Introduction In his discussion of Wittgenstein, James C. Edwards writes that there is no such thing as a formula that applies itself, ‘one whose intrinsic meaning is independent of a conventional, public practice’ (AL 163).
The similar point can be made, and probably with less risk of controversy, that the significance of a theory will never be independent of the way people interpret that theory and respond to it. This paper evaluates how one might respond to Cornel West’s ‘Afro-American critical thought.’ First, West’s theory is outlined as it is presented by the theorist himself. Second, the significance of key features of his approach to theory with regard to formulating a response is evaluated.
At the same time, we will assess the importance of those features to any theory which takes society as its field of inquiry. The core of West’s presentation of his Afro-American critical thought contains two elements. First, West provides an account of the history of African-American thought and the historical experience that has shaped it; this account includes West’s assessment of the present situation. He fits these elements of the past and present, intellectual and non-intellectual history of the Afro-American experience within a conceptual framework. He ascribes a particular significance to each element as it falls within this theoretical framework, whether the element is as concrete as the African slave trade, or as academic as the treatment of the ‘ tradition’ in the writings of Sutton Griggs and Charles Chesnutt.
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West’s assessment of each element is in terms of its meaning for the situation of the Afro-American community in the present day. West’s theory is not restricted to an interpretation, however. He presents the aforementioned historical analysis as a description of the present context from which he can draw up a recommendation for changes in existing society. This prescriptive part of West’s theory draws from his historical analysis in two different respects. First, these prescribed changes would aim to alleviate or eliminate the undesirable elements West has identified in the status quo. At the same time, his recommendations for change are the result of his own historically influenced way of thinking.
West explicitly traces the influences which have shaped the ideas his theory contains. The history he has analyzed is also his own history, and the theory he formulates in response is one more element of that history – a product of the factors in the historical progression which preceded it. West has drawn up his theory for a particular purpose, beyond the pursuit of ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake.’ That purpose is intimately connected with the course for social change West has plotted out. The theory West has created is to play a role in bringing about that change; creating that theory is an intellectual action intended on providing ideological support for the prescribed social transformation. West emphasizes that his purpose is not to provide a metaphysical ‘ground’ for the undertaking (PD 15).
He is not attempting to prove that there are objective reasons which would compel any rational agent to pursue West’s own vision.
Rather, he sees himself as involved in the task of creating a ‘ and distinctive discourse which are a material force for Afro-American freedom’ (PD 15).
This description naturally raises two questions as to his meaning. First, what is this ‘ and distinctive discourse’ West seeks to create? Second, how can text and discourse be a ‘material force’ for any kind of change? West clarifies the first question by explaining that the Afro-American critical thought he writes of ‘is a genre of writing, a, a mode of discourse.’ This description reflects the fact that that his intellectual work is not a line of deductive arguments intended to relate the objective truth about its area of inquiry. At the same time, his inquiry is not an amorphous mass of unsupported assertions and allegations. Despite the clear presence of structure and purpose in West’s work, it risks the fate of being ignored by ‘serious’ academics as not rational or rigorous enough. West’s presentation of past and present events is imbued with his interpretation of them, and his inquiry is contiguous with exhortations to social action; these features are particularly distinct from academic standards of theory requiring passive objectivity on the part of the theorist.
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The action West is calling for is so specific, and his advocacy is so impassioned, that it may be seen as belonging in the realm of politics, or even simply ‘activism,’ each more further removed than the last from the more detached, more traditional theoretic activities. Moreover, its prophetic Christian elements have caused academics to categorize West’s works as ‘Religion,’ further insulating it from consideration as serious social critique. How can a work with such obvious bias be considered ‘theory’ when theorists should be seeking objective standards for just and unjust, right and wrong? Arguments raised in other contexts by critical theorists of the Frankfurt school demonstrate that the unusually spiritual and unusually worldly features of West’s theory need not exclude it from secular, philosophical consideration. In fact, consideration of West’s writing in light of the critical theorists’ arguments shows that the very features that may seem to compromise its standing as a theory add to its credibility as a social critique.
Features of Cornel West’s Afro-American Critical Thought To clarify what response is appropriate to West’s project of inquiry, it is first necessary to examine the details of his approach. One striking feature of West’s analysis of his own theory is his extensive examination of the intellectual influences on his inquiry. The central guiding force to his inquiry, West writes, is prophetic Christianity. It is probably the presence of this element, and West’s placement of it in the position of his primary guiding ideology, which has led academics to banish his entire theoretical project to the category of ‘Religion.’ However, the tenets of prophetic Christianity which West aspires to affirm in his hybrid ideology are most familiar from non-religious contexts. Most Christian ideologies emphasize, first, that the primary end of human existence cannot be found in the perceptible world, but is instead an eternal life after physical death. Second, it asserts that the one critical factor in attaining this end is each individual’s acceptance of Jesus Christ as a savior and son of the one true God.
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These two classic pillars of evangelism deserve mention in this paper because they are conspicuously absent from West’s own text. He does not explicitly deny or refute these ideas; however, he also does not include them as part of the vital core of his theory. Instead, the main Christian ideal West has adopted is that ‘every individual regardless of class, country, caste, race, or sex should have the opportunity to fulfill his or her potentialities’ (PD 16).
