would like to make regarding the relationship between Baldwin and philosophy. First, that while the category by no means exhausts his contributions as a writer and thinker, reading Baldwin’s work as philosophy is in many instances as appropriate a description of his thought as any other. In fact, we may even be tempted to go so far as to say that Baldwin’s critical methodology is as good of a description of philosophy as any other. Our second point is that the richest philosophical reading of Baldwin is to be achieved by comprehending his contribution as a singular and unified vision of the world, and in any event, not as one which can be profitably segmented along the lines of various discrete identities and interests such as race or sexual orientation. 

Baldwin’s proximity to the philosophical endeavor can be most easily gleaned by examining what we might call, in a somewhat reductive manner but not without good cause, his critical methodology. As has been discussed in passing above, Baldwin’s method, in the “Freaks” essay and often elsewhere, is to probe into the body of received cultural doctrine that Burke quite felicitously called “our entailed inheritance” so as to ask just what the nature of these entailments are, who exactly they serve, and for what end. Rather than accepting such received assumptions, Baldwin instead views this inheritance as something to be unraveled, explained, analyzed, broken down, and transcended. This methodology is very close to, if not a shining statement of, the philosophical temperament itself—at least insofar as philosophy has any interest in or ability at intervening in the world as a means to help us live better. Even C.I. Lewis has described what he calls “the distinctively philosophic enterprise” in terms which sound very near to Baldwin’s critical practice:


Philosophy is concerned with what is already familiar. To know in the sense of familiarity and to comprehend in clear ideas are, of course, quite different matters. Action precedes reflection and even precision of behavior commonly outruns precision of thought—fortunately for us. If it were not for this, naďve common-sense and philosophy would coincide, and there would be no problem. Just this business of bringing to clear consciousness and expressing coherently the principles which are implicitly intended in our dealing with the familiar, is the distinctively philosophic enterprise.[15]


This method of unraveling the disavowed commitments implicit in our collective notions of common sense that Lewis details here can be seen as paradigmatic of many of Baldwin’s investigations into racism and white supremacy that were published during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. However, it is important to note that Baldwin’s explicit thematization of this methodology was published years earlier in his first essay to deal extensively with issues of sexuality, 1949’s “The Preservation of Innocence.” In that early essay, Baldwin examines the peculiar rhetorical work that is performed when homosexuality, a “phenomenon as old as mankind, a phenomenon, moreover, which nature has maliciously repeated in all of her domain,” is described as “unnatural.”[16]

To phrase it in more formal terms, Baldwin’s critical move is effectively that of shifting the place of common sense (or “the natural” as it is sometimes called) from its initial mode as a framework used to interpret the world (an explanans) to that of a problematic phenomenon which itself demands to be interpreted (an explanandum). Interestingly, for Baldwin the most efficacious way of accomplishing this shift in perspective is not by seeking some external and/or transcendental ground for our common sense, but rather by doggedly pursuing the consequences implied in the very terms of common sense itself. The important point with which we shall conclude is that, as another name for the “distinctively philosophic enterprise,” this methodology is in itself no more proper to the investigation of issues concerning race than it is to issues of sexuality or to any other single area in which our common sense is likely to get us into trouble.



