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Princeton’s Public Intellectual: A profile of Cornel West

The New York Times Magazine, September 15, 1991

cornel westOne evening earlier this year, a crowd gathered for the keynote address of the New-York Historical Society’s “Why History?” program, a series of lectures and panels on the relevance of the city’s past. The topic was “The Role of Visionary Leadership.” The speaker was Cornel West, a 38-year-old professor of religion and director of Afro-American studies at Princeton. West is a philosopher by training, whose scholarly work in American pragmatism, Marxism, Afro-American thought and prophetic Christianity may seem like dubious credentials for confronting the harsh realities of city life. But to Norman Pearlstine, executive editor of The Wall Street Journal and chairman of the society, who introduced him, Cornel West is “a social critic for our time.”

Cutting a wiry, athletic figure in his dark blue, closely tailored three-piece suit, West leaped on stage, flashing a huge smile. Speaking with a Baptist preacher’s oratorical zeal – dropping his voice to a whisper, then castigating in rhythmic consonance those who make “paralyzing pessimistic pronouncements” – West combined the playful cadences and rhymes of urban street talk with a vocabulary from the rarified precincts of Princeton. But he wasn’t just putting on a show. The evening felt less like a lecture than a town meeting, right down to the sense of moral purpose it seemed to inspire in the audience.

“Visionary leadership is predicated on a leap of faith, and a labor of love,” West intoned. “A Pascalian wager on the mental and moral capacities of common people” – his gentle baritone slowed to a hush – “and a sacrificial example of genuine love that encourages people’s confidence in themselves and those who have the privilege to serve them.” He cited Whitman’s admiration for “the genius of the common people” and closed with a paraphrase of Horace Walpole: the common man, said West, “cannot but think . . . and feel” – another dramatic pause – “laugh . . . and weep . . . but also fight!”

It had been a full, though not unusual, day for Cornel West. That morning, he had lectured twice at Princeton: first on W. E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin in a course on Afro-American culture; then on Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Frantz Fanon and the Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am to a class entitled “Religion and Cultural Criticism.”

Being a public intellectual in the 90’s isn’t easy. That same month had seen West at the American Philosophical Association’s annual meeting in Boston, where three packed sessions were devoted to his book on American pragmatism, “The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism,” at a colloquium on the Middle East sponsored by the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun and at a theology conference in Minnesota commemorating the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the weeks that followed, he spoke at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton on the crisis of black leadership, gave a paper at Columbia Law School on law and progressive politics, addressed the Democratic Socialists of America and joined Amiri Baraka in a panel devoted to the play “Mule Bone” by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. This in addition to finishing books on the Scottish philosopher David Hume and the American pragmatist Josiah Royce, putting the final touches on still another book (“Breaking Bread,” a series of conversations with the social critic Bell Hooks, to be published next month) and preparing for a trip to Addis Ababa with his wife, Elleni, an Ethiopian-born social worker. After answering a few last questions from the audience at the Historical Society about Mayor Dinkins’s leadership, even West admitted he was a bit tired.

Why has Cornel West become such a sensation in the academic world and beyond? At an age when most academics are just beginning to hit their stride, West is on the verge of breaking through to a big-time reputation. Harvard is determined to hire him; Yale can’t believe it lost him; Columbia offered him a tenured position in its history department while he was trying to decide about Princeton. If West hasn’t yet written the book, he has made his influence felt as a speaker in classrooms, churches and protest rallies all across the country; he’s a significant intellectual presence, scholarly enough to be cited in footnotes yet so charismatic that colleagues have compared him to Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike public thinkers who are known for a single big idea, West is a synthesizer in the 19th-century mode; his favored form of expression is the impromptu address or feuilleton. For all his grand rhetoric and broad brush strokes, West is persuasive because . . . he’s persuasive. Raised in the bosom of the black church, he possesses an extraordinary drive and ambition tempered by the spiritual modesty of one who believes the rewards and accomplishments of this world are as nothing compared with the transcendent possibility of the next. He brings a religious zeal to intellectual issues. He makes the life of the mind exciting.