This ideal may have a familiar ring to those conversant with Marxist thought, which also seeks to remove barriers to human self-realization. West himself brings up Marxism’s emphasis of ‘self-fulfillment, self-development, and self-realization of harmonious personalities’ (PD 16).
West explains this common feature of the two ideologies by writing that some of the central ideals of Marxism were originally appropriated from Christianity, and therefore the ideologies are mutually compatible.
One area of overlap he takes special care to point out is that Christianity calls not only for human fulfillment in the afterlife, but for self-realization in the human world as well. Focusing on this earthly side of self-realization is the step that most firmly connects West’s theory to secular values, and frees it from supernatural religious claims. This ideal of self-realization is closely connected to the ‘norm of individuality’ which West’s ideology has also inherited from Christianity. The norm of individuality imposes an obligation to see that individuality is preserved in any reform of society, and to identify and correct instances of its suppression within existing social structures.
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West writes that this norm ‘conceives persons as enjoyers and agents of their uniquely human capacities.’ The importance of the individual is stressed because the concept of each person having a chance to realize her human capacities requires as a prerequisite that she be provided with the opportunity to achieve such development. This concept is explicitly distinguished from what West calls ‘doctrinaire individualism.’ Rather than focusing on enabling individuals to realize their natural human potential, doctrinaire individualism views them ‘as maximizer’s of pleasure and appropriators of unlimited resources’ (PD 17).
West opposes such values because they promote a conception of a human life characterized by materialistic hedonism and unreflective consumption. The consequence of holding such values would be an idealization of selfishness promising little real gain for the individual, and at the expense of a sense of community. This last point is particularly important to West; he argues that any person’s achievements, including realization of her human potential, cannot occur in an individualistic vacuum, i. e.
in a context that includes only that lone individual. If an individual finds her greatest fulfillment in creating poetry, she will use the words her community has taught her. If she finds herself realized in the act of farming, she will be growing the crops which her community possesses. True self-realization cannot ignore the individual’s ties to her community. West formalizes this assertion by endorsing the ‘Principle of the self-realization of individuality within community.’ West describes two different levels to which this goal of providing all individuals with an opportunity for self -realization can be attained. One might think of it as two sub-goals, one a grander vision than the other.
The lesser of the sub-goals is what West calls ‘penultimate liberation,’ a name clearly meant to evoke its status as a goal to be pursued, but not to be rested on. He describes penultimate liberation as ‘the developmental betterment of humankind, the furtherance of the uncertain quest for human freedom in history’ (PD 18).
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In more general terms, this can be understood as any incremental change in society which decreases the ills West has diagnosed. Penultimate liberation either brings his goals closer within reach, or causes the status quo to more closely resemble the ideal West’s theory proposes.
The phrase ‘penultimate liberation’ naturally implies a higher good beyond itself, however, and this higher good is the final goal of West’s theory: ‘ultimate salvation.’ West continues to keep his ‘prophetic Christian’ ideology clear of the otherworldly and supernatural aspects of Christianity: his ‘ultimate salvation’ does not refer to the salvation of souls for eternity. Nor does it refer to a simple act of throwing off the shackles imposed by a particular class or another. To understand the ideal of ultimate salvation, one must be exposed to West’s idea of the ‘Christian dialectic of human nature and human history.’ This is not identical to the Marxist conception of the progress of history as a dialectical process. Marxism, writes West, describes a dialectic between human practice and human history. The ‘human practice’ in this dialectic of the pure Marxist is entirely determined by cultural and historical context. There are no factors which guarantee that human practice necessarily takes a certain form; it is extremely flexible depending on context.
The Christian dialectic of human nature and human history, on the other hand, ‘stresses the dignity and the depravity of persons.’ From West’s discussion of this idea, one can infer that he considers human nature, with both its good side (dignity) and its dark side (depravity) to be a fairly constant factor. In this way the Christian dialectic is more absolute and less historicist than the Marxist dialectic. West writes that the greater power to transform humanity which traditional Marxism credits to historical forces does not admit the existence of any such thing as a constant human nature. Such a complete malleability of the mode of human existence allows Marxism to predict ‘the eventual perfectability of persons’ as an inevitable human development. More specifically, the selfish human behavior rampant in capitalist society will be replaced, after improvements in social circumstances, by practice more amenable to the selfless production characteristic of individuals in a communist society. It is a Marxist position that holds this perfection of humanity to be an eventual certainty because of humanity’s inevitable evolution toward a communist society which West opposes.
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However, one could easily imagine a more moderate Marxist position in which perfection of human practice is not presumed to be inevitable, but merely possible. Perhaps the capitalist system will develop a stable equilibrium in which generation after generation of citizens are content to struggle within the system, not seeking to question the framework itself. (Many might see this outcome as far more ‘inevitable’ than a victory of Marxism).
One might also question West’s contention that Marxism fails to admit the existence of any type of fixed ‘human nature.’ After all, Marx himself wrote that one of the main reasons to change production to a communist rather than exploitative system is that, ‘I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature’ (KMR 34).
