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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 characterizes America’s relationship to European culture. Consequently, West’s historical interpretation strikingly makes our common American ambivalence about European modernity the ultimate horizon in which to interpret both the vicissitudes of the mainstream culture, and the struggles of Afro-Americans to achieve dignity and freedom within it and without it. Inspired equally by the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School and by Richard Rorty’s rediscovery of the radicality of American pragmatism, West’s sketch demonstrates the indispensable role of revisionist historiography for all Americans involved in critical reflection on praxis.
Chapter Two, “A Genealogy of Modern Racism,” is equally provocative, if not equally convincing. Here Rorty’s work of philosophical deconstruction provides the basis for arguing that “the initial structure of modern discourse in the West ‘secretes’ the idea of white supremacy.” Here West contends that the fatal synthesis of modern scientific method, Cartesian epistemology, and neoclassical aesthetics resulted in “a normative gaze” that inevitably despises all things authentically African. Despite the indisputable evidence of racism in the seminal works of modern science, West’s genealogy appears to be implausible and, quite possibly, counter-productive. On the one hand, there are simpler explanations of racism available, such as a massive repression of guilt by Christian slave-owners, Protestants and Catholics alike, whose pious self righteousness depended on justifying the blatantly intolerable evils of modern slavery; on the other hand, by identifying white supremacy with the eros of modern scientific understanding, West unwittingly implies that Afro-American culture is inferior when examined according to this standard of judgment.
Be that as it may, the final three chapters advance the discussion in ways that stand or fall on their own merits. Chapter Three returns to Afro-American history to construct a typology defining four traditions of response within the black community to white racism. This typology allows West both to pinpoint the shortcomings of much of Afro-American culture, and to advocate more intensive effort within this community’s “humanist tradition.” Thus literary humanists, like Ralph Ellison, and socialists, like the young A. Philip Randolph and Rev. Herbert Daughtry, are seen as pathfinders in the process of cultural transformation. Chapter Four seeks to reconcile a form of Marxism with the theology of revolutionary Christianity. Though the synthesis as argued here remains too facile and disarming to convince those who are not already favorable to it, West’s insistence that “Christianity and Marxism are the most vulgarized, distorted traditions in the modern world” raises hopes that in his hands their confrontation will be unflinchingly...
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self-critical as well as liberating in intent.
By way of conclusion, Chapter Five redefines the situation of praxis by plotting a path for Afro-American revolutionary Christianity “between the Scylla of bourgeois liberalism and the Charybdis of right-wing Marxism.” While West is evenhanded in rejecting both alternatives, his typology defining the internal conflicts within the Marxist tradition is the most insightful and useful clarification of that tradition yet developed within the literature of liberation theology. West explicitly repudiates the totalitarian forms of praxis that have dominated Marxism since Lenin’s consolidation of power in the Soviet Union. Equally explicit is his complaint against European intellectuals and bourgeois politicians whose commitment to Marxism remains in the realm of pure theory. Instead, he commends the left-wing Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg’s “Councilism” because it seeks to institutionalize the values of individuality and democracy even while empowering the oppressed for collective action. Only this form of Marxism, in West’s view, is compatible with the authentic aspirations of Afro-Americans. No other practical theologian advocating Marxist “social analysis” has been as forthright as West in acknowledging the problems that Marxism’s own praxis poses for “revolutionary Christianity.”
A hallmark of truly innovative thinkers is their ability to challenge the reader’s own self-understanding. Who one is and is not becomes painfully clear in serious conversation with, to use Antonio Gramsci’s words, an organic intellectual. I come away from reading West grateful for having encountered a genuinely Christian patriot, still deeply committed to the revolutionary promise of America.
Yet my gratitude is mixed with consternation, for the America that he describes consists almost exclusively of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture of a once dominant elite and the subversive memories and liberating hopes of the Afro-American masses. The struggles of the rest of us—among others, the bewildering variety of immigrant tribes, Catholic and Jewish—perhaps aren’t revolutionary enough to warrant his attention. So I end up hoping that West will grow in his appreciation for the pluralism of American culture. Similarly, I come away encouraged to find a philosopher not embarrassed by the refreshing vitality of American pragmatism. Beyond its epistemological radicalism, however, pragmatism may yet suggest to West more penetrating insights into the “petit bourgeois” liberalism with which so many of his Afro-American brothers and sisters keep the faith. So I end up hoping that West will join other American pragmatists like Reinhold Niebuhr in criticizing Marxism’s outmoded dogmas of class struggle. That, indeed, would be to Prophesy Deliverance!, not just for Afro-Americans but for all the rest of us.
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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 much of our present-day intellectual assumptions rest, sometimes comfortably, sometimes precariously.
The rich soil of thought in this period of American philosophy has been well tilled, but Cornel West and Daniel J. Wilson, each in his own fashion, seeks to coax yet another crop from it. Wilson’s is the more traditional work, building upon and invariably seconding the analyses of Bruce Kuklick and James T. Kloppenberg.1 Wilson focuses on the engagement of American philosophy with the power of science and the desire for a community of interpretation, all played out within the context of professionalization. West’s book is both, challenging and enlightening, but also frustrating and diffuse. It pushes the edges of our understanding of the American philosophical tradition, with much that will be fascinating to historians, and especially to philosophers. West’s alliterative characterization of the contours of American philosophy could be used to designate his own work’s “preoccupation with power, provocation, and personality” (p. 5).
Beginning in the final decades of the nineteenth century, American philosophy, like a host of other disciplines, entered into its professional phase. Once the exclusive preserve of moralists and theologians, philosophy in the academy became a more specialized and scientific pursuit. The academization of philosophy opened up positions for secular thinkers, promoted a sense of community, and allowed for a technical and specialized discourse to rise to prominence. Whereas thinkers as important as William James and G. Stanley Hall had faced a barren plain for professional careers in the late 1860s and early 1870s, by the 1880s the philosophical enterprise had become a staple of academic life. Yet even as philosophy became a subject freed from theological pretensions, its status as the “queen of the sciences” came under increasing attack from the harder sciences. Psychology, once the stepchild of philosophy, rose to prominence by basing its approach solidly upon a scientific footing. In the view of one of its most vociferous proponents, J. McKeen Cattell, “the twilight of philosophy can be changed to its dawn only by the light of science, and psychology can contribute more light than any other science” (Wilson, p. 106). Sentiments such as this, tied to the cultural and intellectual hegemony then exercised by science led, by the turn of the century, to a crisis of faith among philosophers. Resolution depended upon how successfully philosophers incorporated the scientific point of view within their discourse and upon how well philosophers were able to develop the autonomy of their discipline within the university system.
The two problems were not distinct, for the success of philosophy within the academy often seemed to be a function of philosophers’ ability to convince others, as well as themselves, of philosophy’s congruence with science. The first generation of American philosophers had successfully, through the doctrine of pragmatism, steered a middle course between the presumably contending forces of science and religion. The generations that followed faced the rapacious appetite of the scientific ideal. In the emergent university system, where prestige and power were closely wedded to one’s scientific credentials, the “cash value” of philosophy appeared to be paid out in a deflationary currency. Wilson carefully demonstrates how philosophers attempted to make science a centerpiece in their thought process. In a sense, this imperative was undertaken with less ease of operation than it had been by an earlier generation of thinkers. After all, both James and Peirce had brought to philosophical study a firm training in the sciences; they well understood both the promises and dangers of a scientific frame of mind. Although less well trained in the practice of science, John Dewey and Arthur O. Lovejoy, for example, were paradigmatic of those philosophers who attempted to install scientific method into the philosophical enterprise. Philosophers deferred to the ideal of science because it offered a method of research and potential for an agreed upon subject matter, but also because it promoted a notion of a community that might arrive at common conclusions, and hence flirt with the apprehension of truth.
In practice, while nearly all philosophers paid obeisance to science, each thinker came up with a different solution about how science might influence philosophy or how philosophy might become more scientific. Some philosophers, such as James and Dewey, while recognizing that philosophy could benefit from the method and communal nature of science, never went so far as to suggest that philosophy become a science. Peirce, in contrast, pushed hard for a more scientific philosophy, willingly jettisoning literary elegance for technical terminology. Philosophy would, for Peirce, come to resemble the natural sciences, with investigators inching toward truth defined as a developing community of agreement. Morris R. Cohen believed that science would “cure speculative excesses” common to metaphysical inquiry, and that science offered philosophers a model of self-criticism. Yet Cohen rejected the increasingly technical and specialized flavor of philosophy, and maintained that philosophers must “never lose sight of the macrocosm” (p. 164). …
If Wilson, the historian, focuses on the internal history of philosophers in search of a method and community, Cornel West, the philosopher, chooses to examine how American philosophers and thinkers as diverse as W.E.B. DuBois, C. Wright Mills, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Lionel Trilling, working in a pragmatic mode, have functioned as “cultural critics.” Alongside many close readings of particular texts, West’s spirited examination of the familiar names of American philosophers evaluates the political repercussions of how their thought both supported and questioned the realities of American life. In essence, West’s view of pragmatism finds “profound insights and myopic blindnesses, enabling strengths and debilitating weaknesses all resulting from the distinctive features of American civilization” (p. 5). These features of American society and culture are paradoxical in the extreme—slavery and freedom, tradition and change. In this historical and contextual account, American pragmatism’s power and promise rests in its willingness to engage “distinct social and cultural crises” in a future-oriented manner (pp. 5–8). Emphasis upon the duality or paradoxical nature of American pragmatic thought allows West to at once celebrate the power and provocation that Emerson, James, and Dewey offer while also noting, without pulling any punches, that their ideas were supportive of the underside of America, its racism, imperialism, sexism, etc.
There is a breathless quality to West’s pace and prose. In the space of a thirty-page treatment of Emerson, West attempts to compare Emerson with Marx, evaluate Emerson’s preoccupation with power, analyze Emerson’s complex views on race, imperialism, the market economy, war, and fate. In the same pages, Emerson is characterized as, at turns, a spokesman for a particular class formation, an organic intellectual, as well as a quintessential American rebel! The bravura inherent in West’s analysis is apparent. Historians will probably find much of what he says quite acceptable, perhaps even less than controversial and they may also consider West’s contextualization of these thinkers a gesture rather than an example of thick historical description.
Philosophers will not be as comfortable with West’s sustained social reading of the history of American philosophy. This is not West’s fault. Philosophers generally prefer the tea of their precursors’ thought without the added sugar of class or social analysis. In contrast, West recognizes Dewey as a social and cultural critic who evaded the traditional problems that are expected to be the primary concern of professional philosophers. However, he acknowledges, but only in passing, Dewey’s professional concerns and his allegiance to a naturalistic, Aristotelian view of knowledge. What interests West in Dewey and other pragmatists, is their evasion of philosophy, their rejection of foundationalist or essentialist notions of knowledge and truth, and their forthright espousal of philosophy as a conversation and mode of continuous inquiry. Following the path blazed by Richard Rorty, albeit with a different political agenda, West discovers in the evasion of philosophy and the adoption of cultural criticism a beneficent defining mark of the American pragmatic tradition.
Some will find West’s attempt to wrestle a meaningful, sustained tradition out of a diverse group of thinkers a heroic reconceptualization of the past. It is not always clear how useful the created tradition is, since so much of it, in West’s own view, founders on the shoals of racism, naive individualism, and class constraints. This is not a book for those faint of heart at the thought of a historian-philosopher employing the past for present-day political concerns: this is a leftist political work without apologies. In his concluding chapter, “Prophetic Pragmatism,” West fires off a jeremiad, in the tradition of those thinkers he has been studying. The prophetic pragmatist perspective, the political position that West adopts, combines aspects of Emersonian democracy, Deweyean historicism, and Peircean ideals of community, to name only a few of its sources. Neither utopian nor pessimistic, prophetic pragmatism, in the tradition of William James and Reinhold Niebuhr, “promotes the possibility of human progress and the human impossibility of paradise” (p. 229). Nonetheless, West’s view is more than a variant of “chastened liberalism” or political quietism. On the contrary, he contends that prophetic pragmatism will creatively join thought and action in a postmodern fashion. The evasion of epistemology-centered philosophy that stands as the centerpiece of the American philosophical tradition will function as a call to “serious thought and moral action” under the sign of the best that exists within religious and secular modes of interpretation and experience (p. 239).
One need not share West’s political perspective to find his book an intriguing example of a historical-philosophical text that attempts to reconcile two opposing approaches to historical study. If the lines between a contextualist approach enunciated by David Hollinger and a textualist analysis promoted by David Harlan in their American Historical Review debate seem at times too rigid, then West’s book commendably attempts to combine the approaches.2 He is certainly enthusiastic in placing his philosophers within the context of society, while also using history in a creative sense, to develop a tradition that speaks less to firm notions of static historical meaning than to the development of a historical past that is intended to lead its readers to a heightened awareness of the power of thought and tradition. And, perhaps, that is one of the critical consequences of history if not of truth.
Bruce Kuklick, The Rise of American Philosophy: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1860–1930 (1977); James T. Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1970 (1986).
David Harlan, “Intellectual History and the Return of Literature,” and David A. Hollinger, “The Return of the Prodigal: The Persistence of Historical Knowing” and Harlan’s “Reply to David Hollinger,” in American Historical Review 94 (June 1989): 581–626.
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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 presuppositions of our leading philosophers from within the perspective of a social history of ideas.
West’s project has taken shape in stages. In his first book, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982), West tapped into the tradition of social protest embodied in the experience of the black church in America. This was followed by Prophetic Fragments (1988), where his acceptance of certain elements of Marxist analysis enabled him to join in the critique of capitalism associated with liberation theology. The American Evasion of Philosophy, on which this essay focuses, appeared the following year and caught the attention of the philosophical community. Just as the earlier books grew out of West’s religious involvement and political participation, the latter represents his attempt to see those commitments in the light of our leading American philosophers. The title, like the theme, is deliberately provocative. Some members of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy might be slightly uncomfortable with the thought that the classic American philosophers were “evading” or in some way undermining the metaphysical and epistemological tradition that in their view had supplied depth and intellectual continuity to an emerging culture.
A more conventional and time-honored reading of the history of American pragmatism might go something like this: The classic pragmatists inaugurated a series of remarkable innovations and discoveries interpreted against the background of an established philosophical tradition. Assimilated to a new cultural setting, the rationalist and empirical traditions took on new shapes and were forced to accommodate a wider range of philosophical options. There was novelty and there was continuity. The idealist tradition was given a new voluntarist direction in the thought of Josiah Royce. C. S. Peirce claimed Duns Scotus as one of his intellectual heroes at the time he was formulating the “pragmatic” theory of knowledge. William James altered the assumptions of British empiricism in the light of certain Kantian themes. Something like the reverse could be said for the early work of C. I. Lewis. While an early exposure to Hegel enabled John Dewey to take a more critical look at the larger philosophical tradition, his work can hardly be said to be free from the urge for large-scale metaphysical speculation. (Some time ago, for example, Robert Pollock in these pages placed Dewey’s thought in the larger context of the Augustinian tradition.1)
In short, there is good reason to insist that our best American thinkers did philosophy in the way Plato, and Descartes, and Kant did it—but with significant modifications. Theirs was to be a philosophy of process rather than of substance or subject. They had learned much from the Romantics and Hegel about the prospects of a marriage of the ideal with the practical, and their own experience enabled them to interpret that lesson in terms of a vision of an open future. Darwinian naturalism supplied a new set of metaphors that helped them transform the problematic of ideas, inherited from Descartes, into evolutionary terms.
And yet, this sort of account, however plausible at first glance, seems, in the light of recent criticism, thin and abstract. Much has happened in the last twenty years to shake our confidence in the continuity of the philosophical tradition, and to place in question philosophy’s role in the larger contexts of intellectual culture. As West reminds us, pragmatism is no longer viewed as a particular brand of philosophical methodology or discourse. It has taken up residence in every vital area of intellectual life. We find its challenge in literary and social theory, in humanistic and religious studies. Rorty has hailed it as the intellectual stance most appropriate to a postphilosophical culture.2
The fact that the classic pragmatists saw themselves as part of the tradition of Western philosophy does not mean that we can’t view them differently. Rorty reminds us that “a thinker’s self-image may not be useful to his heirs”3 What we need, he says, is a pragmatism adapted to a changed intellectual environment in which the authority of language has indeed undermined the privilege of epistemological and metaphysical interests. As we come to terms with what Hans Georg Gadamar has described as “the linguisticality of experience,”4 we notice how the free play of language frustrates the demand for a philosophical methodology. The themes of discourse and social practice crowd out the problematic of ideas.
Cornel West has followed in this vein, offering us an engaging narrative of pragmatism in precisely these terms. Not pretending to offer a comprehensive account and acknowledging intellectual antecedents to pragmatism in various traditions, West selects thinkers from Emerson to Rorty on the basis of their power as social critics of American life. Their mission was not to legitimate knowledge claims or to construct metaphysical systems, but to create a discourse in which America could begin to shape its identity and come to terms with its turbulent history. West sees the moral, political, and prophetic thrust of pragmatism as its most vital legacy. If we are to reclaim fragments of that tradition we can do so only in conjunction with our own “attempt to reinvigorate our moribund academic life, our lethargic political life, our decadent cultural life, and our chaotic personal lives for the flowering of many-sided personalities and the flourishing of more democracy and freedom” (4).
The themes of democracy and freedom constitute the normative social context of pragmatism. This is the legacy of Emerson and Dewey reformulated by West under the labels power, provocation, and personality. All three express the rhetorical force of social criticism in the name of a moral emancipation. All three express Emerson’s dissatisfaction with the dead vocabularies of traditional philosophy. The language of “provocation” and “performance” are more in tune with Emerson’s celebration of contingency and the possibility of moral and social amelioration. As Rorty will later argue, new vocabularies make possible new self-descriptions, which in turn extend our moral horizons.
There is, however, an underside to this lofty rhetoric of self-realization. West’s social analysis is sharpest when he exposes the gap between the rejection of epistemological privilege and the realities of social and economic privilege. Emerson’s ambivalence towards the most pressing social and moral problems of postcolonial America foreshadows the struggles of later pragmatic philosophers of “freedom” and “democracy” to come to terms with their own social allegiances within an emerging capitalistic system. West’s debt to Marx is clear. The theme of “power” is never far from the issue of class consciousness. “I understand American pragmatism as a specific historical and cultural product of American civilization, a particular set of social practices that articulate certain American desires, values and responses and that are elaborated in institutional apparatuses principally controlled by a significant slice of the American middle class” (4–5).
Was the Emersonian vision of “creative democracy” then impaired from the very beginning by its identification with the aspirations of an emerging industrial society? The power of rhetoric can help to overcome worn-out traditions; it can serve as well to rationalize and justify vested interests. The theme of “provocation” has to be interpreted against the background of a market economy that celebrated the American values of courage, risk, and adventure in grossly monetary terms. The “flowering of personality” was to occur in a society that had a history of slavery.
These deep-seated social contradictions continued to surface as pragmatism came of age in the post-Civil War period. Peirce and James offered creative interpretations of the Emersonian theodicy within a new cultural setting: an advanced industrial society with an emerging professional and academic elite. Pragmatism became professionally respectable with Peirce and its connection with science securely established. Yet the ambivalences as well as the creative energies of pragmatism were there at its inception. Peirce’s trenchant criticism of Descartes is a good example of the way American philosophy displayed a capacity to distance itself from some of the key assumptions of the epistemological tradition and thereby evaded the grip of scientific positivism.
A critic of intellectual culture, Peirce was able to challenge the authority of science by situating it in the context of a wider human community. As a significant social practice, science carries strong ties to other forms of life. What Morton White described as the tension between “science and sentiment” is interpreted by West as one of pragmatism’s most expansive moments. “In fact, Peirce’s conception of scientific method as a value-laden and normative social activity not only conjoins science and ethics but also posits (and invokes) a religious telos” (44). Arguably, pragmatism’s greatest legacy just might be this Emerson-like refusal to draw sharp boundaries between the vocabularies of science, morals, art, and religion.
West has little trouble treating William James as “the exemplary Emersonian embodiment of intellectual power, provocation, and personality” (54). His racy style and pungent vocabulary transformed the stiff theories of British empiricism and made them available to a wider audience. In James’s hands the jargon of ideas takes on the force of Emersonian rhetoric. “The aim of thought is neither mere action nor further thought; rather it is to be more fully alive, more attuned to the possibilities of mystery, morality and melioration” (56). The puzzles and inconsistencies often associated with James’s pragmatic theory of truth look rather harmless when described in performative language. “The major impact of his theory is to shift talk about truth to talk about knowledge, and talk about knowledge to talk about the achievements of human powers and practices” (67).
Historical cultural awareness came to the pragmatic tradition with the work of John Dewey. His early exposure to Hegel enabled him to see the history of philosophy as part of a larger narrative of intellectual and social history. It also made possible a serious questioning of the place of philosophy in intellectual culture. While a sophisticated criticism of the “perennial questions” of philosophy had to await the arrival of analytic philosophy, Dewey’s larger vision of intellectual culture provided pragmatism with a metaphilosophical dimension which anticipated the post-professional pragmatism of today. “After him, to be a pragmatist is to be a social critic, literary critic or a poet—in short a participant in cultural criticism and cultural creation” (71).
West’s identification of philosophy with social and literary criticism enables him to include a remarkable group of social critics usually overlooked in standard histories of pragmatism. In the chapter “The Dilemma of the Mid-Century Pragmatic Intellectual,” West tells an arresting story of pragmatism’s loss of innocence. The Golden Age of American philosophy was over, and the provincial, utopian character of its social and political vision was exposed. War and depression brought disillusionment to middle-class notions of perfection and progress. Pragmatism began to acquire a “sense of the tragic, a need for irony, a recognition of limits and constraints, and a stress on paradox, ambiguity and difficulty” (114).
Sidney Hook and C. Wright Mills tried to extend Dewey’s historical perspective in the direction of a sociology of knowledge. In this sense, they are both close to the spirit of West’s own work. Mills stands out as the most astute social critic of pragmatism, and The American Evasion can be read as an updated version of his Sociology and Pragmatism. Mills’s Weberian insight into the complicity of professional and academic elites with the power brokers of large-scale corporate America pointed up the failure of the classic pragmatists to offer anything like an adequate account of social and political behavior. Mills saw his task in the 1950s in much the way West sees his own role today: to supply pragmatism with a critical sociology. Of course, West, as an African-American intellectual, is in a position to interpret the history of the Emersonian rhetoric of democracy and freedom in terms that go well beyond those of Mills. His treatment of W.E.B. Du Bois shows how the black experience of American institutions forced the Emersonian theodicy to reach a new level of awareness and “illustrates the blindnesses and silences in American pragmatic reflections on individuality and democracy” (146).
Reinhold Niebuhr and Lionel Trilling round out West’s group of social critics. Niebuhr kept alive the religious impulse of pragmatism by confronting the liberal establishment with the reality of sin and a sense of the tragic. By placing himself in the Niebuhrian tradition, West effectively separates his brand of “prophetic” pragmatism from Rorty’s militant secularism. If West seems a Jamesian by way of Niebuhr, then Rorty looks like a Deweyan by way of Hook.
Like contemporary pragmatists who turn to literary criticism for social and moral edification, Lionel Trilling discarded the more aggressive elements of the Emersonian anthropology for an Arnoldian vision embracing “the norms of critical intelligence, refined civility, and intellectual modulation” (165). Weaving together a tapestry of literary style, moral sensibility, and political engagement, his early work echoed a pragmatic and at heart Emersonian celebration of selfhood, and a Deweyan, engaged, critical intelligence. Later in his life he was to see “the space of liberal bourgeois humanist conversation and civil intercourse” (177) erode during the political crises of the 1960s. His latter work deplored this “bitter line of hostility to civilization.”
West’s evaluation of this turning point in the history of pragmatism is instructive. As middle-class intellectuals, these men were not in a position to realize the egalitarian and democratic potential of their Emersonian heritage. Even their Deweyan commitment to the role of critical intelligence was safely confined within the walls of the academy. Paradoxically, the liberating potential of pragmatic philosophy removed its practitioners from the larger political and social dynamics of mass culture. Was the social vision of these men flawed by their own quest for upward mobility and professional success? If a tragic sense of life helped the middle-class intellectual cope with diminished expectations, did it not also serve to reinforce a fatalistic attitude toward the possibilities for radical social change in American life? “A major blind spot in American pragmatism is precisely the relation between a tragic perspective and revolutionary and subversive agency” (180). West wonders whether these shortcomings can be overcome and to what extent the resources of our intellectual heritage can be brought to bear on our present struggles over racial equality and gender.
Turning from such pressing and disturbing social issues to a continuation of the story of pragmatism within academic philosophy, West offers a lucid account of the fall and rise of pragmatism within the context of analytic philosophy. It is clear that the kind of rigor and intellectual sophistication found in the early positivists not only served to undermine the older philosophical tradition but ultimately led to their own downfall. Their searching criticism would later be employed to undermine the assumptions that made their kind of criticism possible in the first place.
The trio of W. V. Quine, Wilfred Sellars, and Nelson Goodman are given due credit for having reclaimed the heritage of pragmatism from within the precincts of analytic philosophy. The holism of Quine, the antifoundationalism of Sellars, and the conventionalism of Goodman prepared the way for Rorty’s version of neopragmatism. Goodman’s influence on Rorty seems as strong as that of Quine and Sellars.
Rorty gets a thorough and fair treatment from West. By placing the criticisms of Quine, Sellars, and Goodman in a larger historical context incorporating Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, he not only helped to resurrect pragmatism, but also drew the metaphilosophical implications for philosophy as a whole. West notes the metaphilosophical character of Rorty’s early work and how his later emphasis on contingency and poetic creativity secures his place in the Emersonian tradition.
Like other critics, West is unhappy with some of the moral and political consequences of Rorty’s neopragmatism. Having achieved prominence in the intellectual establishment, Rorty seems basically satisfied with the institutions of liberal bourgeois capitalist society, as long as we do not insist on providing a philosophical justification for them. Perhaps, like other pragmatic intellectuals in West’s narrative, he has been victimized by the very professionalism he set out to overcome. His antifoundationalism has cast him in the role of a polemicist debating the future of philosophy. While he has resisted the “end of philosophy” label, and has criticized Heidegger for falling into that very trap, his importance seems to remain associated with his metaphilosophical critique.
Rorty’s dismissal of metaphysics and epistemology in favor of the cultivation of new vocabularies calls for further comment. The discussions at the APA ranged all the way from advocating dropping the traditional neo-Kantian vocabulary to an endorsement of Dewey’s naturalistic metaphysics. If the former is a more Rortian historicist turn, the latter seems like an attempt somehow to preserve the metaphysical impulse of the older tradition. On this question West preferred to keep his options open. This may be possible if, like Bacon, we see the great metaphysical systems as works of art rather than of science, more like literature than philosophy. In this way Rorty’s call for new vocabularies looks like his way of satisfying an old metaphysical itch or at least as a way of preserving the pragmatic emphasis on the role of regulative ideas, reinterpreted as the power of metaphor.
West seems to be taking Rorty in this direction. “Yet from a pragmatic point of view, the criticism of culture can take many forms, including redescriptions of nature and experience. The redescriptions ought not to be viewed as metaphysical inquiries into ‘the generic traits manifested by existence of all kinds. …’ but rather as metaphorical versions of what one thinks the world is in light of the best available theories” (96).
West, unlike Rorty, wants more social theory in pragmatism. “The goal of a sophisticated neopragmatism is to think genealogically about specific practices in light of the best available social theories, cultural critiques, and historiographical insights and to act politically to achieve moral consequences in light of effective strategies and tactics” (209). If this is meant to suggest the possibility of playing off various vocabularies on the way to producing more interesting versions of pragmatism, then West has not only opened the door to this Rortian kind of project, but in the process has provided us with an outstanding example of his own.
Robert C. Pollock, “Process and Experience: Dewey and American Philosophy,” Cross Currents, Vol. IX, No. 4, Fall 1959, pp. 342–66.
Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, University of Minnesota Press, 1982, Introduction.
Richard Rorty, “Symposium on Rorty’s Consequences of Pragmatism,” Transactions of C. S. Peirce Papers, Vol. 21, 1985, p. 47.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Man and Language,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, University of California Press, 1976, pp. 59–68.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9704
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 politics, his notion of what it is to evade the Cartesian philosophical heritage derives directly from Rorty’s reading of modern philosophy.2 Beginning where this reading ends, West constructs a history of American pragmatism that, after critically subsuming the legacy of evasion which links Rorty to Emerson, reaches its culmination in West’s elaboration of his own culturally critical and politically engaged “prophetic pragmatism.”3
By presenting prophetic pragmatism as the central theme of his final chapter, West alerts his readers to at least two of the intentions which shape his treatment of his pragmatist predecessors. On one hand, West wants to show that American pragmatism is a developing tradition whose highpoint is his own revision of that tradition. Here, his aim is quite simply to describe the history of American pragmatism up to and including the moment of his writing. On the other hand, West wants to portray and promote an image of himself as a pragmatist; he wants, in other words, to elaborate a public persona that is fully consonant with his claim that his voice and his writing constitute the most recent stage in the historical evolution of American pragmatist philosophy. It is obvious, I think, that these intentions not only complement but mutually implicate each other. Thus, they stand or fall together. In what follows, I will argue that, in fact, they fall together, though in a significant and interesting way that, construed generously, provides me a compelling pragmatic reason to turn my discussion from West’s historiographical intentions to his political and prophetic ambitions. I will conclude my discussion by sketching a critique of these ambitions that, despite its negative implications, hopes ultimately to remain in solidarity with the leftist and black freedom fighting commitments they articulate.
EVADING GENEALOGY, EVADING EMERSON
Organic metaphors dominate the rhetoric of West’s narrative history of American pragmatism. In general, the effect of these metaphors is to characterize the pragmatist tradition as a vital and evolving potency that draws its seminal “sentiments” and “sensibilities” from the “crucible” of Emerson’s original evasion of philosophy, that “comes-of-age” and reaches “maturity” in “the towering force” of John Dewey, that is “kept alive” by James and Pierce, by its mid-century proponents, and then again by those “lonely laborers in the vineyard” who tend caringly to it when it “wanes” and “declines” in the heyday of logical positivism, that achieves a dramatic “resurgence” in the writings of Richard Rorty, that thrusts down “roots” of sufficient sustenance to feed West himself no less than the great DuBois, and that will, if West has his way, “reinvigorate” our “decadent cultural life,” spawn a “flowering” of personalities, and engender a “flourishing” of democracy.4 In West’s narrative, in other words, American pragmatism appears figuratively as a developing organism. To be sure, this organism admits of a high degree of differentiation, as in the course of its development it grows a variety of distinct and distinctive parts with names like “James,” “Dewey,” “DuBois,” “Rorty,” “West,” etc. But since each of these parts is a part of one and the same organism, each is, West’s rhetoric suggests, despite the creative and revisionary impulse it expresses, bound to the others by one and the same vital potency, a virile force named “Emerson.”5 Indeed, it is West’s rhetorical repetition of the name “Emerson,” insistently reiterated in every chapter of his narrative and singularly assigned to the gnarly and erect treetrunk which the cover of his book figures as the life-sustaining origin of the entire pragmatist tradition, that more than any of the rhetorical strategies he otherwise deploys encourages his readers to conceptualize the pragmatist tradition as deriving its unity from a single vital potency.
By figuring the pragmatist tradition as a developing organism, West promotes his two intentions to describe American pragmatism as a developing tradition that culminates in prophetic pragmatism and to portray prophetic pragmatism (West’s pragmatism) as the most recent stage in the development of American pragmatism. To be more precise, West’s rhetoric of a developing organism constitutes the primary linguistic and conceptual means he uses to represent American pragmatism as a developing tradition, and thus to persuade his readers that his two intentions pertain, in fact and not merely in fancy, to a developing tradition. That West should rely in this way on an organic model of history is puzzling, however, because this model contradicts the conception of genealogy he advocates. In The American Evasion of Philosophy, no less than in his first book, Prophesy Deliverance, West purports to subscribe to a conception of genealogy that, not withstanding his own emphasis on human agency and moral discourse, he explicitly associates with Nietzsche and Foucault.6 The paradox here is that Nietzsche and Foucault deliberately intend the conception of genealogy they advocate as a critique of organic models of history of the sort that West rhetorically propagates. For both these writers “genealogy” signifies a mode of historiography that accents rupture and the radical reconstitution of meaning, and so purports to unmask the illusion that the history of a custom, an institution, or an intellectual tradition can be properly conceived as the unfolding or development of a single meaning present in the origin of that custom, institution, or tradition. Both, in other words, treat historical “sign-chains” as sequences of fundamentally different and disparate meanings, rather than as evidence of the continuing and still potent force of one original meaning.7 Thus, from a Nietzschean and Foucauldian perspective, one might suspect that West’s narrative genealogy of pragmatism, so far as it rhetorically implies that the history of pragmatism (despite, again, all the “creative revisions” that affect that history) is the differentiated development over time of a single patriarchal potency named “Emerson,” is a misleading example of genealogy in which the myth of organic totality has been enlisted to disguise deep and ultimately incommensurable intellectual differences.
