The Beautiful and the Just: Inquiry, Justice, and Value in Alain Locke and Aristotle

Rose Cherubin

Alain Locke was a 20th-century African American philosopher, Chair of the Philosophy Department at Howard University, and the guiding force behind the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. His work in philosophy, politics, education, and arts criticism was guided by the notion of culture as a goal. To see this we must look to his roots in classical Greek philosophy. “Culture,” in Locke’s sense, is an engagement of self-expression and intellect, valuable for its own sake and for the sake of understanding. This recalls Aristotle’s account of theoria (contemplation) and its objects, the kala (beautiful or noble things). Culture for Locke can transform both lives and social orders. It is not aimed solely at gains within the status quo, and is always self-critical and investigative. Self-expression for Locke requires an interrogation of presuppositions about the world, one’s place in it, and what should be. This reintroduces the question of what a life and a society should be for. Locke’s conception of culture thus addresses deficiencies in current discussions of the relationships between education, democracy, and social justice.

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