From this statement, and by examining Marx’s further development of the same idea, the reader can observe a Marxist account of societal evolution not grounded, as West contends, on assumptions of the infinite malleability of human character.
Rather, Marx posits certain fundamental human qualities as the conditions which make a communist society both possible and desirable. Even further, this Marxist conception of human nature is well suited to affirm the ‘Principle of the self-realization of individuality within community’ that West seeks to follow in his own intellectual project. This Marxist account connects self-realization within a community to human nature itself. Such an account bears enough similarity to West’s own that one might wonder why West would wish to oppose it. If the Marxist position assumes this type of human nature rather than recognizing only entirely flexible human practice as the first element in the dialectic with history, does West still need to stand apart from it? Even if it includes the conception of human nature which Marx describes, the Marxist account does not depict the dialectic which West seeks to describe. Put simply, the conception of human nature to be found in Marx’s writings is too one-sided – too optimistic – to perform the role West’s dialectic requires.
The ‘human nature’ West imagines in the dialectic between human nature and human history has two sides, the dignity and the depravity mentioned above. Put simply, West sees the ‘dignity’ in human nature as ‘the capacity to transform prevailing realities for the better,’ while human ‘depravity’ is the unfortunate tendency to forego, ignore, or even resist such transformations. The idea that human nature itself (or one side of it) stands in the way of such an achievement seems to throw doubt on the endeavor of pursuing this goal. Here it is not merely some arbitrary definition of human nature invented by West that stands in the way of realizing his highest goal. West acknowledges that his ideas owe a heavy debt to Christianity, and the imperfection of human nature is an important part of that tradition. However, it is worth noticing that in examinations of humanity ranging from intuition to the Human Genome Project to an analysis of Afro-American history, one finds if nothing else a striking absence of suggestion that human nature is inherently flawless.
West’s inclusion of this belief among his assumptions is not an arbitrary leap. This dual aspect of human nature prevents societal change from being realistically regarded as ‘man’s evolution toward eternity and redemption.’ Rather, it is marked by ‘process, development, discontinuity, and even disruption’ which ‘precludes the possibility of human perfection and human utopias’ (PD 17).
Because he conceives of human nature as imperfect and incapable of being perfected, West writes that history ultimately does not match human ideals. Consequently, ‘ultimate salvation’ is not a goal to be realized as part of the normal procession of history.
Instead, it is ‘the transcendence of history, the deliverance of mankind from the treacherous dialectic of human nature and human history’ (18).
The goal of such transcendence would be linked to allowing realization of human capabilities, free from oppression. Given his contention that human nature is inherently imperfect – that it ‘precludes the possibility of human perfection and human utopias’ – how can West in good faith advocate pursuit of the seemingly perfectionist, utopian goal of ultimate salvation? He acknowledges the conflict, but does not regard it as cause to abandon his call for social transformation: Prophetic pragmatism is a form of tragic thought in that it confronts candidly individual and collective experiences of evil in individuals and institutions – with little expectation of ridding the world of all evil. Yet it is a kind of romanticism in that it holds many experiences of evil to be neither inevitable nor necessary but rather the results of human agency, i.
e. , choices and actions. (AEP 228) The evils apparent in the world – which can be given the secular interpretation, ‘that which is undesirable in society’- are the results of human action, influenced by (perhaps even ultimately rooted in) human nature. However, they are also not results of the only possible human action, even given an unchangeable (but multi-sided) human nature. This consideration will re-emerge in later discussions of the role of the theorist in studying human society. For now, we need only recognize it as part of the motivation leading West to include a call for social change in his theory.
The norm of individualism helped established the goal of self-realization, but West includes a second norm to address more practical considerations: the norm of democracy. West writes, ‘democratic participation of people in the decision-making processes of institutions that regulate and govern their lives is a precondition for actualizing the Christian principle of the self-realization of the individual within community’ (PD 18-19).
One could certainly embrace the goal of a society that allows every member self-realization within a community without choosing democratic means to bring such a society into existence. As a practical consideration, however, West contends that no processes that are not democratic can be trusted to bring about social change and still preserve individuality for the members of that society. Thus while the norm of individuality springs from Christian (or Marxist) values, the norm of democracy rests upon ‘its historical realism.’ The historical realism West speaks of is, of course, intimately connected with the historical dialectic as he has described it. The ‘dignity’ of human beings – their capacity to bring about positive change – can function in a democratic system to bring about that change.
At the same time, the system compensates for the fallibility or ‘depravity’ of human beings (PD 19).
West explains the usefulness of democracy in compensating for human failings through the maxim that accountability of power-holders to the public must be ‘the center of any acceptable social vision’ (PD 18).
The importance that West places on the accountability of leaders demonstrates that he sees the restraining function of democracy as a control on the ‘depravity’ of those who hold power specifically. A democratic system thus functions as a means to prevent those who have greater power or influence in society from imposing, from above, measures to the detriment of society as a whole.
This consideration will also reappear in further analysis of the practical side of West’s theory later in this paper. For the moment, we will only note it as another value his theory endorses, and which is endorsed for essentially practical reasons. West’s respect for democratic systems meshes well with what he names as the second major influence on his theory: American pragmatism. The most fundamental idea West’s Afro-American critical thought owes to pragmatism is its conception of the function of philosophy, which includes the function of West’s theory itself.
