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Cornel West’s pragmatic America

Pragmatism is America’s homegrown philosophical tradition. Its lessons are as urgent as ever.

American philosopher and political activist, Cornel West, at Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City, 24th July 2012.
Steve Pyke via Getty Images

Cornel West is one of the most unique philosophical voices in America. He has written a ton of books and taught for over 40 years at schools like Princeton, Harvard, and now at the Union Theological Seminary.

West is what I’d call a public-facing philosopher, which is to say he’s not a cloistered academic. He’s constantly engaging the public and his thought is always in dialogue with poetry and music and literature. (If you’ve ever seen one of his lectures, you know what I mean.)

That civic-mindedness is a product of his roots in a school of thought called pragmatism. America doesn’t have an especially deep tradition of philosophy, but if we’re known for any one tradition, it’s pragmatism.

Pragmatism emerged in the US in the late 1800s as a response to the Enlightenment push for absolute truth. The pragmatists — people like William James and John Dewey — were less interested in certainty and more concerned with immediate experience. They simply wanted to know what worked for ordinary human beings in everyday life.

For West, pragmatism is really the philosophy of democracy; it’s a way of knowing and doing that puts the average human being at the center. So I reached out to West for a recent episode of Vox Conversations to talk about the story of American pragmatism, how his views are shaped by his devotion to the blues and his Christian faith, and how pragmatism can revitalize our approach to democracy today.

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

Pragmatism is a child of America and in many ways it feels like it could only have emerged here. Why is that?

Cornel West

I think the positive feature of American pragmatism, just like the positive feature of the American project, was a highly Socratic suspicion of authorities in the past. But the weakness is to think that you’re not going to be somehow connected to tradition, because traditions are inescapable. The question is always: Which tradition? Every novel breakthrough is not wholly novel, because it’s always based on something prior.

But it’s that energy of the new that I want to stress. For pragmatism, it’s about sustaining this energy to creativity because the world is incomplete, it is unfinished and unpredictable. And therefore there’s always possibility.

Now the worst of that is that if you wipe the slate clean, and you have no past, then you’re starting with innocence and you can’t learn from the past. The suspicion of traditions of the past means you have to then create new dynamic traditions with mechanisms of accountability and responsibility. And that’s pragmatism at its best, that’s America at its best.

Sean Illing

One of the things I love about pragmatism is this desire to avoid all of these navel-gazing debates in the history of philosophy and just focus on what works for the ordinary human being in everyday life. The more removed philosophy is from the everyday world, the less relevant it is. And I feel like the pragmatists really understood this. Is that why they focused so much on immediate experience?

Cornel West

Absolutely. There’s a democratizing of voices raised. There’s a democratizing of critical intelligence. There’s a democratizing of philosophia, a love of wisdom. And it’s found, as Emerson says over and over again, in the quotidian, in the every day. That’s the democratizing impulse of pragmatism.

Now when you say pragmatism focuses on “what works,” in some ways that obscures more than it illuminates because the question becomes, How do you determine what we understand “working” to be? Because pragmatism isn’t merely utilitarian or consequentialist. Pragmatism has a very strong moral dimension, and it’s not reducible to just any consequences at all.

We can go all the way back to Plato’s Republic, one of the founding texts of Western philosophy. There we see the battles going on between Thrasymachus and Socrates. Thrasymachus represents power, the idea that “might makes right.” And the younger generation looks to Socrates and says, is this true? Is it true that history is nothing but a slaughterhouse, as Hegel said, is it true that it’s just about might and power and domination? And Socrates says, no. Justice has to do with intellectual integrity. It has to do with philosophical inquiry. It has to do with some moral and even spiritual dimensions that are not reducible to might and power.

And that is the raw stuff for democracy, right? Because democracy says, Of course there is always economic and political and military power, but there’s got to be moral and spiritual dimensions rooted in the consent of everyday people. That’s what self-government is all about.

Sean Illing

Richard Rorty — a great American pragmatist and a former teacher of yours — called pragmatism a philosophy of solidarity. And he actually thought of pragmatism as a check against nihilism. In other words, we don’t have to discard our beliefs about the world, or our moral and political values, just because we realized that we made them up, that they weren’t discovered. But a lot of people draw the opposite conclusion from that realization —

Cornel West

Well, that’s part of that self-fashioning and self-creation that goes back to Emerson. That’s shot through pragmatism and Rorty’s thought. As William James said, pragmatism is a house with many rooms. And there’s a Rortian room. And that Rortian room is that of a Cold War liberal who’s concerned about getting beyond the subjectivism and the solipsism of Descartes. It’s all about a move toward community. And community for him was all about solidarity. We begin with a “we,” not an “I.” That’s pragmatism, that’s community, and that’s how you begin.

