Cornel West 1953-
(Full name Cornel Ronald West) American philosopher, nonfiction writer, critic, essayist, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of West's career through 1997.
An outspoken and highly respected Harvard educator and social critic, Cornel West has been called “the preeminent African-American intellectual of our generation” by scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Best known for his writings on the topic of race, particularly as presented in his best-selling book Race Matters (1993), West combines the philosophies of pragmatism, Christian religion, and Marxist criticism to analyze social and political issues affecting contemporary America. A self-described “radical democrat,” West has not remained ensconced in academia, but has instead ventured into the public realm to present his ideas to mainstream American society as a frequent speaker and author of numerous works on the subject of race relations and the African-American experience.
West was born on June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father was a civilian administrator for the U.S. Air Force and his mother an elementary school teacher (later a principal). The family, including an older brother, eventually moved to a middle-class neighborhood in Sacramento, California. At school, West, protesting the second-class position of black Americans in U.S. society, refused to salute the American flag. After attacking his pregnant teacher, who forced him to salute, he was suspended and later sent to a more accelerated school. Attending a Baptist church, West was fascinated by members of the congregation who frequently spoke of their ancestors who, only two generations earlier, were slaves. He also visited the local Black Panthers office where he learned about activism and was introduced to the writings of Karl Marx. West went on to attend Harvard, from which he received an A.B. in Near Eastern languages and literature in 1973. He continued his studies at Princeton University where he was attracted to the teachings of Richard Rorty, who stressed the relevance of literature and history to philosophy. After receiving his M.A. from Princeton in 1975, West returned to Harvard as a Du Bois fellow. There he decided to postpone his dissertation and work on a novel, which has remained unpublished. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1980. From 1977 to 1984, he served as an assistant professor of the philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary. While there, West published his first book, Prophesy Deliverance! (1982). He left Union Theological Seminary to accept a position as an associate professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale where he stayed until 1987. He then returned to Princeton to revive and direct its Afro-American Studies department. West subsequently took a position at Harvard University, where he teaches Afro-American studies and the philosophy of religion.
West's writings address such issues as racism, multiculturalism, and socialism. Prophecy Deliverance!, the author's first book, considers the combination of the philosophies of Christianity and Marxism as a tool not only to confront white racism and oppression but to bring about social change. In this work he combined ideas from such disparate sources as the writings of African-American authors W. E. B. Du Bois and Toni Morrison, and the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes. With Prophetic Fragments (1988), a collection of essays, West continued to reflect on Christianity and Marxism as well as offer writings on sex and violence in contemporary American society. The essays range from an examination of a socialist theory of racism to an exploration of the significance of rap music among young urban blacks. Influenced at Princeton by philosopher Richard Rorty's writings on American pragmatism, West cultivated his own version of this philosophy which he called “prophetic pragmatism.” He expounded upon this concept in The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989), drawing upon the development of Anglo-American pragmatist philosophy and invoking the populist spirit of American philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson to create a moral vision that takes into account race, class, and gender. In The Ethical Dimension of Marxist Thought (1991), a book that originated as West's doctoral dissertation, West applied Marxist concepts to contemporary political and social problems in an effort to counter what he viewed as the self-defeating forces of nihilism and skepticism. West argued that morality is found in the process of change and proposes radical historicism as an antidote to moral relativism.
West greatly enlarged his readership from the world of academia to that of the mainstream public with the release of his best-known work Race Matters in 1993. This book was published on the first anniversary of the Los Angeles riots which followed the acquittal of four white police officers accused in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. In this slim collection of eight previously published essays, West argues that both blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, are all responsible for the poor state of race relations in the United States. In addition to an examination of the Los Angeles riots, which the author points out were not limited by race or class, Race Matters includes essays that cover the resurgent popularity of African-American activist Malcolm X, relations between blacks and Jews, black rage and sexuality, and what West sees as a “crisis of black leadership.” This crisis is evident in West's examination of the silence among black leaders when President George Bush appointed Clarence Thomas, a candidate whom many felt to be unqualified, to the Supreme Court. West argues that the African-American community needs what he refers to as “race-transcending prophetic leaders,” such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hammer of the National Welfare Rights Organization. The author believes that the current generation has failed to produce such a leader, a lack that only worsens the state of the disadvantaged. Keeping Faith (1993), West's next volume, consists of seventeen previously published essays on a diverse array of subjects including Marxist criticism of Georg Lukacs and Frederic Jameson, critical legal studies, pragmatism, architecture, and black painter Horace Pippin. The Future of Race (1996), co-authored with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., consists of W. E. B. Du Bois's 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth” and critical commentary on the responsibility of educated blacks in contemporary society. The book also discusses policy issues to alleviate poverty and to provide blacks with access to education and advancement. In addition to these works, West has authored, edited, and contributed to numerous books that further develop the major ideas propounded in his early works while exploring other topics including progressivism, parenting, and prison.
