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 reflection, especially when such reflection puts a premium on political and social criticism. The focus of such a style of thought, that is, will be ethics and aesthetics, not epistemology. It was Emerson's "evading of epistemology-centered philosophy," West observes, that enabled him to "accent … human powers, and transform … antiquated modes of social hierarchies in light of religious and/or ethical ideals" (Evasion, 4). These will be among the central tropes of this disruptive philosophical style.
To begin with Emerson is to establish both more subtle and more stable linkages between North American and European philosophical enquiry. Emerson was a European as well as an American event, and West's book was one of the first to make that connection explicit.3 By linking Emerson to what West calls "the European explosions (both intellectual and social) that produced Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle and Friedrich Nietzsche" (Evasion, 11), we are enabled to situate the man within his own times and to link the man with other places: Durrell's four dimensions, again.
In what follows I will work in the idiomatic space created by Durrell's fourth volume of the Alexandria Quartet, offering a retrospective look at West's Evasion. This approach provides me with an opportunity to reflect on how the American scene has changed in the nearly three decades since Evasion was published, as well as on the ways in which West's thought has shifted in response to these changes.
"Evasion" is one of the most striking terms in Cornel West's genealogical intervention in the history of North American (hereafter "American") Pragmatism. What does it mean, this American "evasion of philosophy"? We quickly learn [End Page 181] that this idea has multiple registers: a studied refusal of epistemology-driven philosophy (and in Pierce's case, an evasion of "the spirit of Cartesianism" [Evasion, 49]), on the one hand; and the evasion of a soporific culture driven by strictly and crudely mercantilist values, on the other. Teasing out the implications of West's title may assist in highlighting both the enduring value of the study and some potential new lines of enquiry that I will invite West to consider in conclusion.
The tone is set by two quotations from the frontispiece of Evasion. The first is from Aristotle. "If one must philosophize, then one must philosophize; and if one must not philosophize, then one must philosophize. For if one must, then, given that Philosophy exists, we are in every way obliged to philosophize. And if one must not, in that case too we are obliged to inquire how it is possible for there to be no philosophy; and in inquiring we philosophize, for inquiry is the cause of Philosophy." West underlines Aristotle's paradoxical contention that the option of not philosophizing does not really exist: to inquire is to philosophize, and all human beings engage in inquiry of one form or another. Even the person who claims to have no interest in philosophy, and who (so we might conclude) "must not philosophize," has already philosophized, simply by engaging in deliberation and self-assessment. Reflection, pondering, wonder … these are the archê of Philosophy.
This appears to be a general observation about philosophical knowledge, but it is also a very pointed rejection of a common assertion about mainstream American culture: namely, that what Henry James famously referred to as "a hotel civilization" (Evasion, 5) lacks the cultural resources for meaningful philosophical and historical discernment. West's book is an important reminder to Europhile elites (likes Henry James) and Europhobe nationalists alike, first, that this alleged American incapacity for philosophy is not genetic, and second, that such an assertion tends to serve as a self-confirming excuse for evading philosophical and moral responsibility altogether. In this sense, as West insists repeatedly, Pragmatism just is sociocultural criticism. Pragmatists are storytellers, who undertake to tell America's story to itself.
The second quotation comes from Richard Rorty, and it offers a pithy observation about Pragmatists (the people, be sure to note, not some singular or monolithic tradition): "Pragmatists keep trying to find ways of making anti-philosophical points in nonphilosophical language." Taken together these quotations proffer a remarkably egalitarian view of philosophy, a form of inquiry in which all democratic citizens can and must engage, precisely because it does not require a technical or specialized vocabulary. Pragmatism is philosophy by and for the people—all the people. [End Page 182]
III. Decline and Fall and Revival
One would be hard-pressed to argue that the current political culture in the US evidences anything other than an evasion, if not outright rejection, of philosophy and practical reasoning. West has long been a prophetic critic of this brand of cultural Know-Nothing-ism. And yet, committed as he is to a particular type of genealogy, West does not have the option of Golden Ageism. Viewing history cyclically, West's study eschews narratives of progress and decadence alike.4 Precisely what he cannot argue is that US citizens were more philosophically astute in the age of Emerson, or James and Du Bois, or Dewey and Niebuhr, and thus he cannot conclude that we have witnessed a decline and fall into our currently "evasive" cultural and political state. I know that the events of recent months argue forcibly for such a narrative of decline and fall, but tragedy, I will suggest, requires us to dig deeper—toward hope, and rejuvenation.
Central to West's genealogical purpose—an explicitly moral purpose—is to rehearse a history that encompasses the premonition, or prehistory (in Emerson), the emergence (in Pierce and James), the coming-of-age (in Dewey), the mid-century dilemma (more on that shortly), as well as the decline, and then the resurgence of American Pragmatism.
The very idea of a Pragmatist resurgence prepared the ground for West's own revision of Pragmatism as "prophetic." He begins the book, in fact, by asserting that there is a "small scale intellectual renascence [that] is occurring under the broad banner of pragmatism" (Evasion, 3), and he assembles philosophers like Richard Rorty and Richard Bernstein, literary critics like Frank Lentricchia and Stanley Fish, Deweyans like Sheldon Wolin and Michael Walzer, and religious ethicist Jeffrey Stout under this banner. Surely the rise in influence of [End Page 183] each of these thinkers in the past quarter-century provides significant confirmation of West's bold intuition.5
It is here that West's intervention in (or what he once calls the "blowing apart" of) the traditional Pragmatist canon is most evident, and its purpose clearest. His interventions are abundant, creative, and have large philosophical consequences. By including Emerson, W. E. B. DuBois, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Lionel Trilling in this genealogy, West "[tries] to show the way in which Emersonian sensibilities and pragmatist progeny cut across the modern disciplinary division of knowledge" (Evasion, 6). Pragmatism involves literature, theology, sociology, and history as much as traditional philosophy. And this transgressive refusal of disciplinary boundaries owes much to Emerson and the tradition of the essay. It is an evasion of boundaries as well as of epistemology.
