Authors: Cornel West

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American philosopher

Identity: African American

Author Works


Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, 1982

Prophetic Fragments, 1988

The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, 1989

Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, 1991 (with Bell Hooks)

The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, 1991

Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism, 1993 (2 volumes)

Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America, 1993

Race Matters, 1993

Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, 1995 (with Michael Lerner; revised as Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America, 1996)

The Future of the Race, 1996 (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America, 1997 (Kelvin Shawn Sealey, editor)

The Future of American Progressivism: An Initiative for Political and Economic Reform, 1998 (with Roberto Mangabeira Unger)

The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads, 1998 (with Sylvia Ann Hewlett)

The Cornel West Reader, 1999

The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country, 2000 (with Gates)

Cornel West: A Critical Reader, 2001 (George Yancy, editor)

Edited Texts:

Theology in America: Detroit II Conference Papers, 1982 (with Caridad Guidote and Margaret Coakley)

Post-Analytic Philosophy, 1985 (with John Rajchman)

Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, 1991

White Screens, Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side, 1994 (with James Snead and Colin MacCabe)

Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 1996 (with Jack Salzman and David Lionel Smith)

Struggles in the Promised Land: Towards a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States, 1997 (with Jack Salzman)

The Courage to Hope: From Black Suffering to Human Redemption, 1999 (with Quinton Hosford Dixie)

Taking Parenting Public: The Case for a New Social Movement, 2002 (with Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Nancy Rankin)


Cornel Ronald West, the son of civilian Air Force administrator Clifton L. West, Jr., and his wife, Irene Bias West, a schoolteacher, had, before his fortieth birthday, established himself firmly among the leading public intellectuals in the United States. Both in his writing and in public appearances that are marked by his riveting charisma, West provokes thought, reaction, and controversy.{$I[AN]9810001569}{$I[A]West, Cornel}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;West, Cornel}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;West, Cornel}{$I[tim]1953;West, Cornel}

Cornel West

(Courtesy of West)

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, West was graduated from Harvard University magna cum laude in 1973. Princeton University awarded him the master’s degree in 1975 and the Ph.D. in 1980. He began his teaching career as an assistant professor of philosophy at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, with which he was affiliated from 1977 to 1983 and again in 1988. Between 1984 and 1987 West taught at the Yale University Divinity School. He was professor of religion and director of African American studies at Princeton University from 1989 to 1994, then professor of religion and African American studies at Harvard from 1994. In 2002 he returned to Princeton as the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion as part of a highly publicized exodus from the Harvard African American studies department precipitated by differences between the faculty and the university’s president.

West is noted for the development of a form of pragmatism he has labeled “prophetic pragmatism.” Much affected by his association at Princeton with Richard Rorty, perhaps the most significant living pragmatic philosopher in the United States, West, in The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, has taken Rorty’s approach further than Rorty was able or willing to do. Realizing that Rorty, generally praised for his antifoundationalism, his rejection of human cruelty, and his support of pluralism, is conservative in his calculatedly ethnocentric views, West cautions obliquely that Rorty’s views and his new pragmatism are not without pitfalls. West’s work, deeply rooted in both Christianity and Marxism, out of which grows his vigorous moral philosophy, establishes a new kind of morality, much of it based upon traditional ideas that have endured for centuries. In Race Matters, for example, West calls for people of different ethnicities to arrive at a meeting of the minds and to bring about change through coalescing their ideas rather than through polar opposition.

His earlier Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity and Prophetic Fragments both created a new context within which to view black liberation theology. In these works and in Race Matters, West postulates theories regarding the redistribution of wealth for the common good, a Marxist notion that has made West highly controversial. The titles of the individual essays in Race Matters suggest the scope of West’s interests: “Nihilism in Black America,” “The Pitfalls of Racial Reasoning,” “The Crisis of Black Leadership,” “Demystifying the New Black Conservatism,” “Beyond Affirmative Action: Equality and Identity,” “On Black-Jewish Relations,” “Black Sexuality: The Taboo Subject,” and “Malcolm X and Black Rage.” Not only do the titles of these essays illustrate West’s range, but they suggest as well the direction of his future work. The essays in Race Matters are marked by keen, clear-cut reasoning. West is ever the skillful logician capable of applying the fundamental processes of pure reason to current problems relating to race. If one has any quibble with this tactic, which serves West extremely well, it might be that the underlying foundation of much of his logic is deductive rather than inductive. Reasoning from such a base often results in a dogmatic absolutism rather than in a liberating relativism.

