Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2418

Article abstract: West, an advocate of the interpretation of philosophical pragmatism that he terms “prophetic pragmatism,” holds that an amalgamation of Christianity and Marxism can overcome white racism and offer hope to the black community.

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Early Life

Cornel Ronald West was born to a civilian U.S. Air Force administrator, Clifton Louis West, Jr., and his wife, Irene Bias West, an elementary schoolteacher and principal. The couple’s older son, Clifton Louis III, remembers his brother as a gregarious youth who liked to go to two or three parties on a weekend, but only after he had read two or three books. The Wests had two daughters as well.

West was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but spent most of his formative years in Sacramento, California. A troubled youth, he received a six-month suspension from elementary school for striking a pregnant teacher who demanded that he say the Pledge of Allegiance, which he declined to do in protest against racial segregation in the United States. This crisis was resolved after some weeks when West was permitted to enroll in a local accelerated school.

By the age of eight, West was reading adult books voraciously. He particularly enjoyed a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, who became one of his childhood heroes. Roosevelt, like West, suffered from asthma as a child and spent sleepless nights propped up on pillows. Roosevelt overcame his infirmity and went to Harvard, which is precisely what the young West vowed he would do.

During his years in secondary school, West was exposed to the activist racial philosophy of the Black Panthers, whose headquarters were near the Baptist church he attended regularly. During this period, through the Black Panthers, he was introduced to the writings of Karl Marx, which influenced his thinking profoundly, particularly when he considered Marxist economics in the light of people in his Baptist congregation who were only a few generations removed from slavery and who, despite working hard, lived a marginal existence.

After finishing secondary school at the age of seventeen, West entered Harvard University, where he majored in Near Eastern languages and literature. He received the bachelor of arts degree magna cum laude in 1973, completing his studies in three years despite having to work two jobs during much of his Harvard career and despite a consuming social life of partygoing, music, and dancing. Jazz would remain a central factor in West’s life and thought, and West came to identify music as an important restorative of his soul.

West continued his education at Princeton University, which granted him a master’s degree in 1975 and a Ph.D. in 1980. Midway through his doctoral studies, West returned to Harvard as a Du Bois fellow. With encouragement from philosopher Richard Rorty, he worked during that year on a novel that has not been published.

Life’s Work

In 1977, West became assistant professor of philosophy at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, a position he held until 1983, when he was granted tenure and promoted to associate professor. He joined the Divinity School of Yale University as an associate professor in the same year and remained there until 1987. West taught in France at the University of Paris during the spring of 1987. In 1988, he rejoined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary for another year of teaching before being appointed professor of religion and director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton University in 1989. There, working with such luminaries as novelist Toni Morrison and biographer Arnold Rampersad, West turned his administrative talents to creating what was considered, by the mid-1990’s, the United States’ best program in African American studies. In 1997, West joined the Afro-American Studies Program at Harvard University.

A committed Christian labeling himself a progressive black Baptist, West also became a Marxist. He would explore race relations throughout his professional life and became convinced that a combination of Christianity and Marxism offers the most effective means of combating racism and male dominance in contemporary American society.

The academic community has been considerably more resistant to West’s social views than have those outside the academy. A number of scholars have expressed concern about West’s seeming conviction that certain religious texts are absolute, a posture they fear limits the objectivity and depth of his analyses. His approach, essentially deductive and frequently authoritarian, runs counter to the inductive approach that most current academic humanists adopt in their philosophical explorations. This concern arises, at least in part, from the fact that contemporary scholars seek to maintain an intellectual detachment and neutrality that someone professing an avowed Christian bias is unlikely to possess.

West’s Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity encapsulates many of the social theories that the author presents in his later writing and lectures. The essence of West’s argument is that the combination of Christianity and Marxism can power the United States’ socioeconomic engine strongly enough to bring about significant changes in society.

This earliest of West’s full-length philosophical studies was commended for its clear, crisp writing style as well as for marking “an entirely new stage of development in the movement of black liberation theology,” as a reviewer for the academic book-review journal Choice wrote. West drew on such sources as the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and Toni Morrison, intertwining them with Marxism, African American Christianity, and the philosophy of René Descartes in his attempt to create a critical framework for African American thought. Before West, African American thought often had been treated as though it was a monolith rather than the complex entity that any body of human thought necessarily is.

In considering black rage, which underlies such misfortunes as the race riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 and those following the beating of Rodney King in 1992, West identifies institutions through which black rage can be channeled. West may himself have expressed black rage when he struck his elementary school teacher in Sacramento, but his rage was soon channeled in such ways as to become a positive motivating force in his life. Reflecting on the question of black rage, West concludes that churches, including black mosques and synagogues, offer constructive means of channeling rage, as do black athletic apprenticeship networks. He considers religious institutions and black music two highly important outlets for channeling black rage into actions that benefit black society and society as a whole.

West is characterized by his ability to integrate sources from a variety of disciplines within a single work. For example, in Prophetic Fragments, an essay containing a socialist hypothesis on racism is followed immediately by one that presents black rap as the last form of transcendence available to young black ghetto dwellers.

Because West frequently moves quickly from one philosophical or social posture to another, his work has been described by one critic, Adolph Reed, as a thousand miles wide and about two inches deep, a criticism echoed in one way or another by many academicians. West counters such criticism by saying that it is not his style to wrestle for years with one idea. Rather, he claims that he wants to be a provocative intellectual who writes about many unsettling issues.

