CORNEL WEST VS RICHARD WRIGHT

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Sat Apr 29 22:35:55 MDT 1995


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.

[Ralph Dumain, 1995, all rights reserved]


     --- from list marxism at lists.village.virginia.edu ---

     ------------------



More information about the Marxism mailing list