West's intervention cuts still deeper, however. His rejection of Emerson's theodicy as overly "optimistic" qualifies his laudatory description of Emerson as the democratic free thinker who was the premonition of all later Pragmatism. I will have much more to say about that criticism below. His addition of African-American thinkers like W. E. B. DuBois to the canon significantly reshapes our understanding of the range and political scope of Pragmatist thought. His addition of religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr similarly enhances our understanding of the range and religious scope of Pragmatist thought. His addition of literary critics like Lionel Trilling enhances our understanding of the full range of sources available to the Pragmatist tradition of enquiry. Similarly, his addition of a "blues sensibility" left a lasting mark on his own understanding of Pragmatism as a cultural tone and tradition.
All of these canonical interventions occur in the context of West's claim that Pragmatism faced a "dilemma" in the mid-twentieth-century. One dilemma involved how to embrace Emerson's "evasion of epistemology-centered philosophy" (Evasion, 139), without succumbing to what West deems as Emerson's unearned "cosmic" and "mystical" optimism. In the wake of "the concentration camps and the mushroom cloud"—as well as the challenge of Stalinist Marx-ism—which "left indelible stamps on the mind of Americans" (Evasion, 114), optimism seems an unwieldy and virtually tone-deaf critical stance. A second dilemma lay in developing a deeper sense of the tragic and ironic dimension of political life, especially American political life (this is an obvious echo of Reinhold Niebuhr's most prophetic writings) and "to promote and sustain human agency in a tragic world" (Evasion, 114).
Here, in 1989, West identified himself with a "prophetic" line of Pragmatist criticism (Evasion, 7-8). In 2004, and very much in dialogue with Jeffrey Stout's [End Page 184] monumental Democracy and Tradition,6 West claimed the more secular, but still deeply spiritual, space of radical democracy as a "democratic" thinker committed to a form of "tragicomic" hope.7 Four years later, in positioning himself over and against President Barack Obama, West identified himself as a "deep democrat," as opposed to Obama's liberalism; West insisted somewhat coyly that "they're not the same thing."8 (This debate deliberately echoes, I believe, West's account of Dewey's distancing himself from Roosevelt's "liberal program" in the New Deal [Evasion, 107]). Still later, West will call himself "a bluesman in the life of the mind, and a jazzman in the world of ideas."9 I will return to this important issue of evolving self-identification near the end of this essay.
For all of its enormously important interventions and additions, West's book also contains some equally notable omissions and dismissals, as he confesses at the outset: "This book does not purport to be a comprehensive account of American pragmatism. Rather, it is a highly selective interpretation of American pragmatism in light of the present-day (or my reading) of American society and culture" (Evasion, 6).
Naturally, there are important thinkers whom West does not engage here (like George Herbert Mead and C. I. Lewis [Evasion, 6]). But others are omitted [End Page 185] who will nonetheless loom large in West's later thought. Josiah Royce is scarcely mentioned, save as an indirect influence on Sidney Hook (Evasion, 114) and as a direct influence on DuBois (Evasion, 139). A decade later, West will claim that Royce has emerged for him as the Pragmatist with the most acute and developed tragic sensibility.10
Of greater surprise, Michel Foucault is dismissed as an antiromantic thinker who was overly preoccupied with a single overarching question (the Kantian question of "the various modes by which human beings are constituted into subjects") and a single overarching political strategy ("reduc[ing] left ethics to a bold and defiant Great Refusal addressed to the dominant powers that be") (Evasion, 223-26). This surprisingly flat reading of Foucault causes the reader to wonder why West elects to dismiss Foucault in this manner. I admit that the subsequent translation into English of three posthumous volumes of Foucault's massive production—organized around the themes of Ethics (1997), Power (1999), and Aesthetics (2004)—have significantly expanded our knowledge of (and in my case, appreciation for) the depth of Foucault's political and ethical engagements. But this once again is the perspective born of Durrellian retrospect.
In 1989, it might be argued, many American philosophers evaded their own thinkers in favor of French fads in ways that West finds irresponsible. The French Revolution was preceded by the American Revolution: this is not a nationalist claim; it is a historicist claim, one evaded by too many North American left intellectuals. Foucault, West seems to feel, cannot help an American readership think its way to the heart of the current American order at home and abroad: a decidedly tragic order.
But it is the alleged antiromanticism of Foucault's project that causes West the most dismay (Evasion, 223). He is ultimately interested, after all, in claiming the space for a prophetic pragmatism that is linked to what he calls—in a moment of striking insight and originality—"third wave left romanticism" (Evasion, 214ft).11 West's reclamation of such a romanticism, once again deeply [End Page 186] informed by Emerson, is this: "I mean quite simply the preoccupation with Promethean human powers, the recognition of the contingency of the self and society, and the audacious projection of desires and hopes in the form of regulative emancipatory ideals for which one lives and dies" (Evasion, 215).
We hear echoes of the major Emersonian tropes with which West has grappled throughout this text: power, personality, provocation. But West, as poetic as he is prophetic, here adds a fourth P-word: Promethean. Prometheus, we will recall, is a mythic figure, a figure of Greek tragedy. Indeed, West offers "tragedy, tradition and political praxis" (Evasion, 226-35) as precisely the moral supplements that his version of prophetic Pragmatism can provide to French fads. The American evasion may thus also be seen as an American invasion of philosophy.