Sean Illing

There is something fundamentally democratic about how we get along in the world, and this leads back to John Dewey, the great defender of democracy and one of the most influential American pragmatists. As you know, Dewey was famously engaged in a long debate with Walter Lippmann, a brilliant media theorist and writer in the early 20th century.

Lippmann gave up on democracy. He didn’t believe that ordinary citizens were capable of understanding the world, or at least he didn’t believe they were capable of understanding the world given their circumstances. He thought they had to be managed by a technocratic elite. Why did Dewey reject that so strongly?

Cornel West

The early Walter Lippmann was a democratic socialist, very much like Dewey. After World War I, he loses his faith in the demos. I mean, he almost agrees with Plato that every democracy is eventually shattered by unruly passions and pervasive ignorance, and therefore democracies always lead toward a tyrant and hence the need for the philosopher-king.

So the early Lippmamn had this faith in democracy, and then he loses it. He says we must have the experts. We must have those folks who really know what they’re doing and know something about the world, because the demos will always be ignorant and gullible.

And Dewey comes along and says, “Walter, I understand your pilgrimage and your journey. I understand why you’ve lost faith in the demos.” I mean, Dewey gets that it’s a challenge. He gets that the demos can go fascist. They’re writing in the ’20s, after all. Mussolini’s on the way. That gangster Hitler is emerging as a result of the wounded German empire. But Dewey holds on to his democratic faith and the result is this powerful dialogue between the technocratic Lippmann and the democratic Dewey.

Sean Illing

Is it fair to say that Dewey, in lacking that tragic sensibility, was maybe a little too optimistic?

Cornel West

That’s a good query, man. Dewey’s complicated on this matter. You read his poetry when his wife dies and it’s pretty dim stuff. So it’s not as if he didn’t have any sense of the tragic. It’s just that he believed that human beings had been so obsessed with their limits that they had to be released from that obsession, and recognize those limits being contingent and provisional rather than eternal and universal.

I do resonate with that, because a lot of times what people think are limits are not limits at all. They’ll say, well, there’s no way we could really provide support for the poor because the market-driven economists tell us that this is the only way we can arrange society. But I say no, you just don’t have enough imagination or enough empathy. And we like to rationalize domination and oppression. Dewey’s right about all that.

Sean Illing

As much as I love Dewey, I think even he realized in the end that he never quite offered up a real political strategy for achieving his ideal democratic life. And we live in such a polarized time where the possibilities of dialogue across groups seems fleeting, to put it kindly. How in the world do we move toward the pragmatic democratic community that you and Dewey want to see in the world?

Cornel West

I think Dewey was always able to take seriously that Socratic humility we’ve been talking about. None of us possesses a monopoly on truth or goodness and beauty. But Dewey’s faith was tied to what he called a “natural piety.” And by piety, he didn’t mean uncritical deference to dogma or blind obedience to doctrine. He meant a virtuous acknowledgement of the sources of good in our lives. You are never, in and of yourself, the sole source for good. You’re always dependent on parents. You don’t teach yourself a language. All the talk about being “self-made” in America, as if you gave birth to yourself, as if you cultivated your own virtues — that’s the opposite of Dewey. And realizing this is the raw stuff of democracy.

But I don’t think Dewey would call himself an optimist. I think that he would fall back on hope. He had hope in society. That’s the farthest we can go. And Rorty is the richest, self-styled footnote to John Dewey that we have. He is so original and creative in building on the Deweyan project.

The reason why I hold Dewey a little bit at arm’s length, as much as I’m part of his tradition, is that when you inject the blues and Chekhov into any serious talk about democracy, then you do have the tragicomic. And the tragicomic is not just the limits, but how are you coming to terms with the limits? And of course blues is tragicomic. To. The. Core. Remember the 1937 Robert Johnson song “Hellhound on My Trail”? He says I’ve got to keep moving cause the blues is falling down like H-A-I-L, life worrying me so much, there’s hellhounds on my trail. I got to keep moving. That’s the dynamism. That’s the sense of motion. That’s the blues.

Sean Illing

So you still have faith in America?

Cornel West

Oh yes! It’s not a glib faith, though. It’s an earned faith. Just like that costly grace that the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about. It’s not a cheap grace, it’s an earned faith. And a very, very earned sense of grace.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.