[1]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Rorty</Author><Year>1998</Year><RecNum>151</RecNum><record><rec-number>151</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">151</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book">6</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Rorty, Richard</author></authors></contributors><titles><title>Achieving our country : leftist thought in twentieth-century America</title></titles><pages>159</pages><keywords><keyword>Radicalism United States History.</keyword><keyword>Radicals United States History.</keyword><keyword>Right and left (Political science) History.</keyword></keywords><dates><year>1998</year></dates><pub-location>Cambridge, Mass.</pub-location><publisher>Harvard University Press</publisher><isbn>067400311X (alk. paper)</isbn><call-num>HN90.R3 R636 1998&#xD;HN90.R3</call-num><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country : Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[2]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Glaude</Author><Year>2007</Year><RecNum>272</RecNum><record><rec-number>272</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">272</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book">6</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Glaude, Eddie S.</author></authors></contributors><titles><title>In a shade of blue : pragmatism and the politics of Black America</title></titles><pages>xv, 189 p.</pages><keywords><keyword>Pragmatism.</keyword><keyword>Dewey, John, 1859-1952.</keyword><keyword>African Americans Religion.</keyword><keyword>African Americans Politics and government.</keyword></keywords><dates><year>2007</year></dates><pub-location>Chicago</pub-location><publisher>University of Chicago Press</publisher><isbn>9780226298245 (cloth alk. paper)&#xD;0226298248 (cloth alk. paper)</isbn><call-num>HELIN Library Catalog URI B832 G53 2007 c.1 AVAILABLE&#xD;JOSIAH Library Catalog ROCK B832 .G53 2007 c.1 AVAILABLE</call-num><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Eddie S. Glaude, In a Shade of Blue : Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[3]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Baldwin</Author><Year>1998</Year><RecNum>266</RecNum><Pages>814</Pages><record><rec-number>266</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">266</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book Section">5</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Baldwin, James</author></authors><secondary-authors><author>Morrison, Toni</author></secondary-authors></contributors><titles><title>Freaks and the American ideal of manhood</title><secondary-title>Collected essays</secondary-title></titles><dates><year>1998</year></dates><pub-location>New York</pub-location><publisher>Library of America</publisher><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>James Baldwin, "Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood," in Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998), 814.

[4]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Baldwin</Author><Year>1998</Year><RecNum>266</RecNum><Pages>814</Pages><record><rec-number>266</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">266</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book Section">5</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Baldwin, James</author></authors><secondary-authors><author>Morrison, Toni</author></secondary-authors></contributors><titles><title>Freaks and the American ideal of manhood</title><secondary-title>Collected essays</secondary-title></titles><dates><year>1998</year></dates><pub-location>New York</pub-location><publisher>Library of America</publisher><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Ibid.

[5]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Menand</Author><Year>2002</Year><RecNum>273</RecNum><record><rec-number>273</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">273</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book">6</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Menand, Louis</author></authors></contributors><titles><title>The Metaphysical Club</title></titles><pages>xii, 546 p.</pages><edition>1st pbk.</edition><keywords><keyword>United States Intellectual life 20th century.</keyword><keyword>Metaphysics History 20th century.</keyword><keyword>National characteristics, American.</keyword><keyword>United States Social conditions 20th century.</keyword><keyword>Cambridge (Mass.) Intellectual life 20th century.</keyword><keyword>Intellectuals United States History 20th century.</keyword><keyword>Holmes, Oliver Wendell, 1841-1935.</keyword><keyword>James, William, 1842-1910.</keyword><keyword>Peirce, Charles S. 1839-1914.</keyword><keyword>Dewey, John, 1859-1952.</keyword></keywords><dates><year>2002</year></dates><pub-location>New York</pub-location><publisher>Farrar, Straus and Giroux</publisher><isbn>0374528497 (pbk.)</isbn><call-num>HELIN Library Catalog CCRI-Newport E169.1 .M546 2002 c.1 AVAILABLE&#xD;JOSIAH Library Catalog ROCK E169.1 .M546 2002 c.1 AVAILABLE</call-num><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 1st pbk. ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).