These ties to particular norms and to social practice might be seen as a weakness of West’s theory, but he embraces them as necessary components. Part of his Pragmatic heritage, West writes, is that he recognizes that this ‘normative function’ is the most important (perhaps the only) remaining role that can be legitimately claimed by philosophy. He points out that one by one, the ‘objective’ theoretical functions of philosophy have been taken over by various scientific fields. The natural sciences were the original breakaways, but more recently the social sciences such as psychology, sociology, history, anthropology, and linguistics have become more appropriate arenas for resolving formerly philosophical problems (PD 20).
What is left for philosophy is a project (or projects) that, like West’s own, professes to be neither objective nor restricted to pure theory. The function those projects serve is ‘the interpretation of a people’s past for the purpose of solving specific problems presently confronting the cultural life from which the people come’ (PD 21).
Justifying the statement that interpretation of this kind is the only function philosophy can still claim is a battle which will not be fought on the pages of this paper. We note only that West does claim that this is a type of philosophical inquiry, and that his Pragmatic roots also point him to a particular way of carrying out this project. According to the Pragmatic view, the process of inquiry is ‘a set of social practices geared toward achieving and warranting knowledge’ (PD 21).
In this statement one notices, first, the idea that the theorist is placed within a particular social context. She is not conducting rational inquiry according to objective standards, but instead is engaging in the practices utilized by her society for acquiring knowledge (or what her society regards as knowledge).
Second, one notices that West does not claim that inquiry can be expected to provide the inquisitor with any real truths. It is an inescapable feature of inquiry, West writes, that it ‘yields no absolute certainty’ of the veracity of the knowledge obtained. This characterization of inquiry need not be defended as a metaphysical claim; the process of inquiry in every human society simply fails to provide conclusions which we can be absolutely certain of. Pragmatism’s response to the uncertainty of any professed ‘truth’ is to regard knowledge as ‘a matter of public testing and open evaluation of consequences’ (PD 21).
Science carries out this process by examining and testing hypotheses, peer review of experimental methods and conclusions, and by different researchers conducting the same experiment repeatedly to provide independent verification of experimental results. Citing John Dewey’s description of the role of philosophy, West sees its action as parallel to that of scientific retesting, but in a different area of inquiry: philosophy ‘constantly questions the tacit assumptions of earlier interpretations of the past’ (PD 21).
The democratic nature of this mode of inquiry should be evident: there can be neither an authoritative human interpreter of reality nor a single privileged interpretation which determines truth. It is only the combined effort of everyone involved which best allows the community to pursue its inquiry.
One might wonder according to what standards Pragmatic philosophy interprets society. Its inquiry is to be a group activity, but what will the group use to weigh interpretations without any single authoritative human figure or method? Realistically, each philosopher will be ‘guided by moral convictions and social norms.’ In turn, the entire process of social transformation will be ‘shaped by the interpretation and description of the prevailing communal practices’ (PD 21).
Characterizing the process of social inquiry and transformation in this way has certain obvious implications. First, the appeal to social norms and moral convictions means that Pragmatic theory will not depend on any objective or metaphysical justification for its goals. The grounds for its guiding principles will go no deeper than the personal morals of the theorist and the norms to be found in her society, and the Pragmatist would argue that ultimately no grounds can be found which are more solid than this. A second implication is that the true significance of any theory for society will depend on how it is interpreted by the people who already exist and make up the society.
That is, the act of carrying out any project of social transformation will be affected by interaction with its real societal and historical context. One will remember that Pragmatism is the second of the two sources West names for his conception of Afro-American critical thought. West seems to imply that Pragmatism holds a subordinate position to his fusion of Christianity and Marxism, and explicitly lists three aspects of Pragmatism which he regards as ‘shortcomings’ because they conflict with Christian/Marxist standards. The first source of his dissatisfaction with Pragmatism is its neglect of the individual.
The privileged role it provides to societal norms and historical context leads emphasis on the community to crowd out respect for the individual. The second issue West raises is that Pragmatism ignores class struggle. Despite West’s claim that Marxism’s value is largely dependent on its appropriation of Christian values, he places enough importance on the purely Marxist idea of class struggle to require it as an element in any acceptable social theory. His final disagreement with the Pragmatic tradition is ‘its veneration of scientific method and the practices of the scientific community’ (PD 21).
Unlike the first two elements in Pragmatism which West identifies as shortcomings, his objection to the over-valuing of science may not be immediately evident to the reader. West himself gives no explanation of why ‘veneration of the scientific method’ is to be considered a shortcoming.
However, other theorists have pointed out the error in placing absolute trust in a model with purely objective pretensions. Such arguments will become important later, when the problem of the non-objective features of West’s own theory is considered. In regards to the shortcomings he perceives in the Pragmatic tradition, West writes that conscious effort must be taken to prevent those three features from arising in Afro-American critical thought. Instead, the theory he seeks to promote must compensate by emphasizing the three aspects overlooked by Pragmatism: the ‘uniqueness of human personality,’ the struggle of class against class, and ‘the political dimensions of knowledge.’ In truth, the picture of American Pragmatism as a merely secondary influence which West tries to present is misleading. There are some points at which he has subordinated his Christian/Marxist conception to Pragmatist standards without admitting that this is the case. Most conspicuous of these is his norm of democracy.
