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  • Introducing Prophetic Pragmatism: A Dialogue on Hope, the Philosophy of Race, and the Spiritual Blues by Jacob L. Goodson and Brad Elliott Stone
  • Russell P. Johnson
Introducing Prophetic Pragmatism: A Dialogue on Hope, the Philosophy of Race, and the Spiritual Blues. Jacob L. Goodson and Brad Elliott Stone. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019. 166 pp. $90.00 cloth.

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How does one categorize Cornel West? He describes himself on multiple occasions as a "neo-Gramscian pragmatist," a "Jesus-centered intellectual bluesman," and a "card-carrying Kierkegaardian—with a strong Chekhovian twist—and a Marxist-informed radical democrat with a tragicomic sense of life." West seems intentionally cagy about being sorted into a particular school of thought. The resources he draws upon are too eclectic and the work he does with them too creative to treat him as a denizen of any one -ism. As he once said in an interview, "I'm less interested in being situated within a philosophical tradition and much more interested in making sense of the world, pulling from whatever intellectual tradition I can" (The Cornel West Reader [New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999], 558).

Jacob L. Goodson and Brad Elliott Stone's new book tries on the one hand to situate West within a philosophical tradition, and on the other hand to show how West pulls from many intellectual traditions to craft a viable space for politically engaged philosophy. This tradition and this space are "prophetic pragmatism," a category most closely associated with West but (as Goodson and Stone argue) not simply synonymous with West's thought. The question at the heart of the book is, what does it mean to be a prophetic pragmatist?

The inquiry proceeds through a series of debates between Goodson and Stone about how best to characterize Cornel West's work. Is West pragmatic enough to be called a pragmatist? Is he Marxist enough to be called a Marxist? Is he biblically rooted enough to be called prophetic? The answer to all of these turns out to be "yes," but in the process readers are given a helpful tour through these differing intellectual traditions. Debating which labels adhere to which authors can be a tedious scholastic endeavor, but it can also be an instructive way to gain clarity on what makes these different modes of thinking significant. In this case, readers do not walk away with settled definitions of "prophetic" or "pragmatism," but with an enriched understanding of these contested concepts. Even failed experiments—like when Goodson argues that West is more accurately described as a "Tragic Transcendentalist" (pp. 21–43)—yield greater clarity. By showing us how West does not neatly fit into familiar categories, the authors illustrate the originality of his political philosophy.

The book is a series of essays in dialogue. It could easily have been titled "Contesting Prophetic Pragmatism." The two authors disagree frequently about what it means to be prophetic and pragmatic, in addition to what foundations if any are needed to ground claims about hope and justice. At times, the objections the authors lob at one another get in the way of the "introducing" the book is supposed to do. But the style nonetheless illustrates one of the central ideas of West's philosophy: that dialogue and charitable contestation are necessary to discover the truth that sets people free. There is something [End Page 81] undeniably generative about the collision between disagreeing voices linked by a common commitment to understanding what's going on. Prophetic pragmatism lives more in interactions—both intellectual and radical-democratic—than in propositions and principles.

The early chapters of the book discuss what West inherits from Foucault, Du Bois, Niebuhr, and others. Given West's aforementioned eclecticism (he's as likely to cite Ella Fitzgerald as to cite Hegel), these analyses are valuable for those interested in understanding West better. Given the authors' goal of establishing "prophetic pragmatism" as a mode of thought and action not entirely defined by reference to West, the concluding chapters (on whether and in what sense Richard Rorty and Peter Ochs are prophetic pragmatists) are suggestive. The central debate at the heart of the book, however, is the most thought...


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