[6] Levinas himself was always very clear on the point that, first and foremost, the prohibition upon killing the other that is experienced in the face-to-face encounter is precisely what makes the prohibited act of murder possible. For a reading of Levinas which emphasizes this point see:  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Žižek</Author><Year>2005</Year><RecNum>267</RecNum><record><rec-number>267</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">267</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book Section">5</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Žižek, Slavoj</author></authors><secondary-authors><author>Reinhard, Kenneth</author><author>Santner, Eric L.</author><author>Žižek, Slavoj</author></secondary-authors></contributors><titles><title>Neighbors and other monsters: a plea for ethical violence</title><secondary-title>The neighbor: three inquiries in political theology</secondary-title><tertiary-title>Religion and postmodernism</tertiary-title></titles><pages>190 p.</pages><keywords><keyword>Political theology.</keyword><keyword>Church and social problems.</keyword></keywords><dates><year>2005</year></dates><pub-location>Chicago</pub-location><publisher>University of Chicago Press</publisher><isbn>0226707385 (cloth alk. paper)&#xD;9780226707389 (cloth alk. paper)&#xD;0226707393 (pbk. alk. paper)&#xD;9780226707396 (pbk. alk. paper)</isbn><call-num>JOSIAH Library Catalog ROCK BT83.59 .Z59 2005 c.1 AVAILABLE&#xD;HELIN Library Catalog URI BT83.59 Z59 2005 c.1 AVAILABLE</call-num><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Slavoj Žižek, "Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence," in The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology, ed. Kenneth Reinhard, Eric L. Santner, and Slavoj Žižek, Religion and Postmodernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[7] ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Baldwin</Author><Year>1998</Year><RecNum>266</RecNum><Pages>814</Pages><record><rec-number>266</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">266</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book Section">5</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Baldwin, James</author></authors><secondary-authors><author>Morrison, Toni</author></secondary-authors></contributors><titles><title>Freaks and the American ideal of manhood</title><secondary-title>Collected essays</secondary-title></titles><dates><year>1998</year></dates><pub-location>New York</pub-location><publisher>Library of America</publisher><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Baldwin, "Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood," 814.

[8]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Baldwin</Author><Year>1998</Year><RecNum>266</RecNum><Pages>815</Pages><record><rec-number>266</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">266</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book Section">5</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Baldwin, James</author></authors><secondary-authors><author>Morrison, Toni</author></secondary-authors></contributors><titles><title>Freaks and the American ideal of manhood</title><secondary-title>Collected essays</secondary-title></titles><dates><year>1998</year></dates><pub-location>New York</pub-location><publisher>Library of America</publisher><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Ibid., 815.

[9]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Baldwin</Author><Year>1998</Year><RecNum>266</RecNum><Pages>815-6</Pages><record><rec-number>266</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">266</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book Section">5</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Baldwin, James</author></authors><secondary-authors><author>Morrison, Toni</author></secondary-authors></contributors><titles><title>Freaks and the American ideal of manhood</title><secondary-title>Collected essays</secondary-title></titles><dates><year>1998</year></dates><pub-location>New York</pub-location><publisher>Library of America</publisher><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Ibid., 815-6.

[10] It should also be recalled that years prior to the “Freaks” essay, Baldwin had collaborated with Margaret Mead on a book that reflects upon the anthropological significance of race.  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Mead</Author><Year>1971</Year><RecNum>271</RecNum><record><rec-number>271</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">271</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book">6</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Mead, Margaret</author><author>Baldwin, James</author></authors></contributors><titles><title>A rap on race</title></titles><pages>256 p.</pages><keywords><keyword>United States Race relations.</keyword><keyword>Race relations.</keyword></keywords><dates><year>1971</year></dates><pub-location>Philadelphia</pub-location><publisher>Lippincott</publisher><call-num>HELIN Library Catalog RWU Main Library E185.61 .M48 c.1 AVAILABLE&#xD;HELIN Library Catalog URI E185.61 M48 c.1 AVAILABLE&#xD;HELIN Library Catalog Salve Main Collection E185.61 .M48 c.1 AVAILABLE&#xD;HELIN Library Catalog Bryant Main Stacks E185.61 .M48 c.1 AVAILABLE&#xD;HELIN Library Catalog Wheaton Stacks E185.61 .M48 c.1 AVAILABLE</call-num><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Margaret Mead and James Baldwin, A Rap on Race (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971).