Beginning with Prophecy Deliverance! and reaching a zenith with Race Matters, West has developed a reputation as a highly respected philosopher and critic. Although West has been reported as not entirely satisfied with Prophecy Deliverance!, the work earned praise from numerous reviewers and was received as a new phase in the history of black liberation theology. While West is consistently praised for his broad intelligence, rhetorical powers, and provocative insight into the issue of race, critics note that his work is often inaccessible to a wide audience due to his use of highly abstract concepts and allusions. West's writings have also been faulted for lacking intellectual rigor and depth due to their broad concerns and theoretical underpinnings. The American Evasion of Philosophy, regarded by many critics as West's most ambitious undertaking to date, was commended for its complex presentation of the history and significance of American pragmatism. Again West was praised for the wide range of his knowledge. Though the practical application of West's “prophetic pragmatism” was questioned in light of the abstract nature of the concept, West was credited with desiring to bring out of the sphere of academia a new type of intellectual life to serve the politically and socially disadvantaged. The publication of Race Matters, which was compared to the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin, affirmed West's position as one of the nation's foremost public intellectuals. Although West was taken to task for appearing to be a political centrist while also criticizing American capitalism, he was credited with attempting to provide a much-needed analytical framework for examining the plight of black Americans. As with earlier works, West was criticized for taking too broad an approach and for advancing idealistically vague solutions to the problems that he addressed. Nevertheless, the author was commended for his moral vision, keen intellect, and fresh perspective in addressing the much-visited topic of the country's racial divisions.
Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (nonfiction) 1982
Post-Analytic Philosophy [editor; with John Rajchman] (philosophy) 1985
Prophetic Fragments (nonfiction) 1988
The American Evasion of Philosophy: The Genealogy of Pragmatism (nonfiction) 1989
Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life [with bell hooks] (nonfiction) 1991
The Ethical Dimension of Marxist Thought (nonfiction) 1991
Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism 2 vols. [Volume I, Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times; Volume II, Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in America] (nonfiction) 1993
Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (nonfiction) 1993
Race Matters (nonfiction) 1993
Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin [with Michael Lerner] (nonfiction) 1995
The Affirmative Action Debate [editor; with George E. Curry] (nonfiction) 1996
Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History [editor; with Jack Salzman and David Lionel Smith] (nonfiction) 1996
The Future of Race [with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.] (nonfiction) 1996
Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America [with...
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SOURCE: “Go Tell It On the Mountains,” in Commonweal, December 20, 1985, pp. 708-9.
[In the following review, McCann offers a positive assessment of Prophesy Deliverance!]
In this brief programmatic sketch Cornel West has produced the most promising Afro-American liberation theology to date. With his theoretical sophistication, his deep roots in Afro-American culture, and above all, his forthrightness in criticizing the intellectual traditions of Marxism and Christianity, West takes his rightful place among the architects of liberation theology, bold innovators like Mary Daly and Juan Luis Segundo. Whether we agree or disagree with their thinking, these religious intellectuals command our respect and admiration for having enlarged our sense of the possibilities and limits defining practical theological discourse.
Each of the chapters in Prophesy Deliverance! breaks new ground for Afro-American revolutionary Christianity in particular and practical theologies in general. Chapter One provides an interpretive framework for Afro-American history. West’s distinctive contribution here is to postulate a “triple crisis of self-recognition” for black Americans, one that involves not just their alienation from the African homeland and the degradations of a slavery legitimated by racism. Blacks are also implicated, however marginally, in “the anxiety-ridden provinciality” that...
(The entire section is 1034 words.)
SOURCE: “Truth or Consequences?”, in Reviews in American History, Vol. 18, No. 4, December, 1990, pp. 519-24.
[In the following excerpt, Cotkin offers a positive assessment of The American Evasion of Philosophy.]
The great age of American philosophy, dominated by the figures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles S. Peirce, William James, Josiah Royce, and John Dewey, consistently draws the attention of scholars from a variety of disciplines. These philosophers serve as a source of inspiration, a tradition to be appropriated, and a subject for sustained analysis. As debate about the nature of truth, the role of language, and the relationship between theory and practice rages in the humanities—occasionally drawing even historians into this thicket of controversy—the responses of an earlier generation of philosophers to these problems are increasingly interesting and important. Indeed, for those working in a postmodernist vein, American pragmatists immediately present themselves as formidable precursors. Those more comfortable with a traditionalist approach to meaning are drawn to the via media, or sweet reasonableness, in the formulations of American pragmatists, especially in contrast to the rough waves that break from the sea of recent French theory. Nevertheless, viewed from any vantage point, the golden age of American philosophy, from Emerson through Dewey, stands as the foundation upon which...
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SOURCE: “Cornel West's New Pragmatism,” in Cross Currents: Religion and Intellectual Life, Vol. 41, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 98-106.
[In the following essay, Donovan examines the historical development of American pragmatism and the philosophical underpinnings of West's social pragmatism as presented in The American Evasion of Philosophy.]