If I am roughly correct in my account of the structure of West's genealogy, including its omissions and dismissals, then I think we may be in a better position to assess, not just the enduring importance and relevance of this remarkable text, but also how it relates to significant shifts in West's own self-understanding in the ensuing quarter century.
V. The Role of Tragedy in Pragmatist Thought
In the remainder of this essay, I will focus on the category of "tragedy," examining it in relation to comedy, optimism, pessimism, gospel, and blues. Tragedy, I am suggesting, is precisely the category that enabled West's prophetic interventions in 1989.12 Emerson is too optimistic, and thus not tragic enough; Trilling became too pessimistic and thus succumbed to cultural despair; Royce struggled to find the correct moral balance and tragic tone.13 Nearly every thinker West engages is measured according to the sliding scale of this complex notion of the tragic. [End Page 187] Pierce knew tragedy personally yet remained doggedly committed to the power of love in the work of human history. William James, like Emerson, his forebear, "simply fail[ed] to entertain the possibility that overcoming a limitation or reconciling extremes may result in an outcome that is worse than its antecedent conditions; they cannot imagine wholesale regression" (Evasion, 57).
That, I think, is one of the most prophetic and prescient observations in this remarkable book. And let me be very clear about what I think has just been asserted: tragedy is not progressive. Progress is a dangerous sociocultural illusion; "not in time is the race progressive." Even West's beloved John Dewey, he worries, "does not entertain the possibility that his own evangelical zeal for creative democracy falls prey to [the Emersonian] optimism and deification of power" (Evasion, 101). It was only after Dewey, we may recall, in a time of wholesale regression, that "a deep sense of tragedy and irony creep into American pragmatism," and thus "pragmatism, like America itself, reaches maturity" (Evasion, 111).
Sidney Hook initiates this new phase of American Pragmatism by criticizing his teacher, John Dewey; the charge is that Dewey does not take constraint, in Marx's sense, seriously enough, and thus falls prey to Emerson's overweening faith in the exercise of individual human will (Evasion, 116). But Hook's Marxist commitments do not survive the Stalinist ruse, and he returns to a tragically inflected Deweyan pragmatism in his important 1960 essay, "Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life" (Evasion, 119). In short, Hook's career "portrays American pragmatism in deep crisis" (Evasion, 124).
C. Wright Mills exemplifies that same crisis, amplified by his criticism of "corporate liberalism in the political sphere" (Evasion, 124). Mills insisted early on that Dewey ignored social theorists like Marx and Weber in ways that disenabled this form of critical engagement (Evasion, 126). Mills was uniquely suspicious of the faddish "'tragic sense of life' perspectives that either foreclose social action or limit it to piecemeal social engineering" (Evasion, 128). Later, however, he seems to have concluded, with Weber (the tragic Weber, we might say14), that modern bureaucratic rationalism had turned the intellectual class, primarily housed now in modern universities, into yet another class of managerial and corporate careerists (Evasion, 137-38). This worry about the institutionalization of philosophy will be a recurrent Pragmatist trope. And thus Mills, too, ends on a despairing note.15 [End Page 188]
W. E. B. DuBois read America's racial history through the unique lens of the African American experience (Evasion, 138), supplementing the work of Emerson and James with further historical and sociological materials. He heard Weber's visiting lectures in Berlin (Evasion, 140), and the Russian Revolution, coupled with his dismay at what the European gunpowder empires unleashed in the First World War, forced him to take Marx far more seriously. "Du Bois provides American pragmatism with what it most sorely lacks: an international perspective on the impetus and impediments to individuality and racial democracy, a perspective that highlights the plight of the wretched of the earth, namely, the majority of humanity who own no property or wealth, participate in no democratic arrangements, and whose individualities are crushed by hard labor and harsh living conditions" (Evasion, 147-48). Needless to say, this eloquently describes the disproportionate experience of African Americans. And so DuBois, combining his Marxist and Africanist sensibilities, was further radicalized, further alienated … and further harassed in McCarthyite America. His decision to emigrate to Ghana near the end of his life, after long years of organized social struggle, represents a tragic counterpoint to the organizing work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at that same time (Evasion, 149). DuBois died in 1963.
Reinhold Niebuhr viewed America's post-War political trajectory through this same tragic lens, and understood the combination of a tragic sensibility with his moral-political version of "Christian realism" as necessary for a meaningful prophetic social engagement, that is, a "Christian pragmatism" (Evasion, 150). Forced to make difficult choices and to take sides in the context of World War Two, Niebuhr did so unapologetically. West notes a shift in his post-War rhetoric—from tragedy to irony—and a concomitant flattening of his social criticism, as well as an insensitivity to the democratic claims of emerging peoples, such as Arabs (Evasion, 162-63). "Niebuhr responded to the crisis of American pragmatism with both prophetic defiance and priestly defense of mid-century America. His most profound and enduring yet ambiguous legacy was to link a Christian tragic perspective with a tempered Emersonian stress on human creative powers" (Evasion, 163). We will hear this same ambivalence expressed by West many times in regard to a contemporary self-styled Niebuhrian, President Barack Obama.