Despite West’s attempts to present democracy as a natural outcome of Christian tradition, the non-negotiable status of divine authority and the Marxist penchant for centralized control tend to make both traditions (or both sides of the one tradition, as West presents it) inimical to democracy. West’s theoretical project as a religious undertaking may be weakened by hidden instances of subordinating Christian values to Pragmatic values. As a philosophical undertaking, however, the integrity of West’s theory will not be compromised by his having miscalculated his personal allegiance to various traditions. More important is the fact that he has consciously placed his theory within a particular context in intellectual history. The reader now knows that West’s Afro-American critical thought explicitly draws on two major intellectual influences, three if Marxism is counted as a separate influence. We have also seen particular points on which West’s position departs from the traditions that have nurtured his views.
In other words, West has placed his theory in a context of intellectual history and considered that context critically. He is now finished with outlining the values that guide his inquiry, and begins a straightforward account of Afro-American critical thought itself. Summarizing it in one sentence, he describes it as ‘an interpretation of Afro-American history, especially its cultural heritage and political struggles, which provides norms for responding to challenges presently confronting black Americans’ (PD 22).
The reader may have noticed that in writing this description, West has simply taken the Pragmatic conception of the role of philosophic inquiry and applied it specifically to the African-American community. West continues by outlining five tasks which Afro-American critical thought should carry out. The first four are related to a need to provide interpretations of four particular elements in the historical experience of African-Americans.
It is the fifth task he describes which is most relevant to an appraisal of his theory as a whole: ‘Provide a political prescription for – or strategic intervention into – the specific praxis in the present historic moment of the struggle for liberation’ (PD 23).
One will notice from this description that despite the name he has given it, the purpose of West’s theory is not restricted to ‘thought’ alone. His theory also includes action to transform the social and historical situation which the theorist inhabits. West continues by considering different possible paths to bring about the actual transformation of society. Of the cultural influences on his thought which West describes, Marxism is of course the tradition with the most prominent tradition of organized social activism. Consequently, the practical side of West’s theory is built on a Marxist model.
His idea of Marxism in practice is based not on the purely theoretical activities of Marx or other Marxists, but on the history of Marxism in practice. West admits that the influence of Marxism and socialism in the United States has been extremely limited. However, he is able to identify practical models of applied Marxism. It is to be expected that given his values, West will try to remove anti-democratic tendencies as much as possible from the Marxist practice he advocates. Not surprisingly, he condemns the Stalinist dictatorial extreme of Marxism, writing, ‘Stalinism is to Marxism what the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity: a manipulation of the chief symbols yet diametrically opposed to the central values’ (PD 136).
Instead West endorses what he calls the ‘progressive stream of Marxism.’ He regards the progressive stream as the form of Marxist practice ‘which most closely embodies and encourages the norms of individuality and democracy’ (PD 136).
More specifically, West advocates social change under the model of the ‘Councilist stream’ of Marxism. The distinguishing feature of the Councilist stream is its ideal of social transformation from the roots; it ‘favors the self-organization and self-guidance of the working class movement.’ This tradition is to be contrasted with Leninist models of action which would have the working classes organized and led by a group of intellectual leaders. West objects that such a top-down organization of social action would subject the working classes to manipulation by a Party. At best this would be indistinguishable from manipulation by bourgeois intellectuals in the status quo, and at worst it can be described as pure authoritarianism. As West reasons, ‘the revolutionary organization of workers which seizes power should prefigure the kind of socialist society to be created’ (PD 136).
If the transformed society is to be democratic, the transformation must be orchestrated by the workers themselves. Not only must they decide their own organization and leadership, but the workers must also ‘educate and cultivate themselves’ rather than have ideology imposed on them. West proceeds to add detail to his outline for social action. He proposes that the path to carrying out Marxist change most effectively lies through ‘Revolutionary Christian perspective and praxis.’ The effectiveness of this approach lies in two features of the Black church. First, it has already gained acceptance with the audience West wishes to reach; it provides ‘the world view found in the bosom of Afro-American culture’ (PD 145).
Second, it provides an already-existing institutional base for social change.
West’s practical program is made still more compatible to African-Americans in the status quo by the fact that it seeks to ‘build upon, but go far beyond, the prevailing viewpoint of the vast majority of Afro-Americans – black liberalism’ (PD 145).
The practicality of West’s suggestions is strengthened by the fact that his position is ‘informed by… the best of the socialist movement’; consequently it is connected to the academic world and can receive support from that quarter. Finally, he lists a number of existing political organizations which are devoted to the type of Marxist social transformation West is advocating, and which can serve as mechanisms for carrying out the project he proposes (PD 145-146).
At another time one might question the compatibility of ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ and ‘you have nothing to lose but your chains’; of liberal reform and Marxist revolution; and how much support Marxist movements can really expect from the academic world. In this analysis we need only note that West has done three things. First, he has outlined a social theory. Second he has described the intellectual and social context of that theory.
