Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



Reading the celebrated Narrative (1845) of Frederick Douglass (1817-95) as well as his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) alongside the theories of freedom including Immanuel Kant’s and G. W. F. Hegel’s among others, this dissertation examines the process through which the young American slave Douglass discovers the idea of freedom and turns it into the primary object of his pursuit to the point that he stakes his life in his famed battle with the overseer Edward Covey. The experience of hearing other slaves’ voices—such as Aunt Hester’s cries and slave songs—opens his eyes to the darkest reality of Southern slavery, constructing in Douglass’s mind a material core that drives him to find some explanation for it, which he gradually comprehends by his continuous efforts to carefully overhear what slaveholders are saying and to learn to read. The fanstasmatic manifestation of Douglass’s irrepressible aspiration for freedom in the form of a “flash” in his consciousness after he is utterly subjected to Covey and his subsequent apostrophe to the sloops on the Chesapeake Bay are in significant ways comparable to Kant’s conceptualization of the moral law of freedom in terms of the starry heavens and the voice of reason as well as the Kantian aesthetics of the sublime. Unlike Kant, who delimits the act of freedom solely within the mind’s transformation of its own disposition, Douglass stresses in his account of the fight with Covey that such an existential transformation is completed by an action in the real world. Douglass’s description of his victory over the overseer shares with the Hegelian dialectic, especially the acclaimed dialectic of master and slave, several crucial threads including an emphasis on irreducible material elements involved in the reversal, elements which he closely relates to the 'fact' of his freedom. At the same time, Douglass diverges from the Hegelian theory of freedom on important points such as the primacy of the state over individual liberty among others.



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Committee Chair

Lowe, John Wharton