CORNEL WEST VS RICHARD WRIGHT

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Sun Apr 30 21:50:26 MDT 1995


A hurried response to Justin Schwartz's comments on my post:

>(1) Dewey is an anti-realist, at least as regards truth (which
>he replaces with warranted assertibility), but not a subjective
>idealist.

At least as regards truth, anti-realism is subjective idealism.

>He doesn't think that what is is mental.

See following comment.

>(2) Dewey has a criterion of objectivity--inteersubjectivity, or
>universal agreement based on practical success in solving
>problems, success being determined by such an agreement.

Of course, the old chestnut "intersubjectivity", which is not
objectivity at all but collective subjectivity.  Intersubjectivity
is the escape hatch from subjective idealism, i.e., the pole of
objective idealism which is always required to save one from
solipsism.  Now what grounds practical success if the world is not
mental (one or many minds) but one is an anti-realist as regards
truth?  Merely the consensus of the (scientific) community?  What
makes this the criterion of objectivity?  Verification of
individual experience?  What makes this possible?  Practical
success?  What makes this possible, if not the material world?
What is truth, if not correspondence of ideas with the world
outside?  Your analytical schooling may have taught you clarity
and rigor, but it has also taught you all the subterfuges of
bourgeois philosophy and its fudging of philosophical categories
with weasel words like "intersubjectivity" and "naturalism", and
above all, the evasion of the word "materialism".

>(3) Dewey is not anti-scientific--certainly not the way
>Heidegger is.  He regarded himself as a defender of science and
>of science applied to politics.

True enough: Dewey represents the opposite pole of irrationalism:
scientism.  However, Dewey also evades materialism.

>(4) Ralph asks for West's "criteria"--but doesn't say what he
>wants criteria for. The question is ill-formed.

Yes, I was unclear, wasn't I?  Well, there are two issues: (1)
what is philosophy, (2) how does one justify one's relation to the
community and its alleged values, not to mention defining it as
one's object of inquiry?  "Afro-American philosophy" is travelling
down the same road that Stalinism has travelled (misuse of Thesis
Eleven).  If the philosopher is to change the world, does that
philosopher still do philosophy when interpreting it or something
else?  I say do whatever you can do to be useful, but don't call
your low-level propaganda "philosophy" when it is not.  In this
regard, I think the games Stalinist philosophers play in calling
conferences on nuclear omnicide or the problem of socialist man in
Cuba amount to a lot of crap of no philosophical substance
whatever.  Be an activist, be an idea man, be both, but don't be
neither one trying to be both.  Similarly, Afro-American
philosophers defining their discipline as dealing with the
political and cultural problems of the black community usually
amounts to a narrow and shallow view of _intellectual_ work and
what it is supposed to accomplish.  This is not academic
hairsplitting, because there is a great deal of dishonesty and
mediocrity in what one produces, and here, I refer not just to one
ethnic-racial group, but a whole lot of stuff "radical"
philosophers desperate to be relevant do.  (Think of the pervasive
vacuity in the Radical Philosophy Association.)  I still haven't
got to criteria, have I?  Well, what are one's standards of value,
rationality, ontological commitments, etc.?  Where are those
standards?  At least West is not Afrocentric and includes some
more sophisticated ingredients than the Bible in his incoherent
hodgepodge.  But let's look at the whole gamut of this field and
then focus on the pervasive obscurantist mysticism of a very
influential strain within it, even more in popular culture than in
academia -- I mean all the fascist filth that can be summed up in
the word "Afrocentricity".  West is constantly slandered and
verbally assaulted by nationalist thugs.  Why is he so weak in
fighting back?  He doesn't have his toolkit together.  Why not?
He's read everything.  He hasn't put it together precisely because
he is a pragmatist: the _ideology_ of "what works", in this case a
little liberation theology here, a bit of postmodernism there, a
dash of Simmel and a pinch of Gramsci.   He hasn't figured out the
problem of world-view in the bitter ideological struggle raging
inside the black "community", a struggle on which lives will
depend precisely because ideas as _ideas_ really are a material
force!

>(5) If it's criteria of rationality are wanted, I think Dewey
>(and West) would support ordinary scientific criteria--logical
>consistency, empirical adequacy, explanatory power, etc

Dewey yes, but I see no evidence of any of these things in West.
However, one must realize that scientism is an ideology; it is not
scientific in itself.  There is nothing scientific in Dewey's
hodgepodge ideas about the social world -- it is all pretense.  I
would be curious to know if Dewey had anything of substance to say
about any of the natural sciences either.

>West's books on The American Evasion of Philosophy and Marx's
>ethics are pretty good, if a bit superficial and journalistic.

Not only superficial, but _The American Evasion_ is an awful book,
just awful.  The title alone condemns it and explains West's
mishmash to a T.

>But that may be the technical snob in me speaking out.

The problem with being miseducated is that one piddles about
perfectionistically in certain isolated areas and then fails to
exercise one's "snobbery" precisely where it is needed.  (See
above.)

>Ralph--what about WEB DuBois as a candidate for THe Most
>Important Public Intellectual?

Excuse me, I specifically said _literary_ public intellectual.  Du
Bois wrote novels, and he was indeed literary, but first and
foremost he was a sociologist, historian, and political thinker.
In this regard Du Bois is tops.  Wright was solely a literary
person.  I think Wright defined on the human level the most
essential problematic of our time.  What other writers compare,
least of all white ones?  His pal James T. Farrell?  Hemingway?
No, I think Wright's vision tops 'em all.  And who compares with
Ralph Ellison?  Norman Mailer?

>Among white people, you can't leave out...John Dewey.

A monumental triviality as a social thinker.  Liberal reformist at
best, otherwise petty technocrat.  What is inspiring about Dewey's
view of the soul, culture, and destiny of the modern American?
Nothing.  I'll have to think hard before other whites in the 20th
century come to mind.  Certainly that paltry crowd that Russell
Jacoby writes about doesn't qualify.


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