Imagining Social Justice: Cornel West's Prophetic Public Intellectualism

By Dorrien, Gary | Cross Currents, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Imagining Social Justice: Cornel West's Prophetic Public Intellectualism


Dorrien, Gary, Cross Currents


The phenomenon that is Cornel West has proven difficult to grasp or even categorize from the outset of his career. He is a philosopher, but does not write for or in the manner of the philosophical guild. He is not a theologian, yet liberation theology is at the heart of his work and vision. West has become America's greatest religious public intellectual by practicing liberation theology as a form of philosophical and social criticism.

He came to Christian social criticism through his upbringing in an African American Christian family and church and his exposure to the Civil Rights and Black Panther movements. West's grandfather C. L. West was a Baptist minister in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where West was born in 1953. Both of his parents were raised in Louisiana; his father was a civilian air force administrator, which necessitated moving around when West was young; eventually the family settled in a segregated section of Sacramento, California. West later recalled that he was a beneficiary of California's version of Jim Crow because he did not have to deal with white people or struggle for a place in the world: "Whiteness was really not a point of reference for me because the world was all black ... That was a very positive thing, because it gave me a change to really revel in black humanity." Because it gave me a chance to really revel in black humanity." Because he grew up relatively free of direct experiences with whites, he reflected, he was able in later life to perceive whites as human beings without being affected by negative experiences or preconceptions: "I didn't have to either deify them or demonize them ... I could just view them as human beings, and I think that was quite a contribution of my own context." (1)

As a youth he reveled in the preaching of Shiloh Baptist Church pastor Willie P. Cooke, admired Martin Luther King Jr., was hooked by Soren Kierkegaard's struggle with melancholia and mortality, and came to political consciousness by listening to Black Panther meetings. From Kierkegaard, he took the lifelong conviction that philosophy should be about the human experiences of living, suffering, and finding hope. From the Panthers, he took the lifelong conviction that politics should combine the best available theory with concrete strategies: "They taught me the importance of political philosophy and strategy." (2)

At the age of seventeen he graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento and enrolled at Harvard. Aside from Kierkegaard, West's knowledge of philosophy rested on Will Durant's Story of Philosophy and other popular histories; philosopher Robert Nozick assured him that Harvard would expose him to more "high-powered" fare, especially in the analytic tradition. In more important ways, however, West already knew who he was and what he aimed to do: "Owing to my family, church, and the black social movements of the 1960s, I arrived at Harvard unashamed of my African, Christian, and militant decolonized outlooks." He was determined to shape his own image, not have it shaped for him by Harvard University: "I've always wanted to be myself, and, of course, that is a perennial process." At Harvard he studied philosophy under Nozick, John Rawls, Hilary Putnam, and Stanley Cavell; history under Samuel Beer, H. Stuart Hughes, and Martin Kilson; and social thought under Talcott Parsons, Terry Irwin, and Preston Williams, all in addition to his major, Near Eastern languages and literature, which he undertook so he could read ancient religious texts in their original languages and also graduate in three years. (3)

That made him twenty-years old when he began his doctoral program in philosophy at Princeton University. West worried that Princeton philosophers would undermine his Christian faith, disabuse him of his attraction to Wittgenstein, and look down on his equally strong attraction to Frankfurt School neo-Marxism. Instead, his teachers took no interest in religion, which allowed him to keep Kierkegaard and African American mystic Howard Thurman close to his heart.

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