Cornel West’s Non-Deweyan Prophetic Pragmatism

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Abstract: In “The Crossroads of Poetry and Prophecy,” Jim Garrison does something which is uncommon in the scholarly literature on Cornel West’s philosophy: he distinguishes West’s prophetic pragmatism from Deweyan pragmatism.  But what most distinguishes West’s prophetic pragmatism from Deweyan pragmatism in general and Dewey’s own pragmatism in particular? This paper is my answer to that question.  This paper will contend that what most distinguishes West’s prophetic pragmatism from Dewey’s pragmatism, and by extension Deweyan pragmatism, is that (1) West’s prophetic pragmatism assumes that pragmatism, as a philosophic method, can and does motivate persons to act democratically whereas neither Dewey’s own pragmatism nor Deweyan pragmatism assumes this and (2) unlike Deweyan pragmatism, West’s prophetic pragmatism entails an adherence to, or at the very least a sympathy with, some sort of prophetic religious tradition.

 

 

§ 1: Introduction

In “The Crossroads of Poetry and Prophecy,” Jim Garrison does something which is uncommon in the scholarly literature on Cornel West’s philosophy: he distinguishes West’s prophetic pragmatism from Deweyan pragmatism.[1]  While Garrison is correct in his assessment that “[a]esthetics occupies a more prominent place in [John] Dewey’s …pragmatism than in West’s,”[2] this difference is not the one that most distinguishes West’s prophetic pragmatism from Dewey’s pragmatism.  Nor is the difference between Dewey’s relative neglect of the suffering African Americans experienced in early twentieth-century America due to racism[3] and West’s emphasis on combating racism what most distinguishes Dewey’s pragmatism from West’s prophetic pragmatism. What most distinguishes West’s prophetic pragmatism from Dewey’s pragmatism (and by extension Deweyan pragmatism) is how West’s pragmatism thinks that pragmatism, as a philosophic method, prescribes democratic norms for persons to follow while Deweyan pragmatism does not and how West’s pragmatism roots itself in a prophetic religious tradition (i.e., prophetic Protestant Christianity) while Deweyan pragmatism does not.[4]

Accordingly, I will argue that West’s pragmatism differs from Dewey’s for the following two reasons.  First, West’s prophetic pragmatism assumes that pragmatism, as a philosophic method, can and does motivate people to act democratically whereas neither Dewey’s pragmatism nor Deweyan pragmatism assumes this.  Second, unlike Deweyan pragmatism, West’s prophetic pragmatism entails an adherence to, or at the very least a sympathy with, some sort of prophetic religious tradition. 

I am aware that West has apparently distanced himself and his philosophic position from the American pragmatist tradition in recent years[5] and has increasingly associated his philosophic outlook with the names and ideas of such non-pragmatist thinkers as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Anton Chekhov.[6]  However, for the purposes of this paper, I will regard West’s prophetic pragmatism as being fully within the American pragmatist tradition.

§ 2: West’s Pragmatism and Deweyan Pragmatism: Two Birds of a Feather that Do Not Flock Together

             Let me take a few moments to mention where I find West’s genealogy of classical American pragmatism and his interpretation of that tradition to be persuasive before I critique West’s interpretation of Dewey’s pragmatism.  I can accept West’s characterization of classical American pragmatism as a philosophical tradition that advances radical democracy, cultural pluralism, and individuality as the central norms of human inquiry and conduct.  Hence, I agree with West when he characterizes classical American pragmatism this way:

American pragmatism is a diverse and heterogeneous tradition.  But its common denominator consists of a future-oriented instrumentalism that tries to deploy thought as a weapon to enable more effective action.  Its basic impulse is a plebeian radicalism that fuels an antipatrician rebelliousness for the moral aim of enriching individuals and expanding democracy.[7]

Unfortunately, I suspect that West has projected his preferred notion of philosophy, which regards philosophy as the “cultural expression generated from and existentially grounded in the moods and sensibilities of a writer entrenched in the life-worlds of a people,”[8] onto the classical American pragmatists’ notion of philosophy.  Since there is no evidence that West has substantially revised his characterization of classical American pragmatism since the above passages concerning classical American pragmatism was published in 1989, I shall regard it as being representative of how he defines that tradition.[9]

            I think that an effective approach to demonstrate how West has misinterpreted the classical American pragmatist tradition is to concentrate on his creative misreading of Dewey’s pragmatism.  Indeed, there is ample evidence to indicate that whenever West refers to the classical American pragmatist tradition he means Dewey’s pragmatism; or, at the very least he, he regards Dewey’s pragmatism as the most mature representative of that tradition.[10]  

In fairness to West, I should acknowledge upfront a couple of instances where his reading of Dewey’s pragmatism hits the mark before I argue how he (intentionally?) misinterprets it.  For example, West is right when he interprets Dewey as accepting an “Emersonian theodicy that accents the practical and moral character of reality – a reality always open to change and not excessively antagonistic to human aspirations.”[11]  West is also correct to note that Deweyan pragmatism “promotes a critical intelligence that defers to no authority other than the enrichment of human experience and the alleviation of … human plight.”[12]