Cornel West is rapidly becoming an important figure on the intellectual scene. A recent meeting of the American Philosophical Association devoted three separate sessions to his most recent work, and West spoke at all of them. He has even been interviewed by Bill Moyers.
On each occasion, West was exciting and intellectually provocative. He has the capacity to engage his audience with the same flair and rhetorical resources that he brings to the study of ideas. Presently a professor of religion and Director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton University, he has taken a hard look at what he perceives as the moral decay and decline of American intellectual and political culture. Moreover, he has sought to treat our ills by offering nothing less than a reinterpretation of our leading intellectual and cultural traditions. As a black intellectual, a self-described Gramscian Marxist, an active member of the black church, and a former student of the philosopher Richard Rorty, he brings to his task a unique capacity to redescribe the philosophical...
(The entire section is 3291 words.)
SOURCE: “Evading Narrative Myth, Evading Prophetic Pragmatism: Cornel West's The American Evasion of Philosophy,” in Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Winter, 1991-92, pp. 517-42.
[In the following essay, Gooding-Williams examines West's concept of “prophetic pragmatism,” its associations with the pragmatist tradition, West's reading of W. E. B. DuBois, and the problematic significance of West's “universal moral discourse.”]
Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism is a rhetorically compelling history of American pragmatism that reconstructs, promotes, and purports to extend what West characterizes as pragmatism’s “evasion of philosophy.” Taking his cue from Richard Rorty’s interpretation of modern (post-Cartesian) European philosophy as a fruitless quest after secure epistemic foundations, West discovers in the American pragmatist tradition a sustained and persistently provocative refusal of that quest, a repudiation of epistemological preoccupations that subordinates knowledge to power and treats “thought as a weapon to enable … effective action.”1 Though West disputes Rorty’s view of Dewey (for West, “the greatest of the American pragmatists”), shuns Rorty’s pragmatism without consequences and, like many of Rorty’s critics on the left, insists fervently on the relevance of social theory to...
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SOURCE: “Subversive Anger, Subversive Joy—An Interview,” in Cross Currents: Religion and Intellectual Life, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter, 1991-92, pp. 538-46.
[In the following interview, West discusses contemporary social and political issues, black culture, religion, and black leadership.]
[Moyers:] For an intellectual, you’ve been sighted in some very unusual places, the storefronts and streets of Harlem, the shantytowns of South Africa, one of the worst high schools in one of the worst districts in Brooklyn. How come? Those are so far from Princeton, so far from the ivory tower?
[West:] Yes, well, I understand the vocation of the intellectual as trying to turn easy answers into critical questions, and ask these critical questions to those with power. The quest for truth, the quest for the good, the quest for the beautiful, for me, presupposes allowing suffering to speak, allowing victims to be visible and allowing social misery to be put on the agenda of those with power. And so my own sense of pursuing the life of the mind is inextricably linked with struggle for those who have been dehumanized, for those who have been marginalized.
What do you find when you go out there? Because there is this idea, this image in America at large, of a substantial portion of the black community in the inner cities simply saying yes now to death, violence and hate. What...
(The entire section is 3620 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The American Evasion of Philosophy, in Journal of American History, Vol. 79, No. 2, September, 1992, p. 687.
[In the following review, Brick offers a positive assessment of The American Evasion of Philosophy.]
The title of this book [The American Evasion of Philosophy] is laudatory, not pejorative. Here evasion is emancipation: Turning away from “epistemology-centered philosophy” and its search for absolute standards of knowledge and ethics can release intellectual energy for cultural criticism, political action, and social change. That transformation of intellect, Cornel West says, is the burden and promise of American pragmatism broadly defined. In this subtle and complex account of pragmatism’s development and meaning. West demonstrates an enormous range of reading and reflection, a bold, almost acrobatic style of argument, and a nondogmatic sensitivity to the virtues in diverse currents of thought.
West’s “genealogy” charts three groups of intellectuals: those who in different ways developed key pragmatist ideas of experience, historical relativism, personal creativity, and communal belonging (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey); those who struggled with the pragmatist legacy when twentieth-century political catastrophes imposed a new “tragic” sense of limits on Emersonian and Deweyan optimism...
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SOURCE: A review of The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, in Journal of Religion, Vol. 72, No. 4, October, 1992, pp. 618-9.
[In the following review, Bancroft offers a mixed assessment of The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, finding weakness in West's Marxist perspective and arguments.]
Despite its title, [The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought] Cornel West’s book does not simply focus on Marx’s ethics. West does emphasize Marx’s commitment to the values of democracy, individuality, and freedom. But his broader treatment of Marx’s ethics is part of the book’s central argument concerning the nature of Marx’s thought as a whole. The argument is that Marx’s “radical historicism” distinguishes him from his followers in that Marx alone utterly rejects the quest for philosophic certainty. West says Marx grounds objectivity, both scientific and ethical, in “contingent, dynamic, community-specific agreements” and/or “sensitivity … toward pressing [social] problems and self-criticism” (pp. 97–98).