The paradox of West’s attempt to relate his rhetoric of historical development to Nietzsche’s and Foucault’s notions of genealogy has a parallel in his very insistence on a rhetoric that construes a specifically Emersonian intellectual tradition in organic terms. Commenting on Emerson’s statement that “all language is vehicular and transitive,” West attributes to Emerson the Wittgensteinian belief that words are “enabling tactics, useful devices” (West, AE, p. 36). Though this attribution is fine, so far as it goes, it does not go as far as one might like. Indeed, where West ends his discussion of Emerson’s view of language is, as West himself remarks in an admiring footnote, precisely where Richard Poirier begins to elaborate a rather detailed account of Emerson’s preoccupation with the transitive power of language.8 Central to this account is the recognition that for Emerson, as well as for James, words function not simply as tactics, but as self-referential tactics, that is, as tropings and turnings of their very own meanings, which tropings and turnings disrupt the appearance of semantic coherence which the hermeneutic assumption of organic unity tends to reify. An obvious characteristic of a literary text, says Poirier, echoing Emerson, “is that its words tend to destabilize each other and to fall into conflicted or contradictory relationships.”9
Poirier’s Emerson is a pragmatist whose views of the way language works provide strong reasons to question those readings of texts and groups of texts that, losing sight of the instability of literary and perhaps all language, read “through” language in order to discover well-defined organic unities.10 If this Emerson is West’s Emerson, then West’s use of the trope “Emerson” to represent American pragmatism as a developing organism is, besides being paradoxical, all but impossible to read as a pragmatist gesture (even a prophetically pragmatist gesture) deriving its substance from Emerson.
If West’s narrative of American pragmatism cannot avoid an air of paradox in aligning itself with Foucault and Emerson, it can claim nevertheless to be warranted by the texts it interprets. To put the same point a bit differently, my analysis and estimation of West’s appeal to Foucault and of his claim to write in the spirit of Emerson stops short of a Foucauldian or Emersonian critique of his historical narrative, and so leaves the integrity of that narrative intact. In the next section of this essay I will gesture in the direction of such a critique, taking my cue more from Emerson and Poirier’s interpretation of Emerson than from Foucault. In particular, I will attempt to show how a careful consideration of verbal detail and conceptual nuance works to disrupt West’s rhetorical construction of American pragmatism as a developing organic whole. In pursuing this point, I shall limit myself to discussing West’s treatment of just one of the many writers he reads and interprets, namely, W.E.B. DuBois. Despite this limitation, I hope to be able to draw some general conclusions regarding the narrative deployment of organic models of genealogy and to clarify further the interdependence of West’s interrelated intentions to tell a story about American pragmatism and to create a persona proper to the conclusion of that story.
Was DuBois a pragmatist? West answers this question in the affirmative by characterizing DuBois as a “Mid-Century Pragmatic Intellectual” and then, more specifically, as a “Jamesian Organic Intellectual” (West, AE, table of contents). West’s treatment of DuBois appears exactly halfway through a chapter entitled “The Dilemma of the Mid-Century Pragmatic Intellectual” and, moreover, at precisely the midpoint of his history of American pragmatism. (Here, I am presupposing West’s distinction in his table of contents between the history of American pragmatism and its pre-history.)
According to West, DuBois, like his fellow mid-century pragmatic intellectuals (i.e., Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Lionel Trilling) follows in the wake of the “giant” of American pragmatism, John Dewey, whose “grand breakthrough … is not only that he considers … larger social structures, systems, and institutions, but also that he puts them at the center of his pragmatic thought without surrendering his allegiance to Emersonian and Jamesian concerns with individuality and personality” (West, AE, p. 70). Most important among the issues confronting these mid-century intellectuals is, claims West, the question of “how to keep alive the intellectual and political possibility of an Emersonian culture of creative democracy in a world of shrinking options” (West, AE, p. 114). With the exception of Trilling, who patricidally repudiates the legacy of Emerson, each of these figures succeeds in preserving the vital force of the Emersonian theodicy and so in keeping that force from dying, despite the “new challenges” which threaten it in the “new wilderness” of an America that has come of age (West, AE, p. 111).
West does not hesitate to invoke the rhetoric of organic development in order to justify DuBois’ presence in his narrative. DuBois, he claims, in the very first paragraph of his exposition, was “grounded in and nourished by American pragmatism” (West, AE, p. 138). What West has in mind in making this assertion is, we later discover, DuBois’ claim in his Autobiography that “William James guided me out of the sterilities of scholastic philosophy to realist pragmatism … it was James with his pragmatism and Albert Bushnell Hart with his research method, that turned me back from the lovely but sterile land of philosophical speculation, to the social sciences as the field for gathering and interpreting that body of fact which would apply to my program for the Negro” (quoted in West, AE, p. 139).
This often cited passage from DuBois seems perhaps not only to support West’s characterization of DuBois as “grounded in and nourished by American pragmatism,” but to warrant too his representation of DuBois as a Jamesian intellectual. Yet, as West well knows, DuBois’ biographical remark hardly justifies West’s or, for that matter, any interpretation of DuBois’ writings as pragmatist and/or Jamesian. Neither, moreover, does it establish that DuBois’ turn from philosophy was an evasion of philosophy in West’s well-defined Emersonian and Jamesian sense of “evasion.” Aware, I presume, of this second difficulty, West writes that “DuBois never spelled out what he meant by the ‘sterilities of scholastic philosophy,’ but given what we know of James’ pragmatism, it surely had something to do with sidestepping the Cartesian epistemological puzzles of modern philosophy” (emphasis added) (West, AE, p. 140). West’s rhetorical reliance here on the intensive adverb “surely,” precisely because this adverb functions in his sentence to plead agreement in the absence of a convincing argument based on DuBois’ writings, reveals immediately his failure to justify his representation of DuBois as intending to evade epistemology. To be sure, it serves West’s narrative wishes to imagine that DuBois, in turning from philosophy to the social sciences, was attempting in the spirit of Pierce and James to evade a specifically Cartesian epistemological problematic. But what West imagines and, presumably, hopes to persuade us to believe, he never substantiates.
West’s presentation of textual evidence, as distinct from psychological conjecture, to justify the inclusion of DuBois in a narrative history of American pragmatism focuses on two of DuBois’ writings, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Black Reconstruction in America (1935). His argument regarding Souls focuses in particular on the following and very famous passage occurring in the book’s first chapter:
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the old selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes it to be possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.
This, then, is the end of his striving; to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius.11
After arguing that “DuBois subverts the Emersonian theodicy by situating it within an imperialist and ethnocentric rhetorical and political context,” West asserts that “ironically, DuBois’ subversion is aided by his own revision of the Emersonian theodicy” and, glossing the above quoted passage, adds that “the aim remains self-creation and individuality, though with a more colorful diversity; the end is still a culture in which human powers, provoked by problems, are expanded for the sake of moral development of personalities” (emphasis added) (West, AE, p. 143).
Perhaps the first thing to notice about West’s reading of DuBois’ comments regarding “The history of the American Negro …” is that he is here trying to link DuBois to the pragmatist tradition, no longer by way of James, but by way of Emerson. If DuBois is a pragmatist, it is not only because he followed James in sidestepping Cartesian epistemology, but because despite his subversions and revisions he sustains and continues the Emersonian theodicy. And though West’s reading of DuBois as an Emersonian is more compelling than his intimations that DuBois’ writings and/or turn from philosophy were driven by a Jamesian aversion to the Cartesian quest for certain knowledge, it is, for a number of reasons, not finally persuasive.
First among these is that DuBois, in the passage on which West focuses, is not expounding an Emersonian concept of self-creation—West’s suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding. It is true, of course, that DuBois speaks of a longing to attain self-conscious manhood that would entail a merging of his double self into something better and truer. Read, however, in view of the paragraph which directly precedes this statement of longing (a paragraph that West himself quotes, in order to justify his belief that DuBois subverts the Emersonian theodicy), DuBois’ reference to the merging of a double self seems to pertain less to the possibility of creating a new self than to that of seeing one’s old self or selves in a new, more comprehensive and truer light (DuBois’ claim that the Negro “wishes neither of the old selves to be lost” supports this reading). In this paragraph, DuBois intimates that the Negro’s yearning for self-consciousness is a yearning for a “true self-consciousness” (emphasis mine) that would let him see himself, not through the alienating mediation of a veil, but as he truly is. Thus, he implies that self-revelation (which he distinguishes from that “revelation of the other world” which his ironic play on words suggests is a persistent veiling and re-veiling of the self), as distinct from self-creation, is the telos of the Negro’s striving for self-conscious manhood. For DuBois, the American Negro is driven not by an Emersonian impulse to reinvent himself but by a desire to look beyond a shroud of prejudice that, like a funhouse mirror, keeps him prisoner to an image of himself that never “merges” with his undistorted reflection.12
My second objection to West’s discussion of Souls pertains to his suggestion that DuBois, in the lengthy passage quoted above, is thematizing the topic of individuality (or of individual personality). This suggestion is quite problematic, if only because, once again, the context established by the preceding paragraph argues powerfully for a very different interpretation. DuBois’ reference in this paragraph to the Negro as a “sort of seventh son” follows a listing of six other peoples. As Joel Williamson has so usefully recognized, this listing of the “Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian” straightforwardly reiterates Hegel’s enumeration in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History of the six world-historical peoples through whose histories the world-spirit achieves self-realization. DuBois’ discussion of the American Negro revises Hegel’s philosophy of history, first, by transporting the Hegelian dialectic into North America, and second, by bringing the “message” of Africa, which Hegel relegates to the nonnarratable “threshold” (Schwelle) of historical time and development, into the drama of the world’s history.13 Thus, when DuBois speaks of “The history of the American Negro” and claims “that Negro blood has a message for the world,” he is speaking neither of individuals nor of aggregates of individuals but about the Negro race as corporate entity with a world-historical destiny. Needless to say, I am not suggesting here that DuBois, who celebrates passionately “that higher individualism which the centres of culture protect,” values peoples more than individuals; rather I would argue that the individualism of Souls, however it enters into DuBois’ text, has to be understood against the background of DuBois’ attempt there to elaborate a philosophy of history of Hegelian provenance and, therefore, that the rhetoric of individualism in Souls is a complicated phenomenon that neither simply nor straightforwardly comports with a specifically Emersonian conception of individuality.14
Echoes of Hegel’s thought are present not only in DuBois’ sketch of a philosophy of history, or in the more generally romantic figure which I analyzed above of a true self-consciousness that comprehends inner division (here, DuBois follows Hegel in tying the development of the truth of self-consciousness to that process of preserving and comprehending contradictions that Hegel describes as the Aufhebung of self-consciousness), but in the very language DuBois uses to characterize what he calls “the end of the Negro’s striving.”15 To be more precise, the words and concepts DuBois deploys to describe this end are all but identical to the words and concepts which Josiah Royce uses when, in The Spirit of Modern Philosophy, he explicates by means of an analogy to “social life” Hegel’s interpretation in the Phenomenology of Spirit of self-consciousness as a struggle for recognition (Anerkennung).16 For Royce, the essence of this struggle is “a conscious appeal to others to respect my right and worth” that, if it fails, leaves self-consciousness “isolated” and destined to “rot away,” stripped of its identity as “brother, companion (and) co-worker.”17 DuBois’ belief that the Negro’s striving for self-consciousness and self-revelation is also an endeavor “to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation” (emphasis mine), not only recapitulates the conceptual and rhetorical dichotomies shaping Royce’s discussion of Hegel, but shows too how DuBois, in keeping with the spirit of this discussion, construes the human and Negro struggle for respect and recognition as a conscious appeal to others for social inclusion.
Now it is worth mentioning here that Royce himself was, if not strictly an Hegelian, then a post-Kantian idealist who sustained an intense interest in Hegel’s philosophy throughout the 1890’s (from 1889–1898, Royce’s seminar on metaphysics focused on Hegel, giving special attention to the Phenomenology of Spirit).18 In James’ view, Royce was speculative idealism’s most “formidable protagonist,” and though James himself once remarked on the “sterility” of idealist philosophical thinking, he thought Royce’s arguments for the claims of speculative idealism to be so challenging and compelling that he was unable to find answers he considered adequate to these arguments until the early 1890’s, nearly ten years after he brought Royce to Harvard.19 Hence, when DuBois arrived in Cambridge in 1888 to study philosophy, he entered into an intellectual community in which even an ardent critic of idealism, like James himself, could remain prey to a defensive preoccupation with the authority of what was then a prestigious and influential idealist philosophical tradition.20 Given DuBois’ extensive exposure to James, it is not likely that he would have remained untouched by this preoccupation. For this reason, it seems not improbable that DuBois’ autobiographical remarks, so far as they contrast the “sterile land of philosophical speculation” to “realist pragmatism” and “the social sciences,” pertain in part to a local debate at Harvard between the advocates of speculative idealism (e.g., George Herbert Palmer and Royce) and their realist and empiricist detractors (e.g., Albert Bushnell Hart and James) (emphasis mine). We may reasonably conjecture, then, that DuBois had idealism in mind when (echoing James) he wrote of sterility and scholasticism in philosophy, rather than, as West suggests, some general conception of Cartesian epistemology.21 Since, furthermore, there appears to be no basis for the claim that DuBois saw speculative idealism as a Cartesian epistemological enterprise, and some reason to suppose that he would not have seen it that way (since, as Rorty reminds us, Hegel can be readily interpreted as having anticipated the “public” and “no-foundations” view of knowledge which Sellars, Rorty, and West advocate), we cannot assume that what DuBois’ remarks intimate was an evasion of Hegel was likewise an evasion of Descartes.22
Still, we should not take these remarks at face value. Rather we should, when we consider them in light of the Hegelian concepts and Roycean rhetoric that play such a central role in Souls, question the assumption that DuBois’ late in life reminiscences of his time at Harvard provide the key to a reading of his most famous book. I can restate this point in the form of a third objection to West’s reading of Souls by saying that this reading, because it presumes on the basis of autobiographical remarks that DuBois is best read as a pragmatist, tends to overlook those features of DuBois’ text that speak strongly against such a reading. Whatever James’ influence on DuBois might have been, the fact remains that the argument of Souls is couched in the language and spirit of an idealist philosophical tradition that James saw as the preeminent contemporary alternative to his own pragmatism. Souls cannot be read without distortion as the work of a Jamesian and thus anti-idealist intellectual, which may be the reason that West, when reading Souls as an Emersonian text, keeps silent regarding its relation to James’ “nourishing” influence on DuBois. Despite this silence, West’s “Emersonian” interpretation of Souls is prejudiced by his view of DuBois as a Jamesian intellectual, if only because the primary purpose of West’s interpretation is to justify precisely this view. It is not surprising, therefore, that the “individualist” Emerson West finds in DuBois is the same Emerson he finds in James (West, AE, pp. 54–68).
I want to conclude my discussion of the textual evidence West presents for his interpretation of DuBois by considering briefly his reading of Black Reconstruction. Here, the gist of West’s argument is the claim that in this book DuBois “provides an account of the means by which industrial America imposed severe constraints upon an emerging or at least potential creative democracy” (emphasis mine) (West, AE, p. 146). Summarizing what he takes to have been DuBois’ view of Reconstruction, West writes that the “economic power of northern capitalists and southern planters, the racist attitudes of white workers and politicians and the struggles of black freed persons conjoined in a complex way to give initial hope for but ultimately defeat creative democracy in America” (emphasis mine) (West, AE, p. 146). Now for West, the concept of creative democracy pertains specifically to Dewey’s vision of a form of social life that “includes liberal, Jeffersonian, and socialist dimensions yet is ultimately guided by Emersonian cultural sensibilities” (emphasis mine) (West, AE, p. 103). This concept, as West analyzes it, stresses “self-creation and communal participation” and draws its critical significance from Dewey’s assumption that “the crisis of American civilization is first and foremost a cultural crisis of distraught individuals, abject subjects, and ruptured communities alienated from their own powers, capacities, and potentialities” (emphasis mine) (West, AE, p. 103). Thus, when West represents DuBois as interpreting Reconstruction in light of the concept of creative democracy, he implies that DuBois wrote Black Reconstruction in the spirit of a Deweyan pragmatism that understands and values democracy primarily as a stimulus to cultural renewal. This implied claim is false, however, since DuBois' concept of democracy is not Dewey's concept of creative democracy.
For DuBois, the defeat of democracy which attends the demise of Reconstruction is not the defeat of an attempt to realize an Emersonian culture of creative communities and individuals, but the destruction of black and white laborers’ efforts to free themselves from the forces of capitalist exploitation. DuBois views democracy, not as the solution to a cultural crisis, but as the legitimate transfer of political and economic power from the ruling classes to the working masses. Thus, the language he uses to describe the “problem of democracy” is not that of “distraught individuals” and “alienated communities” but of “exploitation,” “surplus value,” “property,” and “privilege.”23 By (mis)re-presenting DuBoisian “democracy” as Deweyean “creative democracy” West obscures the connotations of class struggle which attach to DuBois’ use of the word “democracy” and, in this way, creates the illusion that Black Reconstruction grows out of a tradition of Emersonian cultural criticism.24
Neither in his recounting of DuBois’ intellectual background nor in his readings of Souls and Black Reconstruction does West make a convincing case for the claim that DuBois should be read as a pragmatist. Though my criticisms of West’s attempts to justify this claim have been varied, the motive behind each of these criticisms has been to foreground some of the verbal and conceptual details which West’s analyses of DuBois’ writings overlook. More exactly, I have wanted to pay attention to the particulars of context (e.g., the relationship between what DuBois says in one paragraph and what he says in another, as well as the connotations assumed by the word “democracy” in various parts of Black Reconstruction), of diction (e.g., DuBois’ use of the phrase “true self-consciousness,” no less than his more famous use of the figure of the Veil), and of DuBois’ recontextualization of the language and ideas he finds in various received texts (e.g., Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History, his Phenomenology of Spirit, and Royce’s The Spirit of Modern Philosophy). By thus focusing on the verbal texture of the texts West discusses, I hope to have elucidated the many ways in which they resist his efforts to fix them as outgrowths of a developing organism called “American pragmatism.” If there is a general lesson to be learned here, it is, I think, that organic models of intellectual history prove persuasive, only if we ignore the verbal and conceptual details which complicate and contest our readings of written works, in order falsely to represent those works as readily definable phases in the unfolding of some single vital potency. In West’s case, one could continue to test this lesson, by submitting his readings of Emerson, James, Quine, and others to the same kind of scrutiny which I hope to have brought to his reading of DuBois.
West’s failure to show that DuBois should be read as a pragmatist has substantive as well as methodological implications. The substantive implications I have in mind pertain specifically to West’s two intentions to tell a story about American pragmatism and to create a persona proper to the conclusion of that story. West’s effort to fulfill the second of these intentions becomes most explicit in the last chapter of The American Evasion of Philosophy. Here, he characterizes himself as a prophetic pragmatist and explicitly connects prophetic pragmatism to the progressive politics of feminist, black, and third world social movements. Ties to these politics are essential to West’s conception of prophetic pragmatism, yet seem extraneous to the pragmatist tradition generally, which has been largely oblivious to feminist, black, and third world concerns. West, of course, wants to deny this extraneousness, and to insist that his own commitment to these concerns is continuous with the pragmatist tradition he inherits and cherishes.
Now as I read West, his only stated justification for this insistence is his interpretation of DuBois. DuBois, he argues, was the only pragmatist who did not avoid “the political struggles” of “ordinary people.” He seems too to have been the only pragmatist who advocated an “international perspective” highlighting “the plight of the wretched of the earth,” as well as the only pragmatist “who viewed racism as contributing greatly to the impediments for both individuality and democracy.” DuBois was, finally, the only pragmatist whom West credits with an allusion to “the capacities and potentialities of women” (West, AE, pp. 147–8, pp. 180–81). In general, then, we may say that in The American Evasion of Philosophy, the figure of DuBois bears the full weight of West’s effort to link the progressive feminist, racial and third world preoccupations of prophetic pragmatism to what otherwise appears to be the received history of the pragmatist tradition. Subtract DuBois from this history, remove him, in other words, from the literal midpoint he occupies in West’s narrative, and that narrative will have little if anything to say to progressive feminist, anti-white-supremacist and third world social movements. Subtracting DuBois from West’s history is justified, I have been arguing, because DuBois’ major writings resist West’s attempts to classify them as outgrowths of pragmatism.
In order to fulfill his intention to represent his voice and thus the distinctive voice of prophetic pragmatism as emerging from the history of American pragmatism, West represents his voice as the repetition of pragmatist voices already heard. In particular, he represents his voice as a repetition of DuBois’ voice, and thus attempts to relate prophetic pragmatism and the entire pragmatist tradition to feminist, anti-white-supremacist and third world concerns. Since, however, DuBois’ voice cannot be unequivocally or even plausibly interpreted as that of a pragmatist, and so should be eliminated from West’s narrative, West’s representation of his voice as a repetition of DuBois’ voice, contrary to his intention, is best read as marking a huge rift between his history of American pragmatism and the politics essential to prophetic pragmatism. This representation should likewise be read as marking a rift in West’s public persona, the creation of which is the goal of his second intention, since this persona draws its appearance of integrity from the illusion that West’s “DuBoisian voice,” with all its feminist, anti-white supremacist, and third world preoccupations, like his “American Emersonian” voice, with all its passionate celebration of power, provocation, and personality, grow out of one and the same developing organism called “The American Evasion of Philosophy.”
In a recent interview with Bell Hooks, West describes The American Evasion of Philosophy as “an interpretation of the emergence, sustenance, and decline of American civilization from the vantage point of an African-American.”25 His suggestion here, that we should read his genealogy of pragmatism as an allegory of American civilization, lets us see clearly the deep significance of what I have been insisting is West’s questionable interpretation of DuBois. Read allegorically, this interpretation is West’s effort to incorporate the political struggles of blacks, women, and third world peoples into the story of America. Yet the rifts which appear in this story and in West’s own narrative voice persuasively suggest that the sort of narrative incorporation he is attempting here cannot easily be achieved. They suggest, in fine, that historically persistent political contestations over racial and/or gender meanings, as well as political commitments that have bound and continue to bind many Americans to often anti-imperialist and hence anti-American third world politics, cannot but produce fissures and discontinuities in any attempt to represent the history of “America” as a single and organically unified narrative whole.26 They suggest, finally, that in addition to evading Cartesian epistemology, prophetic pragmatists might also learn to evade the narrative myth of “America.”27
EVADING PROPHETIC PRAGMATISM
Read generously, my criticism of West thus far could be taken as providing a good pragmatist argument to shift my discussion of his book away from his historiographical intentions to his political and prophetic ambitions. What these criticisms could be taken to demonstrate, in other words, is that The American Evasion of Philosophy is precisely not the sort of book that should be read in the perspective of the will to truth, which is the perspective in which I have been reading it and in which it seems in some significant respects not to succeed, but a book that should be read in the perspective of West’s own pragmatist imperative to construct, inspire, and provoke a constituency. From such a perspective, it seems, one can take for granted that the will to truth, when deconstructively applied to texts such as West’s, will inevitably reveal questionable models of narrative continuity, biased misreadings of particular writings, and multiple voices where there was supposed to be only one voice. Thus, the argument continues, the only important question from a Westian pragmatist point of view is whether, rift ridden or not, West indeed does produce a prophetic-pragmatist voice and persona that should be expected to succeed in constructing, inspiring, and provoking the constituencies he wants to construct, inspire, and provoke.28
The answer to this question is, I believe, no. My reason for offering this answer is not that West has failed to write a book that will provoke his readers interest. West’s book is interesting, because his heroic yet very personal effort to combine in a single narrative his Christian, socialist, black freedom fighting and pragmatist allegiances is almost always pungent and never boring. Yet, in provoking his audience, West wishes to be more than interesting; he wishes, in other words, for his book to be something more than a transient academic fad and conversation piece (West, AE, p. 232). In West’s view, the ultimate purpose of his book is to elaborate a prophetic-pragmatist voice and persona that will be a “material force” possessing a “potency and effect” capable of making “a difference in the world” (West, AE, p. 232). This ambition notwithstanding, West’s aspiration is likely to remain a velleity, for the simple reason that the voice and persona he constructs, because they speak to so many, cannot speak effectively to anyone.
My point here is closely related to the concerns Martha Minow expresses when, in her review of The American Evasion of Philosophy, she responds to West’s claim that “it is possible to be a prophetic pragmatist and belong to several political movements, e.g., feminist, Chicano, Black, socialist, left-liberal ones” (West, AE, p. 232). “Are any self-designated political movements incompatible with prophetic pragmatism,” Minow asks, “and if so, why?” To be sure, Minow admires the political ambitions of prophetic pragmatism, yet she also worries that because West “leaves basic questions of strategy and implementation so undefined his articulation of aims sometimes resembles mere campaign slogans.”29 Minow’s two concerns seem to me to be related, since it is hard to see how West could produce anything but mere campaign slogans without being more specific about what messages he wants to communicate to which particular political movements. Were he to become more specific, however, it is not clear that he could speak effectively to some of the constituencies he wants to court without alienating others. As West well knows, the politics of race, class, and gender often contradict each other.
To be fair to West, I should note that he is aware of these problems and that he does offer a solution. His name for that solution is “the black church”:
To be part of the black freedom movement is to rub elbows with some prophetic black preachers and parishoners. And to be part of the forces of progress in America is to rub up against some of these black freedom fighters.
If prophetic pragmatism is ever to become more than a conversational subject matter for cultural critics in and out of the academy, it must inspire progressive and prophetic social motion. One precondition of this kind of social movement is the emergence of potent prophetic religious practices in churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. And given the historical weight of such practices in the American past the probably catalyst for social motion will be the prophetic wing of the black church. Need we remind ourselves that the most significant and successful organic intellectual in twentieth-century America—maybe in American history—was a product of and leader in the prophetic wing of the black church?
(West, AE, p. 234)
The organic intellectual and leader whom West has in mind is Martin Luther King, Jr. This is significant, since in the very next paragraph West expands on his allusion to King in order further to vindicate his belief that the prophetic wing of the black church can transform prophetic pragmatism into a political force capable of inspiring a progressive and broadly based social movement. According to West, “the social movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., represents the best of what the political dimension of prophetic pragmatism is all about” (West, AE, p. 234). And while West admits that King himself “was not a prophetic pragmatist,” he still uses King’s example to buttress his view that prophetic pragmatism can reasonably be expected to become an effective political force through the agency of leadership emerging from the black church:
He (King) was a prophet, in which role he contributed mightily to the political project of prophetic pragmatism. His all-embracing moral vision facilitated alliances and coalitions across racial, gender, class, and religious lines. His Ghandian method of nonviolent resistance highlighted forms of love, courage, and discipline worthy of a compassionate prophet. And his appropriation and interpretation of American civil religion extended the tradition of American jeremiads, a tradition of public exhortation that joins social criticism of America to moral renewal and admonishes the country to be true to its founding ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy. King accented the antiracist and anti-imperialist consequences of taking seriously these ideals, thereby linking the struggle for freedom in America to those movements in South Africa, Poland, South Korea, Ethiopia, Chile, and the Soviet Union.
(West, AE, p. 235)
It is perhaps obvious from this passage that West’s use of Martin King comes eventually to resemble his use of DuBois. Whereas West rhetorically deploys the figure of DuBois to persuade his readers that his prophetic-pragmatist commitments to feminist, black, and third world struggles for freedom have “roots” in the historical past of American pragmatism, he rhetorically deploys the figure of King to persuade them that the spirit of prophetic pragmatism can become a political force that stimulates and sustains these struggles in the future. He seems to suggest, in other words, that though King was no prophetic pragmatist, prophetic pragmatists coming out of the black church could contribute “mightily to the political project of prophetic pragmatism” by emulating King, that is, by articulating an “all-embracing moral vision” that, far from being reducible to empty sloganeering, proved effective as a means to the instigation of “social motion” geared to the organization of political alliances encompassing gender-based, race-based, and class-based agendas. Immediately after concluding his discussion of King, West reinforces this apparent suggestion by re-citing in the language of prophetic pragmatism much of the substance of King’s “all-embracing moral vision”: “Prophetic pragmatism worships at no ideological altars. It condemns oppression anywhere and everywhere … In this way, the precious ideals of individuality and democracy of prophetic pragmatism oppose all those power structures that lack public accountability … Nor is prophetic pragmatism confined to any preordained historical agent … Rather it invites all people of goodwill both here and abroad to fight for an Emersonian culture of creative democracy in which the plight of the wretched of the earth is alleviated.” (West, AE, p. 235)
West’s turn to the black church and to Martin King raises a number of questions. One might worry, for example, that West has not said nearly enough to support his belief that the likely catalyst for “progressive and prophetic social motion” will be “the prophetic wing of the black church.” His appeal to the “historical weight” of past prophetic religious practices is only the beginning of an argument and, in any case, appears to ignore the controversy still surrounding the idea that the history of the black church has been a history of progressive politics. That controversy is relevant to the position which West takes, since his turn to the black church will seem problematic to anyone who subscribes to the view that the history of the black church has not on the whole been one of emancipatory political activity.30
A second question raised by West’s turn to King and the church concerns the extent to which the “alliances and coalitions” King helped to lead were indeed “facilitated” by his moral vision. Just how politically significant were King’s moral and civil religious exhortations? We typically think of coalition politics as being based on and primarily facilitated by the convergence of group interests.31 Is West claiming that “moral vision,” as distinct from the convergence of interests, played an exceptionally important role in sustaining the coalitions with which King involved himself during the civil rights movement? And if this is West’s claim, what are we to say about the fact that, when King’s political agenda changed in the mid-sixties, he found himself attempting to lead a very different coalition of groups than he led previously (though some of his allies deserted him, he seems also to have envisioned the possibility of enlisting new ones), even though, it seems, his moral commitments did not change?32
The final question I want to address, and the one I wish most to emphasize, concerns West’s failure, despite his appeal to King’s example, persuasively to show that an all-embracing moral vision, even if set forth by a prophet stemming from the prophetic wing of the black church, might sensibly be expected to transform prophetic pragmatism from a conversation piece into an effective political force. By citing and re-citing King’s vision, West says nothing to justify his belief that under present circumstances the articulation of a broadly encompassing moral outlook might reasonably be anticipated to encourage the coalition building he believes is desirable. His discourse, moreover, precisely because of the generality and abstractness of its magnanimous all-embracing rhetoric (Prophetic pragmatism “invites all people of goodwill both here and abroad …”), effectively ignores what one social theorist recently described as the “polylogical” character of contemporary politics.33 West, in other words, pays no heed to the existence of multiple and competing moral and political idioms, and so permits himself the highly dubious assumption that the moral idiom of prophetic pragmatism possesses a universal significance adequate to interpreting the needs, interests, and identities of gay, feminist, working class, Chicano, Black, and Asian collectivities, not to mention the various third-world and international constituencies to which he also alludes. Nearer to the truth, I think, is the suspicion I hinted at above that prophetic pragmatism’s abstract and, to that extent, all too easily embraced moral idiom will prove superfluous to the need-interpreting and identity-forming deliberations of the various “subaltern counterpublics” which West wishes to address.34 Thus, despite the moral high ground he stakes out for himself, West’s pragmatism, like Rorty’s, is likely to remain a pragmatism without consequences.