Large claims have been made on West’s behalf. The critic Irving Howe places him in the tradition of the enlightened black self-criticism of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. He is “our black Jeremiah,” says the black studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Very Rev. Ronald F. Thiemann, dean of Harvard’s Divinity School, goes even further. “Cornel West is the only person on the intellectual scene capable of inheriting the mantle of Reinhold Niebuhr,” he claims. “And if he does, he will weave into that mantle so many new and different threads it may no longer be recognizable as the same cloth.”

“Much honor, many enemies,” as the saying goes. West also has critics. The Amherst College philosopher Robert Gooding-Williams thinks he tries to do too much. Ideas that “speak to so many,” he writes, “cannot speak effectively to anyone.” The Yale political scientist Adolph Reed, with whom West has a longstanding feud, gets right to the point: “Cornel’s work tends to be 1,000 miles wide and about 2 inches deep.”

Cornel West, in short, is controversial: a young, hip black man in an old white academy; a believing Christian in a secular society; a progressive socialist in the age of triumphant capitalism; a cosmopolitan public intellectual among academic specialists. Recently, he has taken a provocative position in the debate between the “Eurocentric” and “multicultural” camps now raging in the university. “What the multiculturalists don’t want to admit is that their work is shot through with all sorts of European ideas about nationalism,” West likes to remind his audiences, “and the Eurocentrics are heavily indebted to cultures around the world. Every society is a product of both barbarism and spectacular cultural achievement, and it is the intellectual’s job to tease out the best of each culture while also recognizing its blindnesses.”

If this sounds all-encompassing, it is. West is a radical traditionalist – another way of saying that he both embraces what’s known these days as the canon and demands its revision. His most recent book, “The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought,” is an innovative reading of Marx that tries to rescue him from the rubble of totalitarianism. Yet West delights in the fact that he is the rare

professor at Princeton who teaches, rather than merely invoking, Matthew Arnold, whose exhortation to study the “best that is known and thought in the world” has become a battle cry for the intellectual right. “What conservative folk don’t like to remember about Arnold is that he, too, was quite a revolutionary,” West says.

Despite his frenetic travel schedule, West is dauntingly prolific. His work appears in Christianity and Crisis, Monthly Review, Art Forum, Z, Spin, Dissent, Yale Law Journal, Social Text, Socialist Review and The Nation, as well as more traditional academic journals. Like his live performances, his writing is a disarming combination of esoteric philosophical jargon and the kind of alliterative rhetoric more commonly heard from the pulpit than the podium. His style can get overly elaborate. “Emerson is more than a mediocre man of letters or a meteoric man of lectures,” he writes in his book on pragmatism. In “Sex and Suicide,” an essay from his collection “Prophetic Fragments,” West resorts to a frenetic existential lyricism: “We are impelled into a pulsating world of surfaces, seeking to secure some vitality and vigor for our desperate selves.”

If West’s prose is sometimes vague, the direction of his thought has been consistent from the start. His first book, “Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity” (written when he was 26), was an ambitious exercise in theoretical shorthand. Ostensibly an attempt to synthesize an Afro-American philosophy from such disparate sources as the Marxist theoreticians Georg Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci, the mainstays of modern philosophy (Descartes, Bacon, Hume) and black American writers from W. E. B. Du Bois to Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, “Prophesy Deliverance!” strives to be nothing less than a comprehensive anatomy of race and class in American civilization. A study of corporate and political power elites, it is also a work of cultural criticism, an effort to supply Afro-American thought with a critical framework. The book originated as a series of lectures at a black inner-city church in Brooklyn, which may account for its improvisational feel. Even West concedes that in spite of its lingering influence among some theologists and socialists, it “didn’t work.”

West’s next book, “The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism,” developed an insight that had been central to his first: that “philosophy is inextricably bound to culture, society and history.” American pragmatism, West claims – whether found in the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson or in Charles Sanders Peirce, who originated the term – is less a search for eternal truths than a “continuous cultural commentary or set of interpretations that attempt to explain America to itself.”

“Prophetic pragmatism,” West’s coinage for his own brand of philosophy, “is simply an attempt to revive a grand yet flawed tradition, a rapprochement between the best of liberalism, populism and democratic socialism that takes race, class and gender seriously.” West wants us to study our own indigenous philosophical tradition, enriching it with the work of classical European sociologists – Marx, Durkheim, Weber – rather than simply relying on the latest theoretical fashions from Paris.