West’s reputation as an intellectual gadfly seems secure. He forces people to think in original ways about pressing social issues and suggests, indeed at times creates, new contexts for their thinking. An example of this is found in his analysis of President George Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, a position for which many members of the legal profession considered Thomas unqualified. West points out that Bush placed the black community in the embarrassing position of being unwilling to protest this nomination despite the reservations many black people had regarding it. West, calling Bush’s strategy cynical, argues that this nomination disoriented most black leaders, who could not utter publicly that a black Supreme Court nominee was unqualified. West contends that this reveals how captive black leaders are to white racist stereotypes about black intellectual talent. In time, of course, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People did oppose the nomination, but its procrastination in expressing its disapproval buttresses West’s insightful claim.

West’s most ambitious and important book is The American Evasion of Philosophy, a study of American pragmatism offering keen insights into John Dewey’s philosophy and discussing Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and others. Much of his Marxist philosophy is amplified in The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, in which he quite effectively distances Marx’s philosophy from the totalitarian manifestations of that philosophy in Communist nations throughout the world.

Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times and Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in America are both collections of West’s speeches and interviews. In the same year that those two volumes appeared, West published Race Matters, a collection of previously published essays specifically aimed at a general audience. The book succeeded in focusing considerable public attention on West, who became a frequent participant on nationally televised talk shows and in other public arenas, achieving the role of a public intellectual concerned centrally with matters of race.

Influence

West’s fresh social insights, delivered to large, general audiences much as Martin Luther King, Jr., did in the 1960’s, proved him capable of forcing such audiences to revise their thinking about racial matters in ways that may one day change the entire social landscape of the United States, although many of West’s social and economic theories may seem outrageously utopian and impractical.

West cannot be categorized facilely as liberal or conservative. He shares with neoconservatives a vision of the importance of the family in society. He departs from the neoconservatives, however, in eschewing the typical patriarchal family structure of many black homes because of its subordination of women and its characteristic homophobia.

West is crucially concerned with what he calls the maldistribution of wealth in the United States. He considers the impoverished to be despairing and the wealthy (into whose ranks, ironically, he has been catapulted) to suffer from paranoia. He contends that people cannot talk about race without talking about poverty and that they cannot talk about poverty without talking about the ways in which wealth and power are distributed. This stand makes West extremely critical of liberal capitalism but also distances him from conservatives, who generally support decreases in the sort of government regulation that the implementation of West’s economic policies would necessarily entail.

West faults black liberals for considering race the fundamental, or even exclusive, factor in accounting for the current inferior position of African Americans in society. He also faults black conservatives who blame black inequality on behavioral characteristics and contend that if African Americans work hard enough and well enough, they will succeed in improving their status. West sees the truth lying somewhere in between these views. He points out that many black people do work hard but can barely satisfy their basic needs because they are confined to a particular level within the workforce. This situation exists partly because of their race, which, in the past, denied them educational opportunities equal to those available to nonblacks, particularly at the crucial levels where basic skills usually are acquired. That problem has been alleviated in part by relaxation of real estate restrictions, both overt and covert, that prevented African Americans from living in desirable neighborhoods with superior schools. The effects of this step toward racial equality, however, will take a generation or more to become evident.

Additional Reading

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 Yorker 69 (January 17, 1994): 39-46. Anderson acknowledges West’s appeal to young people. He cautions that despite his popular acceptance, West is viewed by many of his professional colleagues as superficial in his writing and thinking and so broad in the generalizations he makes as to compromise many of his philosophical conclusions.

Appiah, K. Anthony. “A Prophetic Pragmatism.” The Nation 250 (April 9, 1990): 496-498. In this extensive review of The American Evasion of Philosophy, Appiah relates Rorty’s attempts to come to an improved understanding of American philosophy to Hegel’s attempts at the beginning of the eighteenth century to understand the past of philosophy in protonationalistic terms. He shows how West, whom he suggests may be the preeminent African American intellectual of his generation, strongly influenced by Rorty’s thinking, combines cultural theory and the black community, showing the progressive potential of the black church. Appiah notes that West, like Rorty, considers Dewey the preeminent pragmatist in Western society.

Berube, Michael. “Public Academy.” The New Yorker 70 (January 9, 1995): 73-80. In this article, Berube pays special attention to West, bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, and Derrick Bell. He comments on the fact that current African American intellectuals, unlike those of the past, have gained recognition as important critics of current culture; they have done so by participating in talk shows and in gatherings at various centers for black popular culture. He portrays the subjects of his articles as intellectuals who are neither stifled by scholarly tradition nor characterized by remoteness from the public.

Nichols, John. “Cornel West.” The Progressive 61 (January, 1997: 26-29. In his extended interview with West, Nichols broaches questions about radical democracy, about whose future West is pessimistic. West calls on political progressives to respect the religious concerns of African Americans. He is not optimistic about the substantive help they might receive from the Democratic Party, despite black support of that party in the 1996 elections.

White, Jack E. “Philosopher with a Mission.” Time 141 (June 7, 1993): 60-62. White pays special attention to West’s Race Matters, identifying West as an intellectual and a rising civil rights leader. In Race Matters, West considers the status of race relations in the United States as the twentieth century draws to a close. West calls for an end to racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Yancy, George, ed. Cornel West: A Critical Reader. Cambridge Mass.: Blackwell, 2001. A collection of eighteen essays on the philosopher and academician. West is considered an important intellectual figure in African American studies and in the world of critical thinking.

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