Cornel West on the Academy, Activism, and the Purpose of Philosophy

Cornel West on the Academy, Activism, and the Purpose of Philosophy

Grace Nkem

Grace Nkem

The following is a transcript of an interview by Samuel Sugerman with Union Theological Seminary professor Cornel West on philosophy in the academy and as a basis for activism. Samuel Sugerman graduated from Columbia College in 2017 with a double major in Philosophy and German Literature & Cultural History. The interview has been transcribed and edited for brevity and clarity by Nicholas Andes.

The Gadfly: Professor West, it’s really an honor to be interviewing you for The Gadfly. I’d like to begin by asking what first interested you in philosophy; for example, were you inspired by any particular books or philosophers?

Cornel West: I first encountered Søren Kierkegaard when I was fourteen years old in the book mobile on the chocolate side of Sacramento, California.  He saw my soul – from there he opened me to Hegel. At the same time, I had the Black Panther party right next door to my church, Shilo Baptist Church, and they were reading a lot of Franz Fanon and Karl Marx. I started out reading those texts, and there’s no doubt that Kierkegaard and Marx were two of the initial towering figures who shaped me.

From there I went to Harvard College, during the golden age of academic philosophy at Harvard.  We had people like W.V. Quine, John Rawls, Stanley Cavell, Robert Nozick, Hilary Putnam, Nelson Goodman, Israel Scheffler, and so on.  I had the time of my life, I really did.  From there I went to Princeton. Again, my God! Thomas Nagel, Thomas Kuhn, Walter Kaufman, Richard Rorty, Sheldon Wolin – it’s hard to encounter philosophers at such a high level of excellence.  At Boston College I took a course for one year with Hans Georg Gadamer, who’s probably one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, the student of Heidegger. I have been so very blessed to have teachers of that caliber, and I try to find my voice alongside all of those influences.

You don’t simply enact ethics outside the academy, as the academy itself is a slice of the world.

G: You mentioned that you started reading philosophy at a time when you were also deeply engaged in the church and various political activities. Do you think that a tension exists between the speculative nature of philosophy and more active forms of sociopolitical engagement?

CW: I think there’s always a tension between more solitary modes of intellectual engagement and more activist modes, and I have a great appreciation for both. I’m glad that John Rawls stayed in his office and wrote A Theory of Justice – he didn’t need to be on the street. He’s very soft spoken, a man of quiet dignity.  It relates to the different temperaments that different people had.  Hillary Putnam, for example, was quite an activist.  He was a Marxist in his early years.  He’s on the street, but also writing articles about the philosophy of quantum mechanics.  Noam Chomsky’s the same way. He’s probably the greatest genius in the history of linguistics, writing texts that very few people with whom he marches would ever read.  He goes back and forth between the two modes.  It depends on your temperament, depends on your calling.  Some people are very inclined toward the academic, ivory tower calling.  And that can be a beautiful thing – you have to be true to who you are. I knew that my calling included both.

G: When someone’s philosophical inclinations have practical implications – as is the case, for example, with strong ethical beliefs – do you think that it is hypocritical to remain in a purely academic setting, and not attempt to effect change in the real world? Or is it just a matter of following one’s calling?

CW: You need to keep in mind that the academy is part of the real world.  If you’re trying to be a good person, that means being a good person in your office with students, being a good person in faculty meetings, being a good person in the larger academic context of the profession. You don’t simply enact ethics outside the academy, as the academy itself is a slice of the world. So though you may not make it to the streets, that’s all right – there’s a whole lot of situations inside the academy that deal with operations of power, with conflict and what have you, that will test what kind of human being you are. So while they might not call it “activism” because it’s not outside the academy, there’s a great deal of activity in the academy where you’re required to be a certain type of ethical person.

Ultimately, we’re all in the classroom to be challenged, to be unsettled, to be unnerved and unhoused.  And therefore, to be Socratic is, in fact, to be like a gadfly.

G: Since you choose to remain a teacher in academic settings despite having these exterior engagements, you must see some value in teaching the next generation. What inspires you to teach a new batch of students each year?

CW: Well, for one, the fundamental commitment to the life of the mind and the world of ideas.  And to be able to both learn from and listen to the younger generation, but also to pass on to the younger generation so much of what has been passed on to me –what I’ve learned from my teachers at Harvard and Princeton, but also what I’ve learned in the streets and from the jails and so on. So in that sense it’s really quite an honor and a privilege to be inside of and be a part of the academy.

G: Do you have a particular pedagogical approach to that transmission of knowledge, particularly in the context of teaching philosophy?  Following from the Socratic tradition, philosophy instruction is often less top-down than instruction in other disciplines; the objective is to foster inquiry on the part of the student, which perhaps can’t be “taught” in a simple sense of the word.  Are you a believer in that approach? How do you see your role as a teacher of philosophy in the classroom?