An acknowledged, major aim of West’s argument is to bring Marxism into favor with today’s intellectuals as a needed if not sufficient tool for social criticism and change. West wants academics and others to abandon their current philosophical skepticism and political cynicism. He wants us to reengage in liberal/radical social change,...
(The entire section is 635 words.)
SOURCE: “Preaching to the Converted,” in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 80-3.
[In the following review, Loury offers an unfavorable evaluation of Race Matters.]
No one would likely dispute the claim that coming to grips with “race matters” is fundamental to understanding American politics, history, or culture. But an argument is certain to arise if one ventures to be more specific. There is no common definition of the problem, no consensus on a historical narrative explaining how we have come to this juncture, no agreement about what now should be done. Perhaps most important, Americans lack a common vision of the future of our racial relations. We seem no longer to know what it is we are trying to achieve—with our laws, through our politics, in our classrooms, from our pulpits—as we struggle with the legacy of African slavery. Indeed, Americans of all races seem to be confused about who “we” are.
In Race Matters, Cornel West, professor of religion and director of Afro-American studies at Princeton, tries to bring order to our collective intellectual chaos on this vexing question. Sadly for all of us, he does not succeed. A philosopher, theologian, and social activist, West has emerged in the last decade as an important critical voice on the Left in American public life. Though it may be an exaggeration to say, as one admirer boasts, that he...
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SOURCE: “Introduction to a Symposium on The Ethical Dimension of Marxist Thought,” in Monthly Review, Vol. 45, No. 2, June, 1993, pp. 8-16.
[In the following essay, Foster delineates West's Marxist perspective and his approach to the problem of moral relativism as put forth in The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought.]
In the decade before his death Raymond Williams frequently referred to the need for “resources for a journey of hope” that would enable socialists to continue the “shared search” for human emancipation in spite of all the obstacles posed by the reality of capitalism and of the first attempts to create socialism.1 Cornel West’s Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1991) constitutes such a resource of hope. It is an attempt to reclaim the cause of morality for progressive thought by following Marx himself (at his best) in radically historicizing moral questions.
In West’s interpretation Marx adopted a moral position that is neither vulnerable to nor embarrassed by charges of relativism since it denies the dominant philosophic way of thinking about morality, of which relativism is necessarily a part, and substitutes another—historical—one. Such a radical historical approach to morality does not preclude the “universalizability” of moral truths or facts, but nonetheless sees this as the...
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SOURCE: “Race, Culture, and Morality,” in Washington Post Book World, June 13, 1993, p. 5.
[In the following excerpt, Nicholson offers a favorable assessment of Race Matters.]
If questions of morality are largely absent from Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy [by Houston A. Baker Jr.], they are always present in Cornel West’s Race Matters. There are parts of this book that are as moving as any of the sermons of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as profound as W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, as exhilarating in their offering of liberation as James Baldwin’s early essays.
This is not to suggest, however, that West, director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton University, is as skilled a writer as any of these. While moving and powerful, this collection of eight essays (there is also a preface and an introduction) on topics that include black sexuality, black-Jewish relations, Malcolm X and black conservatives, is something of a hodge-podge. The copyright page notes that eight of these chapters have been published previously, and that is part of the problem—this is a collection of discrete essays that has not been woven together seamlessly enough.
West’s publisher makes much of the fact that Race Matters appears on the anniversary of last year’s Los Angeles riot, but almost the only mention of L.A. is West’s claim...
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SOURCE: A review of Race Matters, in Christian Century, June 30-July 7, 1993, pp. 684-5.
[In the following review, Jelks offers a positive assessment of Race Matters, though disapproves of West's humorlessness and the book's title.]
The eight essays in this collection extend themes that Cornel West has been developing over the past ten years. This is the eighth book for this wide-ranging academician and cultural critic, who is director of the Afro-American Studies Program and professor of religion at Princeton University.
West has been concerned with the advancement of democracy, politically and culturally. He has sought to deconstruct “race” as an essential category for defining African-American life, and he has attempted to show the richness and the poverty of African-Americans by investigating popular culture. In all his thinking he is intensely concerned with dread, death and moral decay. He has insisted that intellectual and political leaders be “prophetic,” by which he means being committed, accountable and self-critical. West believes that this type of leadership can help communities transcend sectarian boundaries and discover broad-based solutions to social ills. At the heart of West’s writings is a profound wrestling with what it means to be American and with what it means to be Christian.
Race Matters is a popularization of...
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SOURCE: “Immoderate Moderate,” in Commentary, Vol. 96, No. 2, August, 1993, pp. 62-4.
[In the following review, Puddington offers an unfavorable analysis of Race Matters and West's Leftist perspective.]
Cornel West has been acclaimed as one of the most important commentators on race relations in America. He has been the subject of feature profiles in major publications and appears frequently on televised public-affairs programs. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard, has described West as “the preeminent African-American intellectual of our generation”; according to Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, his is “one of the most authentic, brilliant, prophetic, and healing voices in America today.”
