American Philosophy – West

Cornel West Hannover Germany

Cornel West (1953 – not dead yet), a Pragmatist, socialist, and activist, is one of the most famous black American philosophers, along with bell hooks and Angela Davis.  West grew up in Sacramento, California, and as a teenager in the sixties became involved with the Civil Rights Movement.  Graduating from Harvard, he attended graduate school at Princeton, where he continues to teach.  Taught Neo-Pragmatism by Rorty, West got his PhD in 1980, the year after Rorty published his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.  With Descartes, I mentioned that the siblings who wrote The Matrixwere clearly inspired by philosophy classes.  West appears in both the second and third Matrix movies, and gives philosophical commentary as an extra feature for the box set.

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West is quite possibly the most famous living American Pragmatist, and he also has many insights about black America, racism, education and economics, as well as an interesting Kierkegaardian Existential-Pragmatic take on his own spirituality, which he calls Prophetic Christianity, aimed at social criticism and progressive transformation of society.  West argues that Pragmatists such as his teacher Rorty are “master mappers”, demythologizing theory such that it can be put into practice by others.  While both Existentialists and Pragmatists are anti-foundationalists, both are concerned with the grounding of truth even if that ground is always shifting.  Existentialists, like Nietzsche, are concerned with creativity, while Pragmatists, such as Peirce, are concerned with science.


West quotes Rorty, who wrote that the strategy academics have for America is, “You let us have your gifted children for our universities, where we will estrange them from you and keep the best ones for ourselves.  In return, we will send the second-best back to keep you supplied with technology, entertainment and soothing presidential lies.”  West argues that the talented minds that stay in academics are deeply concerned with changing society and are uninterested in the hollow pursuit of money, they also find their work to be disconnected from society.  West hopes that Pragmatism connected with activism has the best chance at becoming visible outside the universities.  If we focus on particular changes for society like Dewey did for education, we can remain engaged, be entirely critical, and not worry about falling into absolute nihilism, a fear West finds in Nietzsche.  Just as Nietzsche was not religious, but used religion freely in his thinking, West is religious, but uses Nietzsche freely in his own.

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