In Lionel Trilling, we meet the most creative, robust, and self-conscious adoption of the Emersonian essay form, placed in the service of democratic self-cultivation and self-formation (Evasion, 169-71). But we also trace a downward spiral from his early interest in Matthew Arnold's blending of literary and cultural criticism (Evasion, 165-69), through a preoccupation with John Keats's concept of tragic heroism (Evasion, 172-73), to Trilling's later descent into reaction and cultural despair (Evasion, 177-78). Trilling also provides West [End Page 189] with the opportunity to suggest an altogether fascinating family resemblance among a wide variety of mid-century American Pragmatists:
Despite the diversity of intellectual responses to the dilemma of mid-century pragmatism, there are three basic commonalities. All five figures reviewed here
1. display varying degrees of suspicion of working-and lower-class people with limited education;
2. deploy some notion of tragedy to describe their vision, and
3. are themselves personally empowered by pragmatism to overcome marginality or inferiority complexes by means of their own acts of intellectual will, i.e., writing.(Evasion, 178)
Naturally, I want to focus on that intriguing second feature: the use of tragedy.
West confesses that "tragedy is not a monolithic notion with universal meaning and homogenous usage. Rather it is deployed in different ways by various people in specific circumstances so that it provides varying results" (Evasion, 180, italics mine). For Hook, tragedy entailed the decline and fall of social democratic commitments after the War. Similarly for Mills, it entailed a Weberian understanding of the invidious power of bureaucratic and corporate culture to squelch individuality. For DuBois, it embraced the African American experience tout court. For Niebuhr, it involved an Augustinian notion of personal sinfulness coupled with the political necessity of choosing the lesser evil. For Trilling, it represented the Romantic heights no longer available given the stultifying pedantry of American mass culture. What, then, is it for Cornel West?
Ten years after the publication of The American Evasion of Philosophy, West famously identified himself as a "Chekhovian Christian with deep democratic commitments."16 He began to reflect on the Christian implications of this new mode three years later, in the preface to the second edition of Prophesy Deliverance!, instructively titled "The Tragicomic and the Political in Christian Faith."17
To prophesy is not to predict an outcome but rather to identify concrete evils. To prophesy deliverance is not to call for some otherworldly paradise but rather to generate enough faith, hope, and love to sustain the human possibility for more freedom. For me, to be a Christian is not to opt for some cheap grace, trite comfort, or childish consolation but rather to confront the darker sides, and the human plights, of societies and souls with the weak armor of compassion and justice. The fundamental human mystery is how and why this weak armor—in a cold and cruel world—is not [End Page 190] Snuffed out just as the Christian mystery is, how and why love so thoroughly crushed by evil forces is not fully extinguished. Afro-American quests for wisdom and freedom provide some crucial insight and inspiration regarding these unfathomable mysteries.18
It is in this sense that the African American experience is both paradigmatic and perennial. This is the sense West has made of Richard Wright's (and James Baldwin's) famous claim that "the history of the Negro in America is the history of America." But for West, this seismic shift in tone and emphasis is explained by the manner in which he has brought new resources to old concerns:
To put it crudely, my aim in Prophesy Deliverance! was to Afro-Americanize the profound insights of Kierkegaard's critique of bourgeois Christendom and Marx's critique of bourgeois capitalism in order to enhance the human quest for wisdom and freedom. … I remain a card-carrying Kiekegaardian—with a strong Chekhovian twist—and a Marxist-informed radical democrat with a tragicomic sense of life. The relative absence of the great Chekhov and the grand Coltrane—whose shadows color my later work—loom large in Prophesy Deliverance! Yet small bits of them are discernible.19
The new resources provided by Chekhov and Coltrane are now to be addressed to old concerns.
The most perennial of these concerns was political: "If there is a master term in my text—and work—it is democracy. I understand democracy as a mode of being, a way of life, a disposition toward the world that is flexible, protean, and improvisational existential practice."20 It is in this emphatically democratic key that the new tone of tragicomic awareness is asked to do substantive work. If democracy is existential as well as social, a set of philosophical commitments as well as an ethically ambiguous historical phenomenon, then its prophetic promotion will require a tragicomic sensibility. The democratic virtues West identifies are courage, humility, and empathy; the vices are arrogance and indifference. The existential dimension of democratic practice must be, West insists, "fueled by the comic." He appears to have primarily Socratic practices in mind here, what he calls the linkage of "self-examination and societal critique," and he explicitly identifies the career of the practicing comic democrat in the world as a tragic one. While "any attempt to eliminate—or even tame—the comic is antidemocratic," historically speaking, every democracy has done just that, [End Page 191] "since all traditions, hierarchies, and systems attempt to do so."21 Plato's Apology and Phaedo trace the tragicomic arc of every democracy.
