An American philosopher, Cornel West (born 1953) quickly won recognition as a critic of culture, an interpreter of African American experience, an advocate of social justice, and an analyst of Post-Modern art and philosophy.
Cornel West, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1953, lived most of his childhood and youth in segregated working-class neighborhoods in Oklahoma, Kansas, and California. In high school he excelled in scholarship and athletics. He earned his A.B. at Harvard University, then completed his doctorate in philosophy at Princeton in 1980. While a graduate student, he was a teaching assistant in humanities and ethics at Harvard and in philosophy at Princeton.
In 1977 he joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York, teaching classical and contemporary philosophy. From 1984 to 1987 he taught at the Yale University Divinity School, then returned to Union in 1987-1988. In 1988 Princeton University tapped him to be the director of its African American Studies Program and as professor of religion. In the former program he drew together a multi-disciplinary group of literary artists and scholars who interpreted the African American experience in history and literature.
West earned an early reputation as a scholar of infectious enthusiasm, sharp insight, and wide-ranging interests. Within a decade of earning his doctorate, he accepted visiting appointments at Barnard College, Williams College, Princeton Theological Seminary, Haverford College, City University of New York (Center for Worker Education), Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Paris. In addition, he lectured at more than a hundred colleges and universities in the United States. He taught philosophy to inmates of a federal prison, an unusual distinction for an academic philosopher. Within the same decade he produced dozens of essays and reviews, published in books and in journals, both scholarly and popular.
In an age of scholarly specialization, West cultivated widely diverse interests. His nimble mind danced from one subject to another with dazzling virtuosity. On one side of his thought he was a social philosopher, drawing much from the Marxist tradition but uninhibited by allegiance to any Marxist orthodoxies. His scholarship was closely related to active involvement in movements for social and racial justice. He was simultaneously an interpreter of African American experience to white Americans, of American philosophy to Europeans, of democratic beliefs to South Africans, of religious insights to secularists, and of secular themes to the religious. As a philosopher, he showed special interest in pragmatism, Post-Modern thought, and philosophy of religion. His artistic interests included literature (he had published one short story and friends predicted that he would write a novel), opera (he was seen occasionally at Salzburg), cinema (he was a fellow at the British Film Institute), and architecture (he lectured at the School of Architecture at Milan, Italy).
The unifying center for these diverse interests was a concern for cultural criticism: intellectual, esthetic, ethical, and religious. Whatever area of human interest he entered, from the arts to the most technical philosophy, he soon related to its expressions in contemporary society and its meaning for human self-understanding and justice. West appreciated culture as an expression of human creativity; he also saw that culture often oppresses human beings, especially marginalized people. He united intellectual analysis and social involvement, scholarship and action, the academic world and political life.
Even as he boldly acknowledged his roots in the African American church, West made trenchant criticisms of religious belief and practice, and he asked no favoritism for religion in the intellectual discussions of universities and society. He drew inspiration from the prophetic tradition of the Bible, and the words "prophetic" and "prophecy" appear often in his writings.
West was an eloquent lecturer, whose lithe and energetic body was totally involved in the torrent of words and ideas that tumbled from his mouth. He asked his listeners not only to hear what he said, but to enter into his thought processes and share his enthusiasms or generate their own thoughts and enthusiasms. His speaking style was symbolic of his convictions, which rejected the divorce of body from mind, of emotion from intellect, characteristic of much philosophy since Descartes. In a time when many philosophers would be horrified to be called preachers, West (although not an ordained minister) was not embarrassed to preach an occasional sermon. For him a passion for social justice was as intellectually respectable and demanding as the most rigorous intellectual analysis of propositions, and the two were never far apart in his philosophy.
West wrote and co-authored numerous books on philosophy, race and sociology. His Race Matters won a Critics Choice Award and was listed as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1992. Other works included Keeping the Faith: Philosophy and Race in American (1993) and Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (1995), co-authored with Michael Lerner. In 1996 he co-authored The Future of Race with his Harvard colleague, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
West was a frequent guest lecturer on university campuses nationwide. He joined the Harvard Faculty in 1994 as professor of Religion and African American Studies. During the 1996 Fall Semester he was a visiting professor at the University of Arizona. West was a featured speaker during the 1997 Martin Luther King, Jr./ Human Rights Week Celebration at Boise State University. At Harvard, West was known for his electrifying presentations that inspired students to critically analyze their own beliefs on race, culture, and class. Gates once described West as "the pre-eminent African American intellectual of our generation."
Further Reading on Cornel West
West's first book was Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982). He co-edited Post-Analytic Philosophy (1985), a collection of essays by numerous scholars. Prophetic Fragments (1988) is a gathering of some 50 of West's essays and reviews. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism by West (1989), is a study of an America n intellectual tradition. Out There: Marginalities and Contemporary Culture, co-edited by West (1990), explores artistic interests. Jervis Anderson interviews West in The New Yorker (Jan 17, 1994). Critical reviews of West's work can be found in major newspapers and magazines such as Time. Campus newspapers where West was a guest speaker provide information on current interests and social causes.