Cornel West’s Evasion of Philosophy,
Or, Richard Wright’s Revenge

by Ralph Dumain

[REVIEW OF: West, Cornel. "Philosophy and the Afro-American experience", The Philosophical Forum, vol. 9, nos. 2-3, winter-spring 1977-78, p. 117-148.]

If one wants to see where a philosopher gets lost, one needs to go back to the root thought patterns that set the thinker in question in his misbegotten ways. This early essay by Cornel West proves instructive in this regard.

West opens with a review of three modern approaches to philosophy, exemplified by Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Dewey. Not surprisingly, West most favors Dewey. Dewey possesses the virtues of the others in denying the autonomy of philosophy and deeming it "inextricably bound to culture, society, and history", but he retains the normative function of philosophy as well. Dewey's great conception of philosophy is summed up thusly (original italicized): "Philosophy is the interpretation of a people's past for the purpose of solving specific problems presently confronting the cultural way of life from which the people come." (p. 122) Note that this pragmatist creed is a canonical form of subjective idealism. Philosophy is both expressive and critical, but it doesn't seem to be grounded in any rational norms or notion of objectivity, but rather some arbitrarily defined social need. Given West's philosophic models (which, note, explicitly exclude anything scientific), one cannot be surprised at his adoption of subjectivism.

Already off on the wrong foot, West goes on to define Afro-American philosophy (original italicized):

 "Afro-American philosophy is the interpretation of Afro-American history, highlighting the cultural heritage and political struggles, which provides desirable norms that should regulate responses to particular challenges presently confronting Afro-Americans." (p. 122-123)

The most interesting feature of this otherwise insipid formulation is that this is not philosophy at all. Philosophy is not just holding views or even interpretation, but above all method utilizing some system of abstract concepts. Does West give any criteria, logical, epistemic, or even normative?

 "The particular historical phenomena interpreted and justified by Afro-American philosophy consist of religious doctrines, political ideologies, artistic expressions and unconscious modes of behavior; such phenomena serve as raw ingredients to be utilized by Afro-American philosophy in order to interpret the Afro-American past and defend particular norms within this past." (p.123)

Not only is this a most provincial definition of what a black philosopher should be concerned with, but worse, the task is to defend particular norms within this past, based on no rationally justified particular criteria or general world view. Where is the black atheist according to this formulation, let alone the black thinker who might be interested in mathematical logic, quantum mechanics, or Chinese medicine?

The two foremost challenges are self-image and self-determination. The notion of modernity is central to historical interpretation. Afro-Americans may be viewed as passive objects or active subjects of history. West then proceeds to outline four ideal types of Afro-American thought: vitalist, rationalist, existentialist and humanist. Here I will repeat only the leading sentences of each type (minus italics), leaving out the strong and weak versions of each:

 "The Afro-American vitalist tradition lauds the uniqueness of Afro-American culture and personality."

 "The Afro-American rationalist tradition considers Afro-American culture and personality to be pathological."

 "The Afro-American existentialist tradition posits Afro-American culture to be restrictive, constraining and confining."

 "The Afro-American humanist tradition extolls [sic] the distinctiveness of Afro-American culture and personality." (p. 124-125)

This is West's fundamental classificatory scheme. Note the peculiar labels associated with each description, especially that the most negative type is called "rationalist". I suppose this is natural, given that West's known pro-Christian and anti-scientific attitude implies that a black rationalist who opposes his religious tradition could only hold a negative view of black culture. It is nonetheless highly tendentious in a not very intelligent way. Of course, West admits these four types are not manifested in a pure form, but what becomes of the value of this classification when a single person falls into categories 2-4 simultaneously? (Type 1 differs from 4 in being what today we would call Afrocentric.) Apart from the superficiality of this interpretive framework and the tendentiousness of its labelling, its most glaring defect is the lack of warrant (of grounding in a rationally justifiable world view) for holding any of these views. Each view is no doubt based on empirical evidence and value judgments, but no more general criteria are adduced for accepting one over the others.

I will focus on only one of West's examples, for it exemplifies a grudge I have long held against him from comments made elsewhere, namely his baseless character assassination of Richard Wright. Wright epitomizes the existentialist tradition. Wright is the epitome of personal rebellion and the marginal man:

 "Wright tried to create an Afro-American self-image that rests solely upon personal revolt ... His revolt was intense, but it never crystallized into any serious talk of concerted action partly because such talk presupposes a community, a set of common values and goals, at which a marginal man like Wright can only sneer." (p. 136)

Every word in this characterization is a lie, including "and" and "the". Did West go by unchecked received wisdom, crib from Cliff Notes, or did he actually bother to read anything by or about Wright? West's foolishness could only begin to make sense if one goes by Wright's so-called "existentialist" period of the early 1950s and then doesn't bother to study that either. It is obvious that Wright devoted his entire lifetime as a writer preoccupied with concerted action and not just individual revolt. Not for one second did Wright ever sneer. Why doesn't West just come out and admit he can't forgive Wright for rejecting religion? Indeed, such rejection, when it becomes public, does tend to isolate one from black community life, and West the Christian prophet just can't abide by this given his commitment to irrationalism. From West, one would not even know that Wright loved gospel music and said "I love my people." West assumes that for one to recognize openly and honestly the severe limitations of one's background and upbringing that one must be a snob.