Until recently, West’s audience has been limited to specialists in the culture and politics of black America. In Race Matters, however, West, a professor of religion and director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton, is writing for a much broader public. The essays here, all of which have previously appeared in magazines and books, deal with a number of the most controversial issues of the past several years, including the Los Angeles riots, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation, Malcolm X, affirmative action, and black Jewish relations.
To a certain extent, the...
(The entire section is 2091 words.)
SOURCE: “The Fire Down Under,” in New Leader, August 9-23, 1993, pp. 18-9.
[In the following review, Kulman offers a positive evaluation of Race Matters.]
The national discourse on race relations deteriorated into intellectual ambulance-chasing this past April while Americans awaited the outcome of the “second Rodney King trial”—in which four police officers previously acquitted of beating the motorist now faced Federal charges of having violated his civil rights. As long as the violence that had leveled parts of Los Angeles following the initial decision a year earlier threatened to recur, talk-show hosts and Op-Ed-page columnists flocked to address the race issue. Once the jury delivered split verdicts and the city remained peaceful, the subject began to drop from sight.
The publication of Cornel West’s Race Matters also coincided with the first anniversary of the April 1992 upheaval. Far from merely reflecting the headlines, though, the book aims to give depth and continuity to what should be an urgent debate. West writes of the riots, “The astounding disappearance of the event from public dialogue is testimony to just how painful and distressing a serious engagement with race is.”
Part of what distinguishes this slim volume is the author’s recognition that the way we tackle a subject shapes our response to it. For him, the California...
(The entire section is 1144 words.)
SOURCE: “Cornel West Matters: The Celebrity Philosopher,” in Chronicle of Higher Education, September 22, 1993, pp. A8-10.
[In the following essay, Coughlin discusses West's emergence as a public intellectual and his controversial social and philosophical perspectives.]
It was hard to escape Cornel West this summer.
As professor of religion and director of Princeton University’s highly regarded program in Afro-American studies, Mr. West has been a rising academic star for some time. As a committed “public intellectual,” he is also familiar to a certain segment of readers outside the universities.
But in late April, when Beacon Press published his book Race Matters, Mr. West moved into a different orbit. The collection of essays on race and racism struck a chord with a lot of people—black and white, in and outside of academe. He seemed to be saying something new about America’s chief dilemma, or, if it wasn’t all that new (as some have suggested), he was at least saying it in a beguilingly different way.
The book hit the best-seller lists for a few weeks and, according to a recent report in Publishers Weekly, has been hovering in their vicinity ever since. Journalists and talk-show hosts couldn’t get to him fast enough. Photographs of him were everywhere, it seemed, and everyone wanted his opinion on something....
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SOURCE: “Common Ground,” in Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History, Vol. 23, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 93-6.
[In the following essay, Goodheart discusses West's innovative stance concerning the usefulness of political debate and communication between individuals rather than artificially homogenous groups.]
A column is the medium for freewheeling meditation. It is also a challenge and test, for the columnist must trust his instincts to find and focus upon events and books that reveal a significant tendency, whether inspiriting or dismaying, in our cultural life. I begin my column with something inspiriting. Cornel West’s Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) is a good sign of the times not so much for its particular arguments as for the spirit in which the arguments are conducted. It is a spirit far removed from the particularist resentments that have animated cultural and political debate in recent years. West doesn’t simply attack, he finds in the arguments of his adversaries insights into the inadequacies of views more congenial to him. “The emergence of the new black conservatives signifies a healthy development to the degree that it calls attention to the failures of black liberalism and thereby encourages black politicians and activists to entertain more progressive solutions to the larger problems of social justice and class inequality” (RM,...
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SOURCE: “‘Diversity’ and Its Dangers,” in The New York Review of Books, October 7, 1993, pp. 21-5.
[In the following excerpt, Hacker offers a tempered assessment of Race Matters.]
What is intended by the demand that the United States should recognize—and recast—itself as a “multicultural” society? In physical appearance, we are ethnically more diverse than at any other time in our history. Americans who describe themselves as “white” now account for less than 75 percent of the population, and only 55 percent in California. But the issue has less to do with our varied origins than what we make of them. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., is not alone in worrying that the current stress on diversity is already causing “the disuniting of America.” Others—most recently, Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor—warn of “balkanization.” …
Cornel West, who teaches black studies at Princeton, takes a strong position against assimilation. Or so his position seems to be. Race Matters consists of eight essays, most of them previously published, on such subjects as sexuality, leadership, conservatism, and nihilism within the black community. Since the book contains only eighty-eight pages of text, his views are presented rather abruptly, often leaving the reader to draw out implications. Thus in discussing Malcolm X, West deplores a “pervasive self-loathing among many of...
(The entire section is 692 words.)
SOURCE: “The Question is Race,” in Chicago Tribune Books, December 12, 1993, p. 4.