Though idiomatic and discursive discontinuities seem to be constitutive of contemporary politics, we need not treat them as absolute.35 It seems clear, moreover, that left politics in the United States have much to gain from efforts to bring different moral and political idioms into dialogue with each other.36 Prophetic pragmatism will not help here, since its putatively universal moral discourse, rather than serving to bring different, antagonistic, and frequently misunderstood voices into politically productive discussions and alliances with each other, effectively “brackets” the substantive difference which need to be the starting points of such discussions and alliances. Thus, it would seem reasonable for leftists to evade prophetic pragmatism and, without presupposing the possibility of a unified political discourse of the left that could effect a comprehensive Aufhebung of all relevant discursive discontinuities, still recover something of DuBois’ impulse to see his way beyond the isolating effects of social contradictions to the possibility of conversational communications between co-workers.
See Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of American Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 5. Future references to this work will appear in the text as West, AE.
For West’s reference to Dewey as “the greatest of the American pragmatists,” see West, p. 69. For persuasive criticisms of Rorty that, like West’s, emphasize the importance of social theory to politics, see Thomas McCarthy “Ironist Theory as a Vocation: A Response to Rorty’s Reply,” Critical Inquiry 16 (1990): pp. 644–655 and Nancy Fraser, “Solidarity or Singularity: Richard Rorty Between Romanticism and Technocracy” in Consequences of Theory, ed. Jonathan Arac and Barbara Johnson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), pp. 39–62. For, finally, a very insightful critique of Rorty’s genealogy of modern philosophy that quite convincingly questions the primacy which he and, following him, West accord the pursuit of certain and indubitable “grounds” of knowledge, see Margaret Wilson, “Skepticism Without Indubitability,” The Journal of Philosophy LXXXI, 10 (1984): pp. 537–544.
West explicitly represents his narrative as critically subsuming the legacy of evasion and as culminating in his own prophetic pragmatist. See West, pp. 7, 210.
See West, pp. 36, 69, 85, 6, 71, 60, 111, 114, 128, 136, 194, 182, 212, 138, 4 and passim.
West repeatedly stresses the ways in which the various pragmatists “revise” the tradition they inherit. There is a real tension, moreover, between this emphasis, which connotes conscious intentionality, and his rhetorical suggestion of the sort of unconscious organic processes which induce the growth of root-nourished plants.
See Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1982), pp. 48–50. In American Evasion West claims that prophetic pragmatism, despite its rejection of Foucault’s anti-romantic suspicion “of any talk about wholeness, totality, telos, purpose, or even future,” nonetheless “incorporates the genealogical mode of inquiry initiated by the later phase of Foucault’s work … (and) … promotes genealogical materialist modes of analysis similar in many respects to those of Foucault” (emphases mine). At this point, West, by means of a footnote, refers his readers to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which he describes as the “best example of Foucault’s powerful genealogical investigations” (see West, American Evasion, pp. 223, 270). The gist of my argument is that these invocations of Foucault, notwithstanding West’s hint at the possibility of an oxymoronic anti-anti-romantic version of Foucauldian genealogy, explicitly embrace and celebrate a mode of genealogy that is thoroughly and essentially at odds with the organicist genealogical rhetoric of West’s book.
See Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals in On the Genealogy of Morals Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1969), especially section 12 of the second essay. See too Michel Foucault, “Language, Genealogy, History,” in Language, Counter-memory, Practice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), especially pp. 151–2.
See Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) and West, American Evasion, p. 248.
See Poirier, p. 147.
Here, I am drawing a conclusion that follows, I believe, from Poirier’s criticisms of Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot. Also relevant in this context is Paul de Man’s critique of Coleridge and the New Criticism in his essay “Form and Intent in American New Criticism.” See Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), especially, p. 28.
See W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 9.
See DuBois, pp. 8–9.
See Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 404–5. It is worth noting, perhaps, that Williamson also mentions that DuBois’ description of the Negro as a “seventh son,” like his use of the figure of the veil, involves a play on certain voodoo (hoodoo) beliefs. For the relevant passages from Hegel’s lectures, see G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Dover, 1956), pp. 91–9 and, for the German original, G.W.F. Hegel, Sämtliche Werke, Band VIII, Die Vernunft in der Geschichte, ed. George Lasson (Leipzig: Felix Meiner, 1917), pp. 203–224. For a striking and brilliantly ironic treatment of Hegel’s discussion of Africa that contrasts sharply with DuBois’ revision of Hegel, see James A. Snead, “Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture,” Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Methuen, 1984).
See DuBois, pp. 81–2. DuBois’ suggestion that races may have world-historical destinies echoes his remark in “The Conservation of Races” (1897) that “the history of the world is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races, and he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores and overrides the central thought of all history” (quoted from Negro Social and Political Thought, ed. Howard Brotz (New York: Basic Books, 1966), p. 485). DuBois’ appreciation of the tension between his own emphasis on race and the typically American celebration of the individual is evident in his insistence that “We, who have been reared and trained under the individualistic philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and the laissez-faire philosophy of Adam Smith” are loath to see and to acknowledge the role of race in human history (see Brotz, ed. p. 485). I should note, finally, that the specifically racialist twist which DuBois gives to Hegel’s conception of historical development probably reflects the influence of Alexander Crummell on his thinking. For a brief but useful discussion of Crummell’s connection to DuBois, see Wilson Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism 1850–1825 (Hamden: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 132ff.
DuBois, p. 9.
Josiah Royce, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1892), pp. 207cff.
Royce, pp. 207–8. I discuss in greater detail the Hegelian and Roycean motifs in Souls in my “Philosophy of History and Social Critique in The Souls of Black Folk” Social Science Information 26, 1 (1987): pp. 99–114. For another discussion of Royce’s relation to DuBois, see Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 179–191.
My picture of Royce as a post-Kantian idealist who had an “Hegelian period” in the 1890’s derives directly from John Clendenning’s discussion of Royce’s relation to Hegelianism in his The Life and Thought of Josiah Royce (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 229–30
Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James Briefer Version (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), pp. 161, 163.
Perry, pp. 165–6.
I do not mean to suggest here that DuBois had only Hegel in mind. As Edward Hudlin reminds us, in his recent work on DuBois’ senior thesis, the young DuBois associated “scholasticism” with medieval philosophical tendencies that, he argued, remained present in the writings of Royce and James (see Hudlin, unpublished manuscript), p. 28.
See Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 192.
See W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York: Atheneum, 1972), pp. 13, 15–16, 184, 206 and passim.
West himself notes that Marx and Emerson promote different versions of democracy (see American Evasion, p. 10). I have been arguing, moreover, that DuBois’ conception of democracy brings him much closer to Marx’s version than to the Emerson/Dewey conception of democracy which West celebrates.
See Emerge, October 1990.
My conception of racial politics as a contestation over racial meanings is based on Michael Omi’s and Howard Winant’s conception of race as an “unstable and ‘decentered’ complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle,” Omi and Winant, Racial Formation in the United States (Routledge: New York, 1986), p. 68. For a related conception of gender politics as a contestation of established “cultural configurations of gender” that “establishes as political the very terms through which identity is articulated,” see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (Routledge: New York, 1990), pp. 142–9.
Nathan Huggins has argued recently for the creation of a new American narrative myth that would “bring slavery and the persistent oppression of race from the margins to the center.” That this “centering” of race would be compatible with the articulation of an unambiguously unified narrative Huggins puts into doubt when he claims that his “new narrative would oblige us to face the deforming mirror of truth” (emphasis mine). See Nathan Huggins, Black Odyssey (New York: Vintage, 1990), xi-lvii. Let me add, finally, in case there is any doubt, that I do not mean to be suggesting that one could more easily write a history of “black America,” applying an organic model, than one could of “America.” Thus, I am very much in sympathy with Werner Sollors’ recent critique of the assumption that, though no “single, unified story about America” is tenable, such stories are somehow viable in the cases of literary and cultural studies of groups identified by gender, ethnicity, or race. See Werner Sollors, “Of Mules and Mares in a Land of Difference; or, Quadrapeds All?,” American Quarterly 42, 2 (June 1990): especially pp. 178ff. For a related critique (from a very different critical perspective) of the use of organic models of literary history which locate the “roots” of racially or ethnically identified literary traditions in “original ‘folk’ consciousness,” see Hazel Carby’s discussion of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s, literary critical project (most fully developed in The Signifying Monkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)) in her essay “The Canon: Civil War and Reconstruction, Michigan Quarterly Review (Winter 1989): pp. 41–3.
For West’s articulation of his inspirational ambition, see the “Introduction” to American Evasion.
Martha Minow, Reconstruction 1, 2 1990, p. 61.
For a view of the black church as a characteristically accommodationist and conservative institution, see Adolph Reed, Jr., The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), especially chapter 4. (It is perhaps worth noting here that Reed, in this chapter, explicitly criticizes the claims which West makes regarding the emancipatory potentiality of black Christianity in the latter’s first book, Prophesy Deliverance.) For a helpfully subtle and nuanced discussion of the history of Afro-American religion and politics that raises issues of direct pertinence to West’s views while also questioning the “myth of modernization” which shapes Reed’s outlook, see David W. Wills, “Beyond Commonality and Plurality: Persistent Racial Polarity in American Religion and Politics,” in Religion and American Politics From the Colonial Period to the 1980s, ed. Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 199–224.
For a brief but useful discussion of coalition politics and their limitations, see Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, On Democracy Toward a Transformation of American Society (New York: Penguin, 1983), pp. 173ff.
I am indebted here to David Levering Lewis’ discussion of the second (1966 and after) phase of King’s “civil rights career” in his “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Promise of Nonviolent Populism” in Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, ed. John Hope Franklin and August Meier (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), pp. 292ff.
Cf. Fraser, “Solidarity and Singularity,” pp. 51–9.
Nancy Fraser has introduced the notion of a “subaltern counterpublic” to characterize “discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.” Her primary example of such an arena is the “U.S. feminist subaltern counterpublic, with its variegated array of journals, book stores, publishing companies, film and video distribution networks, lecture series, research centers, academic programs, conferences, conventions, festivals and local meeting places.” See Nancy Fraser “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Social Text 25–26 (1990): p. 67.
Cf. Ernesto Laclau and Chantel Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 19855), pp. 182–4, 188.
Cf. Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 54, fn. 31 and Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Conservation of ‘Race,’” Black American Literature Forum, 23, 1 (Spring 1989): pp. 55ff.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3620
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 do you find when you go there?
I think I find, on the one hand, indeed, a lot of meaninglessness and hopelessness. But at the same time, I find those who are struggling, those who are trying to survive and thrive under excruciating conditions. And so the question becomes how does one attempt to turn, transform that meaninglessness and hopelessness into a more effective kind of struggle, a more efficacious form of resistance. It’s a very, very difficult task, but there are a host of highly courageous people, working people, ordinary people who are trying to hold on to meaning and value in a society that evolves more and more around market activity.
Market activity. A market culture, a market mentality, a market ethos permeates most every sphere of this society.
What do you think that means? What does it do to a community?
I think market makes it very difficult because the market, especially market these days, is a preoccupation with the now, with the immediate. And what that means, then, is that people feel that they no longer have to work or sacrifice, you see. Why? Because the big money can be achieved right now. I’ll give you an example, in the black community, in which market activity is at its most pernicious and vicious form, and that is the drug industry. You see, when young people engage in market activity, wanting to make the easy buck now, in many ways mirroring what they see in larger society—it’s what they see on Wall Street, you see. And it makes it very difficult for them to take, not only commitment and caring and sacrificing, but ultimately human life itself seriously. Profits become much more important than human life, and this again mirrors our society. So what we see is a very coldhearted meanspiritedness throughout these communities, and … it reflects so much of our own culture and civilization. It’s quite frightening, it seems to me.
What do you say to these young people? I know you’ve been making a lot of speeches to young people in the high schools, like those in Brooklyn, where the situation is fairly miserable.
I say that we live in a society that suffers from historical amnesia, that finds it very difficult to preserve the memory of those who have resisted and struggled over time for the ideals of freedom and democracy and equality. And then I pose the question to them …
To the kids.
To the kids. Are you going to be part of this tradition …? What’s going to happen to this tradition? How do you keep it alive? How do you keep it vital and vibrant? It ends on a query to them …
But you’re saying to them, suggesting to them, that each one of them can signify, each one of them can matter.
That’s right. And of course, that’s what hope is all about. … that you have to hold on to some notion that the future can be different by means of you sacrificing, by means of you fighting, by means of you struggling. And this is an old message … I learned this message in the black church years ago.
But is that relevant to these kids whose imaginations, as you talk, must sometimes wander to Prince and Michael Jackson and what’s the latest rap group that’s so popular—
Public Enemy, Stetsasonic, yes.
Yes, I think it can be relevant, but it has to be couched in such a way that they see its relevance. Now these figures are, in fact, their heroes, and oftentimes they are their heroes for the wrong reasons. They’re the heroes because of what they possess and the visibility they have, but they overlook the sacrifice and talent and work in becoming a Michael Jackson and a Prince. And I then try to use that example as a way of linking it much more to struggles for social justice and struggles for freedom and equality. But these two figures, I think, in many ways are exemplary of the kind of sacrifice and discipline needed for them to be the towering figures that they are in our popular culture.
Once upon a time, as you indicated in your own life, the church did provide that space. It did provide that model, it did provide that community. But I saw a poll just recently that said in the black community, the church is increasingly not a part of the ambitions or the life of young people. Do you find that so?
Well, yes … I think it’s important to note that the black church, especially, has had a disproportionate amount of influence on the black community, but the black church has always been a minority movement. But its influence is tremendous.
It’s turned out teachers and preachers and political leaders—
and activists, journalists and scholars.
—very much so. And it’s continuing to produce such figures, but its influence is indeed decreasing, as churches are around the country, not in terms of numbers, but in terms of actual influence, because of market forces. But I do think that the message of the church remains relevant, even among those who are not Christians.
It’s been curious—it’s been a curious intrigue to me as to why, when blacks were brought to this country, so many of them did adopt Christianity, which was the religion that defended—often defended the slavery that imprisoned them. How do you explain that? What—why did they turn to Christianity?
I don’t think—none of us fully understand. I want to argue that black people turned to Christianity—large numbers of black people turned to Christianity for three basic reasons. The first had to do with issues of meaning and value. Black people arriving here … had to come to terms with the absurd in the human condition, in America and the absurd as America, America as Egypt, America as a place of enslavement.
So that image of the Exodus, of slaves freeing themselves—
A god of history who cares and who sides with the oppressed and the exploited, a god who accents and affirms one’s own humanity in a society that is attacking and assaulting black intelligence and black beauty and black moral character, namely white supremacist ideology. But this message spoke very deeply on the—at the level of meaning and value. But institutionally it’s very important, because, you see, black people appropriated primarily the left wing of the Reformation, the Baptists.
The Baptists, my old—
The Methodists … I’m Baptist myself. And the polity is a much more democratic polity than that of my Catholic friends … And by democratic what I mean is, of course, that the preachers are accountable immediately to the congregations …
—and the pew has access to positions of leadership.
And the pew has access to issues of leadership, so that black humanity at the level of both leadership and followership could be accented.
And you were trained—you were trained in the public arts. Remember Bible drill, where the teacher would call out the Scripture and you would have to step forward and say—“Read it,” and you find it in the Bible very quickly. …
That’s right, that’s right. And then I think politically there was also a reason, and that had to do with the fact that black people could indeed not only identify with an oppressed people, but that they could engage in a form of critique of slavery, critique of Jim Crowism, critique of second-class citizenship, while holding on to the humanity of those who they opposed. I mean, this is the great lesson of Martin Luther King, Jr., and King, Jr. is a product of this tradition.
We have opponents, but not enemies.
Precisely right …, so what religion can do at its best is provide us with the vision and the values, but what we need also are analytical tools. One doesn’t look to the Bible to understand the complexities of modern industrial and postindustrial society. We learn certain insights into the human condition. We have certain visions of what we should hope for, what should motivate us to act, but we need analytical tools. And the analytical tool that is needed is found outside of religious texts, it’s found outside of religious sensibility. We move to the social sciences, we move to the humanities, to try to get a handle on understanding maldistribution of resources and wealth and income and prestige and influence in our society … And so all forms of prophetic religion must be linked in some sense with a set of analytical tools.
You used a compelling term on another occasion. You talked about combative spirituality. Combative spirituality. What do you mean by that?
Yes. By combative spirituality, I mean a form of spirituality which is to say a form of community and communion that preserves meaning by fighting against the bombardments of inferiority claims, the bombardments of deficiency claims against peoples of color … So a combative spirituality is a mode of community that sustains persons in their humanity but also transcending solely the political. It embraces the political, but it also deals with issues of death, of dread, of despair, of disappointment, of disease. These are the ultimate facts of existence and they’re filtered through our social and political existence. But ultimately all of us as individuals must confront these, and a combative spirituality accents a political struggle but goes beyond it by looking death and dread and despair and disappointment and disease in the face.
And saying that there is, in fact, hope beyond these. When you talk about hope, you have to be a long-distance runner … And this is again—it’s very difficult in our culture, because the quick fix, the overnight solution, mitigates against being a long-distance runner in the moral sense, in the deep ethical sense, of fighting sometimes despite the consequences of winning immediately, but because it’s right, because it’s moral, because it’s just … That kind of hope linked to combative spirituality is what I have in mind.
So combative spirituality is that sense of—subversive you once called it, subversive joy.
What is that?
Subversive joy is the ability to transform tears into laughter, a laughter that allows one to acknowledge just how difficult the journey is, but to also acknowledge one’s own sense of humanity and folly and humor in the midst of this very serious struggle. So it’s a joy that allows one both a space, a distance from the absurd, but also empowers one to engage back in the struggle when the time is necessary.
Some of that has come, has it not, from black music, from gospel and jazz and blues, with a slightly different emphasis. What about rap? Does rap have any of that spiritual energy in it?
Oh, very much so. I mean, black rap music. I think the most important development in the last 10 years is a profound extension of the improvisational character of what I call the Afro-American spiritual blues impulse. What I mean by that is an attempt to hold at bay the demons and devils with blues, spirituals and others. Hold at bay. And then, by means of a technical virtuosity and rhetoric, by means of an appropriation of certain rhythmic, syncopating antiphonal call-and-response forms, which are so central for black music, what rap has done is to allow a kind of marriage between the rhetorical and the musical. And I do think that part of the challenge of rap music is trying to remain linked to some notion of transcendence. And by transcendence I don’t mean the transcendent, but I mean some critical distance so that some kind of evaluation and judgment can be made on the present …
What is the judgment being made? Because you said somewhere that rap music is part and parcel of the subversive energies of the youthful black underclass. What do you mean, subversive energies?
Yes. They respond to their sense of being rejected by the society at large, of being invisible by the society at large, by their own critique, a subversive critique, of the society. And that subversive critique has to do with both a description and depiction of the conditions under which they’re forced to live, as well as a description and depiction of the humanity preserved by those living in such excruciating conditions. It then goes beyond to a larger critique of the power structure as a whole … it’s international in terms of its link to the struggles in South Africa. So that in that sense, it’s part of a prophetic tradition. But I should say that what is lacking in rap music is vision and analysis. Now, of course, none of us require from music analysis, but vision.
It is just fun, often.
You see, it’s fun, it’s entertaining, it helps sustain the rituals of partygoing on the weekends, but it still lacks vision. And this is where, again, the church plays an important role … Because it’s quite easy, you see, to channel these energies into very narrow and chauvinistic and xenophobic forms. Such forms lack vision … They don’t have moral content. They don’t have any ethical substance … And at times you do see this kind of vision being put forward, this narrow vision.
And even though there may be an intended or unintended political commentary in it, I don’t see it making any difference politically. Almost every analyst I know says nothing is helping, neither black rap music, neither the black church, neither social programs, neither capitalist economics, nothing is helping this black underclass. And yet you still—you still trumpet hope.
Yes, I do. I mean, this condition of the black underclass is tragic, but they are still human beings who are getting about. Many are still making sense of the world, in terms of holding on to their sense of self and holding on to their sense of vitality and vibrancy. Now, that in no way excuses the structural and institutional forces that are at work, which is to say the structural unemployment, the failed educational systems … the consumer culture that bombards them, highly sexualized consumer culture that evolves around orgiastic preoccupation, that tilts in hedonistic directions and so forth … That black underclass has to contend with all of these in addition to, of course, the larger racist legacy. But it’s not only about race … there are these other factors as well. So that certainly, the description of their conditions must include these others.
But certainly, I hold up hope. I’m talking about my cousins and friends and relatives who are seemingly locked in to this condition, and change can indeed come about.
The conundrum is that if you are morally outraged today, you’re relegated to the margins of society. You’re almost—it’s almost considered a form of lunacy to be concerned about social milieu—lunacy in the sense of acting out of the character of times, out of the norm. To be mature today means you’re supposed to say, “we can’t ameliorate certain circumstances in life.”
But I think the important point there, though, Bill, is that we have to understand why this is so—why has cynicism become so pervasive over the past ten years for those who accented social misery, wanted to focus on social misery? I see that cynicism more and more on the wane. I think eastern Europe is providing us with a very different lesson. See, up until the last few months, people did not believe that ordinary human beings, organized, could fundamentally change society. We had scholars around the world saying that the very notion of revolution was outdated and antiquated. So all of those assumptions and presuppositions are now being called into question, which means then that the focus of ordinary people organizing, mobilizing, having impact on powers-that-be, once again moves to the center of the agenda. It’s a question of sustaining ways of life in which care is manifest by means of bringing power and pressure to bear on status quos, but power and pressure brought to bear in such a way that we see some changes coming through and how people can see it themselves, namely people believing they make a difference … And lectures don’t do that as much as ordinary, on-the-ground, grassroot organizations.
You said recently that there’s a crisis in black leadership in this country. What kind of crisis?
Well, one is that so much of the energy and talent of black leaders has been channeled through electoral politics. Now, on the one hand, this is a salutary development, because of course, to have a black governor in Virginia, black mayor in New York and Los Angeles and Atlanta and what have you is a sign of progress. One should in no way deny this, one should in no way downplay this. But at the same time, given the way American society is structured, the disproportional amount of influence of the business community, the degree to which politicians as a whole must in some way if not cater to, then at least negotiate and compromise with, this business community, it’s still very clear then that the black politicians have highly circumscribed powers. And this is true for any politician … And therefore their inability to actually enhance the plight or predicament of black working people and black poor people, working people and poor people as a whole.
In fact, women and blacks have achieved mayoralty positions and other positions like that just as the powers have become more circumscribed.
That’s exactly right. With the tax base eroding and what have you. So that symbolically, cathartically and, in some ways, politically, black politicians play an important role, but it’s highly limited. They know it, we know it, and their constituencies know it. But the problem has been …, the black leadership has been focused on electoral politics, so we no longer have the Kings and the Malcolm Xes and the Fannie Lou Hamers and the Ella Bakers, namely those who stood on grassroot organizations and brought their prophetic critiques to bear …
In fact, what we need, in addition to the black politicians, are black prophetic figures who are less interested in winning office and more interested in speaking the truth with love to power, and to organizing and mobilizing black people and other people as well as to what the realities are.
Don’t you sometimes wish there were leaders and intellectuals who transcended race?
Sure. I mean, there has to be. There has to be. But I think it’s important that when we talk about transcending race, we don’t forget about it. … I think that we can best understand the whole by acknowledging the various parts. And it’s true, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but the various parts. One part is race; gender, ecology, labor and so forth. Certainly it would have to be a figure—it would have to be a movement that would speak to all of these. But you see, what often happens, though, Bill, is that precisely because black people and black intellectuals have been so thoroughly ghettoized and marginalized and confined to the racial terrain, that many want to prematurely escape. And that’s just as bad as those who want to remain ghettoized, it seems to me.
And if you remain with contacts to the black community, you are irrelevant to the larger white community. If you move into the larger white community, you are impotent back in the community, right, in the ghetto?
That’s right. That’s exactly right. We need to be able to move back and forth in such a way that you’re neither ashamed of talking about the race issue and all of its implications and you also are willing to, and in fact, you insist on talking about the larger situation in light of other elements as well as race. And I think that’s what we need in the 1990s.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577
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 (Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, W.E.B. Du Bois, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Lionel Trilling); and those who preserved the pragmatist bent of mind in postwar academic philosophy and finally championed a Dewey revival in the 1970s (W. V. Quine, Nelson Goodman, Wilfred Sellars, and Richard Rorty). West’s balanced appreciation and critique leads to his own proposal of “prophetic pragmatism” (a standpoint rooted in African-American liberation theology) as a synthesis of strains drawn particularly from Emerson, Dewey, and Du Bois.
Like historian Robert Westbrook, West rebuts claims that Dewey promoted corporate liberalism and applauds instead the radical, quasi-socialist implications of Dewey’s ideas of democracy. West argues, however, that Dewey’s ties to middle-class and professional means of reform left him with a perspective politically impoverished by its distance from the more lively, disruptive sources of social change among exploited classes and groups. Rorty’s work, a major influence on West’s thinking, is also too limited in West’s view by narrow class and cultural loyalties, which deprive Rorty of a critical standpoint beyond the bourgeois liberal norms of the established United States political community.
West’s critique of Rorty’s Dewey revival is incomplete, however. He refrains from challenging Rorty’s philosophical antirealism, and though he repeatedly (but casually) calls for complementing pragmatism with Marxist and other radical social analyses of “modes of production, state apparatuses, [and] bureaucratic institutions,” he never fully clarifies which elements of such analyses he chooses to confirm and which not. Readers may also wonder whether West’s broad definition of pragmatism comes close to reviving the old view of it as “America’s philosophy” rather than as a historically specific product of reflections on the meaning of science and modernity in a period of rapid industrialization. It is the spirit of the book as a whole, however, that counts in West’s favor and makes his pragmatist vision of a new kind of intellectual life inspiring. That new intellectual life would escape the caste consciousness of the academy without dismissing worthy intellectual traditions or norms of scholarly rigor, and it would look outward as an ally of the oppressed to social and political life at large. For offering a compelling portrait of that allegiance and that vision, West deserves the greatest appreciation and applause.
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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, given that America is gripped by social breakdown and cultural decay. West makes these points in a long, opening essay that also describes how he himself became a non-Marxist, Gramscian democratic socialist. He is an “engaged cultural critic” drawing on the prophetic tradition of the black, Christian church. He reviews details of his training at elite universities and in the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
The bulk of the book has two halves. First, three chapters expound various Marxian texts to explain Marx’s presumed shift to “radical historicism.” Second, three chapters describe the “moderate historicist” viewpoints of Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky, and Georg Lukács. West argues that each remains “foundationalist” in epistemology and therefore captive to the notion of philosophy as the quest for certainty. A final chapter, “Marx vs. the Marxist Philosophers,” iterates that Marx alone broke free of epistemological foundationalism. Hence only Marx provides a way to do ethics without resorting to relativism or reductionism, as West sees it.
This book has various strengths. It puts forward the question of Marx’s ethics, often ignored or trivialized. It models close attention to specific texts, versus reliance on secondary sources or interpretations of Marx as a whole. It demonstrates boldness and originality, as well as honesty and clarity about the author’s own intellectual stance. It calls for social/political engagement on the side of the oppressed at a time when many academics are in retreat or have openly taken the side of the oppressors.
However, at least three weaknesses are significant. First, West does not carefully place Marx within the context of two centuries of developments in philosophical materialism. In my view, this means that he inevitably misinterprets many of Marx’s texts. Second, from my perspective as a classic Marxist (the position West tackles in discussing Engels), West’s central argument is shaky. Correct that Marx is no relativist, West is too vague about what does ground objectivity in Marx, making ethics possible as more than sheer assertion of class interest. Because West is wrong that Marx was a historicist, the book fails to appreciate or to refute decisively the classic position: that Marx’s life work consisted in applying centuries-old ontological materialism to history, not in rejecting it for history. Finally, the book would be stronger had West cited more of his sources outside of Marx. He tips his hat to his mentors in the opening essay. But this is not enough to show us precisely how other thinkers have helped West to develop the work he does here on Marx.
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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 is “the pre-eminent African-American intellectual of our generation,” there is no arguing that he is a thoughtful, articulate, and quite influential social critic. His analyses of our “American dilemma” are studied in universities and seminaries across the country. His opinions on social and cultural policy were solicited by then President-elect Clinton just after last year’s election. And shortly after his installment at Princeton, West acquired official academic celebrity status when he was profiled in the New York Times Magazine.
This new book is a collection of eight short essays. Taken together, they sketch the outlines of an interesting if problematic vision of race in America. West offers a stunning array of propositions about our economy, politics, and culture, each one elegant and provocative, and some possibly true. But because West writes more in the manner of the prophet than of the analyst, he never stays long enough with any one point to convince us that he has got it right.
West believes the public discourse about race matters in this society is pathetically impoverished. In this he is surely right. But his explanation is a good deal more controversial: The absence of an effective public dialogue on the race question, he believes, derives from the fact that not all Americans are equal members of the national community. This is a failure for which he holds both liberals and conservatives responsible. Both mistakenly define the “racial dilemma” in terms of the problems that black people pose for white people. Liberals see poor blacks as the historical victims of American racism, needful of government assistance, while conservatives see in the behavior of the black poor the need for moral reform. Both, however, look upon lower-class urban blacks as a people different in some elemental way from themselves. The problem for both is how to transform “them” so they will be more like “us.” But this, West believes, tragically misconstrues the problem:
To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society—flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes. How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perception and response to these issues. As long as black people are viewed as “them,” the burden falls on blacks to do all the “cultural” and “moral” work necessary for healthy race relations. The implication is that only certain Americans can define what it means to be American—and the rest must simply “fit in.”
West is talking here about hegemony, though (we may be thankful) he avoids the word. He has in mind the historical fact and ongoing reality of the oppression of black folk—our separation from the mainstream of American life for generations, even after the end of slavery, as well as the horrible conditions under which many blacks continue to live. The “cultural stereotypes” he mentions are negative ideas—about the beauty, intelligence, moral worth, and even the humanity of Africans—which, given the need to rationalize slavery in a putatively Christian democracy, evolved over the years into an ugly antiblack ideology. He is asserting that we will get nowhere in our discussions of race until we unburden ourselves of the remnant of this ideological legacy. It is a superficially appealing position. But is it right?
Is it, in fact, true that racial progress depends upon a more ecumenical, less judgmental approach to the question of which ways of life embraced by various groups of American citizens are worthy of tolerance and respect? Is it entirely obvious that certain Americans have no right to say to others that inclusion—if not in terms of legal rights, then in social, cultural, and moral terms—is contingent upon “fitting in,” that is, upon adopting values more or less universally agreed upon. Surely this was what “we” said to segregationists during the civil-rights movement. Should it not also be “our” message today to an Afrocentric spokesman who insists on the moral superiority of blacks (“sun people”) over whites (“ice people”); or to the black mayor of a drug-ridden metropolis who, when caught in the act of illegal drug use, declares himself a victim of racism in law enforcement?
Criticism of offenses such as these—offenses not simply against whites’ sensibilities but against what should constitute core American values—are hard to find in Race Matters. This, in no small part, is due to the fact that West is usually “preaching to the choir.” His words collected here serve an emblematic function; they constitute for the like-minded reader banners of progressive sentiment. Few among the students and teachers of the humanities at the many universities where this book will be on the reading lists this fall will need to be persuaded of the correctness of West’s views. But out in the “real” America—the blue-collar districts of the industrial states that elected Bill Clinton last November; the suburban rings around the core cities where whites (and blacks) have fled from the problems of urban decay; in the South, where interracial coalitions still must be built—few doubts will be dispelled or souls converted to the cause by these essays. My concern is that these essays fail in their task of persuasion because they are too “politically correct,” too imbued with the peculiar ethos of the contemporary academy, to serve as a healing vision for our racial problems.
One instance where West does challenge the conventional progressive wisdom is in his discussion of the spiritual condition of the urban underclass. His willingness to confront the phenomenon head-on, and to place it at the center of the crisis of urban black life, is quite admirable. He dares to peer into the vast emptiness and nihilism of the spirit that characterizes life at the bottom of our society, where one youth can kill another over a pair of sneakers or a disrespectful gaze, where children give birth to children amid multigenerational poverty and dependency, where the alienation is radical, the violence random, and despair rampant. West understands that these conditions announce the arrival of “postmodern poverty,” a truly new phenomenon on the American scene.
But what he has to say about the causes and the cures of these problems makes very little sense to me. The spiritual problems of the black poor, it turns out, are due to the predations of market capitalism. The black underclass has been infested, as have we all, West says, with a materialistic acquisitiveness fueled by profit-seeking manufacturers, distributors, and marketers of consumer goods. The poor have borne the brunt of this capitalistic onslaught on cultural stability because their civil institutions—churches and families and community structures—are too weak to provide a counterweight to the dictates of television advertising.
