Cornel West

From New World Encyclopedia

Western Philosophers
20th-century philosophy
Name: Cornel Ronald West
Birth: June 2 1953 (1953-06-02) (age 71)
School/tradition: Pragmatism, Marxism, Existentialism
Main interests
Democracy, Race, Philosophy of religion, Ethics
Notable ideas
Race Matters, Democracy Matters
Influences Influenced
Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Cone, Karl Marx, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Søren Kierkegaard, Herman Melville, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Richard Rorty, William James, John Dewey Gordon L. Anderson

Cornel Ronald West (born June 2, 1953) is an African American scholar, public intellectual, sociologist, critic, pastor, and civil rights activist. Formerly a professor at Harvard University, West became a professor of Religion and director of African American Studies at Princeton after a public falling out with then-President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers in 2001.

West is known for his combination of political and moral insight and criticism, and his contribution to the post-1960s civil rights movement. The bulk of his work focuses upon the role of race, gender, and class in American society and the means by which people act and react to their “radical conditionedness.” West draws intellectual contributions from such diverse traditions as the African American Baptist Church, Marxism, pragmatism, transcendentalism, and Anton Chekhov. [1] While drawing on the Marxist tradition, West does not embrace Marxism due to its rejection of religion.


West was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma.[2] The grandson of a Baptist preacher, West marched as a young man in civil rights demonstrations and organized protests demanding black studies courses at his high school. West later wrote that, in his youth, he admired "the sincere black militancy of Malcolm X, the defiant rage of the Black Panther Party […] and the livid black theology of James Cone."[3]

After graduating from John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento, California, where he served as president of his high school class, he enrolled at Harvard University at age 17. He took classes from philosophers Robert Nozick and Stanley Cavell, graduating in three years, magna cum laude in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization in 1973. He was determined to press the university and its intellectual traditions into the service of his political agendas and not to have its educational agendas imposed on him. "Owing to my family, church, and the black social movements of the 1960s," he says, "I arrived at Harvard unashamed of my African, Christian, and militant de-colonized outlooks. More pointedly, I acknowledged and accented the empowerment of my black styles, mannerisms, and viewpoints, my Christian values of service, love, humility, and struggle, and my anti-colonial sense of self-determination for oppressed people and nations around the world."

He earned a Ph.D. in 1980 from Princeton, where he was influenced by Richard Rorty's pragmatism. He later published his dissertation (completed in 1980) as The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought.

In his mid-twenties, he returned to Harvard as a Du Bois fellow before becoming an assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1985 he went to Yale Divinity School in what eventually became a joint appointment in American studies. While at Yale, he participated in campus protests for a clerical union and divestment from apartheid South Africa, one of which resulted in his getting arrested and jailed. As punishment, the university administration cancelled his leave for Spring 1987, leading him to commute between Yale (where he was teaching two classes) and the University of Paris.

He then returned to Union and taught at Haverford College for one year before going to Princeton to become a professor of religion and director of the Program in African American Studies, which he revitalized in cooperation with such scholars as novelist Toni Morrison. He served as director of the program from 1988 to 1994.

West then accepted an appointment as professor of African-American studies at Harvard University, with a joint appointment at the Divinity School. West taught one of the university's most popular courses, an introductory class on African-American studies. In 1998 he was appointed the first Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, a position that placed him among a select two dozen professors at the university and freed him from departmental boundaries. West used this freedom to teach not only in African-American studies but in divinity, religion, and in philosophy (where he co-taught a course on American pragmatism with Hilary Putnam).

In 2001, after a public row with Harvard president Lawrence Summers, West returned to Princeton, where he has taught since.[4]

The recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees and an American Book Award,[1] he is a longtime member of the Democratic Socialists of America, for which he now serves as Honorary Chair. He is also a co-chair of the Tikkun Community and the Network of Spiritual Progressives. West is a board member of the International Bridges to Justice, among others. West is also much sought-after as a speaker, blurb-writer, and honorary chair.

Critics, most notably The New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, have charged him with opportunism, crass showmanship and lack of scholarly seriousness.

West remains a widely cited scholar in the popular press, in African-American studies, and in studies of black theology, although his work as an academic philosopher has been almost completely ignored (with the exception of his early history of American pragmatism, The American Evasion of Philosophy).

Cornel West is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc, the oldest fraternity established for African American undergraduates.