Finally, he has laid out the means by which that theory is meant to change society for the better. Next, we will examine the significance of this theory ‘that interprets, describes, and evaluates Afro-American life in order comprehensively to understand and effectively to transform it’ (PD 15).
Theory as action The bulk of West’s actual writing is concerned with interpretations of events that have occurred in the past and elements of society in the modern status quo. However, West is adamant that his project does not end at passive interpretation of what already exists. He writes, ‘The pitiful are those who remain objects of history, victims manipulated by evil forces’ (PD 18), and the generality of this statement brings theorists themselves under its scope. Those who wish to move beyond this ‘pitiful’s tate cannot sit idly by.
They must join ‘the tragic,’ who are ‘those persons who become subjects of history, aggressive antagonists of evil forces. ‘ One who theorizes on history must act to change the flow of that history for the better (or at least she is more admirable is she does).
Max Horkheimer argues that it is vital for theory about society to take this approach; the theorist is a subject and not merely an observer. He notes that no inquiry can be completely passive, since the ‘essence’ of scientists’ theory corresponds ‘to the immediate tasks they set for themselves’ (CT 194).
This implies that theorizing will necessarily require some decision-making on the part of the theorist, some action beyond passive observation. The active role of the theorist is clearest and most important in the case of a theorist whose object is society, because unique factors come into play.
Horkheimer first considers a standard ‘member of bourgeois society,’ though we may also apply his description to any theorist who claims to do nothing but relate facts about society. To this theorist, society will be ‘perceived as a sum-total of facts; it is there and must be accepted’ (CT 199).
Horkheimer notes the contradiction inherent in the ‘I just work here in the Ivory Tower’ attitude of the passive traditional theorist: ‘the individual sees himself as passive and dependent, but society, though made up of individuals, is an active subject’ (CT 200).
A whole which is active cannot be composed of inert elements. West’s theory takes into account the fact that as a member of a society which acts, the theorist cannot pretend that she is not a part of that action. One might respond to this observation with the concern that taking action would require the theorist to commit herself to one particular interpretation of social circumstances.
This commitment might introduce bias into her theory, and the loss of objectivity could erode its ability to produce beneficial social change by preventing the theorist from objectively weighing the facts about existing society. Fortunately, both West and the Frankfurt school theorists have anticipated this argument. Theory as purposefully directed action One of the major features of West’s method of presenting his Afro-American critical thought is that he painstakingly describes and analyzes the cultural influences on his own theory. This certainly plays a role in aiding the reader to understand the significance of the theory.
Horkheimer unknowingly gives support to this effort when he writes that knowledge can ‘be understood only in the context of real social processes’ (CT 194).
Subsequent to, but no less important than locating a theory within social context is taking a critical stance toward the ‘givens’ of that context when necessary. West’s historical and social context is not limited to Christianity, Marxism, and Pragmatism. It includes centuries of African-American history, and most significantly a host of social ills present in the status quo. West speaks of a need to separate the process of theorizing about a society from the other activity of that society, which remains within the accepted practices of that society as it currently exists. Afro-American critical thought, West writes, must ‘remove itself from the uncritical elements of mainstream Afro-American life’ (PD 24).
He takes this as another general principle: ‘Intellectual activity certainly flourishes best when one is on the margin, not in an ivory tower but resolutely outside the world of aimless chitchat and gossip.’ This statement might be taken literally as an assertion about when academics happen to do their best thinking. So construed, one would be led to wonder how such hermetic scholars could possibly not be ‘in an ivory tower.’ West’s point is better expressed by saying: as long as theory is still contained within the regular functioning of society – that is, that status quo activities are taken as given – the critical function of theory will be inhibited. Instead, the theorist must mentally step back from society and survey it as a whole, rather than from the perspective of a cog in its machinery. J”urgent Habermas stresses this need for self-reflection on the part of the theorist. He begins by arguing that the influence of human interests is always present in theorizing activity.
This paper will not include the details of his argument, but the skeptical reader may note that at the very least, a theorist will have an interest in preserving the means to her own subsistence. Although the theorist can never completely free herself of presuppositions and the influence of interests, writes Habermas, ‘the mind can always reflect back upon the interest structure’ (KHI 313).
When the theorist makes the effort to determine what interests in the status quo are at work on her theory, she can begin to free her theorizing activity from the immobilizing web of those interests. Habermas warns that ‘the illusion of objectivism’ in theory will be a casualty of demonstrating the connection between knowledge and interest (KHI 316-7).
It is only through self-reflection, however, that the theorist can reconcile her inquiry with ‘the interest in autonomy and responsibility’ (KHI 312).
We return to Horkheimer’s account for a conception of how the critical nature of West’s theory expands the objectives that Afro-American critical thought can accomplish.
The reader will remember that the final goal of West’s project is ‘ultimate salvation,’ which enables humanity to pass beyond the dialectic that has determined the progression of history thus far. Horkheimer would categorize this type of thought as ‘critical theory,’ which seeks change beyond what is possible within the given societal context (CT 207).
critical theory does not accept unquestioningly the functions and values contained in the society which the theorist inhabits. Horkheimer writes:’ On the contrary, it is suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable, as these are understood in the present order, and refuses to take them as nonscientific presuppositions about which one can do nothing’ (CT 207).
