Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

64
“Lionel Trilling: Godfather of Neo-Conservatism,” New Politics
summer 1986

Cornel West

Cornel West (1953—), professor of religion and director of African American Studies at Princeton University, is the author of The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989), Race Matters (1993), Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (1993), and Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism (1993), among other books.

A Marxist cultural critic, Baptist minister, spellbinding orator, and prolific author, West is one of the leading intellectuals in America and probably the most visible representative of the new “black public intellectual.” Often described by commentators as an intellectual son in the New York intellectuals’ lineage, West is both a successor and opponent of Trilling’s conservatized liberalism—though it is obvious in the following essay that West considers the enduring influence of New York intellectuals such as Trilling to be primarily due to “a nostalgia for a time when ideas really mattered.” Influenced by Richard Rorty’s neoliberal, Deweyan philosophy and pragmatist critique of metaphysics, West has developed his own distinctive version of pragmatism, which he terms “prophetic pragmatism.”

In the essay below, West criticizes Trilling as “an intellectual dead end,” given Trilling’s relative inattention to issues of race and ethnicity and his moderate, allegedly regressive, political stance; in books such as Race Matters, West puts forth specific policy proposals to improve race relations, a form of social criticism both more radical and more politically engaged than Trilling’s literary criticism. Nonetheless, the article also evidences West’s admiration of Trilling as a stylist and critic of broad vision.

I shall focus on one of the major figures of the New York intellectuals: Lionel Trilling, the godfather of the contemporary neo-conservatives. I will sug-

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