For West, philosophy isn’t an abstract discipline; it’s a polemical weapon that, in his own words, “attempts to transform linguistic, social, cultural and political traditions for the purposes of increasing the scope of individual development and democratic operations.” In plain language, West is challenging his readers – and not just intellectuals, but ordinary citizens – to become involved in the decision-making process. “We cannot talk seriously about individuality and democracy without acknowledging that there’s a constituency for whom these terms simply aren’t meaningful now,” he says.

For all its imprecision, West’s idiosyncratic formulation has struck a chord. Writing in The Nation, the black philosopher K. Anthony Appiah described the book as “a powerful call for philosophy to play its role in building a radical democracy in alliance with the wretched of the earth” and called its author “the pre-eminent African-American intellectual of our generation.” Richard J. Bernstein, chairman of the philosophy department at the New School for Social Research, also found merit in his argument. “Cornel’s prophetic project is helping us recover a sense of purpose,” Bernstein says. “He is trying to do for our time what Dewey did for his.”

The annex, down a long flight of stairs on Princeton’s main drag, is the kind of dingy clublike restaurant that you find in many college towns. Professors and graduate students hardly glance at menus before ordering from waitresses who greet them by name. After flirting with a favorite waitress and ordering a mixed fruit cup, veal Parmesan with home fries and a Coke, West addresses himself to an urgent topic: the black community’s problems.

It’s a subject he knows something about. His recent article in Dissent, “Nihilism in Black America: A Danger That Corrodes From Within,” explores “the depths where neither liberals nor conservatives dare to tread, namely, into the murky waters of despair and dread that now flood the streets of black America.” After displaying his familiarity with the standard policy debate – should we fund social-service programs or encourage blacks to help themselves? – West cuts to the sensitive issue of what it feels like to be hopeless and black in America. “Like alcoholism and drug addiction,” he writes, “nihilism is a disease of the soul.” Black despair is far more profound than anyone has been willing to admit. Black suicide, black-on-black violence, short black life expectancy: what the black community is facing is “the monumental eclipse of hope, the unprecedented collapse of meaning, the incredible disregard for human (especially black) life.”

To counter this crisis, West advocates nothing less than a “politics of conversion.” Increased government assistance isn’t enough, he argues; blacks must dig beneath the political discourse of liberalism and address the psychic wounds inflicted by generations of racism. West has no concrete solution; he’s making a plea for blacks to seize their own destiny through “modes of valuation and resistance” that offer “a chance for people to believe that there is hope for the future and a meaning to struggle.” What are these modes? He mentions “love” and “caring,” as well as “new models of collective black leadership” capable of galvanizing the dispirited urban ghettos. The “politics of conversion” is characteristic of West; it’s an existential response to a social problem.

One contribution to the debate about the black community that West finds particularly troubling is Shelby Steele’s “Content of Our Character,” winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, in which the author argues that the psychological hurdles of self-doubt and self-loathing are the root of its problem. West judges Steele to be politically naive. “I don’t think it is so easy to completely extricate ourselves from this country’s racist legacy,” he says. “We must acknowledge the degree to which racism is deeply, deeply seated in Western civilization. Moral power can transcend race, but it does not negate it.

“Shelby’s advice is good only for those already on the right track, which is a very small slice of black folk,” West adds between sips of coffee. “What if I wrote a book claiming my situation was typical? That’s crazy, man. Oh my God! I’d rather be bit in the boogy by a snaggle-toothed bulldog.”

The grandson of a Baptist preacher, Cornel West was born in Tulsa, Okla., on June 2, 1953. West’s parents met at Fisk University, after which his mother became an elementary school teacher (and eventually principal) and his father a civilian Air Force administrator, a job that required the family to move often; they eventually settled in a working-class black neighborhood in Sacramento, Calif. West was a troubled child and, after attacking a pregnant teacher who forced him to salute the flag (he refused in order to protest black Americans’ second-class citizenship), he was suspended for six months and eventually transferred to an accelerated school across town.