It is evident that West takes exactly this attitude in his theorizing. His goal of enabling escape from the ‘dialectic of human nature and history’ certainly demonstrates an intent to transcend the ‘given’ possibilities.
In addition, he has stated an intent to create a ‘ and distinctive discourse,’ which implies the creation of new terms and concepts beyond the values and categories of the status quo. Finally, we have seen numerous instances where West’s critiques and rejects features of the traditional ideologies of its roots – Christianity, Marxism, Pragmatism, and Liberalism – whether instances of this critique are acknowledged by West or not. West’s theory undoubtedly questions the ‘givens’ of its context like the ‘critical theory’ Horkheimer describes. Horkheimer has already argued that theorists trying to maintain passive objectivity will regard existing society as a ‘given’ to be studied.
Not only does such an attitude ignore the source of societal action in individuals that make up the society, it also ignores the fact that the structure of society itself is ‘a function which originates in human action and therefore is a possible object of playful decision and rational determination of goals’ (CT 207).
It is clear from this statement that Horkheimer places great value on the ‘rationality’ of social structure. He develops this idea further by explaining that a society loses its humanity to the extent that it is not rationally structured: ‘If activity governed by reason is proper to man, then existent social practice, which forms the individual’s life down to its least details, is inhuman, and this inhumanity affects everything that goes on in the society’ (CT 210).
This argument points to an assumption that homo sapiens is by nature ‘the thing that reasons,’ and that there is an important good to be realized in following this intrinsic human nature and creating a rational society. Problems that might arise from placing value on the ambiguous idea of ‘rationality’ and from differing ideas of ‘human nature’ can be addressed by reformulating Horkheimer’s point, without sacrificing the force of his argument. An argument parallel to Horkheimer’s can be phrased as follows: The theorist holds certain values relevant to the structure of society.
Perhaps she values free enterprise, perhaps she values equality, or perhaps like West she values democracy, freedom from oppression, and ‘realization of the individual in community.’ As long as the structure of human society is the result of human action, and the theorist is a human capable of action, it would seem rational for the theorist to utilize her theorizing activity to bring the structure of society into closer alignment with her values. We have already seen that West raises this point in almost these exact terms in presenting his theory. This leads to the most compelling argument yet for including practice as a necessary component of critical theory. If theoretical activity does not seek to effect change real change in society, then the fate of its plans for a better society can take one of two forms: the theory could ‘take refuge in utopian fantasy,’ or it can ‘be reduced to the formalistic fighting of sham battles’ (CT 211).
What is missing from these possibilities is the actual social change called for by the critical theory. The critical theorist must be willing to recognize that he is part of the society to be changed.
He is not an isolated intellect, but ‘a definite individual in his real relation to other individuals and groups’ (CT 211).
Thus the practical aspects of West’s theory are indispensable parts of Afro-American critical thought, and of any theory which identifies a need for change in society. At this point it is worth noting an observation Horkheimer makes about the Pragmatic tradition. He writes that Pragmatism (along with Positivism) considers it a responsibility of the theorist to make the theory useful to society, i. e. the social organization of the status quo (CT 196).
This is not a significant difference from traditional theories that pursue ‘pure knowledge,’ he writes, because in both cases the results will be produced and used by the existing interest structure (CT 196-7).
West does not deny that pragmatism is marked by this tendency. He refers to it as ‘the search for desirable and realizable historical possibilities in the present’ (PD 21).
Although actions of this kind may be well-intentioned, they are not far-sighted enough to recognize possibilities that do not flow naturally from the historical context.
For West, the plodding pace of Pragmatic reform must give way to the more visionary traditions of Christianity and Marxism. However, neither of those traditions would be palatable to West without the essentially Pragmatic value of democracy. The importance of this element in social theory is also demonstrated by the philosophers of the Frankfurt School. Theory as purposefully directed, but fallible, action In the section above, we saw articulated by Horkheimer and echoed in West’s Afro-American critical thought the idea that the theorist is rationally required to use her theorizing activity to transform society for the better. This idea seems fairly attractive when the theorist is simply adding rationality to the structure of society; besides the rare anarchist, few of us would want to see a society structured by pure chaos.
But we saw also that improvements to society are more realistically imaginable when they are guided, not by some absolute ‘rationality,’ but rather by the values of the theorist. One might easily be led to wonder: are we inviting theorists to abuse their privileged positions in academia by seeking to shape society according to their own whims? What gives them the right? Let us assume that they do not have any such right, and that we do not want social change to be unilaterally determined by (or overly influenced by the unilateral action of) scholars and intellectuals. Need we retract the argument that practical social transformation is a valuable feature of social theory? West has already shown us a way out of this dilemma. The Councilist model of Marxist social change he advocates subjects his ideas to a test of legitimacy beyond the theorist’s own judgment.
Under the Councilist model, the working class achieves social change by organizing themselves and finding their own ideology. West is developing a theory that he hopes will aid in the liberation of the working class, but in the end it is their own decision whether or not to adopt any of his ideas. One might raise the question of why ‘acceptance by the working class’ means that a theory will actually lead to the betterment of society. It seems an unusual epistemological test. The answer is that acceptance by the working class would legitimize West’s theory because they are the ones whose lives would be changed by a transformation of the social structure (presumably the oppressive classes have forfeited any voice in the reorganization of society).
