The American Evasion of Philosophy Analysis

Cornel West

Form and Content

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...

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Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy appeared at a crucial point in his academic career. He had left his associate professorship at Yale University’s Divinity School and had spent part of 1987 in France at the University of Paris. Back at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, where he had taught from 1977 until 1983, he was the leading candidate for the directorship of the Afro-American Studies Program at Princeton University, a position to which he was appointed in 1989, shortly after the appearance of this book, which is generally regarded as his most significant to date.

West’s previous publications included two edited volumes, Theology in the Americas: Detroit II Conference Papers (1982) and Post-Analytic Philosophy (1985), as well as Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982) and Prophetic Fragments (1988), a collection of essays. His most popular book, Race Matters (1993), directed toward general audiences, had not yet appeared.

An Agenda for Black Liberation

West’s early work helped establish the philosophical agenda for black liberation following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. In his introduction to The American Evasion of Philosophy, West expresses concern about the transformation of highly intelligent liberal intellectuals into tendentious neoconservatives with ethnic identity-based allegiances and neonationalist sentiments.

Later Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (1991), West’s collaboration with educator bell hooks, strikes out at both liberals and conservatives who, in the authors’ eyes, expect African Americans to make all the cultural and moral adjustments necessary for improved race relations without taking into consideration the incredible, long-term psychic pain that impoverished urban blacks had suffered as a result of racism. West and hooks considered the emerging black middle class decadent and deficient.

Combating Racism and Inequality

West’s major social and philosophical effort has been to steer American society away from a tradition of racism and to find ways of offering social equality to members of minorities, notably African Americans but also homosexuals and members of other racial and ethnic minority groups. The avowed interest that has consumed him is racial equality, which he studies using his considerable intellect and broad grasp of the United States’ socioeconomic and philosophical underpinnings. His overall conclusion is that American society, particularly black American society, can be changed for the better through a faith in God and an acceptance of Christianity combined with the economic and social philosophy of Karl Marx. A self-styled populist, West is concerned about the maldistribution of wealth in American society, a problem that the adoption of Marxist principles could, in his eyes, overcome.

The American Evasion of Philosophy is not for the philosophical neophyte. It deals with complex and difficult concepts. It would be impossible to present the interaction of its complex ideas in simpler terms without significantly distorting those ideas and interactions, thereby misleading readers. In its 279 pages, The American Evasion of Philosophy deals in some depth with thirteen philosophers. West attempts to demonstrate how Ralph Waldo Emerson’s emphasis on innovation, refined and reshaped by such later philosophers as John Dewey, C. S. Peirce, William James, and others, when combined with pure Marxism and the commitment of black churches to racial justice, will lead to an establishment of democratic radicalism that offers hope not only to oppressed black people in American society but to members of all minorities suffering discrimination.

Toward the end of The American Evasion of Philosophy, West places his vision of prophetic pragmatism within the Christian tradition, contending that “the Christian epic, stripped of static dogmas and decrepit doctrines, remains a rich source of existential empowerment and political engagement when viewed through modern lenses.” West explains that his version of prophetic pragmatism is a part of the Christian tradition because existentially the understanding of self and of one’s identity that this tradition informs during times of personal crisis is necessary to one’s mental balance.

Oppression and Religion

On a political level, West observes that oppressed people throughout the world are deeply religious. He asserts that religious people have an increased understanding of oppressed people. Religion provided a focal point for slaves in the United States and offered them the only venue in which they could gather collectively.

West wants prophetic pragmatism to be more than a basis for academic conversation. He calls for it to become action-oriented, cautioning, however, that there should be no prophetic pragmatist movement:The translation of philosophic outlook into social motion is not that simple. In fact, it is possible to be a prophetic pragmatist and belong to different political movements, e.g., feminist, Chicano,...

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Early Pragmatism

Although Emerson is not generally considered a pragmatist, West situates him in the prehistory of the pragmatic movement because Emerson’s primary concern was with empowering the human personality. Still, Emerson was restrained in regard to political involvement, making him less a liberal than a libertarian. West demonstrates how fundamentally Emerson’s thought informed much of the thinking of the early pragmatists, who were essentially elitist East Coast intellectuals.

West is not blind to the class-bound social attitudes of the early pragmatists he considers in this book, but he views them historically, as products of a time when most American culture was the product of an East Coast social and intellectual...

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Modern Pragmatism

West also takes to task his Princeton mentor and friend Richard Rorty, who essentially brought about a renewed modern interest in pragmatism, particularly in the pragmatism of Dewey. Identifying Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) as the most important book in American metaphilosophy since Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty (1929), West proceeds to fault Rorty for retreating from communal to egocentric concerns, accusing him of holding back when it comes to offering criticism of his culture. Calling Rorty’s project pregnant with possibilities, he contends that the author refuses to give birth to the offspring his book conceives, charging him with retreating into the philosophical arena when...

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Allen, Norm R., Jr. “The Crisis of the Black Religious Intellectual.” Free Inquiry 14 (Summer, 1994): 9-10. Allen discusses Stephen L. Carter and West, two significant black intellectuals whose orientation is religious. Both believe that for society to survive and progress, faith in God is crucial. They assess modern culture and past history from religious perspectives. Allen contends that their doing so limits their intellectual depth. He especially faults them for their insistence that their religious texts are absolute, sacred texts that should be accepted unconditionally.

Anderson, Jervis. “The Public Intellectual.” The New...

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