He is married to Elleni Gebre Amlak, and has one son, Clifton Louis.


West describes himself as a "non-Marxist socialist" (partly due to Marx's opposition to religion) and serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, which he has described as "the first multiracial, socialist organization close enough to my politics that I could join." He also described himself as a "radical democrat, suspicious of all forms of authority" on the Matrix-themed documentary The Burly Man Chronicles (Found in The Ultimate Matrix Collection).

West has made plain his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He asserts that the Bush Administration is peopled with "hawks" who "are not simply conservative elites and right-wing ideologues," but rather are "evangelical nihilists–drunk with power and driven by grand delusions of American domination of the world." "We are experiencing the sad gangsterization of America," he adds, "an unbridled grasp at power, wealth and status." Viewing capitalism as the root cause of these alleged American lusts, West warns, "Free-market fundamentalism trivializes the concern for public interest. It puts fear and insecurity in the hearts of anxiety-ridden workers. It also makes money-driven, poll-obsessed elected officials deferential to corporate goals of profit—often at the cost of the common good."

West has been involved with such projects as the Million Man March and Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit, and worked with such public figures as Louis Farrakhan[2] and Al Sharpton, whose 2004 presidential campaign West advised.

In 2000 West worked as a senior advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley. When Bradley lost in the primaries, West became a prominent endorser of Ralph Nader, even speaking at some Nader rallies. Some Greens sought to draft West to run as a presidential candidate in 2004. West declined, citing his active participation in the Al Sharpton campaign. West, along with other prominent Nader 2000 supporters, signed the "Vote to Stop Bush" statement urging progressive voters in swing states to vote for John Kerry, despite strong disagreements with many of Kerry's policies.

In April 2002 West and Rabbi Michael Lerner performed civil disobedience at the U.S. State Department "in solidarity with suffering Palestinian and Israeli brothers and sisters." West said, "We must keep in touch with the humanity of both sides."[5] In May 2007 West joined a demonstration against "injustices faced by the Palestinian people resulting from the Israeli occupation" and "to bring attention to this 40 year travesty of justice."

Cornel West publicly showed his support for the 2008 Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama when he spoke to over 1,000 of his supporters at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC on November 29, 2007.[6]

Views on race in America

West has branded the U.S. a "racist patriarchal" nation where "white supremacy" continues to define everyday life. "White America," he writes, "has been historically weak-willed in ensuring racial justice and has continued to resist fully accepting the humanity of blacks." This has resulted, he claims, in the creation of many "degraded and oppressed people [who are] hungry for identity, meaning, and self-worth." Professor West attributes most of the black community's problems to "existential angst derive[d] from the lived experience of ontological wounds and emotional scars inflicted by white supremacist beliefs and images permeating U.S. society and culture."[7]

In West's view, the September 11, 2001 attacks gave white Americans a glimpse of what it means to be a black person in the United States–feeling "unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated" for who they are.[8] "The ugly terrorist attacks on innocent civilians on 9/11," he said, "plunged the whole country into the blues."[8]

Quarrel with Lawrence Summers

In 2000 economist and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers became president of Harvard. In a private meeting with West, Summers allegedly rebuked West for giving too many high grades in his classes, including A's to undeserving students, and neglecting his scholarship.[9] Summers allegedly suggested that West produce an academic book befitting his professorial position. West had written several books, some of them widely cited, but his recent output consisted primarily of co-written and edited volumes. According to some reports, Summers also objected to West's production of a CD, the critically panned Sketches of My Culture, and to his political campaigning.[10] According to West's book Democracy Matters, Summers wrongly accused him of canceling classes for three straight weeks during 2000 to promote Bill Bradley's presidential campaign. West contends that he had missed one class during his tenure at Harvard "in order to give a keynote address at a Harvard-sponsored conference on AIDS." Lawrence Summers also allegedly suggested that since West held the rank of University Professor and thus reported directly to the President, he should meet with Summers regularly to discuss the progress of his academic production.[11]

Summers refused to comment on the details of his conversation with West, except to express hope that West would remain at Harvard. Soon after, West was hospitalized for prostate cancer. West complained that Summers failed to send him get-well wishes until weeks after his surgery, whereas newly installed Princeton president Shirley Tilghman had contacted him frequently before and after his treatment.[11] In 2002 West left Harvard University to return to Princeton. West lashed out at Summers in public interviews, calling him "the Ariel Sharon of higher education" on NPR's Tavis Smiley Show.