One cannot dismiss this claim out of hand. There is a respectable tradition, on both the Left and the Right, that is skeptical about the cultural results of capitalism. But it is far from clear, given the historically unprecedented severity of the problems that have emerged in urban black society during the last three decades, that West’s explanation explains enough. After all, a television commercial may lead a youngster to desire a pair of sneakers, but only a pathological deprivation of moral sensibility will allow him to kill for them. In any event, placing responsibility on “market-driven corporate enterprises” tells us nothing about what must be done to reverse the decay.
West’s answer to the underclass problem is rather to advocate an all-too-predictable “progressive” policy agenda—more money from the government for schools; investment in infrastructure; the creation of good jobs at good wages; the continuation of affirmative action. But there is no serious inquiry into why such efforts, which have been tried repeatedly, have had so little impact on the deteriorating condition of the urban black poor. To counter this decline, West proposes a “politics of conversion.” As I understand it, he is implying a kind of communitarian democratic socialism, built from the grassroots. In advocating this “politics of conversion,” West, a professor of religion and sometime preacher of the gospel, oddly makes no reference to the role of religious faith. The spiritual malaise is to be transcended not by a vertical relationship with the Almighty but through horizontal relationships with fellow combatants in the struggle against white supremacy and corporate greed. This sounds just a bit romantic. West offers little useful advice about how to put this new politics into effect, even as he ignores the ongoing ministries in the inner cities that are managing to “turn the souls” of some of those at the bottom.
About some of the more difficult questions that must be asked and answered if real change is to occur, West has even less to say. Why are the relations between black men and women so difficult? Why does black academic performance lag so in comparison with that of other students, even recent immigrants, and not just among the poor but at all levels of the income hierarchy? How can effective engagement in the lives of the alienated urban poor be promoted and achieved by middle-class Americans of any race, when the poor are seemingly so divorced from the social and political commonweal? And what practical political program, implementable in the here and now of American public life, can secure enough consensus to support concerted action on these problems?
Questions such as these cannot be answered by sloganeering or with the clever deconstruction of our “patriarchal society” whose “machismo identity is expected and even exalted—as with Rambo and Reagan.” It is no political program to call for the emergence of “jazz freedom fighter(s)” who will “attempt to galvanize and energize world-weary people into forms of organization with accountable leadership that promote critical exchange and broad reflection.” It is an insufficient argument for affirmative action, which must be sustained by courts and electoral majorities, to invoke the need for an “affirmation of black humanity, especially among black people themselves, … [that] speaks to the existential issues of what it means to be a degraded African (man, woman, gay, lesbian, child) in a racist society.” This may be the rhetoric prescribed in the multiculturalists’ handbook, but it is a rhetoric, I fear, that is largely irrelevant to the serious racial problems that continue to beset American society.
West talks about transcending race as, he asserts, blacks should have done when instead we rallied in large numbers behind the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Yet he mires himself in an essentially racialist vision that makes it difficult to see how such a transcendence can be achieved. Why, one wonders, does he find it necessary to equate the violence-promoting lyrics of rap performer Ice-T with the public statements of former Los Angeles police commissioner Darryl Gates? More disturbing, how can a man whose claim on our attention here rests upon the morality of his denunciation of racism speak of “visible Jewish resistance to affirmative action and government spending on social programs”—as if the fact that some American Jews hold some ideas can be used to ascribe these ideas to the entire group? West would certainly, and rightly, be offended by a similar-sounding charge that blacks as a group should be judged as engaged in an “assault on Jewish survival” because some criminals who are black have murdered some victims who are Jews.
In the end, the moral authority of Cornel West’s voice in these pages must be supplied by the reader. If you come as a true believer, you will be entertained and energized by the eloquence and commitment of this “pre-eminent black intellectual of our generation.” The rest of us perhaps must take our lead from the current fashion in literary criticism and read this text not for what it appears to be arguing but, indirectly, for what it can be understood to say about the curious disposition of influence and moral authority in the contemporary American academy.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2607
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 product of “the specific aims, goals and objectives of particular groups, communities, cultures, or societies” engaged in historical struggle (p. 10). West thus calls, “for a historical assessment and political reading of our morality and morale, in order to shed light on how we can make them more contagious to others captive to the prevailing cynicism and nihilism” (p. xiii). In order to appreciate West’s argument it is necessary to scrutinize conventional ways of discussing moral questions, which are dominated by a philosophic approach to ethics, and philosophic (or epistemological) criteria of truth. In this grand philosophic debate the terms of moral discourse are invariably dominated by a foundationalist approach to ethics that can be termed hard objectivism. West mentions two forms of hard objectivism: absolutism (often religious absolutism), which claims that universally obligatory standards of moral certitude are available; and scientific naturalism, which claims that positivistic scientific foundations can be derived for moral principles. What is most important to understand about hard objectivism is that it claims that there must be necessary, universal grounds for all moral principles, and that such universal grounds can be located. Most moral positions that fight hard objectivism fall under the category of moral relativism. They accept the standard of moral certitude set by hard objectivism but doubt to varying degrees whether such moral certainty can be rationally obtained. Hence, moral relativism is by nature a defensive response to hard objectivism that allows hard objectivism to dictate the terms of the debate over ethical concerns.
West distinguishes two main forms of relativism: strong relativism and weak relativism. Under strong relativism he includes (somewhat misleadingly he admits) extreme moral nihilism which claims that there are no moral truths or facts. Second, strong relativism can take the form of normative relativism, which holds that a particular moral belief may be right for one individual or group and wrong for another, with the result that moral truth is always relative to the discursive actor and cannot be universalized. Finally, strong relativism also appears in the form of meta-ethical relativism (closely related to and often accompanying normative relativism), which holds that two conflicting ethical beliefs, such as pro- and anti-abortion rights, can be equally valid, each from its own standpoint.
It is to such strong relativist views that commentators often point when they criticize “relativism.” But most thinkers who reject both hard objectivism and strong relativism, West argues, nonetheless cling to a milder form of relativism, i.e. weak relativism. Weak relativism argues that it is possible to arrive at some universal standards such as logical consistency, theoretical coherency, and simplicity that allow one ethical belief to be justified in relation to others. Moreover, weak relativists often argue for various particular, limited ethical orientations based on rationally justifiable perspectives, such as utilitarianism, intuitionism, Kantian natural rationalism, egoism, consequentialism, etc. Yet weak moral relativism argues that there are a plurality of such procedures and standards, and that it is impossible to adjudicate between them in a way that will produce absolute moral certitude. There is in other words no “Archimedean point” from which absolute moral certainty can be derived. Weak relativism thus attempts to “water down notions of objectivity and validity to acceptable philosophical proportions” (p. 11). This position is often accompanied by a “moderate historicism” that recognizes changing moral standards. And it clings to the notion that it is possible to make limited universalizing claims for one standard over another.
Moral nihilism and strong relativism are often presented as dangerous doctrines because in strongly relativizing all ethical values they deprive humanity of universal standards of conduct and open the way to the notion that Thrasymachus’ position that “might is right” has as much validity as any other moral stance. Thus, it is significant that the radical nature of Marxism’s rejection of hard objectivist standards of morality and religion has led many interpreters to claim that Marxism by its very nature advances a strongly relativistic or morally nihilistic viewpoint. At the same time Marxism is frequently criticized for being “inconsistent” in that, in addition to its alleged rejection of universal moral principles, it commonly resorts to moral arguments of its own. Thus, even as sympathetic an interpreter of Marx and Marxism as Norman Geras has written that,
Marxism disparages, not this or that morality or kind of morality, but morality tout court—while having recourse to moral argument and moral judgment. And, in relation to Karl Marx himself and too many of his followers, that is the plain truth. They have tended to relativize. … 2
Insofar as this suggests both that the Marxist tradition has embraced strong relativism and that Marxists have seldom bothered to be consistent on moral questions West would disagree. Indeed, the dominant tendency within the Marxist tradition (as distinct from Marx), West argues, has been to combine a moderate historicism with the search for an alternative foundationalist approach to ethics that would provide some degree of higher philosophical justification for moral choices. West details three such quests for moral objectivity within Marxism: “Engels’ teleological quest,” “Kautsky’s naturalistic quest” and “Lukács’ ontological quest.” West argues that Engels agreed with Marx’s basic starting point in presenting all hitherto existing morality as the morality of class struggle. But rather than following Marx in adopting a radical historicist approach to morality, Engels chose instead a less heretical approach, relying on a moderate historicism and supplementing this with an objectivist, teleological justification for moral certainty. For Engels communist morality was superior because it stood for the eventual appearance of a world in which moral truth and moral reality would no longer be in conflict due to the transcendence of class divisions. But in order to avoid circularity in his reasoning (i.e., the problem of how one could carry out moral change that required a moral certitude that was itself dependent on a future state of affairs) Engels was forced to argue that some moral features of present society (those that would fade with the bourgeoisie) were accidental and contingent and that others (of proletarian origin, pointing toward communist society) were reflections of the objective laws of history. In other words, true morality became a manifestation of the operation of teleological principles within history itself. This is not to say that Engels always adopted this view. Engels, West contends, came close to radical historicism in some of his arguments. But his break with traditional philosophical approaches to morality was less clear and decisive and the resulting moral position far weaker than that of Marx.
Kautsky’s naturalistic quest for moral certainty took the form of a positivistic, “Darwinian” attempt to reduce “morals-talk to instincts-talk.” All moral realities are, in Kautsky’s ethical naturalism, facts of nature, and can be viewed in terms of human needs, social instincts, etc. Moreover, morality was to be judged instrumentally, in accordance with its contribution to the human technological mastery over nature, which was for Kautsky the essence of historical progress.
Lukács’ Hegelian-Marxist position was far more historical, and for West the closest to Marx’s own position (in the sense that it replicated to a certain degree the struggle of the early Marx). Yet for West it too was grounded in a classical philosophic quest for universal objective bases of knowledge and morality. Lukács’,
Hegelian perspective, which often sounds like a radical historicist view, calls into question traditional foundationalist views, but ultimately yields a nontraditional foundationalist view: a view which adopts an anti-Platonic ontology, an ontology of becoming.
For West, Lukács’ recourse to ontology (a statement about essential reality rooted in a concept of the human essence) was itself an abandonment of the revolutionary potential of Marx’s thought. “Any form of philosophic essentialism,” West concludes, is “anathema to radical historicism” (p. 166).3 What each of these thinkers failed to perceive, according to West, was Marx’s “metaphilosophical move” in which he rejected the philosophic quest for certainty and the search for foundations in favor of an analysis that focused on social criticism and social change. This was marked by a shift in emphasis in Marx’s writing from what West terms philosophic language (objectivity, validity, necessity, certainty) in his earliest work, to more theoretical language (description, explanation, function, role). In the sixth and seventh Theses on Feuerbach Marx abandoned any attempt to discover the human essence or the abstract individual in favor of an approach that sought out the historical individual rooted in the “ensemble of social relations.” “For Marx,” West writes, “an adequate theoretic account of ethical notions, e.g., ‘just’ or ‘right,’ must understand them as human conventional attempts to regulate social practices in accordance with the requirements of a specific system of production” (p. 99). It was Marx‘s confidence in the human capacity to struggle and to create higher humane moralities based on community-wide agreements in specific historical contexts that constituted the core of his moral position. Or as he said in the final thesis on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, our job is to change it.” In short, morality was not a form of philosophic truth that could be abstractly advanced or defended, but something real, in the sense that it was the object of struggle for communities of individuals actively engaged in the changing of the conditions of moral existence.
West’s book was written as a doctoral dissertation in the late 1970s. Its publication as a book at this time, a decade and a half later, clearly constitutes an attempt on his part to intervene politically and theoretically in what he sees as the rise of a paralyzing “epistemological obsession” on the left. This has taken the form of dispute over the foundational question of “‘essentialism’ and ‘anti-essentialism’ [i.e, ‘about who is more or less anti-essentialist’] as though much were at stake,” even though, “as Marx and Gramsci have taught us, the crucial levels of Marxism are those of concrete social and historical analysis and concrete political struggle.”4 For West, writing in the 1990s, what is most alarming is the, “tidal wave of popular cynicism and nihilism about the capacities of people to imagine, create, and sustain alternatives to the world-encompassing capitalist order” (p. xiii). This affects West’s way of treating Marxism.
My point … is not that Marx’s social theory fully accounts for all social phenomena; rather, it is that social theory wedded in a nuanced manner to concrete historical analysis must be defended in our present moment of epistemic skepticism, explanatory agnosticism, political impotence (among progressives), and historical cynicism.
Rather than surrendering to such paralysis West presents us in the new introduction to his study with a radical historical account of his own often contradictory struggle, “as an African-American socialist Christian—whose ‘essentialism’ is strategic and tactical rather than epistemic and foundational.”5 For West it was his own individual essence-making under conditions that were neither entirely of his own making, nor independent of those around him, that led to his emergence as a prophetic Christian freedom fighter and democratic socialist; one who finds Marxism as an indispensable tool for struggle. The circumstances of this struggle for identity on his part involved exposure not only to a racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, and ecologically destructive establishment but also contact with diverse, often conflicting, communities of resistance. Thus we see the rise of a moral being armed with universalizable moral claims that are a product in very complex ways of communities in struggle.
In spelling all of this out in autobiographical form, West is no more troubled than Marx by the “relativism” (in philosophic terms) of his choices, the contingent nature of his development, or his recourse to notions of his own “essence” and that of others, as long as these are understood in an historical and theoretic fashion. Unlike moral relativism, therefore, the radical historicism of thinkers like Marx and West is not forced into an inherently defensive stance on moral issues. It has no difficulty in claiming that some moral positions are better than others. Its criterion of judgment, however, is historical rather than philosophical. It places its trust in the messy process of the making of a human community through collective action, rather than relying on abstract philosophic adjudication from above, when faced with competing moral views. It is not to nineteenth century moral philosophers, after all, that the world owes the conviction that slavery is evil; rather the world was forced to acknowledge the reality of this evil as the result of an historical struggle for human freedom. Marx, in historicizing morality, West claims, made morality itself a subject of revolutionary praxis: not an absolute ideal to be realized but a unity to be created in the process of change itself.
We must constantly have recourse to moral language, West tells us, not to prove our grasp of absolute moral certainties, but to remind both ourselves and others to what moral community we belong. To the radical historicist hard objectivism is an authoritarian mode of moral discourse, while the opposing moral relativist position reflects a,
failure of nerve, a lack of courage, in that the relativist preoccupation with an unobtainable objectivity precludes the universalization of the ethical judgments that come from particular groups, communities, cultures, and societies.
In advancing its own moral judgments, radical historicism, in contrast, is not afraid to proclaim that competing moralities are rooted in competing struggles over human community. It is thus free to base its own universalizing morality not on abstract philosophic principles, but rather in the fight to create a wider human community in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”6
Raymond Williams, The Year 2000 (New York: Pantheon, 1989), pp. 243–269; Williams, Resources of Hope (New York: Verso, 1989).
Norman Geras, “Marxism and Moral Advocacy,” in Socialism and Morality, David McLellan and Sean Sayers, eds., (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 6.
In defense of Lukács, it might be more accurate to argue that he sought to historicize our understanding of essential human existence in ways that—although philosophic in their discursive structure—remain compatible with a radical historicist outlook. An “ontology of becoming” or an “essentialism” of praxis should not be confused with essentialism of the transhistorical kind criticized by Marx.
Cornel West, “Rethinking Marxism,” Monthly Review 38, no. 9 (February 1987): 55.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964). p. 41.
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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 that it was “neither a race riot nor a class rebellion … [but] a multiracial, trans-class, and largely male display of justified social rage.”
Los Angeles, he goes on, shows us that the challenge for all Americans is to “determine whether a genuine multiracial democracy can be created and sustained in an era of the global economy and a moment of xenophobic frenzy … Either we learn a new language of empathy and compassion, or the fire this time will consume us all.”
Here and elsewhere, one has a sense of being preached to, and none of what West writes is any more objectionable than is a Sunday sermon. This is both the strength and the weakness of this collection. Yet it seems to me that the language of civil rights, so fresh and vigorous when articulated by Martin Luther King, has suffered since its appropriation by feminists, gays, the handicapped and every other group with claims based on a history of actual or imagined oppression. Another way of putting it is to say that King’s passionate call to the American conscience, and the concomitant promise of redemption for all Americans, has become a chorus of shrill cries for pieces of an ever-diminishing pie.
West seeks, not always successfully, to reinvigorate the language of the civil rights movement, the language of James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, and to invest it with a new authority. Where he succeeds is in his unrelenting insistence that morality must be part of the public discourse. He succeeds, too, in his attempts to reconcile seemingly disparate viewpoints and in his unorthodox view of events such as the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings.
In a chapter titled “Nihilism in Black America,” West attempts to reconcile liberal and conservative takes on the problems that bedevil black America insisting that “the debate must go far beyond the liberal and conservative positions.” Rejecting the notion that any critique must be either-or, he calls for an examination of the effects of institutions and structures and values and behavior. When he does, he finds nihilism—“the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness”—the greatest threat to black America.
West goes on to argue that structures that once sustained black Americans do so no longer, in part because of “the saturation of market forces and market moralities in black life and the present crisis of black leadership.” In the end, he calls for a “politics of conversion,” which (as liberals would have it) does not forget the societal conditions that shape black people’s lives, but which also (as conservatives insist) “openly confronts the self-destructive and inhumane actions of black people.”
Similarly, he finds most troubling in the Thomas-Hill hearings “the low level of political discussion in black America … a crude discourse about race and gender that bespeaks a failure of nerve of black leadership.” Though Thomas’s appointment was an act of “cynical tokenism,” black leaders failed to confront Thomas’s mediocrity and undistinguished record, fearing that to do so would confirm white stereotypes of black intellectual inferiority. Yet their failure, West concludes, was evidence of how “captive” black leaders were to those stereotypes.
Though it is clear West believes Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment, these are scarcely mentioned in the essay. Instead, West exposes the fallacies of “racial reasoning” and Thomas’s claims to “racial authenticity,” asking the questions “What is black authenticity?” and “Who is really black?”
“Blackness is a political and ethical construct,” he concludes. “Appeals to black authenticity ignore this fact … This is why claims to racial authenticity trump political and ethical argument—and why racial reasoning discourages moral reasoning.” Such reasoning based solely on race is seductive, West argues, because it “invokes an undeniable history of racial abuse struggle.” And yet Bush’s claims for Thomas and Thomas’s own defense of his worthiness were uncomfortable bedfellows with black nationalist claims—“all highlight histories of black abuse and black struggle.”
It is in arguments like this that West transcends mere earnestness. In the final analysis, that is why Race Matters is more valuable, more significant, than Baker’s Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy. Baker is too much fascinated by the abstract and ideas for the sake of ideas. West understands that ideas cannot be separated from morality and the realities of daily life.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613
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 West’s thought intended to further debate among young African-Americans about the nature and destiny of the community. The book is a two-sided counterattack; on the one hand it critiques black conservatives such as Shelby Steele who criticize African-Americans for emphasizing racial victimization, and on the other hand it critiques traditional civil rights leaders who use race as a measuring stick for political judgment. West argues that there are legitimate reasons for African-Americans to express rage as they confront racism. Those who decry African-American rage as simply “crying wolf” are wrong, West contends. But West does not want African-Americans to choose and support political, social or judicial figures solely on the basis of race. He believes that it is important to examine the specific intellectual and moral content of persons or groups, and not acquiesce to the polities of pigmentation.
West is deeply concerned with African-American despair and hopelessness. He fears that current racial discourse will lead the community to further moral anarchy and death. Death to African-Americans ultimately means death to the democratic spirit and to the American experiment. This book is, then, a prophetic alarm for all people of conscience, calling on them to rebuild the foundations of democracy and our common humanity.
This book could have used an essay like “Subversive Joy and Revolutionary Patience in Black Christianity” (which appeared in West’s Prophetic Fragments). The critical issues the book poses can be overcome only by people who are hopeful. Much can be gathered out of African-American experience and traditions to lift the heads and slumping shoulders of a fearful and dejected people. Like a great many contemporary social critics, West doesn’t give us much laughter, although he acknowledges hope as key to his thought. Laughter as a sign of hope is an integral part of African-American liberation. The laughter generated by such writers as Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed and activists like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer is worth mining for veins of hope.
The other troublesome feature of this book is its title, which might lead the reader to believe that “race” is some essentialized element of African-American biology, culture and politics. Since West’s own view is that racial thinking is very dangerous, a better title might have been Black Folk Matter or African-American Matters. Despite the lapses, West, as always, broadens our understanding and gives us much food for thought.
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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 esteem in which West is held derives from his image as a man of moderation. He is not hostile to whites, he refuses to blame all the troubles of the inner city on white racism, and he is critical of black appeals to racial solidarity. Although he pays tribute to both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, West seems more comfortable with King’s prophetic integrationism than with Malcolm’s militant nationalism. He eschews the traditional liberal calls for urban Marshall Plans, focusing instead on spiritual values and the need to revive a sense of community as steps toward racial reconciliation.
West thus presents himself as steering a prudent centrist course among liberal statism, racial exclusiveness, and the conservative stress on personal conduct. As he puts it here:
The liberal notion that more government programs can solve racial problems is simplistic—precisely because it focuses solely on the economic dimension. And the conservative idea that what is needed is a change in the behavior of poor black urban dwellers (especially poor black men, who, they say, should stay married, support their children, and stop committing so much crime) highlights immoral actions while ignoring public responsibility for the immoral circumstances that haunt our fellow citizens.
But passages like this notwithstanding, West is not, in fact, the centrist he would like us to think him. Although he can issue sweeping pronouncements that suggest a breaking of ranks with today’s racial orthodoxies, in the next breath he is capable of blithely contradicting these same positions. An example is his rejection of race-specific solutions, which is followed by an unequivocal endorsement of affirmative action, one of the most divisive race-specific policies ever enacted. He also engages in polemical maneuver—by, for instance, denouncing arguments based on race solidarity and then outlandishly citing as his single case in point the support that many blacks gave to Clarence Thomas.
West engages in such posturing, I believe, in order to camouflage political beliefs which are well to the Left not only of the Center but of contemporary liberalism. Although the word “socialist” hardly appears in these pages, the assessment of American society that West sets forth owes more to the Marxist tradition than to the American civil-rights heritage. West, to be sure, does not focus on social class; rather, his radicalism is intermixed with a kind of New Age politics in which the dynamics of class recede while questions of race, gender, and sexual orientation are brought to the fore. (One laughable sign of West’s embrace of the “diversity agenda” is the length to which he goes to be linguistically correct, as in his reference to “Jim and Jane Crow segregation.”)
But West does not try to conceal his view that American capitalism is evil. He writes of life in America as an “empty quest for pleasure, property, and power.” Blacks, West contends, “reside in a jungle ruled by a cutthroat market morality” which breeds nihilism and leads, in the inner city, to an environment of utter despair.
It stands to reason that if the American economic system is intrinsically immoral, then those who accept the system have been touched by its corruption. And so it is, West believes, with the black middle class and black political leadership. He excoriates the former for having renounced the “vibrant tradition of resistance” fostered by the civil-rights movement while adopting a life based on “professional conscientiousness, personal accomplishment, and cautious adjustment.” Likewise, West criticizes black political leaders for their “lack of authentic anger,” and their general stance of accommodation with American ruling elites.
In both instances West’s criticisms are unfair, extraordinarily so in the case of the black middle class. The traits he ascribes to black professionals are, in fact, precisely the traits required for successful lives and careers. If more Americans of whatever race were as committed to the work ethic and the idea of excellence as are West’s black professionals, the country would be greatly strengthened and our racial climate vastly improved. It hardly needs to be pointed out, moreover, that these professionals represent the first mass black middle class in American history; the eyes of the nation are on their performance at work and at home, and they scarcely need the additional burden of civil-rights protest which West seeks to foist on them.
Much the same can be said for black political leaders. West presumably takes little comfort in the presence of Ron Brown, Mike Espy, Lee Brown, and other blacks in the Clinton administration, since these officials have risen to their current positions not as activist protesters but as professional politicians, and their success can thus be seen as reinforcing the notion that, in one area at least, American race relations are improving. It is precisely this idea—that the system might be working—which West seems least able to tolerate.
Given his treatment of black professionals and politicians, it will come as no surprise that West has little use for black conservatives. The idea, for example, that black conservatives have been the objects of ad-hominem attacks earns his scorn—West has evidently paid little attention to the many, many attacks on Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, and Clarence Thomas in which the major point has been to deny their credentials as authentic blacks. But more disturbing is West’s accusation that “the widespread support black conservatives received from conservatives in the Reagan and Bush administrations and from Jewish neoconservatives has much to do with their views on U.S. foreign policies.”
Here we have a perfect example of West’s style of debate. As on a number of other issues, he plays loose with the facts: while black conservatives may have written critically of the tendency among black intellectuals to sympathize with authoritarian regimes of the Left, mostly they focus on domestic controversies like affirmative action, busing, and welfare. As for their specific foreign-policy views, West stops short of asserting explicitly that support of American policy is unworthy of a black intellectual, but the implication is unmistakable in his statement that black conservatives are “viewed in many black communities as mere apologists for pernicious U.S. foreign policies.”
In a passage highly critical of the entertainment industry, West disparages the “reduction of individuals to objects of pleasure” and bemoans the way our culture has been polluted with “gestures of sexual foreplay and orgiastic pleasure.” One might suppose that West, who repeatedly stresses the moral dimension of the racial debate, might find common ground here with conservative critics of the liberal ethos. Yet one will search in vain for any reference to such issues as rap music, the civil-liberties movement, First Amendment absolutism, or the cultural legacy of the 60’s—although other black leaders of impeccably liberal reputations have spoken out about precisely such matters. Instead, West reduces all social ills to one issue alone: capitalism, with its “sexual and military images,” its marginalized youth, ruined families, and ravaged communities.
One of the most controversial chapters in Race Matters deals with relations between blacks and Jews. West himself is very much in the tradition of interracial harmony, at least among those of a progressive political stripe, and there can be no question of his harboring anti-Semitic prejudices. Nevertheless, his attempts to explain the roots of black-Jewish division are deeply flawed, evasive, and less than honest.
West accurately cites affirmative action as a major point of difference between blacks and Jews. But while observing that hostility to preferential treatment is less pronounced among Jews than among other groups, he adds that Jewish opposition “seems to reek of naked group interest, as well as a willingness to abandon compassion for the underdog of American society.” This is tantamount to saying that Jewish opposition to affirmative action has nothing to do with concerns about fairness, democracy, or fears of racial balkanization, but is due simply to moral blindness. Nor does West recognize the irony in his reference to Jewish group interests in discussing a policy which openly places one group, blacks, above all others in the apportionment of economic rewards.
An even graver problem emerges in West’s treatment of Israel. He begins by acknowledging that some blacks, by falling to grasp the “deep historical sources of Jewish fears and anxieties about group survival,” have been oblivious to the “visceral attachment of most Jews to Israel.” But Jews, for their part, he writes, fail to recognize what “the symbolic predicament and literal plight of Palestinians in Israel means to blacks.” Because of this, blacks see the Jewish defense of Israel as a “second instance of naked group interest” and an “abandonment of substantive moral deliberation.”
West then pushes this symmetrical formulation further to the extreme by asserting that black-Jewish ties were especially damaged in the 1980’s by the policies of Israel’s Likud government: “When mainstream American Jewish organizations supported the inhumane policies of [Menachem] Begin and [Yitzhak] Shamir, they tipped their hats toward cold-hearted interest-group calculations.” Blacks, he adds as a balancing afterthought, are not guiltless, either, as when they accept the various conspiracy theories about Jewish economic power.
On almost every point, West’s analysis is inaccurate, and often obnoxious as well. The comparison he draws between Begin and Shamir on the one hand and Leonard Jeffries and Louis Farrakhan on the other is absurd, for the obvious reason that the Likud leaders neither said nor did anything inimical to the interests of blacks, while Jeffries and Farrakhan have issued blatantly anti-Semitic declarations and threatened Jews who opposed them.
Furthermore, by focusing on the Likud period, West has either forgotten or is unaware of a bit of relevant history. During the 1960’s, it was Israel’s Labor government under Golda Meir which was the object of savage attacks by black radicals for its alleged policies of racist genocide and imperialism. More to the heart of the matter, there is no evidence that black resentment of Jews has been significantly fueled by Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, or that black attitudes toward Begin and Shamir were much different from black attitudes toward Margaret Thatcher or Helmut Kohl.
West’s observations on blacks and Jews conform to a clear pattern: he attributes a perspective to all blacks or many blacks or some blacks which in fact represents little more than his own opinion or an opinion limited to the relatively small fraternity of like-minded black leftists. And a similar tactic is evident in West’s hazy and substanceless prescriptions for change. While he is under no obligation to provide his readers with a laundry list of policy ideas, we can surely expect more than, for example, the assertion that “Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or analyses, it is tamed by love and care.” But here too there may well be deliberateness behind the vagueness. By repeatedly stating that capitalism is the root cause of the American racial dilemma, and that little real change can be achieved without a fundamental reorganization of the economy, West skillfully deflects many of the crucial and divisive issues over which America is now agonizing.
Despite the artful packaging, West’s ultimate message is neither new nor courageous. Indeed, were he to argue his case for socialism openly, “one of the most authentic, brilliant, prophetic, and healing voices in America today” might discover that very few were listening.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1144
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 outburst provides an occasion to put the country’s long vexing racial concerns into a wider, more meaningful context. “What we witnessed in Los Angeles,” he says in his Introduction, “was the consequence of a lethal linkage of economic decline, cultural decay, and political lethargy in American life. Race was the visible catalyst, not the underlying cause.”
The book is a collection of eight essays on themes central to black America, including black rage, the taboo of black sexuality, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. Although most of them have been published separately, the chapters achieve a loose cohesion here in condemning our consumer-driven culture, where self-gratification is prized at the expense of group values. The result, West proclaims, is despair, the abandonment of community and eventual lawlessness.
He finds the current political responses to these ills too confining, too limited in their possibilities. Great Society Democrats advocate economic measures to compensate for the lack of opportunity at the root of black America’s present predicament; self-help Republicans stress a need to confront immoral behavior within the black urban community, especially among poor black men. Both sides, West observes, have formulated their positions from a white perspective: “For liberals, black people are to be ‘included’ and ‘integrated’ into ‘our’ society and culture, while for conservatives they are to be ‘well-behaved’ and ‘worthy of acceptance’ by ‘our’ way of life. Neither acknowledges that our society is the sum of its parts.”
Drawing on the socialist and Christian tenets that have informed his other works, West offers a hybrid antidote to the problems plaguing black society: government assistance programs paired with a re-emphasis of old-fashioned morality. In the process, he casts a fresh light on moribund controversies.
His deconstruction of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings is a compelling example of his approach. He faults both Thomas and Hill for supporting “unbridled capitalist market forces.” But he is particularly critical of Thomas, whose relentless self-promotion he shows was evident before Hill ever took the stand. In a speech to a conservative San Francisco audience, Thomas had painted his sister, Emma Mae, as a “welfare cheat”—revealing, says West, “his own lack of integrity and character.” Thomas’ performance as a Supreme Court nominee, the author goes on, not only played into George Bush’s tokenism but also was supported by the worst features of black patriarchy. Despite his mediocrity, most blacks rallied around him for the color of his skin, and then supported him over Hill in keeping with the age-old black gender hierarchy.
West is no less forthright in taking up such charged issues as black nationalism and black-Jewish relations, yet in every case he deftly avoids ensnaring himself in polemics. The author of seven previous books and a prodigious lecturer, he is well-known for his rhetorical nimbleness. Even his attacks on capitalism display a remarkable equanimity, and it is apparent he has paid attention to the culture industries spawned by the market. He is as likely to quote from a rock song by Sly and the Family Stone as from the writings of Plato.
As he points out the shortcomings of the national racial debate, West, who heads the Afro-American Studies Department at Princeton University, is careful to maintain an academic distance. Only in his Preface does he lower his guard to reveal how racism has affected him personally: “Years ago, while driving from New York to teach at Williams College, I was stopped on fake charges of trafficking cocaine. When I told the police officer I was a professor of religion, he replied, ‘Yeh, and I’m the Flying Nun. Let’s go, nigger!’”
