Cornel West is an African American cultural critic, academic, and orator. Acclaimed for his ability to weave together philosophical ideas, popular culture, and social justice advocacy, West has reached a broad audience through his articles, books, media appearances, and, especially, through his frequent public lectures. His scholarly work has contributed to renewed interest in pragmatism, to black theology, and to explorations of the relationship between race and culture.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 2, 1953, West spent much of his childhood in Sacramento, California. As a young man, he coordinated a citywide student strike to protest the lack of African American history in the Sacramento school curriculum. As an undergraduate at Harvard, West continued his involvement in progressive social activism, including as co-president of the Black Student Association. The injustice West worked against was not distant or abstract: at Harvard West found himself, along with his two black roommates, accused of raping a white woman. He was held in jail overnight before the woman recanted.
West’s doctoral training, at Princeton, was in philosophy. He was especially influenced by Richard Rorty, an analytically trained philosopher who was beginning to argue that the discipline of philosophy problematically closes itself off to the significance of history, literature, and culture. With Rorty, West came to consider himself an epistemic antifoundationalist: he rejected the claim that we have direct access to how the world really is. Instead, West asserted that access to the world is always mediated by historical and cultural context. West saw two options for antifoundationalists: postmodernism or pragmatism. While sympathetic to the critique of power and embrace of hybridity associated with postmodernism, West was suspicious of postmodernism’s accompanying nihilism and his primary allegiance was to pragmatism. In the writings of C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, West found intellectual resources that addressed the significance of critical inquiry, historical and cultural rootedness, and the American experience – including the African American experience. In The American evasion of philosophy, West presented pragmatism as an expansive tradition of thought, and public intellectual performance, stretching from Ralph Waldo Emerson to W. E. B. Du Bois to Reinhold Niebuhr and finally, implicitly, to West himself.
The grandson of a Baptist minister, West professes a serious, not superficial, personal religiosity. It is his Christianity, he writes, that prevented him from becoming a Marxist, or a Black Panther, or a postmodernist, despite being very sympathetic to these views. In contrast to Rorty, who saw philosophy’s secular foundationalism as replacing the discredited foundationalism of Christian theology, West takes Christianity to be intellectually defensible when its focus is on Jesus as a model of love and on the existential resources of the Christian tradition, resources which can be tapped in the face of suffering and death (he is particularly fond of Kierkegaard). West has brought together his philosophical and religious commitments in “prophetic pragmatism,” a term West coined to refer to a genre of cultural criticism that is antifoundationalist but also energetically calls upon the resources of a tradition to call out the ways that tradition is not living up to its ideals. West has pointed to homophobia in African American churches as a target for such criticism, but he has also pointed to targets and resources in the Jewish and Islamic traditions, particularly in the context of the conflict in Israel and Palestine.
Just as West unabashedly identifies himself and his work as Christian, he also embraces an African American identity. It was with Race matters, a series of reflections on black culture and politics, that West first entered the public spotlight. West brings his prophetic pragmatism to these reflections: he is critical of claims to racial authenticity on the part of blacks, claims which can hurt the most vulnerable within the black community; he is critical of leaders of the black community who are self-aggrandizing and who cater to the desires of whites; he notes the detrimental effects of weak civil society institutions amongst blacks; and he commends a “love ethic” as a means of improving blacks’ sense of self-worth while also encouraging political resistance. Most of all, West gives voice to frustrations widely felt by African Americans in a thoughtful and nuanced way. His method, in Race matters, is to use the tools of analysis – for example distinguishing types of black intellectuals and types of responses to racism – and to note the shortcomings of both sides of an issue as it is conventionally framed. But West writes that the intellectual should be like a jazz performer, and he tries to put this into practice, using his analytic categories only as a starting point to explore the complexities that they both name and elide.
Just as he is committed to Christianity and to African American identity, West is also committed to democracy; specifically, to what he calls radical democracy. He has not permanently aligned himself with particular positions or parties (though he supported the presidential campaigns of Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader, and Barack Obama); instead, West has aligned himself with a democratic ethos. This ethos is maintained by the cultural critique of prophetic pragmatism, and it is an ethos that encourages such critique. This ethos is endangered by the rise of American imperialism, West argues, but the American tradition also contains resources that could revitalize democracy. These resources include the writings of Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and James Baldwin; they also are found in contemporary youth culture, including in hip hop music (West himself has recorded spoken word albums). Especially important to the radical democratic ethos West envisions is dialogue, fueled by a love of truth and a questioning of others and of oneself.
West’s influence has been felt on those students who studied directly with him (including the public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson), those many academics who have studied West’s writings on race, religion, philosophy, and culture, and by the thousands of individuals who have heard West speak in person in the more than one hundred public lectures West gives each year. West has faced criticism from some academics for a lack of intellectual rigor. West’s defenders have responded that West has shown his intellectual capacity in scholarly works but also takes the intellectual vocation to include speaking in many registers, and speaking to a broad audience. Other critics worry that the love ethic and focus on dialogue West commends may not be sufficient to solve intractable problems like those faced in the Middle East – or, perhaps, amongst African Americans. In response to this, West’s defenders may note West’s perennial emphasis on the tragic nature of our world, which necessitates faith. [VL]
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