In his collaboration with Michael Lerner, Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, West examines the tensions between blacks and Jews. The authors postulate building accords that will eradicate such tensions. In the 1996 revised edition of this book, newly titled Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America, the authors introduce a valuable new perspective into their original work.

West’s writing consistently addresses with impressive intellectual vigor matters relating to racism, sexism, socialism, Eurocentrism, and multiculturalism. His collaboration with Bell Hooks (who deliberately uses all lowercase letters in the spelling of her name), Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, deals with these topics and comments cogently on black culture in America today. West and Hooks not only raise questions rooted in philosophy, sociology, economics, and theology, but also address matters of fashion and the arts within the black community. In this book they demonstrate their genuine compassion for the downtrodden and reveal their concern for improving the lots of such people.

Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America examines the intellectual life of African Americans in the United States. It focuses on politics and government as they affect the lives of blacks and seems at times prophetic, given the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King police brutality trial and the outcome of the 1995 O. J. Simpson trial.

Additional ReadingAllen, Norm R., Jr. “The Crisis of the Black Religious Intellectual.” Free Inquiry 14 (Summer, 1994): 9-10. Allen discusses Stephen L. Carter and West, two significant black intellectuals whose orientation is religious. Both believe that for society to survive and progress, faith in God is crucial. They assess modern culture and past history from religious perspectives. Allen contends that their doing so limits their intellectual depth. He especially faults them for their insistence that their religious texts are absolute, sacred texts that should be accepted unconditionally.Anderson, Jervis. “The Public Intellectual.” The New Yorker 69 (January 17, 1994): 39-46. Anderson acknowledges West’s appeal to young people. He cautions that despite his popular acceptance, West is viewed by many of his professional colleagues as superficial in his writing and thinking and so broad in the generalizations he makes as to compromise many of his philosophical conclusions.Appiah, K. Anthony. “A Prophetic Pragmatism.” The Nation 250 (April 9, 1990): 496-498. In this extensive review of The American Evasion of Philosophy, Appiah relates Rorty’s attempts to come to an improved understanding of American philosophy to Hegel’s attempts at the beginning of the eighteenth century to understand the past of philosophy in protonationalistic terms. He shows how West, whom he suggests may be the preeminent African American intellectual of his generation, strongly influenced by Rorty’s thinking, combines cultural theory and the black community, showing the progressive potential of the black church. Appiah notes that West, like Rorty, considers Dewey the preeminent pragmatist in Western society.Berube, Michael. “Public Academy.” The New Yorker 70 (January 9, 1995): 73-80. In this article, Berube pays special attention to West, bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, and Derrick Bell. He comments on the fact that current African American intellectuals, unlike those of the past, have gained recognition as important critics of current culture; they have done so by participating in talk shows and in gatherings at various centers for black popular culture. He portrays the subjects of his articles as intellectuals who are neither stifled by scholarly tradition nor characterized by remoteness from the public.Cowan, Rosemary. Cornel West: The Politics of Redemption. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. An introduction to West’s works and philosophy, especially as they relate to contemporary politics and sociology.Johnson, Clarence Shole. Cornel West and Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2002. A comprehensive examination of West’s philosophy from his conceptions of pragmatism, existentialism, Marxism, and Prophetic Christianity to his writings on black-Jewish relations, affirmative action, and the role of black intellectuals.Nichols, John. “Cornel West.” The Progressive 61 (January, 1997: 26-29. In his extended interview with West, Nichols broaches questions about radical democracy, about whose future West is pessimistic. West calls on political progressives to respect the religious concerns of African Americans. He is not optimistic about the substantive help they might receive from the Democratic Party, despite black support of that party in the 1996 elections.West, Cornel. “Cornel West.” Interview by John Nichols. The Progressive 61 (January, 1997: 26-29. In this extended interview, Nichols broaches questions about radical democracy, about the future of which West is pessimistic. West calls on political progressives to respect the religious concerns of African Americans.White, Jack E. “Philosopher with a Mission.” Time 141 (June 7, 1993): 60-62. White pays special attention to West’s Race Matters, identifying West as an intellectual and a rising civil rights leader. In Race Matters, West considers the status of race relations in the United States as the twentieth century draws to a close. West calls for an end to racism, sexism, and homophobia.Wood, Mark David. Cornel West and the Politics of Prophetic Pragmatism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Evaluates and critiques the political consequences of West’s pragmatic philosophy.Yancy, George, ed. Cornel West: A Critical Reader. Cambridge Mass.: Blackwell, 2001. A collection of eighteen essays on the philosopher and academician. West is considered an important intellectual figure in African American studies and in the world of critical thinking.
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