West refrains from clearly locating his own politics as well, calling his view simply “progressive.” In his chapter on the black intellectual leadership, where he speaks of “race-distancing elitists,” “race-embracing rebels,” and “race-transcending prophets,” he has the opportunity to place himself within the spectrum—but lets it pass. If his reserve comes across in other chapters as evenhandedness and ultimately lends him credibility, here it borders on being coy. He is similarly reluctant to pigeonhole his academic colleagues, whereas he is quick to pin labels on black political figures.
Given the post he holds and his degrees from Harvard and Princeton, it is difficult to accept West’s lament that so many bright young blacks choose to attend prestigious colleges and universities to enhance their marketability, and forsake the chance to enrich their community by attending traditionally black schools. A man of his stature, after all, is in a position to provide a far greater return to the community than most people.
On the whole, Race Matters is designed to be provocative. Nonetheless, it delivers a powerful moral message in a tone made accessible to a broad audience. Although at times West’s prose gets lost in a thicket of suffixes, he succeeds in bringing down the divides that have kept matters of race essentially a black domain.
In the final chapter, West tries to demystify Malcolm X, whom he calls a “prophet of black rage.” Young blacks today, he reminds us, “are up against forces of death, destruction and disease unprecedented in the everyday life of black urban people. The raw reality of drugs and guns, despair and decrepitude, generates a raw rage that among past black spokespersons, only Malcolm X’s speech approximates.” Spike Lee and others have capitalized on the resurgence of Malcolm X’s reputation. West instead pivots black anger on its axis to make the emotion understandable to whites too. All of us, he says, should feel rage at the failed American system.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2285
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.
FROM CELEBRITY TO PHENOMENON
No longer just another academic celebrity, Cornel West has become a phenomenon, a darling of the press, and, despite his protestations, a serious contender for what is sometimes referred to as “Head Negro in Charge”—the one black whom white pundits and policy makers look to as a spokesman for his people.
“It’s much too much,” he sighs, shaking his head, as he settles into a chair in his Princeton office for yet another interview. “Overexposure, God.”
Mr. West is not likely to slip off the radar screen any time soon. In addition to a widely publicized forthcoming volume of essays on black-Jewish relations that he is writing with Michael Lerner, editor of the journal Tikkun, Mr. West is about to publish another scholarly book. In October, Routledge will release a collection of his essays called Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America.
Keeping Faith is a snapshot of the scholarly Cornel West, as Race Matters is a snapshot of the public intellectual. At 300 pages, Keeping Faith is three times as long and many degrees denser. It touches on such specialized subjects as pragmatism, Marxism, critical legal studies, and philosophy of religion. But it also, like Race Matters, returns again and again to issues of race, difference, power, and social suffering. And it nicely complements Race Matters, demonstrating Mr. West’s dexterity in switching from scholar to public person and back again.
“What’s nice about West,” says Richard Rorty, a philosopher at the University of Virginia, “is that he can move back and forth between placing Dewey and Du Bois in intellectual context and publishing things like Race Matters, which includes some acute remarks about who’s doing what to whom.”
AIMING FOR A POPULAR AUDIENCE
Of nearly a dozen books that Mr. West has written or edited, Race Matters is the one most clearly intended for a popular audience. It obviously hit its mark. Beacon Press reports that some 85,000 copies are in print. The book is attracting readers, many critics say, because it covers topics that make other writers skittish (one essay links racism and black sexuality) and because Mr. West, an avowed leftist, nevertheless tries to transcend traditional liberal and conservative party lines about race.
By its nature, Keeping Faith is almost guaranteed not to be a best-seller. Nor is it likely to add one whit to Mr. West’s fame. But as he sits in his tiny, cluttered office here talking about the work the book contains, he seems as pleased by the prospect of its publication as he is by the success of Race Matters.
“This book is probably more representative than anything else I’ve done,” he says.
The 17 essays in the collection, nearly all of them previously published, date from as far back as 1982, almost at the beginning of his academic career. They include discussions of art and architecture; analyses of philosophical pragmatism and so-called neopragmatism; studies of the role of law in culture and politics; and an outline of how race has been understood by theorists across the political spectrum. The essays, in short, are all over the philosophical map.
OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM
Although trained as a philosopher—he received his doctorate from Princeton in 1980—Mr. West works far outside the mainstream of American analytical philosophy, which focuses on the intricacies of language and logic. He is best understood in a category with philosophers like Mr. Rorty and Alasdair McIntyre, whose work most other American philosophers do not really consider philosophy.
As a philosopher, Mr. West is a grazer. In one of the essays in Keeping Faith, he describes himself as a “historicist pragmatist in close conversation with the best of Marxist tradition,” but in the interview he admits that even those influences don’t cover all of it.
From pragmatism, he says, he takes a sense of experimentalism, of improvisation, of seeing what works: from Marxism, a concern with trying to account for social misery. Beyond that, he adds, he looks to Ralph Waldo Emerson for a concern with the everyday, and to Anton Chekhov for a way to respond to the inevitability of evil in the world. His sense of history—or, as he puts it, “the crucial role that history, culture, and society play in who and what we are”—is rooted in an unabashedly Christian view of the world.
“I see much of our radical circumstantiality symbolized in the Cross,” he says—“the blood, the struggle, the tears, the scars, the bruises.”
Add to his philosophical eclecticism a strong interdisciplinary streak. Mr. West wanders as fearlessly into the thickets of legal theory or architectural criticism as he does the philosophy of John Dewey.
The breadth of Mr. West’s work is probably its most distinctive feature and the one that attracts both critics, who say his scholarship lacks depth, and admirers.
“It allows me to speak to a large number of persons within the academy,” Mr. West says, “without being a member of their particular discipline. Now, the critics say, ‘Well, it doesn’t allow him to speak that well, because he turns to too many things.’”
Mr. West considers the opening essay of Keeping Faith, called “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” one of the most important in the collection. It is also a perfect example of what some people consider best and others consider worst, about his work.
SHAPERS OF WESTERN CULTURE
The essay concerns the current struggle over multiculturalism—without once using that word. In it, Mr. West attempts to put into historical context the efforts by minority peoples, women, gays and lesbians, and others to be recognized as full sharers in and shapers of Western culture.
In 30 pages, the essay offers a whirlwind tour of two centuries of cultural criticism, with lengthy stops at Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot, pauses at Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and an array of Marxist and feminist critics, quick passes by Frantz Fanon and Jesse Jackson, and glimpses of countless others. Mr. West covers so much ground that even a non-specialist is left wondering whether any one person could possibly have got it all right.
On the other hand, the inclusiveness of Mr. West’s vision is striking. Here is a black leftist intellectual who really takes someone like Matthew Arnold, the quintessence of dead-white-European maleness, seriously.
“A Matthew Arnold and a T. S. Eliot for me become just as important as a bell hooks or a Toni Morrison because they attempted to provide characterizations of the crisis of civilization in which they found themselves,” Mr. West says. “I’m trying to do the same thing in terms of the crisis in our present-day situation.”
His writing—which even in the popular essays can be opaque—does not begin to capture the whole of Cornel West.
He is an unusually engaging person, who is not only admired but widely liked, even by critics who thoroughly disagree with him.
People also make much of the fact that he is a lay Baptist preacher and note the preacherly power of his speeches and lectures. Mr. West considers it a mark of the impoverishment of 20th-century oratory that the least sign of passion in speech calls to mind black preaching. Nevertheless, perhaps the first among his many gifts is the gift of the spoken word. The expressive face and gestures, and the use of his gap-toothed grin for punctuation, only add to the effect.
“To understand Cornel West you’ve got to hear him,” says Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School and the editor of the journal Reconstruction.
A JAZZ MUSICIAN
Even in casual conversation he can be mesmerizing. Like a jazz musician he often takes off on extended riffs, pulling his listeners along to who knows where.
“I often tell the story about how, when I was growing up in Sacramento, my track coach—a white track coach, very wonderful guy—brought me over to teach me how to swim. Soon as I jumped in the pool, all the white folk jumped out.” Eyebrows shoot up, the voice is lowered: “Because I had contaminated it.
“Now, where does this come from? Black bodies in white space, contamination, impurity, clean out. You see, that’s very deep, in terms of, on a visceral level, how race functions.”
And then he’s off. The next few minutes are a blur of references to psychosexual and biblical sources of racism, Jews, the death of Christ, the Black Death, women, xenophobia.
“I try to track those things, you see?”
INVITING THE HEAT
In the hothouse atmosphere of academe, no one achieves the kind of visibility Mr. West has without incurring some measure of jealousy, skepticism, and even anger. Everybody, including Mr. West, says this is certainly so in his case. Sometimes he even seems to invite such reactions.
In an essay in Race Matters called “The Crisis of Black Leadership,” for example, Mr. West berates the current generation of black intellectuals for their careerism and lack of vocation. He even criticizes their “shabby clothing,” a particularly pointed remark in light of his own trademark preference for three-piece suits with a gold pocket watch and chain. He insists the suits, which suggest the Victorian look of W.E.B. Du Bois, are really his way of trying to hold on to the sense of calling and purpose that marked an earlier generation of black scholars.
“So when I make this rather flippant remark about how black intellectuals are dressing,” he says, “I’m actually saying much more about the depth of their conviction and what the state of their souls is.”
In the words of one young black scholar, “everybody and their mama” were annoyed by what they considered the unfairness of that attack. Mr. West admits the essay may have gone a bit overboard, but he doesn’t entirely back away from it, either.
Other, more substantive criticisms of Mr. West also surface regularly.
Everyone agrees Mr. West is a formidable intellect and a persuasive speaker. But the suggestion by some that his scholarly work lacks depth is echoed by others who say of his essays in Race Matters that it is not clear exactly what he is suggesting we do about the problem of racism in America. Indeed, pressed to account for the Cornel West phenomenon, many scholars seem hard put to identify an original idea he has contributed to the dialogue about race. Instead, they point to the force of his personality, the breadth of his vision, or the sincerely moral tone he brings to the debate.
Others wish that Cornel West the scholar would knuckle down to produce a sustained body of research, a big book or project that would make an original contribution to scholarly knowledge. Of his books the major ones so far are Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Westminster Press, 1982) and The American Evasion of Philosophy: a Genealogy of Pragmatism (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989)—both of them acknowledged to be competent but not ground-breaking.
“He’s too busy,” says Stanley Aronowitz, a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a former teacher of Mr. West. “His scholarship hasn’t even begun. The problem is that in order to do a sustained piece of intellectual work, you have to spend years doing it.”
Mr. West has heard the criticisms many times, and deftly deflects them. “All you can do is just provide the work and the performance,” he says.
‘HE LIKES TO RUN HIS MOUTH’
He seems to wear his celebrity easily, even indifferently, but there too some critics say he may like it a little too much. One unidentified colleague who was quoted in a New York Times article offered the opinion that part of Mr. West really wanted to be “Head Negro in Charge.”
“I never found out who that was actually,” Mr. West laughs. He doesn’t think the judgment is correct because he always tries, he says, to call attention to the work of other black intellectuals. But he’d like to know who made that remark, because he’d like to understand what prompted it.
“It could be, ‘Well, he likes to run his mouth.’ That’s true. Maybe that’s what they mean. Or, ‘He loves to talk. He loves to hear himself talk.’
“They got a point there.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1449
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, 59). Unheard of: a man of the left, albeit a devout Christian, learning from conservatism and even acknowledging the friendship of a neoconservative and fellow Christian, Glen Loury. West has in mind the failure of liberals to consider the value of “intermediate institutions” like the church in the development of “character and excellence requisite for productive citizenship” (RM, 58). The focus on institutions and citizenship belongs to the conservative agenda. West’s appropriation of a conservative theme serves, however, a non-conservative purpose of opposition to the excessive market ethos of American society.
What I wish to emphasize is the disposition of West’s mind toward ideological difference. He conceives of political conflict not as a prelude to Armageddon but rather as an opportunity for increased rationality in political discourse. “Perhaps the widening of the split between black liberal elites and black conservative critics will lead to a more principled and passionate political discourse in and about black America … such a discourse would promote more rational debates among conservative, liberal, and leftist voices concerning strategies to enhance the life-chances of the black poor” (RM, 59). Increased rationality does not mean an indiscriminate ecumenism in which conflicts are muted or evaded in the interest of consensus. Nor is it exhausted by an appeal to logic and evidence. It means rather strengthening one’s own view by submitting it to challenges from an opposing view. Rationality may even dictate conversion from one view to another. West writes in a prophetic tradition that speaks of the possibility of conversion. The great threat to black America is “nihilism … to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards or authority; it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness and (most important) lovelessness” (RM, 14).
This statement has supreme importance for West. It is the only passage in the book that is italicized. West is under no illusions that the conversion to hope and a sense of meaning in life can be accomplished by the force of prophetic rhetoric alone, no matter how eloquent; the Marxist in West speaks of the importance of class, which racial reasoning tends to ignore. But for all of his animus against the market ethos of our society, West does not see economic change as the cure. “Nihilism … is tamed by love and care. Any disease of the soul must be conquered by a taming of one’s soul” (RM, 19). There is a gap between West’s demonizing of the market and “the politics of conversion” (from hopelessness to love). He never resolves the dissonance in the phrase “politics of conversion.” The idea of a politics of love and care has an almost oxymoronic ring.
But these are quibbles that should not distract us from the spirit of West’s argument. The passage on nihilism is a caution to academics, who often deal with ideas as if they have no real connection with lived experience. We are only now beginning to emerge from more than a decade of playing at radical skepticism and linguistic nihilism in which the text was substituted for the world. With uncommon directness and courage, Cornel West, also an academic, speaks with a sense of urgency of a life beyond the text. It is an urgency that says that real communities in a state of crisis cannot afford the theoretical luxury of specifying the insurmountable obstacles to communication across racial, gender, class and personal lines. The generosity of West’s conception of political debate, so rare in contemporary discourse, takes me back to the socialist Raymond Williams’ appreciative reading of T. S. Eliot’s conservativism and before that Mill’s celebration of the conservative views of Coleridge. West’s performance is not in the same class in the sophistication of its analysis, nor does he allow himself to enter as fully and as sympathetically into the adversary view as do Williams and Mill, but he exhibits a similar spirit of intellectual openness. Openness, and something more. West’s civility presupposes what has been under attack in recent years: the possibility, if not the actual fact, of community. The idea of a common culture and common values has been scorned as the self-serving ideological construction of dominant particular interests. The demystifiers of Enlightenment notions of universality and community have converted the fact of particular interests into an irreducible or rather untransformable condition. They would have us believe that there is nothing but particular interests in an incommunicable relationship to one another. Difference has become sacrosanct.
Difference, according to the prevailing academic view, is group difference, whether it is defined by class, race, gender or ethnic group. The emphasis on difference reflects what Charles Taylor sympathetically calls “the politics of recognition” (Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition” edited by Amy Gutmann [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992]). Equality among cultures presupposes a recognition of and respect for the differences that exist among them. Taylor’s “politics of recognition” is in a sense complementary to West’s “politics of conversion.” If you are not recognized and respected, you will at the very least doubt yourself and at most hate yourself. The hatred may then become displaced in resentment and rage. However, “the politics of recognition,” based as it is on the idea of group identity, has its own blind spots. In assuming a homogenous identity, a group may conceal the fact of the power struggles within it to define that identity. The voice that speaks for a group is the voice that has emerged victorious from the conflict; the defeated voices are barely recognized. And what of the members of a race or gender or class, who do not feel themselves to be represented by the group viewpoint presumed to represent them? In “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby” (New York: Basic Books, 1992), the black legal scholar Stephen Carter complains that racial stereotypes are imposed by certain black leaders upon the black community. “In race-obsessed America, racial stereotypes are back in fashion. Having run out of ways to talk about our obsession, we have gone back to the basics—only now the stereotypers are friends, not just the enemies, of people of color” (RAB, 29). He offers as an example Professor Derrick Bell’s remark that “the ends of diversity are not served by people who look black and think white” (RAB, 33). The issue here is not diversity but solidarity, and solidarity, whether in the name of race or class or gender, is coercive when it is not voluntarily given.
The task of criticism for writers for whom the Enlightenment remains a philosophia perennis (Tzvetan Todorov, Leszek Kolakowski, and Isaiah Berlin, among others, come to mind) is not to transcend difference in the sense of erasing it, but to show the way different views can communicate with one another and find common ground across group lines. Such communication cannot occur without a respect for differences among persons. The obstacles to genuine dialogue and communal exchange come not from our differences per se, but from the constitution of differences in groups contending for power. Who wants to listen if power decides all issues? Power, recent theorists have told us, is everywhere and inescapable. There is nothing outside of power. The apparent realism of this doctrine has turned into a “sophisticated” cynicism about the possibility of rational communication. It is high time that reason be reaccredited.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 692
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 black professional class,” whose members “have lived so intimately in a white world in which the devaluation of black people is so often taken for granted or unconsciously assumed.” He also speaks of:
The propensity among highly assimilated black professionals to put “whiteness” (in all its various forms) on a pedestal.
A … colonized mind-set [which] seems to lock black people into the quest for white approval.
Black people who … persist in viewing themselves through the lenses of the dominant white society.
Almost immediately, one wants to know which black people he is talking about and if in fact they occupy the prominent positions within the black middle class he ascribes to them. It does not appear that West has in mind avowedly black conservatives, since he considers Thomas Sowell and Glenn Loury elsewhere and attacks them on other grounds. (He does suggest, however, that such writers evoke greater approval from whites than they do among blacks.)
In 1957, E. Franklin Frazier of the University of Chicago wrote Black Bourgeoisie, a biting portrait of a middle class that was starting to become larger amid postwar prosperity. Because members of the black middle class then lived largely in segregated worlds, their business and professional standing carried authority within their communities. While Frazier described this group as insular and snobbish, they still seemed less concerned to emulate whites than occupied with their own symbols of status and success. In fact, members of today’s black middle class seem politically more active—or at least more concerned about political issues—than their earlier counterparts. Many take open and often angry stands on issues ranging from police misconduct to discrimination in employment and they increasingly address themselves to black city officials and black state and national legislators. It is therefore not easy to identify those who, in West’s words, put “whiteness” on a pedestal.
True, there are blacks who have committed themselves to corporate careers, just as Cornel West and Toni Morrison have chosen to be professors at Princeton. Yet many in business have discovered that they hit an early ceiling, since their companies fear that too many black faces in high places might damage their corporate image. In view of West’s accusations, he might have provided a few examples, so readers could see what forms the alleged obsession with whiteness takes. (A single reference is to Michael Jackson’s experience with cosmetic surgery, which was graphic but aberrant.) One professional person he might have considered is General Colin Powell, who has allowed the greater part of his life to be guided by canons of military conduct. Although presiding over an organization more open to black advancement than other large American institutions, he hardly ever talks about race. Would West cite this as a sign of “self-loathing” subsisting beneath an equable exterior? The basis for West’s judgments is not made clear.
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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 of his academic training; Reed, best known for his nine novels, operates entirely free of intellectual rigor.
Keeping Faith is West’s fourth collection of 1993 (in addition to Race Matters, he’s also published Volumes One and Two of Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism). While the essays in Keeping Faith have less obvious interest for the general public than those on racial politics in Race Matters, there’s no reason why pragmatist philosophy, the dilemma of the black intellectual, Georg Lukacs’ Marxism or the Critical Legal Studies movement shouldn’t be opened up to thoughtful readers who haven’t done postgraduate work in the fields. Instead, accumulations of names and theoretical tags do the work of unpacked argument or plain definition, for example: “To put it crudely, Lukacs replaced the prevailing forms of positivistic scientism with a Hegelian form of scientism in the Marxist tradition.”
It isn’t trivial to wish that West were cruder—that he used more of what he calls “Anglo-American commonsense lingo”—because the mission of this book, and perhaps of his other books as well, is to place scholarship in the service of West’s watchword, the “prophetic.”
“To take seriously one’s vocation as an intellectual,” he writes, “is to justify in moral and political terms why one pursues a rather privileged life of the mind in a world that seems to require forms of more direct and urgent action.” That imperative genuinely haunts West; it accounts for his earnestness, decency and sanity.
But Keeping Faith doesn’t meet the promise of its subtitle: Instead of using philosophy to analyze race, it makes philosophical inquiry an impenetrable affair, crammed with casual allusion, and then, in essay after essay, breaks into the clear at the end with the same appeal for a marriage of criticism and insurgency.
“Jameson’s works are therefore too theoretical,” West concludes an essay on the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson. “His welcome call for a political hermeneutics is too far removed from the heat of political battles.”
The critical legal theorists, the Foucaultians, Richard Rorty, black literary critics, everyone comes up under the same charge: They’ve neglected the prophetic task; in a sense they’ve failed to justify their vocation. Intellectuals need to turn themselves into “critical organic catalysts,” a formula by which I think West simply means the best of everything: Nietzsche and Marx and Dewey, Africa and Europe, philosophy and revolt, the academy and the church and the public square.
We do need the best of everything, and we also need Cornel West to remind us of that. But this latest book shows how much easier it is to propose the marriage than make it.
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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 that what is needed “is a change in the moral behavior of poor black urban dwellers” miss what West regards as the essential point—namely, that blacks are not, in the words of Dorothy I. Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, a “problem people,” but rather “fellow American citizens with problems.”
Hence, his insistence that what the times require is nothing less than a “new framework,” one that begins with a frank acknowledgement of the basic humanness and Americanness of each of us, and that then goes on to acknowledge that “as a people—E Pluribus Unum—we are on a slippery slope toward economic strife, social turmoil, and cultural chaos.” Unless the trajectory is reversed—by replacing hatred with love and political cant with unflinching candor—all of us, blacks and whites alike, are doomed to a collective fate: “If we go down, we go down together.” That single, riveting sentence speaks volumes about West’s capacity for moral argument and prophetic vision. It also suggests something of why Race Matters will “matter” to those who often find themselves paralyzed by the racial nightmare from which most Americans can never fully awaken. As West points out, “The Los Angeles upheaval [he insists it was neither a race riot nor a class rebellion] forced us to see not only that we are not connected in ways we would like to be but also, in a more profound sense, that this failure to connect binds us even more tightly together.”
This much said, however, let me hasten to add that West is no more immune from bouts of despair than the rest of us. Indeed, his “Preface” begins with the way that certain observations by Plato and W.E.B. Du Bois continue to haunt him:
In a mysterious way, this classic twosome posed the most fundamental challenges to my basic aim in life: to speak the truth to power with love so that the quality of everyday life for ordinary people is enhanced and white supremacy is stripped of its authority and legitimacy. Plato’s profound—yet unpersuasive—critique of Athenian democracy as inevitably corrupted by the ignorance and passions of the masses posed one challenge, and Du Bois’s deep analysis of the intransience of white supremacy in the American democratic experiment posed another.
West means to stake out a higher moral ground, one that holds fast to the best that America can be at the same time that it refuses to blink in the face of the worst that American life all too often is. West, after all, has been the beneficiary and victim of both sides of the vexing coin—at once a distinguished professor at Princeton University (where he teaches in the religion department and chairs its Afro-American Studies Program) and a black man subject to daily, humiliating reminders that skin color, rather than intellect, is what counts.
Indeed, the latter experiences are so painful that he recounts them in some detail, beginning with the ten taxicabs that refused to pick him up on a Manhattan corner and then moving backward to the time he was stopped on false charges of trafficking cocaine (when West told the officer he was a professor of religion, the policeman replied: “Yeh, and I’m the Flying Nun. Let’s go, nigger!”). Nor is pastoral Princeton, New Jersey an exception. Drive its streets too slowly and you will discover—that is, if you happen to be black—that being pulled over, hassled, and sometimes searched is standard procedure. During his first ten days as a new member of Princeton’s faculty, West made precisely that discovery three times. The “lessons,” shall we say, were not lost on him, although he quickly adds that these incidents, enraging as they might be, “are dwarfed by those like Rodney King’s beating or the abuse of black targets of the FBI’s COINTELPRO efforts in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Nonetheless, West’s memories hurt and scar his soul. So it is hardly surprising that he is obsessed by “what race matters have meant to the American past and of how much race matters in the American present.” In this case, the play on words is more than academic cleverness; rather it is, for West, “an urgent question of power and morality” and for others, “an everyday matter of life and death.” Thus, nihilism—at least as the term is applied to black communities—needs to be defined less as a philosophic doctrine arguing that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards or authority than as the “lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.” Granted, the latter brand of nihilism is hardly new—West points out that the first African encounter with the New World was a distinctive form of the Absurd—but the genius of black foremothers and forefathers.
… was to create powerful buffers to ward off the nihilistic threat, to equip black folk with cultural armor to beat back the demons of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and lovelessness. … In other words, traditions for blacks surviving and thriving under usually adverse New World conditions were major barriers against the nihilistic threat. These traditions consist primarily of black religious and civic institutions that sustained familial and communal networks of support. If cultures are, in part, what human beings create (out of antecedent fragments of other cultures) in order to convince themselves not to commit suicide, then black foremothers and forefathers are to be applauded.
But at a moment when young black people lead the nation in suicides, West is hardly alone in asking “What has gone wrong?” Is it, as some would claim, the bitter irony of integration, or as others insist, the cumulative effects of a genocidal conspiracy? Both views certainly “play” on the mean streets and among those who have hitched their political wagons to separatism. And of course there are those who would point to the rising expectations set into motion during the giddy, optimistic days of the 1960’s and claim that a certain amount of “downsizing” is inevitable. By contrast, West believes that there are two significant reasons why the threats of nihilism are more powerful now than ever before: one is the “saturation of market forces and market moralities in black life” while the other is nothing more nor less than “a present crisis in black leadership.”
With regard to the first, West ticks off the images of comfort, convenience, machismo, femininity, violence, and sexual stimulation that bombard black consumers and serve to fatten corporate profits. Thus, market institutions
have greatly contributed to undermining traditional morality. … [Moreover], the reduction of individuals to objects of pleasure is especially evident in the culture industries—television, radio, video, music—in which gestures of sexual foreplay and orgiastic pleasure flood the marketplace …
As West would have it, black Americans are especially susceptible to these seductive images, with the result that a market-inspired life effectively edges out those “non-market values—love, care, service to others”—that formerly sustained black communities. Much of this sounds as if West were making common cause with the Allan Bloom who took mindless pleasures to task in The Closing of the American Mind, but West has quite another agenda up his sleeve, for he means to eradicate black nihilism through a strategy of love and caring he calls a “politics of conversion.” Here, it seems to me, West is on firmer ground, in the sense that religious values, rather than economic systems, are his forte. Nonetheless, it is harder to see how this “politics of conversion” would actually work than it is to notice how he has cobbled aspects of liberal and neoconservative thought into his analysis:
Like liberal structuralists, the advocates of a politics of conversion never lose sight of the structural conditions that shape the sufferings and lives of people. Yet, unlike liberal structuralism, the politics of conversion meets the nihilistic threat head-on. Like conservative behaviorism, the politics of conversion openly confronts the self-destructive and inhumane actions of black people. Unlike conservative behaviorists, the politics of conversion situates these actions within inhumane circumstances (but does not thereby exonerate them).
West’s idealism is more persuasive when its target is the failure of nerve all too often exhibited by black leaders. Writing about the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, what strikes him as remarkable is the way that “Bush’s choice of Thomas caught most black leaders off guard”:
Few had the courage to say publicly that this was an act of cynical tokenism concealed by outright lies about Thomas being the most qualified candidate regardless of race. … The very fact that no black leader could utter publicly that a black appointee for the Supreme Court was unqualified shows how captive they are to white racist stereotypes about black intellectual talent.
If generous doses of love are what the black underclass most desperately needs, it is also clear that candor is largely missing in the political rhetoric, and often in the discourse of black intellectuals. With the notable exception of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., few have spoken out against the black anti-Semitism peddled by hate merchants such as Leonard Jeffries or Louis Farrakhan. West is clearly troubled by the nasty turn that black-Jewish relations has taken but feels it is time to move beyond both vulgar name-calling and self righteous finger-pointing. For the deeper truth, West insists, is that “black anti-Semitism and Jewish antiblack racism are real, and both are as profoundly American as cherry pie. There was no golden age in which blacks and Jews were free of tension and friction.” But there was, West also insists, “a better age when the common histories of oppression and degradation of both groups served as a springboard for genuine empathy and principled alliances.” To ask why, since the late 60’s, black-Jewish relations have steadily deteriorated is rather akin to his earlier query about why black communities have fallen into nihilism.
West begins, quite properly, with an admission that “few blacks recognize and acknowledge one fundamental fact of Jewish history: a profound hatred of Jews sits at the center of medieval and modern European communities.” Indeed, long before the word “ghetto” was associated with poor urban blacks, walled gates were an ugly fact of life for most European Jews. That much admitted, however, West goes on to insist that the history of Jews in America “flies in the face of this tragic past,” and, moreover, that “the astonishingly rapid entree of most Jews into the middle and upper middle classes” between 1910 and 1967 now serves to divide those who favor affirmative action programs from those who oppose them. The State of Israel has only exacerbated the problem because “without a sympathetic understanding of the deep historic sources of Jewish fears and anxieties about group survival, blacks will not grasp the visceral attachment of most Jews to Israel.” By the same token, “without a candid acknowledgement of blacks’ status as permanent underdogs in American society, Jews will not comprehend what the symbolic predicament and literal plight of Palestinians in Israel means to blacks.”
What both groups need to recognize, then, is the “moral content of Jewish and black identities and of their political consequences,” for if it is true that blacks have been in the forefront of the struggle against American racism, it is also true that “if these efforts fall prey to anti-Semitism, then the principled attempt to combat racism forfeits much of its moral credibility—and we all lose.” Thus,
The vicious murder of Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights in the summer of 1991 bore chilling testimony to a growing black anti-Semitism in this country. Although this particular form of xenophobia from below does not have the same institutional power of those racisms that afflict their victims from above, it certainly deserves the same moral condemnation. Furthermore, the very ethical character of the black freedom struggle largely depends on the open condemnation by its spokespersons of any racist attitude or action.
That West does not quibble in his condemnation of what happened in Crown Heights is good news, but it is even better news that black clergymen—from Reverend Gary Simpson of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn (with ten thousand members) and Reverend James Forbes of Riverside Church (with three thousand members) to a litany of others—have voiced similar opinions. Too often what the media serves up are “sound bites” from the angriest militants reporters can corral. But as West reminds us, the best of black culture
as manifested, for example, in jazz or the prophetic black church, refuses to put whites or Jews on a pedestal or in the gutter. Rather, black humanity is affirmed alongside that of others, even when those others have at times dehumanized blacks.
In an age when humanism itself often seems to be under attack, West’s steady faith in the power of love and the necessity of candor is infectious. His reflections on why black anti-Semitism is unworthy and doomed to self-destruction is but one example of why Race Matters is such an extraordinary book. Indeed, one need only turn to his probing thoughts about the complicated psychological myths that surround black sexuality and the ways that black homophobia reinforce images of black machismo identity or to the various myths that have overtaken Malcolm X’s life to feel the reassuring hand of his humanism. For what West represents is nothing more nor less than the black intellectual he has been looking for. Which is to say, if any notes in Race Matters ring false, they are probably those that rattle on about the vacuum in black intellectual leadership. West’s essays make precisely the opposite case, not only putting him squarely in the tradition of black learning that produced the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois and Oliver Cox, St. Claire Drake and Ralph Ellison, but also suggesting that one possibility of the “prophetic” is a future where those who share West’s commitment to truth-telling and a better quality of life for all Americans might yet become a critical mass.
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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 with all great conversationalists, he has the gift of putting others at ease. That is why dialoguing with him is also frustrating: time being scarce, one tries to cover too many things. The present interview is no exception.
Our conversation here is marked, for better or worse, by obvious friendship. Familiarity, in the best of cases, makes for openness—what diplomats call frankness and others call disagreement. In that spirit I have tried to push Cornel a bit. He has become, in his words, a cultural critic rather than a strict philosopher, by which he means, I think, that his Gramscian and prophetic role has taken over his theoretical pursuits proper. Those who know him know by now the themes he tends to “highlight” (another typical and symptomatic Cornelism). Hence the following conversation reflects an attempt to do more than once again highlight the highlights; it is an attempt to see where he is heading with them.
[Stephanson:] Since our first interview, in 1987, you’ve become a lot more public as a public intellectual. You’ve even graced the pages of Time, which is about as middlebrow American as you can get. So what happens to oppositional intellectuals when the media picks them up?
