- Cornel West and the Tragedy at the Heart of North American Pragmatism:A Retrospective Look at The American Evasion of Philosophy
The fundamental argument of this book is that the evasion of epistemology-centered philosophy—from Emerson to Rorty—results in a conception of philosophy as a form of cultural criticism in which the meaning of America is put forward by intellectuals in response to distinct social and cultural crises. In this sense, American Pragmatism is less a philosophical tradition putting forward solutions to perennial problems in the Western philosophical conversation initiated by Plato and more a continuous cultural commentary or set of interpretations that attempt to explain America to itself at a particular historical moment.—Cornel West, The American evasion of Philosophy, 5
The goal of a sophisticated neopragmatism is to think genealogically about specific practices in light of the best available social theories, cultural critiques, and historiographical insights and to act politically to achieve certain moral consequences in light of effective strategies and tactics.—Cornel West, The American evasion of Philosophy, 209
This essay offers a retrospective look at Cornel West's seminal genealogy of American Pragmatism, The American Evasion of Philosophy, written more than a quarter century ago.1 I have chosen the quotations above because they so clearly enunciate West's core cultural and historical interests, illustrating as well that he knew his own prophetic mind best. If ever there were a time for philosophers to present "a sort of cultural criticism" that reflects on "the [moral] meaning of America" and "attempts to explain America to itself," then our present seems to be such a time. But I will nonetheless begin this retrospective in a different time and place, and in referrence to a different set of texts. [End Page 179]
In the mid-to-late 1950s, during and after his work as a civil servant for a fading empire in then British-held Cyprus, Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) worked feverishly to complete his "Alexandria Quartet." The conceptual sophistication of the project is remarkable. It proposes to tell the same story from four different perspectives: three persons reporting the events at roughly the same time, and one person recalling these same events many years later with the benefit of retrospect. Thus Durrell situates his novel in the post-Einsteinian universe, consumed as it is with questions of relativity, space, and time. The title of each volume bore an individual person's name (Justine , Balthazar , Mountolive , and Clea )—for the relativity in question was an all-too-human relativity. Our spatial perspectives change; our temporal perspectives change. We fall in and out of love. We age; we grow; we decline.
One of the most striking aspects of Cornel West's landmark study of North American Pragmatism is that most chapters, similarly, bear the name of a person. This is very personal kind of philosophizing, one conducted in a very human key. Contingent persons and personalities constitute this loose and often freewheeling tradition of cultural criticism. We might view West's genealogy as an extension of the genre so handily cultivated by Emerson: call it his version of Pragmatism's "representative men." As we see very early in West's study, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) just so happened to do what he did when he did it, and so came to serve as premonition, progenitor, and lodestar of the Pragmatist tradition.
That Emerson is the spiritual river from which all later Pragmatist tributaries flow is one of the first and most compelling insights in West's remarkable book.2 This has several consequences. First, it masterfully reclaims the essay [End Page 180] as a significant philosophical genre. Pragmatists wrote essays, and much that is best in the tradition has the kind of reflexive flair that comes of essaying, in the sense given to the word, and the genre, by Montaigne. Second, Emerson's place in the pantheon unapologetically personalizes philosophy. The subject of the essay, even when it is not the self, is rendered from the perspective of a self. There is an inescapable personal relativity, in Durrell's artful sense of that term, to all philosophical...