This tragicomic conception of existential democracy—linked to the ecstasies and erosions of the body and body politic—is alien to much of Prophesy Deliverance! Yet it is central to my present Chekhovian Christian view of radical democratic being and doing. Needless to say, the relative absence of the comic in the Christian and Marxist traditions (and pragmatism too!) delayed the move to my present outlook. Now Lucian means as much or more to me than Socrates, Erasmus much more than Luther, Chekhov far more than DuBois. This outlook enables me to embrace the best of the prophetic Christian and progressive Marxist traditions—their anti-idolatrous and compassionate praxis—and also affirm the Beckett-like character of love and justice in human history. … To then prophesy deliverance is to link our wit to any wisdom and our funk to any freedom—it is to connect a loving Jesus who laughs to an inquiring Du Bois who breakdances.22
Nietzsche quipped suggestively that he would only believe in a god who could dance, a savior who could laugh, and a philosopher who could write music;23 it is an evocative image, but one that wants further explanation. West's concluding line is similarly evocative. By way of explanation, he would move in the ensuing years toward more explicit descriptions of his own distinctive version of "Good Friday Christianity," and its relationship to a very particular kind of hope: "It's a kind of blues-inflected hope rather than a cheap American optimism that motivates me."24 It is this deepened understanding of the "blues sensibility" that embraces the cross rather than the resurrection, I suspect … another striking feature of West's shifting rhetoric (as well as his laying claim to the language of "catastrophe") in the last decade.25 [End Page 192]
But these moves also draw us upstream, back to Emerson. Let me return to West's contentions regarding Emerson's (over?) determined "optimism."26 West characterizes Emerson's core faith as follows: "Despite America's 'sinister side,' exceptional individuals qua American can overcome all obstacles, solve all problems, go beyond all limitation. This simple Emersonian theodicy—optimistic, moralistic, and activistic—rest upon three fundamental premises" (Evasion, 25). These premises (West suggestively imagines them as constituting Emerson's "theodicy," at Evasion, 16) are as follows:
1. The basic nature of things, the fundamental way the world is, is congenial to and supportive of the moral aims and progress of the chosen or exceptional people, i.e., Americans. (Evasion, 14-15)
2. The basic nature of things, the fundamental way the world is, is itself incomplete and in flux, always the result of and a beckon to the experimental makings, workings, and doings of human beings. (Evasion, 15)
3. The experimental makings, workings, and doings of human beings have been neither adequately understood nor fully unleashed in the modern world. (Evasion, 16)
These three theses lead West to a devastating diagnosis of the progressivist optimism lying at the heart of Emerson's intentionally transgressive Christianity, already well articulated in his 1838 Harvard Divinity School Address:
Emerson's theodicy essentially asserts three things: that "the only sin is limitation," ie., constraints on power; that sin is overcomable; and that it is beautiful and good that sin should exist to be overcome. … This American religion that extols human power, vision, newness, and conquest domesticates and dilutes the devastating critiques of American civilization put forward by Emerson himself. This is so because Emerson's notion of power … celebrates moral transgression at the expense of social revolution.(Evasion, 17)
I want to pause here. The shocking claim enunciated in this transgressive and optimistic version of Emersonian Christianity is that "Sin is good."27 To West's [End Page 193] mind, that claim hinges upon an excessively individualist, and insufficiently social, perspective that cannot help but inure one to collective human suffering. It is precisely here that West will offer his "prophetic" counterpoint to the Emersonian/American religion.
By contrast, I think that tragedy may be taken to demand some sense of sin's "goodness." Nietzsche's foundational distinction between the Adamic (or Edenic) and the Promethean understanding of transgression against the divine command, claims sin as heroic when understood in a tragic way; this was the pivot around which the second half of The Birth of Tragedy revolved.28 As the Kyoto School philosopher Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945), puts it, in specific reference to Christian thought: the revolution (and the revelation) in Jesus's parables was to insist, arguably for the first time, that sin is philosophically interesting, certainly more interesting than goodness.29 [End Page 194]
VI. The Organic Intellectual
On the positive side of the ledger, Emerson represents the emergence of a new and enduring character type that has proven to have the most emphatic impact on West's subsequent career. In short, Emerson was an "organic intellectual" (Evasion, 35-41). What this means is difficult and complex, but at a minimum it means this: that Emerson consciously and intentionally wedded his emerging self-image to his changing times and circumstances. His life was a book he kept rewriting. On a single, shattering page (Evasion, 38; see table 1, below), West juxtaposes the central social and political events in America's national life (between 1828 and 1877) with some of the most seismic events in Emerson's personal life (between 1831 and 1872).30
For all of Emerson's celebration of the individual, self-affirming, and self-shaping will, he grew ever more finely aware of the crucial role played by [End Page 195] external circumstance. As Marx said in the Eighteenth Brumaire, we do shape the world, but not just as we please.31 Emerson came only gradually, and with careful deliberation, to the public avowal of active abolition, in 1844.
There is thus a deep social and political awareness in Emerson's later writings (even at their most personal, as in the strange reflection on the death of his son in the shattering essay from his second series of essays published in 1844, entitled "Experience") that belie some of the apparently optimistic claims of his earlier work. It is curious that the word Emerson seems to prefer for such circumstances is necessity. For the Greek tragedians, as for Martha Nussbaum and Bernard Williams,32 accident or luck would be better terms. Charles Sanders Pierce coined the term tychism to get at precisely this same issue and idea (Evasion, 52).
One of the most moving aspects of West's Emersonian retrievals is the emphasis he places on Emerson's recurrent worries about his own political impotence. Essays rarely generate a politics of their own, at least not directly. Emerson's forceful letter of protest to President Martin van Buren, decrying the forced removal of the Cherokee from Georgia, along the so-called Trail of Tears, went unheeded and unremarked (Evasion, 21-22, 38).33 Perhaps this is why Emerson was so effusive in his praise of John Brown (Evasion, 23); here, he seems to feel, we see real courage and real activism—moral transgression, to use West's favored term for the Emersonian project—as opposed to the workaday busyness of the scholar in his solitude, or the gardener among his flowers and vegetables. It is telling that Emerson called Brown "a romantic character" in that speech, one "absolutely without any vulgar trait."34
If Emerson was a transgressor of norms, boundaries, and literary styles, then we would do well to interrogate his conception of intellectual activism more closely. For Emerson did not only write essays. He also taught briefly at Harvard in 1870, and he lectured extensively throughout his long career, [End Page 196] Starting as early as 1834 (Evasion, 38). Here, I would like to suggest, is where Emerson's activism found its surest footing and form.