[West:] You do get “mainstreamed”—there’s a selective appropriation of certain motifs in your work that are considered safe and acceptable. In my case the call for a multiracial alliance along radical democratic lines, and the call for redistribution of wealth downward, take the form of, “He thinks blacks and whites and others should actually get together and overcome balkanization and fragmentation.” So I have become associated with what many now consider the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., “blacks and whites coming together.” This turns a serious, substantial political message with a strong moral dimension into a moralistic cliché.
How does one counteract that?
You have to continually demystify your public image. When I talk about love, compassion, sympathy for less fortunate fellow citizens, it is linked to an analysis of wealth and power, and to strategies of organizing and mobilizing. This is downplayed by the mainstream.
Referring to the precarious position of black intellectuals, you’ve said that the “African American who takes seriously the life of the mind inhabits an isolated and insulated world.” Surely you yourself are anything but isolated.
You do tend to be betwixt and between. On the one hand, a black community, not always but often suspicious of intellectuals, especially mainstream ones; on the other, a white world that rarely encounters a black intellectual it takes seriously.
You set up a polarity between so called successful black intellectuals who adapt to operate under the “white gaze” and unsuccessful ones outside, resentful and separatist. Yet you yourself have moved in predominantly white worlds without ceasing to be irreducibly black, as it were.
Certainly I try to be myself, in a self-critical way. I have a black style, a black tone, a black intonation. At the same time, I do try to open myself up to communicating in different contexts. That’s why I call myself a “multicontextual” intellectual, which is part of being a public intellectual. Being able to communicate in a variety of contexts without losing the power of your message and your own quest for integrity and character, you are able not just to convince minds but to touch lives, to fuse a certain moral passion with a sense of intellectual sophistication, maybe even rigor.
Your style of public speaking is a sort of intense improvisation that still manages to be highly structured. One might relate this to what you specify as the two dominant, “organic” black intellectual traditions, namely preaching and music: both, you say, are “oral, improvisational, and histrionic.” (“Histrionic” is not used pejoratively here, of course.) I remember once you were to address the Yale Architecture School. By way of preparation we had a brief chat about post-Modernism and architecture, after which you stopped by the bookstore and read the introduction to Paolo Portoghest’s standard work on the subject; you then proceeded to blow the school away, leaving them with the feeling that they’d learned something about architecture from you! This, I remember, astounded you, to the point where you spent the following summer reading architecture books and becoming well informed in the area.
Thank God I did! But a couple of things are going on here. First, audiences often expect less from intellects of color, so inadvertently you impress on those grounds. This is part of the white-supremacist legacy. Second, whatever I do I tend to cast in clear language and in frameworks that I’ve already thought much about. I try to broaden the subject by engaging in the synthetic, synoptic mode of thinking that characterizes my own work. Speaking on architecture that time, for example, I talked about post-Modernism historically as opposed to stylistically—about Frederic Jameson, about how post-Modern architecture differs from post-Modern literature and theory, and so forth. Up to that point I’m still playing my strongest card, so by the time I get to architectural practices and criticism, the field is already laid out and the audience is already with me. I do this across a whole range of disciplines.
But not so much in your own academic fields of philosophy and religion.
I am less and less knowledgeable in that sense. In the last three or four years, 80 percent of my reading has been in history and related subjects.
Yes, many of your talks—the stump part, so to speak—are indeed framed loosely according to Geoffrey Barraclough’s historical periodization, which sets up an Age of Europe from 1492 to 1945, then the American short century coupled with decolonization, after which follows, in your version, “decline,” or some such thing. Three things bother me about this. First, Barraclough was writing at the climax of African decolonization, which colored his perspective; you don’t take that into consideration. Second, the second world is present in Barraclough but nearly absent in your account, which moves from Europe to the third world via the U.S.; in the end what interests you is not the East/West system but the white world and the world of color. Yet much of the 20th century, including the process of decolonization, is incomprehensible without the Russian Revolution. Third, cannot one see the late 20th century as the global triumph of the “Age of Europe”? While Europe itself declines, its mutating but pioneering form of nation state life and capitalist economy has been reproduced everywhere, even, now, in what used to be the second world.
I get to that in my account of the attempted Americanization of the world between 1945 and ‘73, through not only mass culture but also the kind of nationalism you get when the U.S. constitutes itself as an exemplary nation, a City upon a Hill. There are European elements in this process, but in terms of global impact it’s much more an American affair. So I agree with you about Europe, provided we look at it not geopolitically but as an idea or ideological project, filtered through Americanization. My periodization is of course otherwise a heuristic device, and doesn’t capture certain crucial events like the Russian Revolution.
I see the Soviet Union as less a carrier of a leftist tradition than a reconfigured empire competing with this American empire after 1945. I say this, however, not only as a radical democrat and a democratic socialist, but as someone who wants to track the impact of that Russian empire on decolonization in the third world. Though I see “communism” as a kind of ideological cover for the Russian empire, I part company with cold war liberals in that I’m looking from the viewpoint of, Who was helping these anticolonial freedom fighters? As W.E.B. Du Bois made clear a long time ago, the bipolar world after 1945 is a profoundly difficult problem to deal with when your focus is the wretched of the earth, the people exploited as the two empires scramble about. Du Bois was trying to walk that slippery tightrope and he fell off a number of times, with his panegyrics to “Uncle Joe.” On the other hand, he had some deep insights into the structural flaws of the U.S. empire.
Have you begun to rethink the Barraclough framework at all? A lot has happened since you began to use it, in around 1985 to ‘86.
Good question. I have become much more Lukácsian. [laughs] What does it mean to live in a world where market forces penetrate every nook and cranny of our lives? The collapse of the Soviet empire, as significant as it was in getting oppression off the backs of second world brothers and sisters, left the world free for limitless commodification. As we now witness the Latin Americanization of Eastern Europe and the relatively unencumbered expansion of markets, not so much Lukács’ answers as his question comes back in a powerful way: the violent impact of commodification on body, spirit, and soul.
Your discussions of Marxism often seem ambivalent. Sometimes Marxism appears as a form of analysis appropriate for the economic sphere, for market relations, for the nature of commodification. There is also, however, the assertion that Marxism isn’t enough, since it doesn’t speak to the existential “flattening out” of life in the late 20th century, or to racism, sexism, and so on. Yet when you make these latter criticisms you slide over the distinction between two different propositions: the deterministic view that the economic causes this and that, and the conditional view that the economic sphere is central for any form of basic transformation to take place, because, of all the various “logics” going on in the late 20th century, that of capitalist accumulation is the most fundamental. Since this latter view has been the dominant Marxist one in the West for the last thirty years, your criticisms seem largely directed against some orthodoxy of, say, 1963.
I would tend to agree, but I’m wondering if that’s merely my own Marxist bias. I believe, for example, that a necessary condition for the transformation of white supremacy and male supremacy would include some reconfiguring of the process of capital accumulation, since historically they’ve been linked. But I must also ask whether a transformation of white supremacy, the pigmentocracy, would not itself shatter the economic oligarchy and lead toward change in the processes of capital accumulation, where, after all, men have played an overwhelming role. It isn’t clear to me that those who are fundamentally concerned with white supremacy or patriarchy couldn’t end up questioning the rule of capital, even if they didn’t accord it the centrality you and I would give it. These are questions I continuously ask myself, even if at the moment I am more in tune with the Marxist view.
Inevitably, though, to have a conception of “what’s going on” is to have a conception of prioritization in history.
You’re getting me into Grand Theory here a bit quickly! To put it bluntly, market conditions have produced technological innovation, and are linked to the emergence of nation states, which are shot through with bureaucratic institutions and white-supremacist, patriarchal, and homophobic practices. So right there you have a variety of processes that must be accounted for any time you talk about modernity. There are others, and at any given conjuncture one might be more important than the others, but these are the crucial ones. It is a field of forces, if you will.
You, however, were rushing toward Grand Theories of what’s pushing social totalities forward. I’d put on the brakes a little. There do have to be explanatory priorities, but I want theory, not Grand Theory in the sense of transtemporal forces providing the nudge for movements in time and space. For Marxists, these are usually market forces. I’m not against that, but it does tend to submerge other factors in our field of forces. It all depends on how nuanced the mind of the Grand Theorist is.
There’s a tendency I detect in your work, though, to be too ecumenical. You sometimes come close to arguing that you’re in favor of what is good and against what is bad. For example, you propose “to fuse the best of the life of the mind from within the academy with the best of the organized forces for greater democracy and freedom outside the academy.” Who would be against that? There’s an inclusiveness here that may be attractive in itself but that obscures where the enemy is.
A kind of spineless liberalism, you mean?
More a kind of anxiety of inclusion, strategically necessary perhaps but tending to enumerations of all things good, exhortations to take the best from a variety of approaches. The result is not always coherent.
It’s part of the challenge I have to meet in the next few years. But keep in mind two different contexts here. One would be where I am looking at a specific historical situation and trying to make sense of it, as in my essay on the ‘60s, where I’m trying to track the conflicts within the black community vis-à-vis both white supremacist society and the black patriarchy. The other context is where I am making more general remarks, and this is where I always talk about “the best of,” as a way of keeping a critical disposition without necessarily having to specify how the coming together of “the best of” has analytic as opposed to exhortatory content. But there is a real gap there, and you’ve put your finger on it. There’s also another thing going on, however—the creative tension between my Christian and my Chekhovian world view.
For me, Chekhov is the most powerful voice of the 20th century in terms of what it means to live. He was such a great democrat, with a sense for the tragic, or the tragicomic.
To me he has always implied the passivity of the observer.
But there is a lot about agency there! He watched passivity, perhaps, but this was a man who worked 12 hours a day as a doctor yet wrote the best plays and stories this century has seen. What you get in Chekhov is not passivity but a kind of revolutionary patience: even as he promotes human agency he acknowledges its frailties and foibles. He gets through ideology, through class, through race, through politics, to the bare bones of compassion. And for me, though Chekhov isn’t religious, there is something deeply Christian about this: a deep, deep commitment to inclusiveness. Like a good high comedian, he levels human beings democratically by playing out our faults, but in his acknowledgment of human failure there is always a willingness to give people a second chance, always a reaching out. For me, this is linked to my own, Christian ethic of love and Christian sense of failure.
I don’t recall much mention of Chekhov in your work.
When I was a student up in Cambridge, we had a literary club among primarily black writers in which we read all the Russians. So I was already taken by Chekhov when I was 20, when I wrote the story “Sing a Song,” which ends the new, paperback edition of Prophetic Fragments.
What is the tension you find between Christianity and Chekhov?
The Christian pulls out a thicker notion of possibility. It Greek tragedy is a tragedy of necessity, where the fundamental theme is how necessity blinds, then Christian tragedy is a tragedy of possibility: the “impossible possibility,” in Karl Barth’s language, of victory over the most dire tragedy imaginable—the death of one’s soul. Chekhov, on the other hand, does not hold out that possibility. For him the best we can do is endure. Yet he says that the love ethic at the center of Christian tragedy is still the best way of life; you just do it, even though there’s no thick sense of possibility there. That’s why I talk about agency in Chekhov, an agency that is deeply temporary, that acknowledges the degradation of the present, acknowledges the vanishing of the past, acknowledges that the future might be no better. There is almost a curtailing of Christianity’s utopian impulse while lovingly holding on to the enduring. For me, hope is more Christian than Chekhovian. But as long as we can show acts that reflect our attempts to endure lovingly, that’s hope—small, minimal, but still not allowing cruelty or barbarism the last word.
The Christian aspect of your stand isn’t merely instrumental—that is, it isn’t just tied to the church as the most extensive black community institution. There’s also a claim to deal with the despair of victimization through the idea of overturning, overcoming, and redeeming—through the sacrifice of the Cross.
Jesus is a highly complex Palestinian Jew who has seized the imagination of millions, including myself. What you get there is not only an idea of the kingdom in which redemption is a strong component, but also a realization of the kingdom in yourself to the degree to which compassion is alive, the degree to which loving is alive.
I understand that, but it’s hard to square with my own reading of the Bible.
Of the whole? Or of which parts? There are so many voices there, which makes for great confusion but also for great creativity.
But emanating from the New Testament is a precise, strong belief in a second coming, an end to history, a millennium devoid of contradiction. This strikes me as entirely contrary in spirit to your way of being toward the world. There is also a note of righteousness, which since the Reformation has often become dogmatic and repressive of difference.
In Jesus, you cannot separate righteousness from love. Righteousness had earlier been associated with the Law, but the Gospels are about the two love commandments—love of neighbor/self, love of God—which tend to subsume the earlier, legalistic conceptions. That new righteousness, linked to love, lends itself to the Chekhovian interest in one’s fundamental concern with the other, with the stranger.
This is all most attractive, but when I read the Book of Revelations I see millenarian justifications for 19th century expansion and genocide in the American West—a worldly but also highly plausible appropriation of the Bible. Such other ways of understanding these texts never surface in your account, though you like to invoke criticality.
I’m always critical of dominant forces in ecclesiastical institutional settings, and I’m always critical of the various hegemonies within the church. Also, when you look at the tradition from the Quakers to Frederick Douglass to King, what you get is precisely counterhegemonic elements: the millenarian projects you refer to are there, but the Scriptures themselves are part of an ideological contestation, the patriarchal voices against the counterpatriarchal ones, the millenarian ones against the more realized eschatological ones. The way the Scriptures were institutionalized was itself part of an ideological struggle. Edward Said reads the Exodus story as imperial expansion, subordination of the Canaanites, and so on, which is partly right. But the Exodus story can also be read in wholly different ways.
These texts are obviously polyvalent, and lend themselves to interpretation. But there is nothing in your accounts about the historical appropriation of Christian ideology in the U.S.—no real historicization, if you will.
I accept that there’s a link between 19th-century American expansion and the millenarian tradition; maybe this is only silently assumed in my work. But it is incumbent upon you, too, to highlight the ways in which millenarian thought has been used against empire and expansion.
Fair enough, the opponents of expansion were often as Christian as the proponents, if in other ways. There were just fewer of them. But both sides considered the United States the end of history. Those opposed to expropriation of territory often invoked exactly that argument in saying that the U.S. had to follow its democratic destiny. Aren’t you in danger of tying into a near-nationalist self conception here?
As structurally flawed as the American experience has been (with dead red bodies, degraded, maimed, sometimes murdered black bodies, bruised women’s bodies, scarred working-class bodies), you still do have in America an attempt in democratic self-government, and an experience of ordinary people trying to manage their affairs. What you find in the more radical millenarians, who are trying to cut against the worst of this American experiment, is crude but serious attempts to preserve the democratic elements. And when they look around the world, they see very few similar examples. They are not so much thinking of the end of history, but they do get a bit Whiggish: “Look,” they say, “it would be nice if the world were in some way engaged in a struggle over the meaning of democracy,” the kind of struggle that’s part of the American experiment. I like that. As a radical democrat, I do believe that those experiments in democracy are significant laboratories for the way the rest of the world ought to look.
That’s the quintessential question, isn’t it?
The ＄64,000 question, brother. Now I have a continuity with a certain kind of Christian evangelism that is different from cheap proselytizing. It is an attempt to suggest that in terms of substance and content, democracy as a way of life, as a mode of governance, as a way of organizing the workplace, is an ideal that warrants application across the globe.
What do you say once that’s said? What’s the next step?
The next step is to decide why that’s not the case! One reason Marxism is a helpful analytic tool is that the rule of capital stands in the way of the democratization of the world. Not to talk about the rule of corporations is to refuse to take democracy seriously.
I agree. But isn’t there a grain of American nationalism in your analysis?
I loathe nationalism. It is a form of tribalism—the idolatry of the 20th century.
Yet you can say that Jefferson, Emerson, and Lincoln “laid the foundations for the meaning and value of democracy in America and in the modern world.” To me this is suspect language.
I certainly don’t want to invoke these icons uncritically. Read my Emerson chapter in The American Evasion of Philosophy; I’ve gotten into trouble for criticizing Emerson just because I talked about his link to empire. But I do argue that much of the discourse of democracy happens within this American crucible. It’s not Canadian; there is a great democratic debate in Argentina in the 1830s but it doesn’t last too long; there is a debate among the Russian populists in the 1880s and '90s but it doesn’t last too long either. In U.S. history we get a continuous conversation. Also keep in mind that these discourses of mine are Gramscian gestures. It is our context I’m discussing, the various resources that can help us galvanize and regenerate radical democratic possibilities. So I’m looking at a particular set of narratives about a particular set of people.
That’s reasonable. But you yourself have written that the “prophetic criticism” to which you aspire may be “blind to the pitfalls of Euro-American and New World African modernities.” In the passage in which it occurs, however, that intriguing remark is a finale, an ending: nothing follows it.
Say more, say more! It’s true that I haven’t said too much about the degree to which this project is too U.S. centered, and so forth. I do want to understand the New World as a network of power and practices inextricably linked to the Old World, and therefore you’ve got to talk hemispherically.
But do you? It seems to me you use “America” as a metonym for the hemisphere. There’s a leap in your account, from “America” and “the New World” to “the United States,” or rather to the black perception of the United States. A Haitian-American might not share that sensibility at all. When you say that “race matters,” you are, for understandable historical reasons, talking about the white/black issue, and in a specific way. But aren’t we now entering a situation where there really is a kind of multiracial system at hand, where the issue is becoming altogether more complicated?
Haitians are still understood in black/white, rigidly Manichaean ways.
What about Dominicans?
Much more complicated case, because that population is predominantly of African descent but for some there is also the possibility of being white. But I do believe that a distinctive reactionary achievement of American civilization is the operationalizing of the ideology of whiteness. Even if it’s true that I have been insufficiently attentive to brown and red and yellow, the weight of that ideology of whiteness fundamentally affects whoever enters the country. The whiteness/blackness axis is too narrow in the long run, but keeping track of it is still going to get me close to the center of any reflection on race generally. For the ideologies of white supremacy deeply filter how browns view blacks and how blacks view browns. It’s also clear that white supremacist ideology is a crucial factor in understanding how blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles view one another.
I take that point; yet things are not as Manichaean as they used to be. Isn’t there a qualitative shift going on?
My Chicano friend Professor Jorge Klor de Alva and I are starting to explore just this. He thinks there is; I myself am not so sure. The rapidly rising numbers of Latinos and Asians are real and important, but the ideology of whiteness remains at the center of how these groups see themselves and others. To me, historic shifts must amount to more than demography. In terms of self-understanding, in terms of political alignment, in terms of fundamental transformation, in terms of how white-supremacist ideology has functioned, I’m not so sure.
I agree, but a kind of struggle over territory between minorities is gaining in intensity.
At the street level most of the conflict is intramural—blacks, hitting other blacks, browns hitting other browns. The interracial aspect is less accentuated.
Is there not also a white containment policy in the offing, its dominant theme being a reworked ideology of “minority successes” (chiefly Asians) coupled with a confinement of the black and brown underclasses in spaces where violence will, as you say, remain largely intramural?
That’s one reason I’m suspicious of talk about a historic shift: it tends to downplay the plight of the working poor, especially the black working poor. When you concentrate on black and brown conflict, white supremacy tends to drop out of the framework, and the rule of capital is nowhere to be seen. You must also remember that the whole motif of the “exceptional minority” has already been played out in the old motif of the “exceptional negro,” suggesting that we’re seeing not a historic shift but a transcoding of an old strategy to render certain kinds of social misery invisible.
Let’s change subject. In a previous interview we agreed that the pictorial arts had not played as important a part in the black community as music and the spoken word. Some black artists got upset about this and accused me of racism and you of duplicity.
They were right in two of their claims: one, that racism is more operative in the art world than we allowed. I would now put more of a burden on the external rather than the internal constraints; I let the art world off the hook last time around. Second, pictorial representation is much more widely at work in the black community than I acknowledged. I’m not convinced, though, that it has the same standing as music. And I do not believe we have produced an African-American painter comparable to a John Coltrane or a Duke Ellington. In fact I don’t even think we’ve produced a writer comparable to them. But you have this long history in which literacy was denied, in which pictorial art was downplayed—it’s no accident that black achievements appear most clearly where the traditions are more extensive. I learned lots from the painters but I still hang on to my claim about the preeminence of music.
The original point was sociological; it had nothing to do with the value of black art as such.
True. It’s also true that Jacob Lawrence is a true giant. And it’s no accident that he would pick up on the theme of migration, a major theme of black history. The novels tend to be concerned with rights, inclusions, integration, assimilation, these other things: it is mainly in painting and music that you get migration, in the blues for example. Farah Griffin’s superb new book, Who Set You Flowin'?: The African-American Migration Narrative, challenges this.
What about Horace Pippin?
The fascinating thing is that he’s a self-taught master who is obsessed with the everyday life of extraordinarily ordinary negroes. I see this as in the tradition of Emerson and Dewey, as well as in the long tradition of trying to keep alive black dignity and decency when black people are being trashed by white supremacy. And he does this in a way that sidesteps mere artist protest, and also sidesteps trying to prove to white people that black people are reasoning humans, the tradition of art expressing negro identity as always under the white gaze. The most fascinating moments of black life are not under the white gaze, when white people are neither put in the gutter nor on a pedestal, when white people just don’t matter. The ideologies of whiteness are still operative in those moments, but the normative white gaze is being held at arm’s length.
Isn’t there an argument for black separatism and nationalism at the end of that line of thought?
Not necessarily. I see art like Pippin’s as the occasion for a certain flourishing of black humanity, which is a precondition for black people being able to see themselves as democratic agents. Black nationalism can be a vehicle for democratic impulses: when you feel that U.S. nationalism won’t protect you, won’t recognize you, you go off and talk about forming a nation. Nothing wrong with that. As critical as I am of nationalism, in this situation it can be a form of democratic impulse. Anticolonialism is a grand example.
That brings me to multiculturalism, about which you’ve said some implicitly celebratory things, though you’ve also called it a “middle-class affair.” Much multiculturalism seems to me in line with ingrained American traditions, from the colonial period on, of wanting to remain within a particular subcommunity. Conflicts between these subcommunities are resolved by separation, not in substance; you simply move somewhere else. Segmentation, in the sense of not wanting to deal with others, is extraordinarily entrenched in the U.S. Politics become spatialized and segregated.
Very American. Dewey had it right in 1927 when he argued that there is a proliferation of small publics but a disdain for public life. Small groups form around churches and synagogues, sex identities, enclaves, but the notion of a public life that you enter without necessarily being obsessed with your own, smaller public we hold at a distance. This leads to balkanization and fragmentation. If you’re a radical democrat, you believe that some affirmation of public life is necessary to keep democracy vital. It’s deeply dangerous if people shun public space, especially because it makes it more difficult to focus on the social misery in our society and in the world at large.
How do you fit the current interest in “cultural studies” into this?
Cultural studies is on the whole a response to the relative failures of English departments; it doesn’t come out of philosophy or history. The issues of race, class, gender, and empire have had a tremendous impact on the narrower paradigms of literary criticism. In that way the development of the cultural studies field is a positive move, since it reflects an attempt by literary critics to regain the historical sense they lost in the ’50s. But it is also a purely professional affair—an attempt by those who have remained in the mainstream of literary studies to respond to African American studies, women’s studies, and social history, all of which have already talked about these issues of supremacy and inequality. Beyond that, I think cultural studies makes little sense without talking about scientific and technological culture. This isn’t really what they tend to have in mind, though.
There is also a characteristic displacement to a second order discourse, what might be called the “politics of representation.”
Images, sounds, signs. It is limited to media. That is why it is incumbent to push people in cultural studies not to become just a displacement from old-style English studies to new-style English studies, recognizing race, class, gender, and Madonna.
Let’s finally say a word or two about theory. You have usefully discussed the basic philosophical shifts of the ‘70s and ‘80s, emanating from both mainstream American pragmatic thought and that motley crew we like to think of as poststructuralism. These shifts, however, happened some time ago. Has anything happened in the last fifteen years>?
There has been a proliferation of various forms of deconstruction, which have run into various forms of identity politics and dead ends. Why? Because of insufficient historical consciousness, because no real importance was given to explanatory significance, and because there was a total preoccupation with the contemporary. The appropriation of deconstruction had affinities with the politics of identity and with pluralist American models. It was facilitated by the fact that pluralist models were already in place. And a philosophy of skepticism that questions notions of wholes and totality, and focuses on relations and interactions, also reinforces notions of enclaves—reinforces segmentation and fragmentation. The connection between identity politics and deconstruction is actually fascinating.
These moves still have to confront historical consciousness, especially the historical construction of class, race, and gender in the United States. What you end up with, then, is a cul-de-sac—an overemphasis on the politics of representation and a distance from historical sociology. You have yet to confront a certain kind of radical democratic project that will in turn force you to develop a deeper sense of history.
I’d like to agree, but I’m not sure there is anything that would “force” the issue. The academic world is quite self-referential. It can produce discourse about discourse, since the politics of representation lend themselves to that sort of thing quite easily; it has no inherent need to check the discourse machine, the “exorbitation of language” and the “randomization of history,” to use Perry Anderson’s terms.
But you would think that as we try to come to terms with the multilayered crisis in civilization, that would spark a hunger for historical consciousness and understanding, a looking to the past for resources for the struggle in the present.
What will happen, then, to the theorization of identity?
It will still be there, only deepened. That kind of politics is here to stay, because we are living at a moment when issues of the protection of people, the recognition of people, and various forms of association of people are inescapable. Sophisticated versions of identity politics will conjoin with the kind of grounding in historical sociology that talks about the links or bonds between groups, rather than the isolation and insulation of groups.
Let me finally ask you about Richard Rorty, who has been enormously important for you as a teacher and a leading spirit. How do you see his work now?
He was the brook of fire through which I had to pass. He brought me to historical consciousness in philosophical reflection, and he convinced me that I had to come to terms with American pragmatism as a tradition. What I discovered there were some decisive connections to the meaning and value of democracy. Rorty himself would probably disagree, he sees no such links. For him, pragmatism is more free-floating from any democratic project.
So what is the link?
It is the pragmatic accentuation of fallibilism as the middle ground between sophomoric relativism and old-style foundationalism. Fallibilism always calls for self-correction and self-criticism, which together, in institutionalized form, to me constitute democratic practice: tolerance, accountability, people of equal status, disagreement mediated by mutual respect, and all of this sitting at the very center of how social arrangements are justified.
That conception would contradict a notion of politics where the field is constituted on the friend/enemy distinction. Where is the “other side” in this?
There will be friends and enemies because serious conversation is filled with conflict and cleavage. It may rechannel the militaristic energies of politics into dialogical ones, but the contentiousness remains.
Since Rorty published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979, he has basically done variations on a theme and gone into cultural criticism. I always wondered what remained after you’d made the antifoundationalist or pragmatic moves you mentioned. Where do you go from there philosophically?
You always have your philosophical training, so you’re able, you hope, to be subtle and nuanced in your reflections; but you’re actually doing cultural criticism. That’s what’s waiting in the wings.
What about you, then?
Oh yes. I have been a cultural critic since 1989.
So you’re following in Rorty’s footsteps?
My engagement is a much more political kind of cultural criticism, more closely linked to historical sociology. It’s two different genres of cultural criticism. His is critical of the academy and primarily literarily engaged, but with political concerns. Mine is public intellectual, politically engaged.
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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 supremacy and a legitimate articulation of “Black Rage” with a prophetic moralist appeal to self-love aimed at solving the identity crisis of African Americans. Foremost among these problems, according to West, are the nihilism or meaninglessness (anomie, Durkheim would say) that many African Americans experience and the leadership crisis in the black community, which West hopes to find a solution to. Against structuralists, such as William Julius Wilson, and more conservative analysts, such as Thomas Sowell, the author argues that the causes of the crisis are to be found in the cultural transformation of the African-American community, in the destruction of the “cultural structures” that sustained a strong black community, and in the market mechanisms that undermine traditional morality and create moral decay. A prescription that stresses the importance of grass-root mobilization and self-love follows this pessimistic diagnostic.
Race Matters is an urgent call written in the aftermath of the L.A. riots. In an argument similar to that of Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie, West perceives a crisis of leadership in the black middle class, depicted here as an upwardly mobile group obsessed with entry into the white community. He implicitly sees himself (and is seen by many, as suggested by the success of his book) as a kind of public intellectual or “race-transcending prophet” who, like DuBois, can through a “dignified sense of intellectual vocation … render service by means of critical intelligence and moral action” (p. 40) to help those who “suffer from socially induced misery.” He most convincingly argues that providing a vision is indeed urgently needed in these times of postelectoral politics, when solutions must be found in the social fabric itself, in communities.
Race Matters clearly matters because it responds, at least partially, to the important unmet need for an analytical framework to deal pragmatically with the deteriorating conditions of blacks in America. Along with Toni Morrison—whom West describes as the only true African-American public intellectual living today—this author argues that the time for undiscriminating racial unity is over: Racial thinking, that is, closing ranks, has always been damaging to women and other minorities in the black community; tolerating minority perspectives is crucial to the intellectual and political development of this community; all blacks should not be held accountable to the whole race, but all actions, including those of blacks, should be submitted to the same ethical standard. What is discussed here is nothing less than a redefinition of racial politics and a reevaluation of the stances available to progressive black and white intellectuals in the post-L.A. riot era. Because symbolic boundaries are so deep in American society—boundaries based not only on race and gender, but also on their association with moral character—one hopes that many will engage the debate. Too much is at stake for these to be ignored.
Berger, Peter L. and Thomas Luckman. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality. Garden City, NY: Anchor.
Frazier, Franklin E. 1957. The Black Bourgeoisie. New York: Free Press.
Lamont, Michèle. 1992. Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schudson, Michael. 1989. “How Culture Works: Perspectives from Media Studies on the Efficacy of Symbols.” Theory and Society 18:153–80.
———.1992. Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past. New York: Basic.
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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 neopragmatism,” “critical legal studies” and “race and social theory.”
West emphasizes the debilitating pervasiveness of structural white racism and the destructive power of capitalism. His concern for the marginalized, especially the “ill-fed, ill-clad, and ill-honoured,” permeates his prophetic analysis. The maldistribution of resources, wealth and power in American society is producing social misery. Street crime and enslavement to drugs are consequences of this disparity.
In his preface, West speaks about his temptation to move to Ethiopia, his wife’s home, thereby affirming his African heritage and coping with his “sense of black homelessness in America.” Yet he resists that possibility in large part because the U.S. offers opportunities “to pursue the life of the mind and the chance to help make America more democratic and free.”
After reading the preface, most readers will probably want to pick and choose chapters. I found West’s discussions of “the dilemma of the black intellectual,” “the historicist turn in philosophy of religion,” “the role of law in progressive politics,” and “the paradox of the African American rebellion” especially engaging. Another reviewer might have embraced the chapters on “the new cultural politics of difference” or even “Fredric Jameson’s American Marxism.”
West doesn’t hesitate to criticize his own African-American community. Though he sets forth strategies for a renewed black resistance movement, he insists that the transformation of “capitalist, patriarchal, racist America” can be achieved only by “alliances and coalitions with progressive Latino, Asian, Native American and white peoples.”
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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 power put the progressive politics of pragmatic reformers (e.g., John Dewey) into serious question.
In the final chapter of Evasion, West attempted to face the mixed legacy of pragmatism and the challenge of postmodernism by proposing his own modification of pragmatism, dubbed “prophetic pragmatism”; its vague and sprawling character, however, left most readers dissatisfied. A melange of the Emerson-through-Dewey-to-DuBois-and-Niebuhr canon, combined with the critical social conscience of the Judaic prophetic tradition as transmitted through the historically black churches, and sprinkled with respectful glances at postmodern skeptics always countered by an appeal to the Gramscian (as opposed to the Althusserian) line of Marxist analysis—West’s prophetic pragmatism looked suspiciously as if it was trying to mean all things to all people.
Much of Keeping Faith can be read as a successful attempt to flesh out and focus in on the idea of prophetic pragmatism. Like his bestselling Race Matters,Keeping Faith is a collection of essays culled from various sources on a wide range of topics; unlike it, most of the pieces in Keeping Faith were published in such scholarly periodicals as The Yale Journal of Criticism, Loyola Law Review, and Boundary 2. They often make for difficult reading, with the difficulties compounded by West’s highly compressed style and apparently boundless erudition. Nevertheless, Keeping Faith is well worth the reader’s effort. West’s book is nothing less than a revaluation and defense of the public, “organic” intellectual and an explication of what “a prophetic criticism for our times” (xi) must encompass.
