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Cornel West’s Pragmatic America – cafemadrid

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Cornel West is one of the most uniquely philosophical voices in America. He has written a ton of books and taught for over 40 years at schools like Princeton, Harvard, and now Union Theological Seminary.

West is what I would call a public-oriented philosopher, meaning he is not an isolated academic. He is constantly engaged with the public and his thinking is always in dialogue with poetry and music and literature. (If you’ve ever seen one of his lecturesyou know what I mean.)

That civic sense is a product of its roots in a school of thought called pragmatism. America does not have a particularly deep tradition of philosophy, but if we are known for one tradition, it is pragmatism.

Pragmatism emerged in the US in the late 1800s as a response to the Enlightenment’s drive for absolute truth. The pragmatists—men like William James and John Dewey—were less interested in certainty and more concerned with direct experience. They just wanted to know what worked for ordinary people in everyday life.

For West, pragmatism is really the philosophy of democracy; it is a way of knowing and doing that focuses on the average person. So I reached out to West for a recent episode of cafemadrid conversations to talk about the story of American pragmatism, how his views are shaped by his devotion to the blues and his Christian faith, and how pragmatism can reinvigorate our approach to democracy today.

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s a lot more in the full podcast, so listen and follow cafemadrid conversations On Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifystitcheror wherever you listen to podcasts.


Sean Illing

Pragmatism is a child of America and in many ways it feels like it could only have originated here. Why is that?

Cornel West

I think that the positive characteristic of American pragmatism, like the positive characteristic of the American project, has been a strong Socratic presumption of authorities in the past. But the weakness is to think that you will not be somehow connected to tradition, because traditions are inescapable. The question is always: Which tradition? Each new breakthrough is not entirely new, as it is always based on something earlier.

But it is that energy of the new that I want to emphasize. For pragmatism, it’s about sustaining this energy for creativity, because the world is incomplete, unfinished, and unpredictable. And that’s why there’s always a possibility.

The worst part is that if you wipe the slate clean, and you don’t have a past, you start out with innocence and you can’t learn from the past. The distrust of past traditions means that you then have to create new dynamic traditions with mechanisms of accountability and accountability. And that’s pragmatism at its best, that’s America at its best.

Sean Illing

One of the things I love about pragmatism is the desire to avoid all these navel-gazing debates in the history of philosophy and focus only on what works for the common man in everyday life. The further away philosophy is from the everyday world, the less relevant it is. And I feel like the pragmatists really understood this. Is that why they were so focused on direct experience?

Cornel West

Absolute. There is a democratization of votes. There is a democratization of critical intelligence. There is a democratization of philosophy, love of wisdom. And it is found, as Emerson says again and again, in everyday life, in everyday life. That is the democratizing impulse of pragmatism.

Now, if you say that pragmatism focuses on “what works,” in some ways obscures that more than it illuminates, because the question becomes: How do you determine what we mean by ‘working’? Because pragmatism is not just utilitarian or consequentialist. Pragmatism has a very strong moral dimension and cannot be reduced to just a few consequences.

We can go all the way back to Plato’s Republic, one of the founders of western philosophy. There we see the fighting going on between Thrasymachus and Socrates. Thrasymachus stands for power, the idea that ‘power makes good’. And the younger generation looks at Socrates and says, is this true? Is it true that history is nothing but a slaughterhouse, as Hegel said, is it true that it is only about power and power and domination? And Socrates says no. Justice has to do with intellectual integrity. It has to do with philosophical inquiry. It has to do with some moral and even spiritual dimensions that cannot be reduced to power and power.

And that’s the raw stuff for democracy, right? Because democracy says Of course there is always economic, political and military power, but there must be moral and spiritual dimensions rooted in the consent of ordinary people. That is what self-government is all about.

Sean Illing

Richard Rorty – a great American pragmatist and former teacher of yours – called pragmatism a philosophy of solidarity. And he actually saw pragmatism as a fight against nihilism. In other words, we don’t have to set aside our beliefs about the world or our moral and political values ​​just because we realized we made them up, that they hadn’t been discovered. But many people draw the opposite conclusion from that realization –

Cornel West

Well, that’s part of that self-fulfillment and self-creation that goes back to Emerson. That shot through pragmatism and Rorty’s mind. As William James said, pragmatism is a house with many rooms. And there is a Rortian room. And that Rortian room is that of a Cold War liberal anxious to get past Descartes’ subjectivism and solipsism. It’s all about a movement toward community. And community for him was all about solidarity. We start with a ‘we’, not an ‘I’. That’s pragmatism, that’s community, and that’s how you start.