[In the following excerpt, Packer offers a tempered assessment of Keeping Faith, citing shortcomings in West's inaccessible scholarly allusions and indefinite promptings for change.]
Taken together, these two essay collections point up how difficult it is for writers to act as true “public intellectuals”—to bring their talent and discipline to bear on ideas that matter to general readers in a shared culture. James Baldwin did it; Irving Howe did it. But as journalism grows ever crasser, academic criticism ever more specialized and inward and the public less and less likely to read books, the chances of those kinds of careers emerging and enduring in the future seem dim.
Cornel West and Ishmael Reed approach the task in almost antithetical ways: All they really have in common is their concern with race. West, professor of philosophy and Afro-American studies at Princeton and author of the widely praised book Race Matters is reasonable and judicious in everything he writes, but his prose is largely inaccessible to the uninitiated. Many of Reed’s nonfiction pieces [in Airing Dirty Laundry] sound like irascible bar-stool musings whose topics keep getting derailed by one or another of the author’s obsessions. West never really leaves behind the circumlocutions and constraints...
(The entire section is 662 words.)
SOURCE: “What's Love, and Candor, Got to Do With It?,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 174-81.
[In the following positive review of Race Matters, Pinsker examines West's observations and concerns about contemporary racial unrest.]
Race Matters may be a slim volume, but it has propelled its author to wide public attention, not only because the eight essays collected between its hard covers deal with such controversial issues as black-Jewish relations, black rage, and the crisis in black leadership, or even because its publication date coincided with the first anniversary of the profound social unrest that exploded in south central Los Angeles, but also because the book makes it clear that West is an intellectual in the best sense of the term. His passionate commitment to a wide range of ideas and perhaps more important, to the humanistic implications of those ideas, help to sharpen a debate at the very center of our culture, and demand that his clear, eloquent prose be taken seriously.
For West, the rhetoric of liberals and conservatives alike is no longer equal to the task of social analysis, much less to the challenges that white racism and versions of black separatism continue to pose. Both those who align themselves with the liberal notion that “more government programs can solve racial problems” and those conservatives who argue...
(The entire section is 2573 words.)
SOURCE: “West of Righteous,” in Artforum, Vol. XXXII, No. 6, February, 1994, pp. 66-71, 104, 111.
[In the following interview, West discusses his role as a public intellectual, his philosophical and religious perspectives, American culture, and art.]
When I first met Cornel West in 1979 or ’80, I had been operating on the Eurocentric assumption that each of the three central philosophical traditions of Western culture—the German, the French, and the Anglo-American—had a proper style and language of its own. So I was wholly unprepared for Cornel’s disquisitions on Hegel, which he advanced, with great verve, in a thoroughly black style and idiom. I was thrilled. Happily, this exotism on my part soon faded. Many serious and not-so-serious conversations followed, though unfortunately they have become rare as the years have passed. Cornel simply has no time. Having emerged as one of the leading black “organic” intellectuals in the United States, he is often on the road five days a week, speaking to an astonishingly wide range of people in an astonishingly wide range of places. And when we do have a chance to “dialogue” (a favorite, apposite expression of his), it is not only exhilarating but frustrating: exhilarating because I am reminded that even if Cornel is here there and everywhere, he still reads everything, virtually, and can talk about it all in illuminating ways. As is the case...
(The entire section is 6595 words.)
SOURCE: “Symbolic Politics and the Hill-Thomas Affair,” in Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 23, No. 3, May, 1994, pp. 346-9.
[In the following excerpt, Lamont offers a positive assessment of Race Matters.]
The three books reviewed here usefully canvas public debate within the African-American community, and between it and American society at large. The main point of convergence between these books is the “mobile social laboratory,” “the referendum on our most cherished values,” that was the Hill-Thomas affair. These books offer a repertory of stances taken by a number of public intellectuals on the most poignant and divisive televised collective drama that American society has witnessed since the Watergate hearings. …
Some of the contributors to Court of Appeal [edited by Robert Chrisman and Robert L. Allen], such as Beverly Guy-Sheftal from Spellman College, conclude their essays with a call for action to respond to the spiritual crisis of the black community marked, among other things, by the disappearance of the symbolic figure of the “race man,” Thurgood Marshall. This call, and that of others, is answered by Cornel West in his book Race Matters, in which he addresses several pressing issues, including the Hill-Thomas affair. West reflects on the central problems that African Americans face today; he blends Malcolm X’s radical critique of white...
(The entire section is 758 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Keeping Faith, in Christian Century, September 21-28, 1994, pp. 864-5.
[In the following review, Messer offers a positive assessment of Keeping Faith.]
Disappointment and disillusionment with America are more prevalent now among African-Americans than at any time since the 1920s. Though the decline and decay of American life appear irreversible, Cornel West hangs on to the hope that “our prophetic thought and action” may yet open a way if we but keep faith with our deepest religions, moral and democratic commitments.