Any effective criticism must take history, in all its ambiguous complexity, seriously. In “The New Cultural Politics of Difference” and “Black Critics and the Pitfalls of Canon Formation,” West attempts to do just that by placing contemporary squabbles over multiculturalism and the literary canon in a wider, sociopolitical context. The “bourgeois humanism” of a Matthew Arnold was at home in a world where European cultural hegemony and political might could safely be taken for granted, a world that was shattered decisively by the First World War. The rise of “high modernism” in the war’s aftermath brought about not only a displacement of older critical sensibilities (e.g., the “formalism” of the New Critics) but wholesale “Canon-revision” (e.g., Eliot’s downgrading of Romantic poetry and his championing of the Metaphysicals). Canon revision is thus nothing new. It only appears new—and threatening—to those who, schooled in an older canon, have a personal and political stake in the literary establishment, who have forgotten the historicity of the critical enterprise and therefore tend to see their own contingent interpretive standpoint as “natural.” To the extent that postmodern/multiculturalist/African-American critics place the historical contingency of literary genres and judgments into the foreground of the critical enterprise, they are in a better position to understand what literature is, and to see how it is implicated in wider structures of political and economic oppression. Yet they also face the danger of simply substituting a populist formalism for an elitist formalism—of substituting one canon for another, and becoming, despite themselves, Matthew-Arnolds-in-reverse. What is needed, according to West, is a sense of how conflicting canons “can guide particular historical interpretations” of “the raging battle in one’s society and culture” and thus “enable individual and collective action within it” (43).
West’s literary-critical pragmatism raises questions about both the philosophical and political meaning of pragmatism. In “Theory, Pragmatisms, and Politics” and “The Limits of Neopragmatism,” West addresses these issues by distinguishing “demythologization” from “demystification.” Demythologization is a mapping activity, where that which is taken to be necessary and permanent is revealed to be contingent and provisional; demystification, on the other hand, is a theoretical activity which seeks to explain the functions and (ideological) roles of various social practices. The problem with contemporary neopragmatism (e.g., Richard Rorty’s) is that it has largely confined itself to demythologization, with the unfortunate result that many of its adherents, proclaiming that “theory has no consequences,” nurture a naively foundationalistic view of theory and forego the “emancipatory and oppositional” activity that a demystifying social criticism demands. Pragmatism thus threatens to lose its political edge. West laments: “The first wave of pragmatism foundered on the rocks of cultural conservatism and corporate liberalism. Its defeat was tragic. Let us not permit the second wave of pragmatism to end as farce” (141).
Yet if pragmatists are often blind to the uses of theory, postmodernists and Marxists alike are often blind to its limitations. In an essay on Georg Lukacs, for example, West complains about Lukacs’s reluctance to admit a “dimension of risk and uncertainty within his Marxist faith … [which] reflects a deeply bourgeois worldview, in which the slightest acknowledgement of uncertainty and arbitrariness signifies fundamental crisis” (164). In “Frederick Jameson’s American Marxism,” West charges Jameson with misreading Marx’s critique of “morality” and Nietzsche’s desire to go “beyond Good and Evil” by too closely assimilating them to the suspicion of “binary oppositions,” which is a mainstay of poststructuralist theory. And the Critical Legal Studies movement, though engaged in praiseworthy attempts to demystify law and situate it in concrete political power struggles, is hobbled by its overreliance on theories about the meaning of law and the nature of liberal democracy. This tends to detach and insulate Critical Legal Scholarship from the tumultuous world outside the academy: West, like Rorty, has little patience with those leftists who understand political activism as a mere “mind game.” West’s engaged-yet-flexible attitude toward theory thus resembles Whitehead’s, who instructed philosophers simultaneously to “seek simplicity and distrust it.”
Nowhere is West’s open-ended and open-minded pragmatism more evident than in those essays where he chronicles the struggles of African Americans to attain dignity, justice, and a sense of identity. “Race and Social Theory” neatly sums up the failures of conservative, liberal, left-liberal, and Marxist social theorists to come to grips with the complicated phenomenon of racism, and proposes a new “genealogical” analysis of race, which draws upon Foucaultian, Marxist, and psychoanalytic insights to explain its virulence and persistence. “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual” tracks the various strategies that have been taken by black intellectuals—assimilation, separatism, postmodern skepticism—and develops a new model of the black intellectual as “critical organic catalyst.” And West’s essay on the neglected African-American painter Horace Pippin is a minor gem: while Pippin’s art has been misconstrued as “primitivist,” it succeeds where so many black artists fail—in portraying the rich humanity of everyday African-American life, even under the most trying circumstances.
Throughout this challenging and provocative book, West valiantly tries to “keep faith” with both the political agenda of Deweyan pragmatism (that is, as an attempt at an “immanent critique” of the tradition of political liberalism), and with the radical Christian praxis of principled resistance to “the powers”—to those for whom “justice” is an empty sound and domination the way of the world. Yet it seems to me that West’s pragmatism and prophecy often get in each other’s way. The political project of Deweyan pragmatism assumes that everyone has a stake in the success of the experiment called “the United States of America”: for Deweyan pragmatists, American democracy holds forth the brightest prospect for that “enhancement of experience” which constitutes the good life. Yet this is deeply at odds with the sort of political realism that seems to be such an integral part of Christian belief: the sober conviction that, given enough time, human finitude and sinfulness will erode all our secular political hopes. Reinhold Niebuhr’s realist critiques of Deweyan optimism often hit their mark.
West is acutely aware of this tension between secular hope and religious pessimism. In “Pragmatism and the Tragic,” he juxtaposes Deweyan instrumentalism with the “absolute pragmatism” of Josiah Royce, arguing that Royce’s deep affective sense of human and cosmic evil fills a gap in Dewey’s secular pragmatism and thus both complements and completes it. But this evades what I think is the central issue between secular pragmatism and Christianity. A chastened pragmatism will surely acknowledge “the tragic sense of life,” but it will not ascribe it to original sinfulness; and “redemption,” for the pragmatist, could only mean the ongoing reconstruction of secular communities and the continual melioration of their social ills. The Christian, however, sees “redemption” differently, and because of this, needs to acknowledge a more fundamental political community than the secular nation-state—that is, the church. But in almost all of West’s social criticism, the church seems to play an ancillary role—as the vehicle of a prophetic office which spearheads social change—rather than the central one of being the one true community in which Christians claim to dwell. An interesting contrast might be drawn between West’s political theology and the theological politics of Stanley Hauerwas. For Hauerwas, it is a mistake to think that the church has—or needs—a social theory: rather, the church is a social theory, the embodiment of the truth of Jesus’ lordship, which places its communicants apart from “the world” of power and domination, and thereby disciplines them to resist its temptations and oppose its tyrannies. Put plainly, while Christians live in the world, their hope is not of the world.
In short, I think that West’s prophetic social criticism lacks an adequate ecclesiology. While it may seem strange for a secular philosopher like me to make this criticism, it is nonetheless a legitimate one. Secular pragmatists need to know what it is that makes a difference in describing one’s pragmatism as “Christian.” Keeping Faith is a masterful account of what a prophetic, Christian pragmatism needs to take from contemporary philosophy and social criticism and what it needs to leave. It makes a thoroughly convincing case that prophetic pragmatism is overall a good thing, a vessel of hope. But it does not quite manage to articulate what is distinctive about it.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5506
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 America more urgent than the crisis of race, and since there is no intellectual in America more celebrated for his consideration of the crisis of race, I turned to West, and read his books. They are almost completely worthless. The man who wrote them is a good man, an enemy of enmity; but he is, as he writes again and again, for “a better world.” Who is not? And who, at this late date in the history of the attempt to better the world generally, and to better the world of what West calls “America’s chocolate cities” specifically, can still use this expression without irony, or without an anxiety about the degradation of idealism?
West’s work is noisy, tedious, slippery (in The American Evasion of Philosophy, “evasion” is a term of praise, a description of an accomplishment), sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared. His judgment of ideas is eccentric. He observes that “black America has yet to produce a great literate intellectual with the exception of Toni Morrison”; that “Marx and Emerson herald self-realization and promote democracy”; that Trilling had a “relaxed prose” and “a famous conversational style”; that “Marxist thought becomes even more relevant after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe than it was before”; that “World War II was a major setback for anti-imperialist struggles in black America”; that “intersubjectivity is the go-cart of individuality”; that “Malcolm X moved toward a more Marxist-informed humanist position just prior to his assassination”; that “crack is the postmodern drug”; that “the classical Marxist critique of religion is not an a priori rejection of religion”; and so on.
West’s eccentricity is surpassed by West’s vanity. In a survey of “contemporary Afro-American social thought,” he concludes that “my attempt to put flexible Marxist analysis on the agenda of the black churches is a pioneering endeavor.” The twelfth verse of the sixth chapter of the gospel of John (“He said unto his disciples, gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost”) puts him in mind of his own essays and book reviews, and he assembles them in a book called Prophetic Fragments. He likes to compare himself to the prophets: “I am a prophetic Christian freedom fighter,” he writes, from his station at a “ruling class institution like Princeton,” and his collections of interviews and occasional pieces are called Prophetic Reflections and Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times. “Like both Russian novelists and blues singers,” he allows, “I stress the concrete lived experience of despair and tragedy.” And “the brief yet gallant struggle to make Oklahoma an all-black (and red) state” was
a failed quest that produced … the legendary “free mind” of black Oklahomans associated with black towns like Muskogee, Boley, and Langston, and with such black natives as Ralph Ellison, John Hope Franklin, Charlie Christian, the Gap Band, and, I humbly add, myself.
He applauds his origins for imbuing him with “ego-deflating humility.” His parents and his siblings write the introductions to his works. He appears on the cover of a book in a three-piece suit and in its third chapter he proclaims that “the Victorian three-piece suit—with a clock and chain in the vest—worn by W.E.B. Du Bois … dignified his sense of intellectual vocation, a sense of rendering service by means of critical intelligence,” unlike “the shabby clothing worn by most black intellectuals these days,” which “symbolize[s] their utter marginality behind the walls of academe.”
And yet the brother is no stranger to ivy, at least mentally. “I am continually caught in a kind of ‘heteroglossia,’” he confesses,
speaking a number of English languages in radically different contexts. When it comes to abstract, theoretical reflection, I employ Marx, Weber, Frankfurt theorists, Foucault, and so on. When it comes to speaking with the black masses, I use Christian narratives and stories, a language meaningful to them but filtered through and informed by intellectual developments from de Tocqueville to Derrida. When it comes to the academy itself there is yet another kind of language, abstract but often atheoretical, since social theorizing is mostly shunned; philosophers are simply ill-equipped to talk about social theory: they know Wittgenstein but not Weber, they know J. L. Austin but not Marx.
West’s books are monuments to the devastation of a mind by the squalls of theory. He complains that “academicist forms of expression have a monopoly on intellectual life,” that black scholars “imitate the dominant paradigms elevated by fashionable Northeastern seaboard institutions of higher learning,” but he is himself such an imitator, and he is almost wholly undone by his own academicism.
West’s most recent book, Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America, is a perfect document of the thrill of turgidity that characterizes the humanities of the day. It is a lifeless book, and it abounds in sentences such as this one:
Following the model of the black diasporan traditions of music, athletics, and rhetoric, black cultural workers must constitute and sustain discursive and institutional networks that deconstruct earlier modern black strategies for identity-formation, demystify power relations that incorporate class, patriarchal, and homophobic biases, and construct more multivalent and multidimensional responses that articulate the complexity and diversity of black practices in the modern and postmodern world.
Or this one:
My view neither promotes a post-Marxian idealism (for it locates acceptable genealogical accounts in material social practices), nor supports an explanatory nihilism (in that it posits some contingent yet weighted set of social practices as decisive factors to explain a given genealogical configuration, that is, set of events). More pointedly, my position appropriates the implicit pragmatism of Nietzsche for the purposes of a deeper, and less dogmatic, historical materialist analysis.
Such a marriage of populism and esotericism is a common characteristic of the academic left. West’s sentences are not altogether meaningless. But their meanings are not for you, even if they will eventually set you free. The aim of West’s deeper and less dogmatic historical materialist analysis, of course, is action. You remember. Philosophers have for too long thought about the world. The time has come to change it. But with words such as these? The obscurity of this language is not what offends. What offends is the confidence that the established order will eventually fall before this language. Scholasticism is a noble calling, but it leaves the world as it found it. There is not a drug dealer in America who will give himself up to Deleuze and Guattari.
If crisis requires anything, it is clarity; but West’s conception of the intellectual vocation is too complicated for clarity. The black intellectual, according to West, must resist “the Booker T. Temptation,” which is a “preoccupation with the mainstream and legitimizing power,” and “the Talented Tenth Seduction,” which is “a move toward arrogant group insularity,” and the “Go It Alone Option,” which is a “rejectionist perspective that shuns the mainstream and group solidarity.” The black intellectual must become a “Critical Organic Catalyst.” “By this I mean a person who stays attuned to the best of what the mainstream has to offer—its paradigms, viewpoints, and methods—yet maintains a grounding in affirming and enabling subcultures of criticism.” Sounds fine: and Martin Luther King Jr. was, in West’s account, the realization of the Gramscian fantasy.
The problem is that the union of theory and practice, in West’s hands, becomes a union of pomposity and enthusiasm, a long saga of positioning. And so we get affirmations such as this one: “Rorty’s historicist turn was like music to my ears—nearly as sweet as the Dramatics, The Spinners, and The Main Ingredient, whom I then listened to daily for sanity.” West skips undialectically from the seminar to the street, celebrating his connectedness. This has ridiculous results. “Although the Christian quest for transcendent meaning in life and history is rejected in Prince’s lyrics,” he declares, “the idea of divine intervention in the form of eschatological catastrophic presence is observed”; and it does not escape his notice that “the agapic praxis of communities” was abandoned in the late work of Marvin Gaye, and that a change in the image of the Temptations “could not give Motown hegemonic status on fast funk.”
Tracing the evolution of jazz from Charlie Parker to Grover Washington, West has not a word to say about decline; and he insists that there is an essential relationship between jazz and democracy, concluding Race Matters with a tribute to “the jazz freedom fighter.”
I use the term “jazz” here not so much as a term for a musical art form, as for a mode of being in the world, an improvisational mode of protean, fluid, and flexible dispositions toward reality suspicious of “either/or” viewpoints. …
It is true that the materials of jazz were not discovered at the court of the Esterhazys; but the rest is sentimentality. Improvisation in jazz is not a release from structure, and structure in jazz is not an experience of oppression. Jazz is no more democratic than any other art. It is governed, like all art, by an either/or: either you do it well or you don’t.
But West is a politicizer. In Keeping Faith, there appears this extraordinary passage:
The repoliticizing of the black working poor and underclass should focus primarily on the black cultural apparatus, especially the ideological form and content of black popular music. African American life is permeated by black popular music. Since black musicians play such an important role in African American life, they have a special mission and responsibility: to present beautiful music which both sustains and motivates black people and provides visions of what black people should aspire to. Despite the richness of the black musical tradition and the vitality of black contemporary music, most black musicians fall far short of this crucial mission and responsibility. There are exceptions—Gil Scott-Heron. Brain Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff—but more political black popular music is needed … Black activists must make black musicians accountable in some way to the urgent needs and interests of the black community.
This is not Stalinism. This is silliness. But it is silliness of a particular kind, which brings us to the matter of what West really believes.
I am not a prophet and not the son of a prophet, said the prophet. The professor is not so circumspect. He calls his work prophetic. His point of regard could not be more unprophetic: he is a historicist, and the prophets were the early enemies of historicism, who chastised the temporal in the name of the eternal; but he is not deterred. West’s writings are really tiresome on the subject of their own prophetic-ness. Of his view of the world, he writes that
I have dubbed it “prophetic” in that it harks back to the Jewish and Christian tradition of prophets who brought urgent and compassionate critique to bear on the evils of their day. The mark of the prophet is to speak the truth in love with courage—come what may.
The synoptic vision I accept is a particular kind of prophetic Christian perspective which comprehensively grasps and enables opposition to existential anguish, socioeconomic, cultural and political oppression and dogmatic modes of thought and action.
Prophetic criticism … begins with social structural analyses [but] it also makes explicit its moral and political aims. It is partisan, partial, engaged and crisis-centered, yet always keeps open a skeptical eye to avoid dogmatic traps, premature closures, formulaic formulations or rigid conclusions.
It would be hard to exaggerate West’s satisfaction with his spiritual temperament.
There is a modern view of prophecy in the Bible according to which it was fundamentally a political vocation, a fierce and founding style of social criticism; and West’s propheticism is just another instance of that view.
The moral vision and ethical norms I accept are derived from the prophetic Christian tradition. I follow the biblical injunction to look at the world through the eyes of its victims, and the Christocentric perspective which requires that one see the world through the lens of the Cross—and thereby see our relative victimizing and relative victimization. Since we inhabit different locations on the existential, socioeconomic, cultural and political scales, our victim status differs, though we all, in some way, suffer. Needless to say, the more multilayered the victimization, the more suffering one undergoes. And given the predominant forms of life-denying forces in the world, the majority of humankind experiences thick forms of victimization.
There are victims. This is not a matter of controversy. The harshness of the world, and the human responsibility for a large measure of its harshness, cannot be gain-said. But the Bible did not prescribe that we look at the world through the eyes of its victims. It prescribed that we seek justice. That is not the same thing; but West is dead to the difference. He is a hero in a culture of morbidity, in which wounds are jewels. And his appropriation of what he calls “the Christocentric perspective” for the politics of victimization in America is preposterous. It is banal at best, and it is blasphemous at worst, to describe the crucifixion of Jesus as victimization, in the sense in which we recognize victimization. No road runs from Calvary to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Why is West a Christian? He gives two reasons. The first reason is “on the existential level.” The Christian tradition helps him to understand “the crises and traumas of life,” to overcome sensations of “deep emptiness and pervasive meaningless.” The second reason is “on the political level.” It is that “the culture of the wretched of the earth is religious.” “To be religious,” he writes,
permits oneself to devote one’s life to accenting the prophetic and progressive potential within those traditions that shape the everyday practices and deeply held perspectives of most oppressed peoples. What a wonderful privilege and vocation this is!
Historically, this is bizarre. The story of the alliance of religion with power is a long and miserable story. Religion has animated oppression as much as it has animated the resistance to oppression. What some of West’s favorite theologians like to call “liberation” has often taken the form of secularization; and it is not difficult to understand that the threat to one’s faith has been preferred to the threat to one’s life.
Not that West is unaware of the grisly past. But this is how he treats it:
On the one hand, I assume that religious traditions are, for the most part, reactionary, repressive, and repulsive without heavy doses of modern formulations of rule of law, gender and racial equality, tolerance, and especially substantive democracy. On the other hand, such modern formulations can be based on or derived from the best of religions.
This is even more bizarre. It is true that there are elements of tolerance in all the monotheistic faiths, but the elements of intolerance are more numerous; a religion that is based on a revelation is a religion based on an ideal of exclusiveness, which is not an ideal of democracy. And what sort of faith is it that finds religion “repulsive” without a particular politics, and locates “the best of religions” in their approximations to social democracy?
And what if the wretched of the earth were unbelievers? I don’t mean to remind anybody of Pilate, but what is truth? “Of course,” West murmurs, “the fundamental philosophical question remains whether the Christian gospel is ultimately true.” Of course. But West is a postmodern man. His faith is proudly unexercised by the question of truth. For the question has been settled. There is no truth. There are only truths. This has been established, he thinks, by Richard Rorty, and more generally by the repudiation of traditional metaphysics in Anglo-American philosophy.
West writes glowingly of “the historicist turn in the philosophy of religion,” which banished from the temple “all modes of philosophical reflection which invoke ahistorical quests for certainty and transhistorical searches for foundations.” He describes himself as a “Prophetic pragmatist,” by which he means a Christian who believes in the gospel according to John Dewey, for whom there are no stable and lasting essences, no self and no world except the self and the world that we create, no invisible reality at the end of visible reality, no expression of the human spirit that refers to anything more than its experience.
There are no arguments in West’s discussion of these matters. He is not a philosopher, he is a cobbler of philosophies; and so he reports the pragmatist and historicist tidings and proceeds to the manufacture of what he needs. “To put it bluntly,” he concludes, “I do hope that the historicist turn in philosophy of religion enriches the prophetic Christian tradition and enables us to work more diligently for a better world.” To put it bluntly, he will be disappointed. The Christian tradition will not be enriched by a faith for which God is not real. Before what, exactly, does the postmodernist bow his head? For the anti-essentialist, what kingdom is at hand? Rorty claims that the abolition of transcendence is necessary for liberalism, but West claims that the abolition of transcendence is necessary for religion. He does not see that his position is a dire contradiction. “Prophetic pragmatism” is not rich and revolutionary, it is indulgent and impossible. He can have the prophets or he can have the pragmatists, he can have truth or he can have truths, but he cannot have both. (It was Pilate who spoke in the voice of the pragmatist.)
West’s model of the “prophetic Christian as organic intellectual,” again, is Martin Luther King Jr. But the authority to which King appealed was not the authority of “social and heterogeneous narratives which account for the present and project a future”; and when he demanded that justice run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream, he was not calling America to “critique.” The moral and political force of King, and the struggle for civil rights from Harper’s Ferry to Selma, was owed to the certainty that some things are absolutely true or absolutely false, absolutely good or absolutely evil. King was religious, but West, at least in his writings, is religiose. What summons him to faith in God is not the object of the faith, but its social utility. He resembles, in this regard, many of the conservatives whom he despises.
For the purpose of grasping West’s politics, there is no better summary than this paragraph, written less than a decade ago, in an essay called “Critical Theory and Christian Faith.” It is long, but it is special.
Industrial capitalism, with its nightwatchman state and its military-like organizations, boasted of its overt racist practices such as its Jim Crowism against people of African descent in the Diaspora and in Africa, its exclusionary immigration laws against Asians, imperial conquest and geographical containment of Mexican and indigenous peoples; it promoted its cult of domesticity to privatize the role and function of heterosexual women and banish the presence of lesbian women; and it valorized the doctrine of masculinity which degraded “effeminate” heterosexual and gay man. Monopoly capitalism, with its interventionist state and bureaucratic administration, tempered its racist practices and refined its racist ideologies against people of color—yet nearly committed genocide against Jewish peoples [sic] in the midst of “civilized” Europe; celebrated omnifunctional women who worked double loads in the public and private spheres; castigated lesbians and recloseted gay men. Multinational corporate capitalism, with its bankrupt and authoritarian-like state and administrative intensive workforce, turns its principal racist ammunition on the black and brown working poor and underclass; focuses its right-wing (or restorative) movements on women’s reproductive rights; and often poses lesbians and gays as mere cultural scapegoats. The recent fanning of the social logics of white, male, and heterosexual supremacist discourses and practices in the Americanization and Sovietization of the world further deform and debilitate public life because these logics attempt to make this sphere the possession of primarily white heterosexual elites—or those who emulate them, from Margaret Thatcher to Clarence Pendleton Jr.
Industrial capitalism, monopoly capitalism, multinational corporate capitalism: these are the categories that West cherishes for the analysis of American life.
West’s published work is an endless exercise in misplaced Marxism. Philosophically, his desire is to demonstrate that “Marx’s turn toward history resembles the anti-foundationalist argument of the American pragmatists,” but no such demonstration is provided, and anyway the resemblance is largely a measure of West’s desire. Otherwise he seeks to devise a Marxist ground for American grievances, and in this, alas, he succeeds brilliantly.
There is something puerile about West’s Marxism; it is too much fun. He writes like a man who refuses to accept the fact that he was born too late for a particular excitement. Instead he produces little mimicries of the Marxist tradition, such as the essay called “Toward a Socialist Theory of Racism,” which promises to furnish the proper theory of modes of European domination and forms of European subjugation and types of European exploitation and repression. The italics, needles to say, are his own. In 1985 he writes, and in 1988 he reprints, this exhortation to black Americans: “The relative unity and strength of our capitalist foes requires that we must come together if our struggle is to win!” The urgency is matched by the unreality. But this is true of all doctrine.
It is hard to read West’s description of, say, the Black Panthers as “the leading black lumpenproletarian revolutionary party in the sixties” without recalling Trotsky’s oration to the “workers and peasants of the South Bronx.” But not all of West’s progressivism is quite so charming.
The most crucial brute fact about the American terrain is that the U.S.A. began as a liberal capitalist nation permeated with patriarchal oppression and based, in large part, upon a slave economy.
The basic difference between the Americanization and the Sovietization of the world is that the U.S.A. was born with a precious rhetoric of rights. … This heritage remains a valuable source for the renewal of public life in countries under the influence of the U.S.A. and USSR.
The most significant theme of the new cultural politics of difference is the agency, capacity and ability of human beings who have been culturally degraded, politically oppressed and economically exploited by bourgeois liberal and communist illiberal status quos.
The profound tragedy of the epochal change in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe may be … a kind of global erasure of egalitarian and democratic concern for jobs, food, shelter, literacy and health care. This would mean that along with the unleashing of capitalist market forces on an international scale goes an unleashing of despair for those caught within or concerned about the world’s ill-fed, ill-clad, and ill-housed.
None of this awfulness would matter much, except that it informs West’s opinions on the subject of race in America, and those opinions are loose in the land. It is impossible to understand the depth of West’s contempt for the black middle class, for example, without understanding the depth of his contempt for capitalism. The emergence of a black middle class as a consequence of the civil rights revolution is, for West, a phenomenon without dignity. It signifies, in his view, “the new class divisions produced by black inclusion (and exclusion).” Throughout his writings, the men and the women of the black middle class are described as heartless collaborators with the market, creatures of “conspicuous consumption and hedonistic indulgence,” who have abandoned their political responsibility. “Black entree into the culture of consumption,” he scolds, “made status an obsession and addiction to stimulation a way of life.” And elsewhere, “Like any other petite bourgeoisie, the ‘new’ black middle class will most likely pursue power-seeking, promote black entrepreneurial growth, and perpetuate professional advancement.”
In one of his most troubling utterances, West offers this summary of the recent history of African Americans: “The ’60s in African American history witnessed an unforgettable appearance of the black masses on the historical stage, but they are quickly dragged off—killed, maimed, strung out, imprisoned or paid off.” Paid off! This, from the burgher on the cover of Race Matters, who appears in his finery on a rooftop in East Harlem. West traveled there to be photographed in the neighborhood of those “black masses.” He complains that nine taxis refused to take him from Park and 60th to 115th and First. “My blood began to boil,” he recalls. A parable of racism. But he suffered the slights of Park and 60th, as he admits a few lines earlier, because “I left my car—a rather elegant one—in a safe parking lot.” So the taxis would not take him where he would not take his car! This is not precisely what Gramsci had in mind.
West flatters himself that his Marxism is unorthodox. It is his “basic disagreement with Marxist theory,” he says, that “I hold that many social practices, such as racism, are best understood and explained not only or primarily by locating them within modes of production, but also by situating them within the cultural practices of civilizations.” Never mind that this unorthodoxy is almost a century old, that it is just another school of Marxism. The truth is that, for all of West’s preachments about “nihilism” in the black community, and all his summonings to a “politics of conversion,” his analysis of the inner city is mainly an economicist one. West believes that what most ails the inner city is “class inequality,” or “the distribution of wealth, and power and income”; and that “visionary progressives must always push for substantive redistributive measures,” even if “every redistributive measures is a compromise with and concession from the caretakers of American prosperity.” For “without jobs and [economic] incentives to be productive citizens the black poor become even more prone to criminality, drugs and alcoholism.”
“Even more prone”? There are many, many black poor who are not prone at all; and the resistance of these people to the forces of social and spiritual disintegration surely gives the lie to the economic analysis of morality, according to which values are an expression of class, and the values of the bourgeoisie are the consequence of the money of the bourgeoisie. (It is hard not to conclude, as one watches illegitimacy acquiring legitimacy in American society, that a little bourgeois morality would go a long way.) It flies in the face, moreover, of the determinism that reduces the lives of the miserable to their misery. They’re depraved on account of they’re deprived: this determinism often masquerades as a form of hope, but it is a form of despair.
West is a dodger on the question of individual responsibility. He resents the “new black conservatives” for making an issue of it. “We indeed must criticize and condemn immoral acts of black people, but we must do so cognizant of the circumstances into which people are born and under which they live. By overlooking these circumstances, the new black conservatives fall into the trap of blaming black poor people for their predicament.” This is not a fair account of the views of Shelby Steele, Glenn Loury, Stanley Crouch and others. I do not hear them blaming people for being poor. I hear them blaming people for abandoning families. Their assumption is that the latter is not the result of the former; that men are good husbands and good fathers whether or not there is cash in the bank. And this is finally a philosophical assumption. The discussion of individual responsibility is really a discussion of human agency. There is no way to explain the behavior of good husbands and good fathers, except that they have chosen to be good husbands and good fathers. In their blasted universe, they have exercised the freedom of their will.
And yet the “prophetic Christian freedom fighter” fights those who insist upon the explanation from freedom. West has it backward: we must be cognizant of the circumstances into which black people are born and under which they live, but we must criticize and condemn immoral acts of black people. There is no government agency that can let human agency off the hook. But West, as I say, is a dodger. “It is imperative to steer a course between the Scylla of environmental determinism and the Charybdis of a blaming-the-victims-perspective.” Politically, this is plausible. (Pennsylvania Avenue has run between Scylla and Charybdis for two years now.) Philosophically, this is implausible. Fortune treats us all differently, but moral behavior is not a hostage to bad fortune, even if bad fortune makes immoral behavior sometimes more attractive. We are not all in the same universe socially and economically, but we are all in the same universe morally. Either we are accountable for our actions, or we are not. Either, or.
West tirelessly preaches reconciliation, between blacks and blacks, between blacks and whites, between blacks and Jews; but intellectual reconciliation is not the same thing as emotional reconciliation, and emotional reconciliation is not the same thing as political reconciliation. His sweetness lands West in all kinds of confusions. Last year he endorsed Al Sharpton’s candidacy for the Senate in New York, “his role in the controversial Tawana Brawley case” notwithstanding, because he “could fuse the best of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” Sharpton, he told the readers of The Daily News, was “in process,” and Farrakhan, too, was “in process,” though Farrakhan “still has far to go to embrace a progressive stance.”
Nothing of his own is alien to him. He finds human truths in inhuman lies. In a lecture on “The Black Underclass and Black Philosophers,” West suggests that the black community has been transformed by drugs, he says, “whether it’s conspiratorial or not.” And elsewhere he describes the history of the inner city since the 1960s in this way:
The repressive state apparatus in American capitalist society jumped at the opportunity to express its contempt for black people. And the basic mechanism of pacifying the erupting black ghettoes—the drug industry—fundamentally changed the character of the black community. The drug industry, aided and abetted by underground capitalists, invaded black communities with intense force, police indifference and political silence. It accelerated black, white-collar and blue-collar working-class suburban flight, and transformed black poor neighborhoods into terrains of human bondage to the commodity form.
The unreality of the theory of the academy meets the unreality of the theory of the street. It is a high price to pay for the tickle of authenticity.
Enough. Cornel West has been called “the preeminent African American intellectual of his generation.” This cannot be so. He is a homiletical figure, a socialist divine, who has come to lift the spirits of the progressives. He is forever imploring them, the “progressives of all colors,” to come together. But if the progressives of America finally come together, all that will have happened is that the progressives of America will have finally come together. It is obvious only to them that the greatest failure of American society since slavery will stop for them. Terrains of human bondage to the commodity form! From such notions, the nasty world has nothing to fear. Something is happening in our midst that none of us appears to understand. Perhaps we have been asking the wrong question. Where are the private intellectuals? Philosophers have for too long tried to change the world. The time has come to think about it.
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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 temple of detached cynicism and an elitist above-the-crowd despair about the possibility of changing the world, a fawning toward the rich and powerful, a chauvinist Zionism that has relentlessly demeaned the Palestinian people, and a ferocious anger at those least able to defend themselves in the U.S.: the inner-city Black poor. As the high priest of the cult of media cynicism and covert racism, Wieseltier needs to demean the man many Black intellectuals describe as “the preeminent African-American intellectual of his generation,” dismissing West’s entire corpus of books as “almost completely worthless.”