It was on reading a biography of Theodore Roosevelt from the local bookmobile that West decided to go to Harvard. “Teddy was very close to me because we both had asthma and would stay awake at night with our backs propped up by a pillow,” West remembers. “But he overcame it, went to Harvard and became a great speaker. So I decided I had to go to Harvard, too, although at 8 I didn’t know exactly what it was.”

The two great influences on West were the Baptist Church and the Black Panthers, whose militant brand of nationalism was popular among young blacks in those days. Cornel was especially moved by the dramatic “testimonials” in which parishioners only two generations from slavery told tales of blacks who had kept their faith through trying times. The Panthers, whose office was near the church, taught West the importance of community-based political action and introduced him to the writings of Marx and the anticolonial philosopher Kwame Nkrumah.

At barely 17, Cornel West had never been East – or even on a plane – when he arrived at Harvard with his father. “When we got there, he said to me, ‘Corn, we’re so proud you got here, but we know it will be hard, so all you need to stay is three C’s and a D,’ which I appreciated because I was pretty scared,” West recalls. At the end of the first semester, during which he took a graduate seminar in Hebrew and had jobs washing dishes and cleaning toilets every day, he received three A’s and an A-.

Martin Kilson, a Harvard government professor, calls West “the most intellectually aggressive and highly cerebral student I have taught in my 30 years here.” A self-styled “left-Hegelian Tillichian,” West was so bothered by the differences between Kant and Hegel’s conceptions of God that he once spontaneously wrote a 50-page paper to reconcile them. He even dreamed about ideas; he used to describe to his roommates violent dreams in which philosophical concepts would take form and battle each other.

West took eight courses each semester as a junior and left Harvard a year early, graduating magna cum laude in Near Eastern languages and literature (he reads biblical Hebrew and Aramaic). He began his Ph.D. at Princeton, then the pre-eminent bastion of orthodox analytic philosophy. But Princeton was also home to Richard Rorty, who was then writing “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” a book that challenged analytic philosophy’s scientific pretensions. West was profoundly influenced by Rorty’s belief in the importance of literature and history for philosophy and by his efforts to revive the tradition of American pragmatism.

Two years later, West returned to Harvard as a Du Bois Fellow. Instead of writing his thesis, he devoted himself to literature. Like any aspiring literary intellectual, West had to write a novel: his was about the dilemma of a black intellectual who wants to write but recognizes that the great riches of the black tradition lie primarily in its music and oratory. The protagonist goes deaf and, unable to hear the music that has sustained him, tries to recapture it with his pen. The novel was never published.

While a Du Bois Fellow, West was married and had a son, Clifton, supporting his family by teaching. (That marriage and a later one both ended in divorce.) “The first thing I ever taught was a class on ‘Antigone,’ in which a student thought I was a janitor and asked me to get more chairs. I brought the chairs in, and when the rest of the class got there, I stood up and started to lecture on Antigone’s famous love song about human beings being so noble on the one hand and so cruel on the other.”

West’s first job was at Union Theological Seminary. In 1984, he was lured to Yale by a position at the Divinity School, which eventually became a joint appointment with the American studies department. West was one of the few faculty members involved in the clerical workers’ strike as well as in the protest movement to divest Yale of its South African holdings.

While at Yale, West was the American correspondent for Le Monde Diplomatique, and for one semester taught courses on Afro-American thought and American pragmatism at the University of Paris. The experience in Paris was dampened only by the fact that Yale’s administration, angry that West had been arrested in a campus protest, canceled his leave and required him to teach a full load. Determined to honor his commitment, West taught his Yale classes and commuted to Paris nearly every week. The following year he returned to Union and was soon hired by Princeton to revive its Afro-American program.

Navigating his plush black Cadillac Sedan de Ville, the philosopher’s trademark pipe hanging from his mouth, West enjoys trading gossip about the incestuous constellation of New York intellectuals. He values his close connection to New York’s intellectual life, which may be why he turned down the chairmanship of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department. (Henry Louis Gates Jr. accepted the position.) The gentle winding roads of Princeton are deserted this afternoon, and the neighborhood is quiet.

West and his wife have been living in their house only since last fall, and it has a spare quality that reflects his restless mind. The floors are covered by thick white shag carpets. The walls are lined with elaborate African masks and colorful canvases. In the study a stereo and three stacks of cassette tapes, mostly blues and funk, sit on the floor beside a green plastic mail bin full of magazines. Otherwise the room is empty, except for a desk covered by neat stacks of journal articles and manuscripts, and a card table laden with books.