West also serves as co-chair of the Tikkun Community. He co-chaired the National Parenting Organization's Task Force on Parent Empowerment and participated in President Clinton's National Conversation on Race. He has publicly endorsed In These Times magazine by calling it: "The most creative and challenging newsmagazine of the American left." He is also a contributing editor for Sojourners Magazine.

West is noted for his support of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in its Kentucky Fried Cruelty campaign, aimed at eliminating what PETA describes as KFC's inhumane treatment of chickens. West is quoted on PETA flyers: "Although most people don't know chickens as well as they know cats and dogs, chickens are interesting individuals with personalities and interests every bit as developed as the dogs and cats with whom many of us share our lives."

Published works

  • Black Theology and Marxist Thought (1979)
  • 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 (with bell hooks, 1991)
  • The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (1991)
  • Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism (1993)
  • Race Matters (1993)
  • Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (1994)
  • Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America (with rabbi Michael Lerner, 1995)
  • The Future of the Race (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1996)
  • Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America (Edited by Kelvin Shawn Sealey, 1997)
  • The War Against Parents: What We Can Do For America's Beleaguered Moms and Dads (with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, 1998)
  • The Future of American Progressivism (with Roberto Unger, 1998)
  • The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 2000)
  • Cornel West: A Critical Reader (George Yancy, editor) (2001)
  • Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (2004)
  • Commentary on The Matrix, Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions; see The Ultimate Matrix Collection (with Ken Wilber, 2004).
  • Post-Analytic Philosophy, edited with John Rajchman.


All links Retrieved July 20, 2008.

  1. 1.0 1.1 Cornel West. accessdate 2008-01-21
  2. 2.0 2.1 Robert K. Elder, 1998. Harvard Professor can be as controversial as his message. Prisoner of Hope. inFlux. University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. accessdate 2002-01-21
  3. Chapter One: The making of a political radical of African descent. in The Cornel West Reader. [1]. googlebooks. accessdate 2008-02-23
  4. Zachary A. Goldfarb, West to leave Harvard to become University professor of religion. [2]. The Daily Princetonian Daily Princetonian Publishing Company, Inc., 2002-08-12. accessdate 2008-01-21
  5. Penny Rosenwasser, Thoughts on Retrieved July 27, 2008.
  6. Stacy Parker Aab, Obama, Race, and the Right Side of History. [3]. The Huffington News., Inc., 2007-10-30. accessdate 2008-01-21
  7. Cornel West. Race Matters. (Beacon Press, original 1993, 2001. ISBN 978-0807009727), 27
  8. 8.0 8.1 Cornel West. Democracy Matters. (2004, ISBN 014303583), 20
  9. Associated Press Who is Cornel West? [4]. Cable News Network, 2002-01-10. accessdate 2008-01-21
  10. Jacques Steinberg, At Odds With Harvard President, Black-Studies Stars Eye Princeton]. [5]. The New York Times The New York Times Company, New York City, 2001-11-29. accessdate 2008-01-21
  11. 11.0 11.1 Pam Belluck and Jacques Steinberg, Defector Indignant at President of Harvard. [6]. The New York Times, 2002-04-16. accessdate 2008-01-21

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • "Cornel Ronald West." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 33, edited by Ashyia Henderson. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 2004. ISSN 1058-1316
  • Nishikawa, Kinohi. "Cornel West." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature, edited by Hans Ostrom and J. David Macey, Jr., 1714-1718. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0313329722
  • Ward, Thomas. "Cornel West y la política de conversión.'" Resistencia cultural: La nación en el ensayo de las Américas, 344-348. Lima, Universidad Ricardo Palma, 2004. ISSN 0018-2168
  • West, Cornel. The Cornel West Reader. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2000. ISBN 0465091105
  • West, Cornel. Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. Penguin Press, 2004. ISBN 1594200297 (sequel to Race Matters.
  • West, Cornel. “Introduction: The Making of an American Democratic Socialist of African Descent.” In The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought. Monthly Review Press, 1991. ISBN 0853458189
  • West, Cornel. Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America. Routledge, 1994. ISBN 0415910285
  • West, Cornel. Race Matters. New York: Vintage, 1994. ISBN 0679749861 (collection of eight essays.)

External links

All links retrieved April 6, 2022.


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