A self-defined public intellectual, West has been described as “inheriting the mantle of Reinhold Niebuhr” and as “a black John Dewey” who, as a serious philosophical thinker, addresses a wide range of social and political issues. Like a modern-day Martin Luther King Jr., he speaks and writes with prophetic power, is rooted in the black church experience and is equipped with extraordinary intellectual talents.
Keeping Faith is an eclectic collection of previously published writings covering a remarkable range of philosophical, political, legal and cultural issues. In contrast to his best-selling Race Matters, the book lacks a clear focus. Rather, it illustrates the incredible scope of the author’s interests and intellect as he considers “race and architecture,” “art criticism,” “the limits of...
(The entire section is 452 words.)
SOURCE: “Notes on Prophetic Pragmatism,” in Cross Currents, Vol. 44, No. 4, Winter, 1994-95, pp. 535-9.
[In the following review, Quirk offers a favorable evaluation of Keeping Faith, though finds that West fails to distinguish between secular and Christian pragmatism.]
In his pathbreaking The American Evasion of Philosophy (Wisconsin, 1989), Cornel West argued that the often-overlooked tradition of American pragmatism contained plentiful, potent resources for social and political change and the spiritual renewal of the American republic. Yet, according to West, two important moral and intellectual hurdles need to be cleared before pragmatism can effectively be recovered and reclaimed. First, would-be pragmatists need to be made aware of pragmatism’s deep roots in “the genteel tradition” of the emerging nineteenth-century American bourgeoisie: the blindnesses of that social group, typified perhaps by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s own “soft” racism (28ff.), need to be acknowledged and decisively overcome. Second, pragmatists must be willing to engage in serious, critical dialogue with “postmodern” social and political critics—such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Roberto Unger and the Critical Legal Studies movement, and so on—since their deep skepticism of the prospects for “totalizing critique” and the liberation of the oppressed from the binding tentacles of...
(The entire section is 1849 words.)
SOURCE: “All and Nothing: The Unreal World of Cornel West,” in The New Republic, March 6, 1995, pp. 31-6.
[In the following essay, Wieseltier provides an extended negative critique of West's social theory, philosophy, and rhetorical style. According to Wieseltier, “West's work is noisy, tedious, slippery, … sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared.”]
Where are the public intellectuals? The question is asked everywhere in America, but it is not merely an American question. It has been a long time, after all, since calm was preferred to crisis as the proper mood of the mind. For the Marxist tradition in particular, crisis is all there is, and calm is only crisis denied. Modern intellectuals roil to be real. Why think, if nothing is breaking up and nothing is breaking down, if intellectuals (or “cultural workers,” as Cornel West likes to call them) cannot become public intellectuals? And then history obliges, and the crisis comes, and the comedy of the public intellectual begins. It is not in the absence of crisis that he cannot think. Things start breaking up and things start breaking down, and the public intellectual cannot exceed his conventions and his vocabularies and his projects. The public intellectual begins to seem like nothing more than a person who is smart in public.
Or so is the case of Cornel West. Since there is no crisis in...
(The entire section is 5506 words.)
SOURCE: “The Attack on Cornel West: Racism and Media Cynicism,” in Tikkun, Vol. 10, No. 2, March-April, 1995, p. 7.
[In the following essay, the critic refutes negative criticism leveled against West by Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic.]
Having profiled The Bell Curve and helped give national prominence to the racist attack on the intelligence of ordinary Black folk, The New Republic’s literary editor Leon Wieseltier focuses five pages of his magazine on Cornel West, to show that these uppity Blacks who are lauded as the leading intellectuals are also undeserving of respect. Wieseltier was once a young Harvard student with great potential, so it must irk him that this Black intellectual has tenure at Harvard while Wieseltier’s primary accomplishment was to become errand-boy and hatchetman for Martin Peretz at The New Republic. Constantly seeking reassurances for his wounded ego from the fawning crowds of academics who hope that he will choose their books for review in TNR, the literary editor commands a host of TNR authors who can barely hide their delight at the prospects of throwing young Black women off of welfare and young Black men into newly built prisons.
While the media imagine it a liberal magazine (honorifically recalling its past rather than the sharp slide to the Right that characterized the magazine since Peretz bought it), TNR has become the...
(The entire section is 594 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Keeping Faith, in Ethics, Vol. 105, No. 4, July, 1995, pp. 954-5.
[In the following review, Allen offers a positive assessment of Keeping Faith.]
Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America is a collection of philosophic essays about race, religion, art, law, and architecture. The author of the collection is a professor of African American studies and religion whom admirers herald as America’s premier black intellectual. A quirky, synthetic genius, Cornel West is getting to be about as famous as a midcareer ivy-league academic could hope to be. Shortly after West’s book Race Matters became a “best-seller” in 1993, he was the subject of a cover story in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine. This more scholarly book laying out a newsworthy scholar’s complex creed thus holds special interest.