Sean Illing

There’s something fundamentally democratic about how we interact in the world, and this leads back to John Dewey, the great defender of democracy and one of America’s most influential pragmatists. As you know, Dewey was engaged in a long debate with Walter Lippmann, a brilliant media theorist and writer in the early 20th century.

Lippmann gave up democracy. He did not believe that ordinary citizens were capable of understanding the world, or at least he did not believe that they were capable of understanding the world given their circumstances. He thought they should be led by a technocratic elite. Why did Dewey reject that so forcefully?

Cornel West

The early Walter Lippmann was a Democratic socialist, like Dewey. After the First World War, he loses faith in the demos. I mean, he almost agrees with Plato that every democracy is eventually destroyed by unruly passions and pervasive ignorance, which is why democracies always lead to a tyrant and thus the need for the philosopher-king.

So the early Lippmamn had this faith in democracy, and then he loses it. He says we need to have the experts. We need to have people who really know what they’re doing and know something about the world because the demos will always be ignorant and gullible.

And Dewey comes over and says, “Walter, I understand your pilgrimage and your journey. I understand why you’ve lost faith in the demos.” I mean, Dewey understands it’s a challenge. He understands that the demos can become fascist. After all, they write in the 1920s. Mussolini is on his way. That mobster Hitler is coming forward as a result of the wounded German Empire. But Dewey sticks to his democratic faith and the result is this powerful dialogue between the technocratic Lippmann and the democratic Dewey.

Sean Illing

Is it fair to say that, lacking that tragic sensibility, Dewey was perhaps a little too optimistic?

Cornel West

That’s a good question, man. Dewey is complicated in this matter. You read his poetry when his wife dies and it’s kinda vague stuff. So it’s not like he had no idea about the tragic. He simply believed that people were so obsessed with their limits that they needed to get rid of that obsession, and recognize that those limits were contingent and temporary rather than eternal and universal.

I do resonate with that, because often what people think is boundaries aren’t boundaries at all. They’ll say, there’s no way we can really support the poor, because the market-driven economists tell us that’s the only way we can run society. But I say no, you just don’t have enough imagination or enough empathy. And we like to rationalize domination and oppression. Dewey is right about that.

Sean Illing

As much as I love Dewey, I think even he eventually realized that he never really offered any real political strategy to realize his ideal democratic life. And we live in such a polarized time where the possibilities of dialogue between groups seem fleeting, to put it kindly. How on earth do we get to the pragmatic democratic community that you and Dewey want to see in the world?

Cornel West

I think Dewey has always been able to take that Socratic humility we talked about seriously. None of us has a monopoly on truth or goodness and beauty. But Dewey’s faith was connected with what he called a “natural piety.” And by piety he did not mean uncritical respect for dogmas or blind obedience to doctrine. He meant a virtuous recognition of the sources of good in our lives. You are never, in and of yourself, the only source of good. You are always dependent on parents. You don’t teach yourself a language. All the talk of being “self-made” in America, as if you’ve given birth to yourself, as if you’ve cultivated your own virtues – that’s the opposite of Dewey. And realize that this is the basis of democracy.

But I don’t think Dewey would call himself an optimist. I think he would fall back on hope. He had hope in society. That’s the farthest we can go. And Rorty is the richest, self-proclaimed John Dewey footnote we have. He is so original and creative in building on the Deweyan project.

The reason I keep Dewey a little bit at a distance, as much as I’m part of his tradition, is that when you inject the blues and Chekhov into some serious talk about democracy, you get the tragicomic. And the tragicomic is not only the limits, but how do you deal with the limits? And of course blues is tragicomic. Until. The. Core. Remember Robert Johnson’s 1937 song “Hellhound in my path”† He tells me to keep moving ’cause the blues is falling down like HAIL, life worries me so much, there are hellhounds on my trail. I have to keep moving. That’s the dynamic. That is the feeling of movement. That’s the blues.

Sean Illing

So you still have faith in America?

Cornel West

Oh yeah! However, it is not a slippery belief. It is a deserved belief. Like that precious grace the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of. It is not a cheap grace, it is a deserved faith. And a very, very deserved sense of grace.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click hereand be sure to subscribe cafemadrid conversations On Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifystitcheror wherever you listen to podcasts.

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