What’s striking is how full-bodied ideas are for West. When he punctuates the discussion with examples from popular culture, he does so with a genuine seriousness of purpose, as if to show that any cultural artifact is a legitimate candidate for scrutiny. In his collection “Prophetic Fragments,” an essay expounding a socialist theory of racism is followed by a piece in which black rap is described as “the last form of transcendence available to young black ghetto dwellers.” Later on, West hustles me into the local Sam Goody’s to buy a tape by the Gap Band, named after three streets in Tulsa: Greenwood, Archer and Pine.

On the way there, he talks about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, his idol as a student at Harvard. I ask why Wittgenstein, one of the least worldly philosophers of the 20th century, was a hero for an 18-year-old black socialist. “He believed that to really engage in philosophical inquiry means that your very life is at stake,” West says in a whisper.

He lets that sink in, then tells me a story he came across in Ray Monk’s recent biography of Wittgenstein. As a schoolteacher in a tiny Austrian village, the philosopher had indulged a penchant for corporal punishment. Years later, tormented by guilt, he tracked down and apologized to each of the students whom he’d abused. West acts out the entire scene, playing both parts: “Wittgenstein? Yeeaahh, I remember you. You were that cat who was always slapping us around. But that was 20 years ago, man, what the hell are you doing here?!” West clasps his hands in mock prayer, speaking with a heavy German accent over his Southern lilt. “I have come to apologize for my abominable behavior,” West-as-Wittgenstein begs with high Viennese seriousness, before disintegrating into a throaty laugh.

Princeton may seem an odd place for the most promising Afro-American studies program in the country. In this genteel enclave of power and prestige, one thinks more of exclusive eating clubs and F. Scott Fitzgerald than of Afro-American studies, but West assures me this is the “new” Princeton, whose open-minded professors are eager to integrate the program into its curriculum. The faculty associated with it is a distinguished group and includes the novelist Toni Morrison, the historian Nell Painter and Arnold Rampersad, the biographer of Langston Hughes. “We are a critical mass with links throughout the university that actually brings intellectual issues to life by examining questions other disciplines focus on, but in light of the history of black Americans,” West says. “To do this you must be part of the wider conversation.”

Toni Morrison is convinced the program has become Princeton’s intellectual center. “Afro-American studies is on the cutting edge of issues being debated around the world,” she says. “Cornel shows us how the academy ought to work. He uses his powerful intellect as a harvester, not a weapon. Instead of carving out a small place for himself, he makes this place bigger.”

Despite West’s popularity, the question nags: Is he too inclusive? Has he tried to be all things to all people? A public intellectual who makes incursions (West’s word) into a variety of disciplines and causes will always be found wanting by specialists who confine themselves to one. This is a price West is willing to pay. But at what point does a position that tries to accommodate so many disparate voices dissipate its authority? It’s too early to know. The kind of speculative, wide-ranging synthesis West hopes to achieve may well be simply beyond the reach of such a young man. He is incredibly learned for someone his age; but so far, the voices of his intellectual heroes speak too loudly in his work. In a sense, the real prophetic voice of Cornel West has yet to be heard.

Night has fallen over Princeton. Cornel West straightens the vest of his three-piece suit, loosens his tie and offers me a glass of white wine. West’s study is clouded over from countless refills of Captain Black pipe tobacco. He rests his hand on a pile of books accumulated during our five-hour conversation. My head hurts. West, unfazed, is talking about his affinity with the early Marx who, in his “Theses on Feuerbach,” was obsessed with “making the world philosophical.”

“He is talking about philosophy making the world more morally and politically acceptable for the flourishing of human individuality,” says West, hanging on the last word, “and the world itself changing in light of ideas and their consequences, which is a deep, deep pragmatist cum Marxist formulation.”

Is that West’s own ambition? “I don’t think I have actually written a substantive text yet, and perhaps I won’t write anything really profound until I am 45 and am on my 10th book,” he says wistfully. “But if you have the kind of calling I do, there is a sense that if you don’t keep teaching and writing, you’ll just explode.”

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