Interestingly, Wright was much better understood by Constance Webb, one of Wright's contemporaries and friends and a white woman to boot. In her writings, Webb always emphasized Wright's sense of social responsibility and his frustrated need to find an adequate social conception of the type of world he would want to live in. Unbeknownst to the general public, Webb's analysis of Wright was informed by the ideas of her husband (for a stretch during the 1940s), C.L.R. James.

An examination of Wright's 1953 novel The Outsider makes absolutely plain that Wright, in the desperate corner into which the Cold War backed humanity, was searching for a social conception, explicitly rejecting man alone as a viable option. Wright as we all know had become disillusioned with Communism, and he was not about to support the racist and regimented American way of life either. Wright states with excruciating explicitness that he is searching for a third conception upon which to organize society, but he hasn't the foggiest notion of what it might be.

But now back to West's article. West lauds James Baldwin's (in)famous attack on Wright, paraphrasing Baldwin's claim: "Wright succumbed to the cold, lifeless, abstract categories of social scientists" and never learned to accept "our humanity". (p. 137) I'm not sure what this amorphous verbiage is supposed to mean. The picture of humanity Wright paints in The Outsider is very bleak, intentionally so, given the social crisis Wright seeks to depict. He is more inclined to criticize humanity than to accept it as it is. In fact, Wright berates the Communists for wanting man to remain just as he is only with themselves in charge. But if Wright's plot and perhaps characters take on a certain schematism in order to illustrate his ideas, Wright is anything but a lifeless and abstract social scientist. For Wright states as his goal the reclamation of human subjectivity, which the Communists want to do away with.

Ironically, in firing on Wright and favoring Baldwin's greatness, West shoots himself in the foot. For West admits that Baldwin's portrayal of black life in Go Tell It On The Mountain is as bleak as Wright's, virtually identical, in fact, and based on a recognition that undesirable "qualities evolved from a rigid, fundamentalist Christian home" (p. 137). So what differentiates Baldwin from Wright?

 "Unlike Wright, Baldwin's rebellion is not for deeper marginality or further isolation. Instead, his is a search for community, a community of love and tolerance denied him by Afro-American culture. Baldwin does not abhor this culture; he simply cannot overlook the stifling effects it has on nonconformists." (p. 137)

West does not realize what a fool he is making of himself here, for he has totally undermined his own argument. Here is a distinction without a difference. However their fictional worlds may differ, in real life Baldwin was an expatriate in Paris along with Wright. In real life, while Baldwin was symbolically slaying father Wright, Wright did not withdraw into isolation but was politically vocal and active, and his activity drew the attention and covert action of the CIA, whose shenanigans Wright not only outwitted but openly denounced.

And now turnabout is fair play. For Wright did have a philosophical commitment, which was rooted in his experience as a black American but was not confined to an expression or even critique of its norms. His "existentialism" was based on a global view of the problems of "modernity" that West finds central: urbanization, industrialization, loss of religious and other traditions, loss of community, etc. Wright's reclamation of "subjectivity" is not an affirmation of subjectivism, for Wright is a conscious partisan of the modern, industrial, scientific, secular and non-religious way of life, and furthermore he states: "My color is not my country." For Wright, the peculiar circumstances of black American life will make black people "psychological men, like the Jews", "centers of knowing", favorably positioned (because so unfavorably positioned) to be able to discern and communicate what modern man is all about the world over. Were Wright to formalize his philosophy, he would undoubtedly do so based on some arrangement of abstract principles, and not endorse a subjectivist, anti-scientific view of reality even while incorporating Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Husserl, or Sartre into his view of social and subjective experience.

 In my view, Richard Wright (rivalled only by Ralph Ellison) is the most important American literary intellectual of the century. To be sure, we know so much more today and we are oh so much more sophisticated, but where are our standards? For Wright came from the absolute godforsaken bottom, rural Mississippi around the turn of the century, and this high-school dropout ended up in Paris as a peer of Jean-Paul Sartre. No thinker ever underwent a more excruciating journey of the body and of the mind to get to the place where he ended up, and so there is no excuse for the half-assed mediocrity that passes for thinking today. With our Gramsci and our postmodernism and whatnot we ought to be on a much higher plane than we are, and we ought to have our most famous public philosopher functioning on a much higher conceptual level than the slapdash opportunistic philosophical banality exemplified throughout the career of Cornel West.


De Genova, Nick. "Gangster rap and nihilism in Black America: some questions of life and death", Social Text, no. 43, 1995, p. 89-132.

James, C.L.R. American Civilization. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1993.

Webb, Constance. Richard Wright: A Biography. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1968.

Webb, Constance. "What next for Richard Wright?, Phylon, 2nd quarter, 1949, p. 161-166.

West, Cornel. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

West, Cornel. "Black Radicalism and the Marxist Tradition", Monthly Review, Vol. 40, No. 4, September 1988, p. 51-56.

West, Cornel. "Philosophy and the Afro-American experience", The Philosophical Forum, vol. 9, nos. 2-3, winter-spring 1977-78, p. 117-148.

West, Cornel. Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in America. Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 1993.

Wright, Richard. Conversations with Richard Wright. Edited by Kenneth Kinnamon and Michel Fabre. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.

Wright, Richard. Works. Volume 2. Later Works: Black Boy (American Hunger); The Outsider. New York, N.Y.: Library of America, 1991. (The Library of America; no. 56)

©1996, 2000 Ralph Dumain

SOURCE: Dumain, Ralph. “Cornel West's Evasion of Philosophy, Or, Richard Wright ’s Revenge, ” AAH Examiner [The Newsletter of African Americans for Humanism], vol. 6, no. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 3-6.

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