Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Announcing in his introduction that this book is a political act, Cornel West in The American Evasion of Philosophy seeks in a tradition of American thought a source for effective political, or “prophetic,” action. It is to this tradition that West refers by the phrase “evasion of philosophy,” in which the word “evasion” does not carry its usual negative connotations. Rather, West asserts that when Ralph Waldo Emerson—the great nineteenth century American poet, essayist, and thinker and the founding father of this tradition—turned away from the questions that had been the primary concerns of Western philosophy for centuries, he avoided, or evaded, the blind alley into which philosophy had wandered. Emerson thereby founded the American tradition of philosophy as cultural criticism, emphasizing the application of the critical intelligence to the solution of problems that confront individuals involved in society and culture. West calls this tradition “American pragmatism,” and he articulates his version of the historical development of that tradition. The goal is to define how American pragmatism can inform the thought and action of men and women who, like West, remain committed to the cause of social progress.

In addition to turning away from the entanglements of philosophy, Emerson in the middle of the nineteenth century prefigured both what would become the major themes of American pragmatism—power, provocation, and personality—and what would become its crucial motifs—optimism, moralism, and individualism. However, Emerson remained sufficiently bound to the cultural limitations of his era, for example to the “soft racism” that warped the thought even of enlightened white men of Emerson’s generation, to require that his contributions to the tradition be revised and reformed by those who came after. This process of revising and reforming, with the implication that closure is never fully achieved, may, in fact, constitute the tradition itself.

The American pragmatic tradition is carried on in the latter part of the nineteenth century by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Peirce, who coined the term “pragmatism,” re-examines the tradition in the light of the emergence, in the course of the nineteenth century, of the scientific method as the primary model of intellectual activity. While acknowledging the power of the scientific method, Peirce asserts that it is not universally applicable. Rather, it is applicable only to the scientific community engaged in rational inquiry. Answering the great questions of religion and ethics, for example, requires a radically different approach, one that acknowledges the claims of dogma, custom, habit, and tradition. If Peirce seems divided within himself at this point, the difficulty may be resolved by his pragmatic understanding of meaning as constituted by the practical consequences that might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of an intellectual conception. The emphasis on consequences will remain at the heart of American pragmatism.

This emphasis is recognizable, for example, in William James’s frequently quoted formulation: “Truth...

(The entire section is 1300 words.)