Keeping Faith is unlike many academic books, since few scholars share Cornel West’s seeming obsession with self-classification. West’s essays inform readers that (and why) he is an egalitarian liberal, a postmodern neopragmatist, a genealogical materialist, and a prophetic Christian. The book is self-revelation through categorization, but self-revelation is not the purpose of the book. As a Christian pragmatist subscribing to John Dewey-influenced “epistemic antifoundationalism,” West’s purpose is prophecy.
(The entire section is 665 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Keeping Faith, in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 104, No. 4, October, 1995, pp. 601-3.
[In the following review, Gooding-Williams offers a tempered evaluation of Keeping Faith.]
This volume brings together a wide-ranging collection of seventeen essays, most of which were published elsewhere during the last ten or so years and some of which appear here in revised versions. Its subtitle is somewhat misleading, because Keeping Faith is neither a sustained philosophical discussion of American racial identities nor an extended argument to the effect that some noteworthy assumptions about race have helped to shape the history of American philosophical thought.1 Still, many of the book’s chapters explicitly engage the theme of race (see especially the chapters in part 1, “Cultural Criticism and Race,” and part 4, “Explaining Race”), while others touch on traditional and familiar philosophical problems (for example, the nature of morality and the justification of knowledge).
A work of notable scope, Keeping Faith presents its readers with roughly two sorts of essay. The first is the perfunctory assertion of West’s perspective on some particular subject matter. Pieces of this type—for example, “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual,” “The Limits of Neopragmatism,” and “Reassessing the Critical Legal Studies...
(The entire section is 1002 words.)
SOURCE: “Cornel West,” in The Progressive, Vol. 61, No. 1, January, 1997, pp. 26-9.
[In the following interview, West discusses American religious faith, black political action and leadership, and the possibility of radical democracy.]
At forty-three, Cornel West is a professor of Afro-American Studies and Religion at Harvard University, a noted theologian, a prominent democratic socialist, and a prime mover in efforts to renew the dialogue between blacks and Jews.
A native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, he grew up in Sacramento and was influenced both by the black church and the Black Panthers. His books, including Race Matters, published in 1993, have become best-sellers, and his appearances on college campuses across the country draw crowds that often number in the thousands.
We recently spoke about his beliefs, his activism, and his faith in the prospect of “radical amazement.”
[Nichols:] In a time when so many of the ideals and causes that you have advocated are under assault—directly from the right and indirectly from those on the left who advocate compromise and bipartisanship—you remain remarkably optimistic. How do you keep the faith in the face of disappointments and setbacks?
[West:] You have to draw a distinction between hope and optimism. Vaclav Havel put it well when he said “optimism” is the belief...
(The entire section is 3565 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Keeping Faith, in Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 27, No. 2, June, 1997, pp. 212-8.
[In the following review, Bewaji offers a positive analysis of Keeping Faith.]
In more senses than one, West’s Keeping Faith is an essay in postmodernist and poststructuralist pragmatism shot through with a commitment to the possibility of shaping the truth to the end of a futuristic good, a future and a good that are not neutral or ascetic. The work is a multidimensional gold mine of ideas on diverse issues; it is a culmination of years of consistent, persistent, and persevering toil in a not too clement academia, where there are benign and overt choke-spots to the unwary minority academic.
West provides a refreshing analysis of pragmatism often omitted by specialized texts. Its coverage is wide, its depth of understanding unreproachable, and its linkage of Dewey, Pierce, and Royce to contemporary and futuristic themes and reality astute. Often one gets the impression of an eclecticism in the work, as West meanders skillfully through the labyrinthine maze of interdisciplinary boundaries. The section on pragmatism not only forcefully engages the sense of the tragic but it also is a salutary commentary on the sociopolitical ideals of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Emerson, while retaining an acute faithfulness to the study of pragmatism. The variegated strands and...
(The entire section is 2347 words.)
Carton, Evan. “Two Faces of American Pragmatism.” Raritan XI, No. 1 (Summer 1991): 115-27.
Offers a comparative analysis of “literary-philosophical pragmatism” in West's The American Evasion of Philosophy and David Marr's American Worlds Since Emerson.
Coleman, William E., Jr. Review of Race Matters, by Cornel West. ETC 51, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 103-4.
Offers a brief discussion of Race Matters.
Eisen, Vitka, and Mary Kenyatta. “Cornel West on Heterosexism and Transformation: An Interview.” Harvard Educational Review 66, No. 2 (Summer 1996): 356-67.
Interview in which West discusses identity-politics and interrelated aspects of heterosexism, homophobia, patriarchy, White supremacy, and radical democracy.
Gilroy, Paul. Review of Keeping Faith, by Cornel West. Artforum XXXII, No. 4 (December 1993): 75.
Offers a positive assessment of Keeping Faith, though faults the book's lack of cohesion and West's precarious position of authority.
Green, Barbara L. Review of Keeping Faith, by Cornel West. The Antioch Review 53, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 117-8.
Offers a positive assessment of Keeping Faith.
Jennings, James. “Re-Examining Race...
(The entire section is 348 words.)