One of the last lectures Emerson ever gave was at Amherst College, in 1879, and his topic was "The Superlative, on Mental Temperance." In the audience that day was an ambitious college senior still seeking to find his way. His name was Henry Clay Folger Jr. (1857-1930); he credits the experience of hearing Emerson speak that day with his decision to take up the Essays, and to read Emerson's "Reflections on the Commemoration of the 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Shakespeare." Folger came to the dawning realization that American culture lacked the resources sufficiently to appreciate and internalize Shakespeare as Emerson had so clearly done.35 Shakespeare knew tragedy; so did Emerson. So does West. In 2017, so should America. Henry Clay Folger Jr. was inspired to do something about that. Provoked by Emerson's words, both spoken and written, he decided later in life to commit a considerable part of his family fortune to the establishment of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, located symbolically in between the Library of Congress and the US Supreme Court.
Elite? To be sure. Elitist? That claim is less easily defended; William James was an elitist according to West's judgment (Evasion, 61-62), but not so Emerson or Dewey. West himself acknowledges the ways in which an educated middle class, as well as a social elite, were always Emerson's target audience; he also acknowledges the "severe restrictions" this imposed upon "the political possibilities of his project" (Evasion, 39-40). But the roots of a more radical democratic engagement were also sown in Emerson's essays.
So one must proceed with caution and charity, as West does artfully throughout this volume with virtually each and every thinker he discusses (except perhaps Foucault). He is remarkably charitable in his assessment of Dewey's balking at more explicit political engagement, for instance (Evasion, 80-81ff). From my retrospective perspective, it bears notice that the prophetic pragmatism that West identifies as his own course in 1989 carried similar pitfalls and frustrations—namely, the fear of political impotence.
At some point, and he discusses this candidly in his memoir,36 West decided to do something quite similar to what Emerson did, namely, to take to the road, pursuing an ambitious and well-nigh exhausting schedule of public lectures, panels, and presentations. This requires the Emersonian trinity of "personal power, provocation and personality"—but especially the personality, which constituted [End Page 197] William James's greatness and accounted for his deep influence (Evasion, 54). And also West's own. I notice that when West began his more intentional lecturing career, very unlike Emerson, he did so entirely without notes. As he observes in his reflections on Dewey, "The kind of choices pragmatists make regarding the content and style of their work depends greatly on their historical situation, personal aims, and sociocultural location" (Evasion, 96). These lectures are thus decisions of considerable political consequence; they had scholarly consequences as well. We will not see another scholarly volume with this level of literary engagement again. We will get other forms of reflection, other genres of political and philosophical expression, and we should be careful to note: this is not West's evasion of philosophy, but rather his embrace of it, that is to say, his practice of prophetic Pragmatism. As West observed of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose chair he briefly occupied at Union Theological Seminary, "Niebuhr was a sheer dynamo of intellectual energy: his perpetual, restless movement embodied a pioneer spirit in an America in search of new frontiers. … In short, as writer, activist, and 'circuit rider,' Niebuhr was an Emersonian figure in mid-century America" (Evasion, 15). Cornel West might well be describing himself in this new century—for he rides the circuit as well and as hard as anyone.
The positive consequences of this intentional shift are harder to assess, but they are considerable. And here once again Emerson is exemplary. West's decision to speak to a wider democratic public, far wider than Emerson's, has borne fruit of which we have not yet tasted, and provided access to the fruit of knowledge forbidden to many in our midst. We will not know how many young men and women, like the young Henry Clay Folger Jr., upon hearing West speak, opted for a different life path—choosing prophecy over profit, college over commerce, a life of intellectual and moral engagement over emotive reaction and the cruder mercantilist values of the Neoliberal economy. There may well be men and women reading this, right now, who were so moved in hearing West for the first time.37
And now comes the caveat, another crucial rhetorical trope that West deploys repeatedly. He never gives something without taking something away.38 His discussion of Emerson, in particular, is nothing but appreciation and caveat, [End Page 198] point and counterpoint, performed in order to remind us that the organic intellectual is indeed an organic and historical being; this is Dewey's greatest and most enduring Hegelian insight (Evasion, 69-71). We learn from, and are inspired by, imperfect men and women, subject to the inevitable blind spots that twenty-eight years of self-reflection and democratic discussion may help to attenuate. And it is precisely because I appreciate and admire West's Emersonian engagements and choices that I wish to call him back to the academy, if just for a short while. We need one more book—or perhaps more appropriately, a substantive essay—a sort of scholarly bookend to The American Evasion of Philosophy, one that traces West's own intellectual and spiritual genealogy, highlighting the roles that theodicy, then tragedy, then Chekhovian tragicomedy, then the Blues, and perhaps finally "Good Friday Christianity" have played, and continue to play, in his work and thought. Maybe this is the unfinished book on Royce; maybe it is something else entirely.
What I think we need is West's scholarly reflection on "The American Evasion of Tragedy."39 And I would suggest that a good place to begin might just be "Good Saturday," when Christ allegedly descended in order to "harry Hell," and so to restore all who wished to be restored. West has an interesting take on this not-quite-abolitionist Holy Saturday, too: "Black folk have been locked into that long Saturday after Good Friday. We ain't had Easter yet. All we have is each other, and the promise of Easter, the promise of freedom."40 My own view is that the Christian gospel, at least in Mark's performative version, is a deeply tragic testament, in West's implicit terms.41 After all, you've got to go through Hell to write a poem, to sing the Blues, to love a lover, to fight for justice, to get to Heaven. So, there is a lingering truth, not at all optimistic, in Emerson's surprising contention that sin, as limitation, is good. You need a limit, after all, in order to have something to transcend.
And that kind of transcendence is enough for the Pragmatist, the prophetic ones arguably most of all.42 [End Page 199]
[End Page 200]
1. Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989). All citations from this book will be included in parentheses in the body of the essay as Evasion.