CW: I do believe in Socratic sensibility. I wouldn’t call it a method; I’d just call it a way of life.  That’s why I don’t believe in safe zones. I think that in each class you should respect everyone, and everyone’s positions, but ultimately we’re all in that classroom to be challenged, to be unsettled, to be unnerved and unhoused.  And therefore, to be Socratic is, in fact, to be like a gadfly. What does a gadfly do? It injects people with perplexity and curiosity. No one of us has definitive answers, it’s an endless search for truth and knowledge. And that cuts across politics, ideology, race, gender, national boundaries, sexual orientation, and anything else.  Now that’s the ideal, and whether we always pull it off is an open question. But that’s what we’re all about. So it seems to me that when we talk about transmitting traditions, we’re not talking about transmitting ideologies; rather, we’re transmitting traditions of open-ended, robust, critical conversation and inquiry in our quest for truth. And this can be found in many places: it could be in Heschel, Plato, Aristotle, Du Bois, Toni Morrison, or Stephen Sondheim for that matter. I’d love to teach a course on Sondheim and musical theater, another genius to reckon with! But that’s my own pedagogical orientation.

G: So how does the teacher inspire the student to engage in this critical inquiry? Or does the student already need this inclination to get to the point where he can learn from a teacher?

CW: There are two levels. One is inspiration, the other is the commitment to interpretation.  The inspiration comes from sheer example; when I was in Hilary Putnam’s class at Harvard for instance, he was on fire for the subject matter, and I was inspired by his example.  But then I had to deal with his interpretations, given his expertise and so forth. Even though he was the only genius in the room, we had our own critical responses to him, and we thought that he was not right on some points. He was that kind of great teacher: inspiring on the one hand, and open to different interpretations on the other hand.  Stanley Cavell was exactly the same, in the way he fostered that Socratic tradition of questioning and robust conversation. There’s nothing like it – that’s the tradition I want to pass on. Which is why I want right wing, centrist, and left wing folks all in the class wrestling with the texts, which are of course, always bigger than we are. 

We have to create these discursive terrains where a variety of different modes of doing philosophy can flower and flourish.

G: Do you see the study of philosophy as something subversive, calling into question past truths in the name of seeking the ultimate truth? Or do you reject this notion of a final truth or, as you say, interpretation?

CW: It’s an endless search, always incomplete, unfinished.  But yes, there’s a certain intellectual integrity that goes all the way back to Socrates – it means that you follow where the arguments and insights go, you really do. Philo-sophia, the love of wisdom, is something very, very real in one’s life. It’s also tied to a love of beauty, a love of justice, a love of neighbor; all of those for me go hand in hand. That’s what it really means to respond to the call of being a philosopher in the etymological sense of the word.  And to recognize that we’re all going to land in different places, different traditions, conclusions, dispositions and orientations.  But in the end, somebody’s right and wrong, there’s no sophomoric relativism here. 

G: You’ve mentioned several literary and artistic figures in this interview that wouldn’t necessarily receive much attention in philosophy departments today. You’ve talked about a split that occurred in the early modern period of philosophy between Descartes and Vico; Descartes aligned philosophy with physics, while Vico aligned philosophy with poetry. You’ve said that the approach of Descartes has won out. How does that influence philosophical education today? Do you think philosophy needs to be “re-poeticized”? 

CW: I believe in pluralism when it comes to various paradigms that are out there. I’m glad that analytical philosophy – the inheritor of the Cartesian tradition you described – is around, I just don’t think it ought to be hegemonic. You surely can’t talk about 20th century philosophy without talking about Frege and Russell, Peter Strawson, and a host of other towering figures in analytic philosophy. But I don’t want them to become so predominant that we lose sight of continental philosophy, that we lose sight of what Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and so many other non-analytical philosophers have to say. I was trained primarily by analytic philosophers, but I’m also tied to my dear brother Richard Rorty, who was such a critic of analytic philosophy even though he was shaped by it too. I’m deeply tied to Hillary Putnam, who is very much exemplary of analytic philosophy but also quite critical of it. We have to create these discursive terrains where a variety of different modes of doing philosophy can flower and flourish.

G: Do you think it can be difficult for students to wrestle with these various different approaches to the discipline of philosophy?  When there are such strong debates about what philosophy is, isn’t it difficult to be a student of the discipline?

CW: That’s exactly right, but that’s also part and parcel of what it means to be educated in philosophy. The debate over what philosophy is, the meta-philosophical debate, is a philosophical debate. There’s no escape. Aristotle says that the attempt to abstain from philosophy is itself to philosophize! People have been calling for the “End of Philosophy” for centuries, but to do what? To generate a new philosophical discourse about why philosophy is no longer needed.  So, again, there’s no escape.

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