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Cornel West - Biography

Cornel West, Ph.D., is an American philosopher and a specialist of religions. He was born on July 2, 1953. Cornel West is involved politically with the Democratic Socialists, and is a professor at Princeton University where he has taught in both the Department of Religion as well as at the African American Studies Center. Cornel West sometimes refers to himself as a “non-Marxist socialist” largely because of Karl Marx’s (1818 - 1883) rejection of religions. Cornel West is one of the most famous and popular intellectuals in the United States. He is the author of the bestseller book Race Matters, published in 1994 and has since then sold over four hundred thousand copies. Cornel West was born on July 2nd 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA. His contribution to the field of philosophy is grounded in the African American Baptist church, Marxism, pragmatism and transcendentalism.

Cornel West was the grandson of a preacher. As such he would receive a traditional religious education which would prepare him to political debates. As a teenager he would participate in various demonstrations for the rights of blacks and would even ask of his school that it offers courses on African Americans. He would later acknowledge admiring while a teenager the militancy of Malcolm X (1925 - 1965), the rage of the Black Panther Party, as well as the aggressive theology of James Hal Cone (1938 - ).

In 1973 Cornel West would complete his three years of studies at Harvard University magna cum laude in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization. Subsequently he would go on to study at Princeton University where he would accept the influence of renowned Professor and thinker Richard Rorty (1931 - 2007), and would as a result become particularly interested in the pragmatic school of philosophy. West would complete his dissertation in 1980, which he would entitle Ethics, Historicism and the Marxist tradition. He would later come to publish a revised version of it under the new title of The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought.

At the age of 25 he would return to Harvard University as a lecturer before becoming an assistant professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1984 the vocational Divinity School at Yale University would hire him to teach American history. While teaching there he would participate in protests on campus against apartheid South Africa. In retaliation, the University administration turned down his Spring semester leave at the last minute, which would oblige him to commute from Paris where he had planned to teach in order to teach two classes at Yale.

An eclectic thinker, Cornel West is closely interested in pop culture and the link between philosophy and the street. West loves hip-hop and has even recorded several albums solo and with other bands such as the one named after him “Cornel West Theory”. One of his musical works is the 2001 Sketches of My Culture, a rap album. This one and others all contain Cornel West’s previously published arguments and beliefs but musically expressed. Additionally, his philosophical works would impress the Wachowski brothers so much that they would ask him to play the role of “Councillor West” in Matrix Reloaded (2003) as well as in Matrix Revolutions (2003), which he did.

In a 2008 interview Cornel West would give us very interesting clues as to his fascinating take on philosophy:

“I think in many ways [this] is the ultimate question: What is truth? How do we understand truth and what are the ways in which we wrestle with truth? And I believe that Theodor Adorno [1903 - 1969] was right when he said that the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. He said that the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak – that gives it an existential emphasis, you see, so that we’re really talking about truth as a way of life, as opposed to a set of propositions that correspond to a set of things in the world.”

Furthermore, later in the same interview, he would helpfully situate the necessarily existentially reflective nature of the work of philosophy as he sees it, which must include self-transformation:

“What happens when you interrogate yourself? What happens when you begin calling into question your tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions and begin then to become a different kind of person? You know, Plato says philosophy’s a meditation on and a preparation for death. By death what he means is not an event, but a death in life because there’s no rebirth, there’s no change, there’s no transformation without death, and therefore the question becomes: How do you learn how to die? Of course Montaigne talks about that in his famous essay “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die.” You can’t talk about truth without talking about learning how to die because it’s precisely by learning how to die, examining yourself and transforming your old self into a better self, that you actually live more intensely and critically and abundantly. So that the connection between learning how to die and changing, being transformed, turning your world upside down, inverting your world the way in which that famous play by Ludwig Tieck [The World Turned Upside Down] highlights so that you actually are in a different kind of zone, you have a new self. That’s why love is so inseparable from any talk about truth and death, because we know that love is fundamentally a death of an old self that was isolated and the emergence of a new self now entangled with another self, the self that you fall in love with.”

In 1988 Cornel West would become Professor of religion at Princeton University. In 1993 he would publish a collection of essays entitled Race Matters, which as we saw would become a bestseller in the United States. He would stay there until 1994 when he would be appointed to Harvard University as African-American Studies Professor. There he would teach one of the most popular classes for years and in 1998 he would be appointed to the University Professor position, which in spite of its status also means that he would have to report his work directly to the President of the institution.

As is typical of him Cornel West would continue to branch out into various disciplines and activities. While it is to be commended for a philosopher to be reaching out of his own discipline, Cornel West’s wide-ranging interests, however, would earn him a great deal of trouble in 2001 with the President of Harvard University at the time, Lawrence Summers. This one who would reportedly accuse him of spending too much time in outside activities, missing too many classes, being partly responsible for grade inflation, not focusing enough on worthwhile scholarship, and ultimately spending too much time on his lucrative projects. The upshot of the dispute would be that West would return to Princeton where many of his friends taught , such as the writer Toni Morrison (1931 - ), and Cornel West has been there since then.

In 2004 he would publish another very important work entitled Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, which would immediately become an event and in fact a bestseller. West first shows us that there are currently three antidemocratic dogmas that are emptying American democracy of its substance. First, the fundamentalist aspects of market economy create inhuman policies dominated by multinationals, which become idolized rather than democratically questioned at the level of their ethical practices as well as the way in which they treat their employees. The result is that wealth inequalities widen and class hatred intensifies; the public interest becomes secondary.

Second, the United States’ aggressive militarism goes beyond preventive wars. It preaches salvation through military power at all levels of society. Modeled on cowboy mythology it ignores multilateral cooperation amongst nations, and instead justifies the continued immoral use of conflict resolution and thus reinforces the power of policing, feeds the military business and in turn legitimates male power both at home and at the office.

Third, the strengthening of authoritarian rule rooted in the post 9/11 paranoia, as well as in the traditional fear of excessive freedom, and in the profound distrust of Americans towards others, reduces the rights of citizens and progressively induces a loss of control over and demand for accountability in government operations. The media itself does not today anymore play the role of a fourth power. This all results in brute force taking over the place of dialogue and respect of the other.

According to Cornel West it is high time to remember the three principles of democracy and to apply them. That is to say first, the Socratic questioning in the face of manipulations and lies of the elites implies the need to tirelessly self-examine oneself and to critique both institutions and authority. Second, the prophetic commitment to justice, which is at the foundation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, means we must fight the reasons for unjustified suffering and social misery, by for example pointing out the general indifference in this regard. Finally third, the tragicomic is the ability to laugh and keep joy in life, maintain hope even in the face of hatred and hypocrisy, without lapsing into nihilism or paralyzing despair. It can be found particularly in the black struggle for freedom and in music such as blues, jazz and hip-hop.

Some of Cornel West's recent books include Hope On a Tightrope: Words & Wisdom (2008), Brother West: Living & Loving Out Loud (2009).

Cornel West, is an American philosopher. (July 2, 1953 - )