2. Perhaps the most thoughtful, and sympathetic, critic of this notion of Emerson as a protopragmatist is Stanley Cavell. Cavell expresses a concern about what he calls "this fixed picture" or "fixed view" of Emerson, thus: "No one can sensibly deny that Emerson was a muse of pragmatism. But to my mind the assimilation of Emerson to pragmatism unfailingly blunts the particularity, the achievement, of Emerson's language, in this sense precisely shuns the struggle for philosophy—for, I might say, the right to philosophize, to reconceive reason—that Emerson sought to bequeath." See Emerson's Transcendental Etudes, ed. David Justin Hodge (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 7. In a later essay in this same volume, "What's the Use of Calling Emerson a Pragmatist?" Cavell plays upon the contrast between Emerson and Thoreau, so notoriously difficult to read, with James and Dewey, so very accessible (and democratic) in language and in thought. Essentially, Cavell is cautioning us against overstating the similarities between pragmatism, transcendentalism, and ordinary language philosophy (216), and he does so in order to situate Emerson within "a tradition of perfectionist writing that extends in the West from Plato to Nietzsche" (223). But I think West has an answer to this worry, and thus a way of reading Emerson that underlines the necessary connection between his pragmatism and his perfectionism. West's name for this artful and self-critical combination will be "prophetic," and Emerson is the first in a long line of prophetic American pragmatists. What this has meant, since Emerson's 1838 "Harvard Divinity School Address," is this: where you will have a king, there you will require a prophet who is not a priest.
3. The recent book by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 9–22, lays out with great care the depth and endurance of the influence that Emerson exerted on Nietzsche, but West's book was both prophetic and propaedeutic in this regard.
4. This cyclical and historical genealogy of North American Pragmatism is thus very different from West's other genealogies, such as we find in his account of racism in Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 47–65. The genealogy in Prophecy Deliverance! is a more identifiably Nietzschean enquiry aimed at uncovering the "dirty origins" (pudenda origo) of a noxious idea. The genealogical perspective in Evasion, on the other hand, is more Emersonian, as we meet it in the rousing conclusion to the decisive essay, "Self-Reliance":
See Brooks Atkinson, ed., The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, NY: The Modern Library, 1992), 151–152.
5. Jeffrey Stout, for instance, recently delivered the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh (May 2017).
6. Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). Of particular interest and resonance are Stout's suggestions that hope is a democratic, as well as a supernatural, virtue (9, 13, 55–60), and that the essay is a, perhaps the, distinctively democratic genre (8, 164–65). Of particular relevance is Stout's description of hope as a virtue, presented in a roundtable discussion of the book when it first appeared:
7. Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 16–19.
8. Cornel West, Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom (New York: SmileyBooks, 2008), 145: "I want Senator Obama to win, but I'm going to criticize him intensely when he wins. I'm a deep democrat and he's a liberal. They're not the same thing. I very much support him, but it's a question of principle. The plight of everyday people is paramount."
9. Cornel West, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, a Memoir, with David Ritz (New York: SmileyBooks, 2009).
10. Cornel West, "Pragmatism and the Sense of the Tragic," in The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 174–82.
11. In positioning Pragmatism in this way, West is attempting to split the difference between John Dewey and Antonio Gramsci, while avoiding the excesses to which every romanticism is vulnerable. I have pondered the historical implications of this notion of Romanticism's "third wave." Its first wave was well-known to, and influential upon, Emerson himself: think of it as the determined reflection on the promise and the excesses of the French Revolution. I think of Lord Byron as a representative figure here (Hegel, too): aristocratic and welleducated, but committing his financial and intellectual and poetic resources to revolution in England, Italy, and Greece. The second wave of this liberationist, progressive "left romanticism" must surely be the campaigns for abolition that preoccupied Emerson throughout his essayist's and lecturer's career. But what, and when, is the third wave? One suspects, if we examine the entirety of West's publications and career, that it is the nonviolent civil rights cause enunciated most clearly by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. The radically prophetic character of that career and that legacy has been brilliantly reclaimed by West in his edited volume, The Radical King (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015). Interestingly, Stanley Cavell shares this sense of the importance of romanticism to Emerson's essaying: "Then you will have not only to conclude that we are not beyond the demands of romanticism, but you will have to hope that the demands of romanticism are not beyond us" (Emerson's Transcendental Etudes, 137). Let the last word be Emerson's, from the shattering 1844 essay, "Experience": "Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat; up again, old heart?—it seems to say—there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power" (in The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Modern Library, 1992), 326.
12. I made a first pass at this kind of engagement with West's thought in "Muted Strains of Emersonian Perfection: Reflections on Cornel West's Tragic Pragmatism," Soundings 95, no. 3 (2012): 309–32.
13. I note that West's essay "Pragmatism and the Sense of the Tragic" (in The Cornel West Reader, 174–82), gestures toward a book-length study of Royce that West never completed.
14. See John Patrick Diggins, Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy (New York: Basic Books, 1996); and Robert C. Pirro, The Politics of Tragedy and Democratic Citizenship (New York: Continuum, 2011), 74–96.
15. One reasonable conclusion might be to say that West seems to share this bleak view of institutional philosophy, now, in 2016. It's probably a perennial fantasy of most professors to leave the Academy, but it's far easier dreamed than done. Cornel West has more experience with that dialectical tension than most of us.
16. See his introduction to The Cornel West Reader, xv–xvii, where he associates this position with "tragicomic," "idiosyncratic and iconoclastic" thinking that highlights courage in the face of suffering and death.
17. West, "The Tragicomic and the Political in Christian Faith," in Prophesy Deliverance!, 5–10.
18. Ibid., 6.
19. Ibid., 7–8.
20. Ibid., 8–9. It is worth noting that West would flesh out that claim in his next book, Democracy Matters (New York: Penguin Books 2004).