In the world of high powered “savvy” and witty put downs that Wieseltier shares with the inside-the-Beltway crowd, compassion for anyone, especially inner-city Blacks, is the functional equivalent of mushy thinking. In the end, the Wieseltier crowd is only a more pretentious version of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, lacking their mass appeal and therefore desperately seeking to be recognized by someone as authentic intellectuals. With its wit and engaging style, TNR’s articles are sometimes seductive. But the pleasure its smugness provides only momentarily masks the moral corruption, elitism, and sickening self-hatred of an American intellectual elite frightened at the intensity of its longing for others’ power.
Wieseltier dismisses as “philosophically implausible” West’s refusal to accept either the blame-the-victim perspective that permeates The New Republic in its discourse about the culture of Black poverty, or the environmental determinism of some Black nationalists who refuse to condemn or mobilize against the distortive impact of crime, drugs, and irresponsible sexuality in the Black community. It is precisely West’s subtlety and sophistication that both elude and infuriate TNR pseudos.
West’s life and work are living refutations of The New Republic’s sophisticated racism and its cynicism about the possibility of using one’s intellect for higher purpose than self-aggrandizement. No wonder that Wieseltier and Peretz should be so infuriated by West and so determined to destroy his intellectual credibility. Now watch in the months ahead as the media cynics pile on, each “discovering” the faults in West that they had not noticed previously, showing that they can be just as cynical and demeaning of one of America’s leading Black intellectuals as their New Republic mentors.
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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.
Indeed, West is a self-denominated “prophet” of what he calls the “new cultural politics of difference,” a movement among “cultural workers” seeking “to trash the monolithic and homogeneous in the name of diversity, multiplicity and heterogeneity; to reject the abstract, general and universal in light of the concrete, specific and particular; and to historicize, contextualize and pluralize by highlighting the contingent, provisional, variable, tentative, shifting and changing” (p. 3). The central theme of the new cultural politics of difference is the marginalized people of doubted “agency, capacity and ability” who are historic victims of oppression and exploitation “by bourgeois liberal and communist illiberal status quos” (p. 29).
According to West, black intellectuals are “caught between an insolent American society and an insouciant black community” (p. 67). To guide postmodern black intellectuals through their dilemma, West astutely charts various courses, weighing the risks and benefits of each. West’s insights about theoretical and practical options open to black intellectuals are the backbone of his good reputation among African American scholars. These genuine insights have value even if one disagrees with West that the central task for progressive intellectuals is to “stimulate, hasten, and enable alternative perceptions and practices by disloding prevailing discourses and powers” (p. 83).
The best option open to black intellectuals is to become insurgents, West writes, “critical organic catalysts” (p. 82). The best thing about this group of loosely connected essays may be the sensitive, organized cultural understanding they offer to African American intellectuals struggling (alone and isolated in some instances) to find a place in the contemporary academy.
Professional philosophers may be ambivalent about several aspects of this three-hundred-page book. First, some chapters contain sweeping renditions in fast-forward of intellectual or world history. These are of uncertain value. Second, several chapters contain long, serpentine sentences. It is not inherently troublesome that West is talking in jargon about “destruction … deconstruction … demythologization … [and] demystification” (p. 21) but it is troublesome that he packs references to all of these concepts in a single sentence. Third, West is a kind of name-dropper: he persistently allows theorists’ names to stand as markers for complex ideas and arguments that are themselves absent from the surface of his work. This makes it very difficult to assess West’s readings both of theorists like Carnap and Quine, whom he mentions in passing, and of theorists including Heidegger, Derrida, Rorty, Marx, Foucault, Gramsci, and Dewey, whom he identifies as his primary resources.
It would seem that writing so inaccessible to university students and many of their teachers could fail to achieve fully its goal of bolstering the intellectual and political freedom of marginalized peoples. Yet, as West’s enormous popularity attests, he inspires others to share his concern for “the most urgent problematic of our postmodern moment,” namely, “the meaning and value of democracy” (p. 107).
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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 Movement”—offer little in the way of argued and nuanced analyses of the issues they address. Rather they tend to be sketchy, journalistic “mappings” of broadly conceived intellectual terrains. Though occasionally compelling, these essays would have been much improved by a finer-grained and more detailed treatment of the important topics they investigate. To take one example, West’s “Black Critics and the Pitfalls of Canon Formation” simply asserts without argument that “the new black formalism … ignores the way in which issues of power, political struggle and cultural identity are inscribed within the formal structures of texts” (41). Perhaps this claim is true, but it cannot be assessed in the absence of an argument based on evidence drawn from the works of the critics West means to criticize. Failing to elaborate this claim, West also leaves unclarified his view of those critics who, despite the centrality of their work to the flourishing of a “new black formalism,” seem still to agree that the formal structures of texts inscribe larger social contexts.2
The second sort of essay—namely, the careful, cogent, and focused interpretation of a particular intellectual figure or social phenomenon—shows West at his best. Writing on Horace Pippin, for example, West usefully compares the Emersonian sensibility informing Pippin’s art to Alain Locke’s Harlem Renaissance celebration of the “New Negro.” Equally significant and deserving of praise are West’s discerning criticisms of George Lukacs’s “dialectical philosophy,” his brief but persuasive portrait of Charles Taylor’s political thought, and his forceful and well-argued interpretation of Frederic Jameson’s “American Marxism.” West’s discussion of Jameson is the most philosophically trenchant of all the essays in Keeping Faith and includes some keen analyses of Jameson’s readings of Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. West is also insightful in his critique of Jameson’s use of poststructuralism to attack ethical binarisms and in his appraisal of Jameson’s view that “the epistemological decentering of the bourgeois subject can be smoothly translated into the moral sphere as an attack on individualistic ethics of bourgeois subjects” (180).
The contrast between focused interpretation and perfunctory assertion may be most evident in the two final chapters of Keeping Faith, “Race and Social Theory” and “The Paradox of the African American Rebellion.” At once thoughtful and original, the second of these essays concentrates on the black freedom struggle of the 1960s, highlighting the role of the black middle class both in propelling this struggle and in circumscribing its vision. “Race and Social Theory,” on the other hand, schematically reconstructs some competing views of African-American oppression (including West’s “genealogical materialism”) but sustains no analysis of the significant philosophical questions tacitly posed by these views: for example, how useful to social theory is recently influential talk of “racial formations” and “racialization”?3 what is a racist social practice and how is it tied to racist belief? how do we conceptualize invidious discrimination if it is subtle and not overt? what is the connection between racism and the social construction of self-identity? This list of questions is by no means meant to be exhaustive; rather it is intended to point to a growing and increasingly rich field of philosophical inquiry not mentioned in West’s book. As the recent work of Anthony Appiah, David Goldberg, Michelle Moody-Adams, Adrian Piper, Lorenzo Simpson, and others shows, however, social theory can benefit substantially from carefully argued philosophical discussions of matters pertaining to race.4
In The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), West does explore the role that assumptions about race have played in shaping the American philosophical tradition. For my critical response to this earlier work, see “Evading Narrative Myth, Evading Prophetic Pragmatism: Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy,” The Massachusetts Review 32 (1991–92): 517–42.
See, for example, Houston A. Baker Jr.’s Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). That West means to include Baker in his attack on the “new black formalism” is suggested by his references to an “African American populist formalism” that foregrounds the “signifying activity of dynamic black vernacular literature” (42).
For some recent sociological discussions of “racial formations” and “racialization,” see Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 1986) and Robert Miles, Racism (New York: Routledge, 1989).
See, for example, Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Racisms,” in Anatomy of Racism, ed. David Theo Goldberg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 3–17; David Theo Goldberg, Racist Culture (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993); Michelle M. Moody-Adams, “Race, Class, and the Social Construction of Self-Respect,” Philosophical Forum 24 (1992–93), 251–56; Adrian M. S. Piper, “Higher-Order Discrimination,” in Identity, Character, and Morality, ed. Owen Flanagan and Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 285–309; and Lorenzo C. Simpson, “On Habermas and Particularity: Is There Room For Race and Gender on the Glassy Plains of Ideal Discourse,” Praxis International 6 (1986): 328–40.
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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 that things are going to turn out as you would like, as opposed to “hope,” which is when you are thoroughly convinced something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences. In that sense, I’m full of hope but in no way optimistic.
What is it that underpins your hope? What is it that makes you carry on, regardless?
People who are still out there, fighting against the darkness and thunder. For me, that’s a form of bearing witness, and, of course, intellectuals try to reflect critically on the witness that they bear. There are always hundreds and hundreds, thousands and thousands, millions and millions of folk around the world who are cutting against the grain. That’s the kind of movement and motion that we hope, somewhere down the line, will lead to the higher-level organizing and mobilizing necessary to transform these societies that are shot through with so many institutional forms of evil.
Growing up, you encountered some of these institutional forms of racism. To what extent were your political views shaped by experiences in your youth?
There was a time in my childhood when I was angry. I behaved badly. I was in trouble in school. But then I had some wonderful teachers, and I became a Christian, which really started to turn me around. I was able to rechannel a lot of that rage. I was attracted by the black Baptist theology and the idea of Jesus as a figure who expressed love and caring. It taught me from a very early age—eight or nine—to see each person’s humanity.
Then, in 1963, I saw Martin King speak, which reinforced a lot of what I was thinking and feeling. I made contact with the Black Panthers, and I was influenced by them, in particular by their courage and by their ideas about socialist internationalism. I read Malcolm X. I read Michael Harrington. I became a democratic socialist when I was still very young.
Several years ago you spoke in Memphis at a ceremony marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. One of the concerns I recall you expressing at the time was that contemporary progressives no longer seemed to be reaching out to people of faith as they did in King’s time. Do progressives need to do more to connect with Americans on a spiritual level?
We just have to confront certain facts: 94 percent of the American people believe in God, 72 percent believe Jesus Christ is the son of God, 39 percent believe they spoke to God on personal terms at least twice last week. Those are the empirical facts.
If we’re going to be able to address people where they are, we have to be honest with ourselves and them, but we also have to acknowledge where people are. That is a crucial starting point—a place to begin and not to end.
Now, America is a conservative country in so many ways. It’s deeply racist, it refuses to interrogate corporate power, it’s deeply homophobic, it’s deeply patriarchal.
So, institutional religion is generally conservative—that’s true anywhere, and it’s true in the United States as well. But there’s also a prophetic wing among these religious traditions.
It’s the responsibility of progressives to respect folk—and to respect them is to take them seriously, not to trash them. And by taking them seriously, you bring your critique to bear, but you also recognize that there are some elements in who people are and where they are that you can build on.
It’s what we used to call “eminent critique,” in terms of trying to push people, in light of where they are, to get them to see differently, but also to get them to see that there are certain resources within their own tradition that they can build on.
That was part of the genius of Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many others: Miles Horton, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dorothy Day, and a whole host of others. All of them were imperfect—Dorothy Day had problems with abortion, King may have had problems with homophobia, and so forth—but still there is so much we can learn from these figures. And I think the secular left has to take that seriously—without giving up their secularity, which they have a right to.
It seems at this point that the secular left is uncomfortable with the left tradition within communities of faith. Outside of the African-American community, there appears to be a sense that there is something weak, perhaps even distasteful, about a faith-based progressivism. Why?
The leftist tradition in the modern West has been deeply secular. Therefore, persons of religious belief, persons of religious sensibility, feel as if they are behind. The badge of refinement and sophistication is one of secular sensibility.
One finds this also among artists and bohemian communities, and it’s understandable because there’s been a certain historical trajectory that has led to this. At the same time, we have to realize that the roots of this are in a particularly historical moment—when Marx himself was writing, he couldn’t get a member of the Lutheran clergy to join the German Social Democratic party, and so he, understandably, said, “Look, there’s no possibility of religion being a progressive force if that’s the case.”
But we have to recognize other historical traditions, as well. We’ve got a black tradition, we’ve got Nat Turner, we’ve got Frederick Douglass, we’ve got Sojourner Truth, we’ve got Martin King, we’ve got Garvey—all of them deeply religious folks.
Let’s talk about the Million Man March, which you supported. A year after the march, can you see a lingering impact?
It’s hard to measure the impact. On the one hand, you had 1.7 million black men who voted in the 1996 election and who didn’t vote in 1992. The Million Man March probably contributed in a significant way to that.
Similarly so, on a qualitative level, there’s a different kind of spirit among a lot of the brothers on the ground, on the street, in terms of a sense of possibility. That cuts across ideology and politics, so it is hard to specify for progressives, but any time you have a sense of possibility among a group like black men, who are very, very much a part of the class of subordinate peoples, you have some raw material for movement and momentum.
At the same time, the march generated a hell of a discussion, a hell of a debate in black America about whence the rise of black people, whence the struggle against white supremacy, and that’s very important. There were also serious reflections on, and interrogations of, Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam—with a lot of different voices, most of those voices full of insights, a few of the voices full of knock-down convincing arguments. And they go from the secular left to the religious progressives to folks who are noncommittal but are deeply concerned about black suffering.
The discussion that’s followed the march has been rather open-ended, and in some ways symptomatic and reflective of very, very deep levels of confusion in the black community. And, of course, it has highlighted the profound crisis in black leadership.
Do you believe that Minister Farrakhan has used the opportunities presented by the Million Man March’s success as effectively and responsibly as he could have?
I think that after the march, he was a bit bewildered as to what to do. I think he felt cornered in a way, and he went international. And in going international, he got in a lot of trouble—both based on misunderstandings and on certain mistakes. Some of the important things that he has done have been lost in the discussion of the mistakes.
People have downplayed what he said at the recent convention in St. Louis, as well as what he said at the United Nations when they had the one-year-anniversary Day of Atonement event. At the convention in St. Louis, he held up Mother Jones magazine, and told all the black folk to buy it because of its critique of corporate power—something he had not talked about before. He read from Harper’s, from Lewis Lapham, who is of course a kind of an aristocratic radical, the best of the patrician radical tradition in America and very insightful in his own way.
To have Minister Louis Farrakhan putting forward calls for redistribution of the wealth, focusing on corporate power, and talking about building coalitions of poor people across lines of race was hardly reported in the radical press. But it was heard by 20,000 black folk in the dome in St. Louis, and that was important.
Similarly so, his critique of the imperial policies of the United States was important.
But, as always, those important messages are interwoven with a whole host of other things that are a part of the black-nationalist tradition in general and the Nation of Islam in particular—his struggles with patriarchy, his struggles with homophobia, his struggles with anti-Semitic elements in his rhetoric.
I see significant movement in Minister Louis Farrakhan, but many still think it’s just manipulative.
You mentioned the increase in African-American voter turnout in 1996. Without the African-American vote, Clinton’s margin over Dole would have been extremely narrow. Democrats would have lost several more Senate seats, and the party’s modest gains in the House would not have been possible. Yet the signals from the Clinton Administration in the aftermath of the election gave no indication that the President or the Democratic Party had any intention of responding to the concerns of African Americans. Is there any reasonable hope that this higher level of electoral contribution to the Democratic Party from the African-American community will be rewarded?
Well, that’s what’s so very sad, because I don’t think so. I was hoping that the Democrats would take over the House, so that we would have Charles Rangel in charge of the Ways and Means Committee. Bill Clay over at Education and Economic Opportunity, John Conyers running Judiciary, Ron Dellums at Armed Services. That’s what I was looking for.
Again the black vote was decisive and yet we gain very, very little with Clinton moving toward the right. I think he’s going to move continually toward the right.
So I would hope that the Congressional Black Caucus at the national level, black elected officials at the state and local levels, and black citizens would think very seriously about some kind of realignment with progressives. That’s very, very amorphous at this time. But I think that the Democratic Party is reaching the point of sheer bankruptcy when it comes to actually contributing in a substantive way to black freedom—let alone the freedom of working people and poor people.
Did you vote for Bill Clinton?
No, there was no way with respect that I could pull the lever for Bill Clinton. No way, I respect myself too much. His signing of the welfare bill was really the straw that broke the camel’s back, but I’d already seen him moving toward the right. You just can’t play games with people’s lives like that.
When you talk about a realignment of African-American voters into a coalition with progressives, and I assume Hispanics and poor and working-class whites, do you see that taking the form of an effort to take over the Democratic Party, or do you see it taking place outside the party in some new political grouping?
It’s hard to say. I’m a member of Democratic Socialists of America, and we have people who work inside the Democratic Party. We also have members who work with the New Party and members who don’t. I’m a member of the New Party, and I work proudly with Joel Rogers and Daniel Cantor and Josh Cohen and others.
I would like to see serious party formations. The New Party is one example of a vehicle to do this. The Labor Party is another good example.
I think the revitalized labor movement on the one hand, what’s left of the black-freedom movement in organized form, and of course the feminist and womanist groups, the anti-homophobia groups, and the ecological groups all have to be a part of these party formations. So, for me, you’ve got the New Party, you’ve got the Labor Party, you’ve got the Green Party, then you have pre-party formations linked to these other social-based groups.
Somewhere down the line, I would like to see a coming together under a large progressive umbrella of the sort that Joel Rogers has been talking about. If we’re organized enough, have enough resources, and can respect each other enough to wrestle with our disagreements, that kind of realignment into a multiracial progressive organization or party is what I think we need.
I just don’t see a lot of potential in the Democratic Party.
The challenge for a new grouping of this sort lies in convincing people who are Democrats—and African-American voters are the most loyal Democrats—to break from what they have always seen as the vehicle for their political activism. In light of the failures of past efforts to form new parties, how would this grouping that you’re talking about accomplish the task?
I think that part of it is a question of leadership. I mean, my God, with the escalating income inequality, with the stagnating and declining wages, with the civic infrastructures in such decay, if we had the right leadership that could actually project a vision and an understanding of what’s going on, we’d have a chance.
My hunch is that it is, more than likely, going to be progressive black leadership that will do that. I do not believe progressive white leadership is going to be able to be both rooted in that large black social base and then also creating bridges across lines of race and gender and sexual orientation.
So I think that what we really need is a high-quality progressive black leadership that is multi-racial in strategy, that is deeply, deeply progressive—which is to say radically democratic—but is trusted enough by folk in the black community that they would be willing to make that move outside the Democratic Party.
Jesse Jackson attempted to achieve something along these lines within the Democratic Party back in 1988.
It’s a different moment; 1988 was a different moment than today. Jesse’s always had progressive tendencies, but he’s also wanted to be a player in the big game, the main game in town. All leaders have their own insights and blindnesses, virtues and vices. All of us do as human beings.
Jesse, to me, played a very important role, but it was shot through with contradictions. And I think the next wave of leadership has to learn from his grand and very courageous example.
So you’re looking for someone new. Do you see anyone around the country who might be prepared to assume the leadership role you’ve outlined here?
Not one individual, and I tend not to focus just on one person. But I do see a number of progressives, activists, elected officials around the country—folks who are not that well known, but represent the tendency that I’m talking about. That, to me, is what’s most important.
Where does an intellectual figure, someone like yourself, fit into these reformulations?
In one sense, Noam Chomsky’s right: You speak the truth, expose lies, and bear witness. Which is to say that you try to be part of a conversation where you represent a radical democratic perspective, but also one that is very much improvisational and experimental. You must be able to move from a variety of different contexts—so you don’t just get locked into one group or one party and become unable to empathize with those in different parties on the left—to be able to see what it takes to bring them together.
That means, as well, that you have to generate certain kinds of trust, even with people who radically disagree with you.
I see my own self as a freedom fighter who happens to be in a professional, managerial class in a capitalist society that’s called the academy. You understand that as one context, and you speak the truth, and expose the lies, and bear witness in that context—the same way you do in the church on Sunday, and in the trade-union hall on Monday, and in some dialogue with some businessman on Tuesday. You move from one context to another, you move back and forth, but the people who you’re talking with always must know that what’s coming at them is this radical democratic perspective.
Right now, we’re at such an embryonic stage in terms of broadening the public conversation in relation to corporate power, in relation to just how deep the legacy of white supremacy actually still is in America, let alone male supremacy and homophobia and so on, that you just try to keep pressing the point. That means you continually travel, you continually interact with new folk, and you also try to relate to people on a personal level and a human level. I think one of the problems on the left is that we tend to get so caught up at times in our own ideology and our own analysis and jargon that we don’t actually relate to people as human beings who we know are catching hell but who have a very different language, a very different tradition.
In America, of course, persons who are able to laugh at themselves, persons who are able to take certain risks and be vulnerable, do tend to gain a bit more attention, because we tend to be very suspicious of the self-righteous. And rightly so, that’s a good democratic impulse.
You are still a young man, forty-three years old. Do you imagine that, in your lifetime, the world will more closely resemble the vision you have argued and campaigned for?
Well, presently, it doesn’t look good. The dominant forces tend to be precisely those that make it difficult to create the democratic countervailing forces against the globalization of capital, against subordination of workers, against the xenophobias, against the tribal hatreds, and so forth. So it doesn’t look good at all.
But, on the other hand, there’s always unpredictability.
Human history depends on how hard we work, on how much we are willing to sacrifice. Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about “radical amazement” in human history: We can be amazed by our effort if we continually stay at it on the ground. If we stay at it, we can look up every now and then and say, “Oh, my God, this motion that we’re generating might be creating some movement.” And as long as you have motion there’s a possibility of creating some heterogeneous progressive social movement and, boom, we’re back into a sixties-like situation in terms of things beginning to melt a bit—in sharp contrast to our icy moment right now.
But I don’t really look long term. When I look at the suffering and pain of working people, indigenous peoples on reservations, when I look at these things, I think, you can’t but give your all. You have no choice, because you know that what you’re doing is right. In that sense. I have a deep, existential confidence in the rightness of radical democracy. I will try to actualize it to the best of my ability. But there’s no rational certainty, there’s no historical inevitability to the causes that we promote.
Just an element of hope?
Exactly. An element of hope—based on struggle.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2347
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 themes of the book are deftly woven together so that each thread of the warp and weft are put in their “natural” places to concretize the genealogical tenor of a philosophical historicism enacted through a multivariate symphony to which the intellectual as a critical organic catalyst must be attuned. While it is good to have the sort of perceptive insight which West displays in abundance in Keeping Faith, it is even better that he has the necessary intellectual acumen to digest the potpourri of discordant cacophony and even distracting side issues to focus on the crafting of a perspective which does not pander to the whims of mainstream academy to the detriment of the greater goal of speaking to the future minority constituency to which he belongs, by that accident of progeny most of us easily forget. The pitfalls are too numerous that one cannot be certain of eluding all of them. It is too presumptive to think that West has avoided them all, but it is significant that he is discerning enough to recognize that being “politically” correct is not necessarily being objective, as it may lead to the disregard of
the ways in which these mainstream (or malestream) discourses construct identities and constitute forms of objectivity that devalue and degrade, harm and harass those who are viewed as other, alien, marginal and abnormal owing to these discourses.
The dynamic nature of pragmatism is effectively annotated in the elicitation of the futuristic content of pragmatism, what West calls “prophetic pragmatism” (p. 139). As it were, pragmatic epistemology and metaphysics, encapsulated in its theory of truth, meaning, evidence, reality, and conception of justification and knowledge is given a distinctively Westian interpretation. West says:
In fact, the key to pragmatism, the distinctive feature that sets it apart from other philosophical traditions—and maybe its unique American character—is its emphasis on the ethical significance of the future.
For pragmatists, the future has ethical significance because human will—human thought and action—can make a difference in relation to human aims and purposes. There is moral substance in the fact that human will can make the future different and, possibly, better relative to human ends and aims.
Coming from a background of philosophical pragmatism, West’s insightful analysis of the decline of philosophy of religion in America stopped short of showing a link between the decay in American socioethical and cultural consciousness and the ascendancy of positivism, subjectivism, and negative anti-intellectualism/idealism. Maybe the dragnet is not cast wide and large enough: could the decline also be due to the ascent of religious revivalism which is, in a sense, anti-intellectualism and an anti-Peircean blockage of “the way to inquiry,” or could it be due to the advances in the sciences (p. 126)?
Another curious thing to observe is how West marries philosophical historicism to a number of awkward bedfellows such as “racial, feminist, gay, lesbian, and ecological modes of social analysis and cultural criticism.” The Christocentric turn is particularly interesting; it seems to isolate a prophetic tandem in the midst of scientific pragmatism to engineer a radical paradox that needs a careful critical unraveling to be understandable (p. 134).
West examined the dilemma of the Black intellectual, especially the search for an identity, a modelling focus and a rubric for self-actualization while being relevant, occupying and performing prophetic functions which are peculiar to their calling. The uncharitableness of the web of intellectuals in the west leads to a questioning of the need to become an intellectual for that matter; for education is expected to be of only a utilitarian goal and literacy as a utilitarian expedient (p. 68). West’s analysis rejects the negativizing nuances of the various models (the bourgeois and the Foucaultian models [pp. 74–82]), and favors the insurgency model with the Black intellectual serving as a critical organic catalyst (pp. 82–85). But would this model, shot through with a critical “self-inventory,” survive the disempowering influence and activities of the ultraright powerful racism endemic in American society? Can the intellectuals at the fringes and margins of the academy, who have been unable to pursue their different callings, escape the grim and dismal future, without having to attend to tangential matters such as racism and other distractive -isms of the western world? One minor difficulty worth noting might be the need to alight on such a nonvalue neutral word as “insurgency” to cast a positive activist as the future Black intellectual.
The remaining chapters of the book attempt an ingenious coupling of the “prophetic criticism,” “critical ‘self-inventory,’” “critical organic catalyst intellectualism,” “skeptical philosophical historicism,” “prophetic Christocentric perspective,” and “prophetic pragmatism” to usher in a neo-Marxian transcendence of the limitations of post-Marxian poststructuralism, postmodernism, and postmulticulturalism of the ultraliberalist dogmatism in legal traditions of America and the critiques proffered by critical legal studies. The critique of the reification of liberal legal tradition provides the groundswell for the apprehensive, though sympathetic, treatment of Marxism.
Professor West provides a very penetrating discussion of Georg Lukacs’s philosophy in an American and universal philosophical context, bringing out in clearly articulated relief the insightful contributions of Lukacs while remaining unsparing in his denunciation of the many avoidable shortcomings of Lukacs. The chapter on Charles Taylor is brief but very illuminating.
West’s incisive analysis of Jameson’s Marxist utopianism and its lackluster implications outside of a decadent academic theorizing exhibits a peculiar insight. While his judgment of the Jamesonian agenda is harshly negative, one can appreciate the objectivity of the conclusions reached which at the same moment of critique provides pathways for greater exploration of Jameson’s philosophy.
West applies his usual candor to his critique of critical legal studies, noting its genesis in a rebelliousness against a progeny nurtured in noble origins and aims, but leading to an unhealthy contestation and inordinate jostling for recognition. But may it not be that critical legal studies is dissatisfied with the way liberal legal studies have become an overbearing and domineering instrument of a dogmatic ideological and oppressive force forgetful of its humble beginnings and constitutive of a decadent form of traditionalism grown anachronistic? By not being cognizant of this point, it would seem that West courts insensitivity to the motive of heresy! And one wonders if critical legal studies is antiuniversal legal studies. It seems that West started by contesting critical legal studies’ critique of liberal American legal studies but critiques critical legal studies universally as if its criticism is against universal legal liberalism when he cites South African and other examples of the good achievements of liberal legal studies. It is to be expected that critical legal studies cannot but recognize the good deeds of liberalism historically and globally, but should that make liberal legal studies in America a sacred cow? (See pp. 200 and 201 especially.)
One may even ask: Is critical legal studies not a product of liberal legal studies? If this is the case, then critical legal studies must of necessity start and depart from liberal legal studies to carve relevant identity of a transcending synthesis for itself. If in the process it antagonizes liberal legal studies, that is understandable and bears no apology! And the following contention by West is itself a product of liberal legal studies made possible because of the transcendence of liberal legal studies by critical legal studies and other intellectual factors:
Despite the powerful yet unpersuasive antiliberal perspectives of Alasdair MacIntyre and the insightful yet unclear post-liberal viewpoints of many critical legal theorists, I simply cannot conceive of an intellectually compelling, morally desirable and practically realizable prophetic social vision, strategy and program that does not take certain achievements of liberalism as a starting point. … In this sense, liberalism is an unfinished project arrested by relatively unaccountable corporate power, a passive and depoliticized citizenry and a cultural conservatism of racism, patriarchy, homophobia and narrow patriotism or neo-nationalism.
His greatest contribution here is his calling of attention to the need to subject critical legal studies to critical examination.
West’s reading of Ewald poses a question as to whether Ewald’s reading of Unger is not evidence of liberalism in the academy turned decadent and fixated, a Dworkian double-edged sword, paradoxically capable of proscription of critique that enjoins a principle of charity and benevolence in readership and interpretation not usually extended to other oppositional views. In a critical sense, West throws down a gauntlet in the form of an ominously pregnant disclosure without recapture that liberalism’s
accomplishments were achieved by the blood, sweat and tears of subaltern peoples. Liberalism is not the possession of white, male elites in high places, but rather a dynamic and malleable tradition, the best of which has been made vital and potent by struggling victims of class exploitation, racist subjugation and patriarchal subordination.
It is this feature which marks a serious watershed in the program executed by West, demanding attention and critical thinking. It may be interesting to see to what extent the gargantuan achievements of liberalism were not extrinsically originated, but then to what extent were egoistic altruism and intrinsic necessity responsible for the tenor and method of this liberalism? Whichever way this question is resolved will greatly affect what reactive evocation liberalism potentiates.
West has a carefully annotated analysis of criminality and anarchic tendencies among the poor. He says:
In situations of sparse resources along with degraded self-images and depoliticized sensibilities, one avenue for poor people is existential rebellion and anarchic expression. The capacity to produce social chaos is the last resort of desperate people. It results from a tragic quest for recognition and for survival.
That he calls this reaction tragic is strange given the expressed liberalism, for it is more tragic that there are those who suffer chronic poverty, self-degradation, and pernicious racism in the greatest democracy and economy at the tail end of the twentieth century. If liberal legal studies procrastinates when bold action is needed and lacks the imagination to move constructively ahead, then critical legal studies’ ineffectiveness will lead to existential negation and negativism.
Given the numerous acts of subversive criminalities, what can timid liberalism or self-pity do against the octopusal colossus of corporate and big business in America and internationally? Can politics as usual do the trick? What is the relationship and difference between radical critical legal and political studies and progressive legal studies and practice (p. 242)? What commitment has progressive legal studies to moving society out of the cultures of corporatism, commodification, and moribund conservative liberalism? These are issues raised by West’s Keeping Faith, issues which transcend the immediate agenda of the book, resonating to the auditory and intellectual sensibilities of all attentive intellectuals in the closing years of an unusual decade of a peculiar century.
West’s genealogical dialectical historicism and materialism, a methodological historical and materialist tool with conscientious attention to nuanced historicity and cultural specificity, constitutes a transcendence, though an acknowledgement of the primacy, of Marxist tradition; it
appropriates the implicit pragmatism of Nietzsche for the purposes of a deeper, and less dogmatic, historical materialist analysis. In this regard, the genealogical materialist view is both continuous and discontinuous with the Marxist tradition.
But this tradition seems deficient by not being cognizant of the extra-economic roots of racism. Hence, West is able to execute a difficult depassment of Marxism in a typically Westian manner through a recognition of the traditional cultural roots of racism and the contextual nature of the Marxist analysis in terms of production and appropriative expropriation of the labor through a dispossessive distributive system (p. 267).
One issue remains thorny in this work. This concerns how West will resolve his preference for a Christian orientation (to which he is perfectly entitled) with the historicity of Christian acceptance, acquiescence to promotion, and cushioning of various forms of inequities, racism, and exploitation (see pp. 134 and 269). West’s Keeping Faith unequivocally demonstrates the contradictions in the American system. On the one hand, it admirably critiques the arrogance of racism in an unsparing manner by exposing the duplicitous way in which liberalism has been the handmaiden of racism and, on the other hand, it critiques the unpardonable shortcomings of this liberalism. At a time when there is an upswing of conservatism, anti-affirmative action, and even neofascism in numerous quarters, West’s Keeping Faith is encouragement to a flagging and sagging, desperate and despondent faith. It is necessary reading for lovers of freedom. Even though one may take exception to some of the conclusions, the brilliance and impeccability of the logic that grounds the arguments cannot but be appreciated. A reading leaves one intellectually richer while subsequent readings broaden the richness by opening up new interpretive perspectives on crucial issues that were as alive, if not more, at the closing decade of this century than at its beginning: poverty, prejudice, inequalities, racism, sexism.