[11]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Baldwin</Author><Year>1998</Year><RecNum>266</RecNum><Pages>816</Pages><record><rec-number>266</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">266</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book Section">5</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Baldwin, James</author></authors><secondary-authors><author>Morrison, Toni</author></secondary-authors></contributors><titles><title>Freaks and the American ideal of manhood</title><secondary-title>Collected essays</secondary-title></titles><dates><year>1998</year></dates><pub-location>New York</pub-location><publisher>Library of America</publisher><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Baldwin, "Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood," 816.

[12] Properly considered with respect to the beauty market as it currently stands, the male has no aesthetic value whatsoever except insofar as he stands as an impoverished mimetic approximation of the female. This fact is plainly revealed in the fact that when men seek to lie with other men, the feminine qualities (including youth) are generally the most sought after. The fact that most women (and even some men) prefer partners who are, on the contrary, the most masculine in appearance (and often older) simply indicates that they recognize that their own value is determined in relation to other aesthetic commodities and as such they prefer to be with a partner that makes them look good in comparison.

[13] However, another thing that we can learn from Baldwin is that even this critical impulse is by itself insufficient without demonstrating that it too comes from somewhere; that there is some limited sphere in which an alternative is already operating to organize behavior in a manner more reflective of human dignity. As one such alternative value upon which we ought to stake our lives, we could certainly do worse than the one which Baldwin suggests to us in the “Freaks” essay: love. As Baldwin discusses it, love is the encountering of another human being in terms of his/her absolute singularity, an encounter which in turn singularizes the self in its distance from any and all pre-ordained categories. As such, we might say that love is an inherently (self-)critical act and as such is at the very least a useful corrective to dogmatisms, superstitions, and ossified ideologies.

[14]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Balibar</Author><Year>2002</Year><RecNum>274</RecNum><record><rec-number>274</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">274</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book">6</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Balibar, Étienne</author></authors></contributors><titles><title>Politics and the other scene</title></titles><pages>xv, 176 p.</pages><keywords><keyword>Political science Philosophy.</keyword></keywords><dates><year>2002</year></dates><pub-location>London ; New York</pub-location><publisher>Verso</publisher><isbn>1859847250&#xD;1859842674 (PBK.)</isbn><call-num>JOSIAH Library Catalog ROCK JA74 .B35 2002 c.1 MISSING</call-num><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Étienne Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene (London ; New York: Verso, 2002).

[15]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Lewis</Author><Year>1929</Year><RecNum>275</RecNum><Pages>2-3</Pages><record><rec-number>275</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">275</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book">6</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Lewis, Clarence Irving</author></authors></contributors><titles><title>Mind and the world-order : outline of a theory of knowledge</title></titles><pages>xiv p., 1*., 446 p.</pages><keywords><keyword>Knowledge, Theory of.</keyword></keywords><dates><year>1929</year></dates><pub-location>New York, Chicago</pub-location><publisher>C. Scribner&apos;s Sons</publisher><call-num>HELIN Library Catalog Wheaton Stacks BD161 .L38 c.1 AVAILABLE</call-num><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Clarence Irving Lewis, Mind and the World-Order : Outline of a Theory of Knowledge (New York, Chicago: C. Scribner's Sons, 1929), 2-3.

[16]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Baldwin</Author><Year>1998</Year><RecNum>268</RecNum><Pages>595</Pages><record><rec-number>268</rec-number><foreign-keys><key app="EN" db-id="z9a9r0x21f0s0oez9z4vzzdyvxxv5pe2pxde">268</key></foreign-keys><ref-type name="Book Section">5</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Baldwin, James</author></authors><secondary-authors><author>Morrison, Toni</author></secondary-authors></contributors><titles><title>Preservation of Innocence</title><secondary-title>Collected Essays</secondary-title></titles><dates><year>1998</year></dates><pub-location>New York</pub-location><publisher>Library of America</publisher><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>Ibid., 595.