Herbert Marcuse illustrates this point well when he asks rhetorically, ‘What tribunal can possibly claim the authority’ of deciding what a group of people needs (ODM 6)? He answers that no one can unilaterally determine the needs of a particular group; only those people themselves have the authority to make such a decision. This argument seems tacitly grounded on the idea the no authority is legitimate without the consent of those subjected to it. Marcuse adds that people are only free to make such a decision after the dominating influence of ruling interests has been removed from their thinking. West’s position on this point is somewhat difficult to determine. He has officially disavowed all Leninist intentions of imposing his theory on the people he seeks to liberate, and instead champions the ideal of the self-educating, self-organizing masses. However, he persists in formulating theory to prescribe action to the working class.
As a former graduate student at Princeton and current professor at Harvard, he would have difficulty claiming membership in the ‘working class.’ His activities to promote his theory to his target audience through the Black church, political organizations, and appearances on talk shows are all attempts to impose his theory on them. One might object that he merely seeks to make his theory known, and that his target audience is still free to accept or reject it as a spontaneous action. Since the Russians in 1917 were similarly free not to follow either Lenin or Trotsky, however, it remains difficult to distinguish their ‘elitism’ from West’s ‘Councilist.’ As West does not admit the problem, he does not suggest a solution. It seems reasonable, however, that this difficulty could be mitigated if West pays attention to the reaction his Afro-American critical thought receives from his target audience. A lukewarm or negative response is an indication that the oppressed lower class is not adopting his theory. Rather than continuing to push it on them in the same form, he can reformulate his theory based on consideration of new information and then submit the revised (or completely new) theory for consideration.
This process might continue indefinitely, but the populace will be protected from the tyranny of pet ideas. Conclusion This paper is meant to assist the philosopher in deciding how to respond to the Afro-American critical thought of Cornel West. Central to interpreting this theory is the fact that it does not profess to serve as a mirror to reflect the true African-American experience. In the course of interpreting history and society, West does purport to describe features which do characterize African-American experience.
However, his theory is meant to serve in a much greater capacity than a simple mirror. West has recognized that society is a dynamic entity whose actions are determined by the activity of the individuals who make up that society. He has also recognized that as one of the individuals who makes up his own society, his actions can play a role in determining the direction of his society’s history. In his position as theorist, West must consider the role of his theory in generating force for social change. Consequently, West’s theorizing activity is organized toward facilitating the social transformation that it identifies as desirable. West’s capacity to discover desirable directions for social change require critical evaluation of society as it exists.
He reflects on the social context in which his theory is located, including the elements that shaped his theory itself. To avoid having his theory simply determined by the existing interest structure of society, West must be prepared to critique some of the sources of his influence, even while some of those sources are themselves critical in nature. West recognizes that validation of his active, critical theory in society cannot depend on his judgment alone, subject as it is to particular social influences. The only justification for the change he is trying to bring about in society can come from the people such change would affect. This serves as the final check on the fallibility of West’s own judgment as a theorist.
Having been presented with West’s theory, how should one respond? First, it is important to note that having read only this paper does not allow one to have any response to West’s theory, because the precise content of his theory has not been related here. This paper does not identify what evils West points out in the status quo, beyond some vague ‘oppression.’ Nor has it described what changes he proposes, beyond some kind of grassroots Marxist social transformation to bring about a society that enables ‘self-realization within community for every individual.’ This paper has only provided a detailed analysis of West’s approach to theory. This analysis provides a framework for what an appropriate response to West’s theory would entail. The theorist who studies West’s Afro-American critical thought will be faced with a description of the social context in which West is theorizing. The second theorist cannot respond in a relevant manner unless she has vivisected the context which surrounds and influences herself as well. Only by responding as an active subject aware of her own influences will she avoid the error of regarding existing social structures as ‘given.’ As an active subject, the theorist must respond to West in an active mode that engages his theory at the level of social practice as well as academic discussion.
Perhaps she agrees fully with his interpretations and conclusions. In that case, her appropriate response is to coordinate her own activity in society to assist his endeavor. It is also possible that the theorist sees important flaws in West’s theory. In that case, she also has an obligation to engage with his practical activity. She may contact those involved in West’s project to try to change the direction of their work.
She may also work directly against West at the practical level. For example, someone who fears that West is working to impose his ideology undemocratically may work to alert the population to his manipulative activity. In any case, one cannot ignore the connection of West’s and one’s own theory to the wider world. Works Cited: Edwards, James C.
The Authority of Language. Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1990 (AL).
Habermas, J”urgent. Knowledge and Human Interests. trans.
Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. (KHI) Horkheimer, Max. Critical Theory. trans.
Matthew J. O’Connell et al. New York: Continuum. (CT) Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1967. (ODM) Marx, Karl. Karl Marx: A Reader. Jon Enter, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. (KMR) West, Cornel.
Prophecy: Deliverance! Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982. (PD) West, Cornel. The American Evasion of Philosophy. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. (AEP).