21. West, Prophesy Deliverance!, 9.
22. Ibid., 9–10.
23. The relevant discussions may be found in Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann (1954; repr., New York: Viking, 1966), "On Free Death" (71–74), "The Dancing Song" (107–10); and "The Drunken Song" (317–24); Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans.Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1966), especially the juxtaposition of part 1, "On the Prejudices of Philosophers" (9–32) with part 2, "The Free Spirit" (35-56) and #295 (233–36); also Twilight of the Idols, trans. Richard Polt (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), especially the juxtaposition of "The Problem of Socrates" (12–17) with "What I Owe to the Ancients" (86–91).
24. West, Hope on a Tightrope, 41.
25. I take note especially of his extraordinary comments for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibit, "Blues for Smoke," in October 2012: "The cross is at the center of the blues; the resurrection is at the center of the gospel." The startling tenminute reflection may be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uVK4EQK7L4.
26. Here once again, Stanley Cavell offers an intriguing perspective on the dilemma posed by tragedy, in good Pragmatist fashion, by making a distinction: "In a new world everything is to be lost and everything is to be found. The commonest criticism of Emerson is that he is denying the tragic. His commonest criticism of us is that we are denying—we deny our affirmations (say their individuality) and we deny our negations (say our skepticism). / The first and last answer in 'Experience' to the question of realizing philosophy's worlds are recommendations to ignorance—not as an excuse but as the space, the better possibility, of our action." "Finding as Founding: Taking Steps in Emerson's 'Experience,'" in Emerson's Transcendental Etudes, 124.
27. The most relevant passage in Emerson's first series of essays (1841) may be this, taken from "Circles": "How often must we learn this lesson? Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations. The only sin is limitation. As soon as you once come up with a man's limitations, it is all over with him. Has he talents? has he enterprise? has he knowledge? It boots not. Infinitely alluring and attractive was he to you yesterday, a great hope, a sea to swim in; now, you have found his shores, found it a pond, and you care not if you never see it again" (Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 255). Naturally, this apparently instrumental use of other people will have significant implications for how Emerson understands love and friendship, a rigorous code he had enunciated in two previous essays in this same volume. West seems less "perfectionist" in his view of friendship and fellowship, and this has implications for how he understands the work of collective organizing for social betterment. The question of which view is more "optimistic" does not seem to capture the essential question before us.
28. And pitiable when understood in an Edenic way. See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), secs. 9–11 (pp. 67–81). This contrast owes much to Emerson, who observes (in "Experience") that sin may be understood quite differently by the intellect than by the conscience: "Saints are sad, because they behold sin (even when they speculate) from the point of view of conscience, and not of the intellect; a confusion of thought. Sin, seen from the thought, is a diminution, or less; seen from the conscience or will, it is pravity or bad. The intellect names it shade, absence of light, and no essence. The conscience must feel it as essence, essential evil. This it is not; it has an objective existence, but no subjective." Selected Writings, 323.
29. See Kitaro Nishida, An Inquiry into the Good, trans. Masao Abe and Christopher Ives (1911; repr., New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), especially the section "God and the World":
31. See excerpts from "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte," in Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. Lewis S. Feuer (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1959), 318–48.
32. See Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness; Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986); as well as Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985); and Williams, Moral Luck (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
33. The letter, dated 23 April 1838, may be found in Lee Gougeon and Joel Myerson, eds., Emerson's Antislavery Writings (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 1–5.
34. The speech may be found in Gougeon and Myerson, eds., Emerson's Antislavery Writings, 121–24. The "romanticism" in question is rousingly described at the conclusion of the address: "For the arch-Abolitionist, older than Brown, and older than the Shenandoah Mountains, is Love, whose other name is Justice, which was before Alfred, before Lycurgus, before Slavery, and will be after it" (124).
35. See Andrea Mays, The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2015), 81–83. An essay entitled "Shakespeare, or The Poet," may be found in Emerson's Representative Men published in 1850.
36. See, for instance, Cornel West, Brother West: Living Out Loud, 91–94, 158–59, 209–11.
37. In a roundabout way, I am one as well, though I'd already completed a PhD at the time. In the context of the "Republican revolution" of 1994, I listened to West discuss "my fellow citizen Newt Gingrich" with a remarkable combination of criticism and charity. What I had not known, or realized, is that American Pragmatism offers a powerful portrait of philosophy by and for the people—all the people.
38. The following comment from Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition, is instructive: "Like Emerson, I call attention to the lapses and limitations in all my favorite authors to keep my pieties within bounds. I claim only that there is moral and intellectual sustenance to be gained from such thinkers, along with much of interest to argue with and reject" (8).
39. To be sure, West has insisted that this crucial American talley-sheet has already been written … by Herman Melville. See The Cornel West Reader, 51–54, 566n14; and Democracy Matters, 48–49, 68, 86–96. That said, Melville wrote for his own time and place; I continue to believe there is an essential place for West's reflections on tragedy in the twenty-first century. Such reflections might highlight the performative aspects of his favored genres, such as musical theater, public lectures, and improvisational music.
40. West, Hope on a Tightrope, 71.
41. See my Tragic Posture and Tragic Vision: Against the Modern Failure of Nerve (New York: Continuum, 1994), 181–229; and This Tragic Gospel: How John Corrupted the Heart of Christianity (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2008), 79–101.
42. I am grateful to Wesley Barker, Mary Grace Dupree, Molly Farneth, Jeffrey Stout, and Cornel West for reading a previous draft of this essay. Their comments were invaluable to me in sharpening the argument, an argument that would be sharper still if made by one of them.