            This interpretation of Deweyan pragmatism is inspirational, interesting, and maybe the most suitable and worthwhile version of it in our current socio-historical milieu, but West’s interpretation of Deweyan pragmatism runs contrary to how Dewey characterizes not only pragmatism, but philosophy in general.  What West does not seem to realize is that the normative stances of Deweyan pragmatism – e.g., the pursuit of a radical democracy and the cultivation of critical intelligence in its citizenry – is something that Dewey, the social activist and democrat, adds to pragmatism, the philosophic method.  Or, said another way, Dewey’s democratic sensibilities and commitments provide the normativity for Dewey’s own philosophical project and for the philosophical projects of Deweyan pragmatists. 

Yet, this does not mean that Deweyan pragmatism, in and of itself, has to have any allegiance to radical democracy or any other political form of life.  This contention is strengthened by the fact that Dewey defines philosophy, and by default his pragmatism, this way:

[T]his effort to make our desires, our strivings and our ideals (which are as natural to man [sic] as his [sic] aches and his [sic] clothes) articulates, to define them (not in themselves which is impossible) in terms of inquiry into conditions and consequences is what I have called criticism; and when carried on in the grand manner, philosophy.[13]

Philosophy, then, is not an autonomous discipline, but is dependent on the social institutions and cultural practices that we engage in for its subject matter; that is, it is the metacriticism of our cultural and social institutions and products, including politics, art, religion, and even previous philosophical projects.  Hence, “philosophy as a critical organ becomes in effect a messenger, a liaison officer, making reciprocally intelligible voices speaking provincial tongues, and thereby enlarging as well as rectifying the meanings with which they are charged.”[14] 

Accordingly, Deweyan pragmatism, by itself, cannot tell anyone how to alleviate human suffering because it is simply a philosophic method of inquiry.  It can only enable us to clarify the alternative courses of action available to us in a given circumstance more effectively, to articulate a problematic situation in a larger historical context, and to render our deliberations more systematic and intelligent.  What Dewey writes on pages 175-176 of the revised edition of Ethics[15] about moral theory applies equally to philosophy in general:

Moral theory can (i) generalize the types of moral conflicts which arise, thus enabling a perplexed and doubtful individual to clarify his own particular problem by placing it in a larger context; it can (ii) state the leading ways in which such problems have been intellectually dealt with by those who have thought upon such matters; it can (iii) render personal reflection more systematic and enlightened, suggesting alternatives that might otherwise be overlooked, and stimulating greater consistency in judgment.  But it does not offer a table of commandments in a catechism in which answers are as definite as are the questions which are asked.  It can render personal choice more intelligent, but it cannot take the place of personal decision, which must be made in every case of moral perplexity.

Since Dewey’s pragmatism and its descendents do not have a normative thrust beyond the realm of method, they are always parasitic on the normative interests of the given pragmatist and the socio-cultural exigencies that that pragmatist has to contend with during the course of conducting philosophical inquiry.  In the case of John Dewey, we should notice how Dewey’s normative commitment to existential democracy (i.e., democracy not only as a social institution, but also as a way of life) predates his allegiance to the American pragmatist tradition.[16]  In this sense, his pragmatism becomes the philosophical means for him to criticize the Western philosophic tradition for not taking democracy and its ideals seriously and to philosophize how adopting existential democratic practices might improve human lives and alter the way we interpret reality itself.[17]  For example, Dewey writes, in these passages from “Philosophy and Democracy” (1919):

A philosophy animated, be it unconsciously or consciously, by the strivings of men [sic] to achieve democracy will construe liberty as meaning a universe in which there is real uncertainty and contingency, a world which is not all in, and never will be, a world in some respect is incomplete and in the making, and which in these respects may be made this way or that according as men [sic] judge, prize, love and labor.  To such a philosophy any notion of a perfect or complete reality, finished, existing always the same without regard to the vicissitudes of time, will be abhorrent.[18]

As the preceding quotation states, Dewey is philosophizing about the metaphysical import of a democratic vision of the world in “Philosophy and Democracy.” Anyone familiar with Dewey’s writings from the early 1900s to 1919 would know, or at least would have the suspicion, that the normative dimension of his thought is his commitment to democracy, and, consequently, his entire intellectual thought revolves around the norm of democracy and its emphasis on cultivating individuality within community. 

            At this point West could say that I have just proven his point that Dewey’s pragmatism is a normative philosophy, just like his pragmatism is.  Indeed, he, too, quotes the very essay that I quoted above to substantiate his contention that democracy is necessarily at the heart of Dewey’s pragmatism.[19]  Since West interprets Dewey’s pragmatism as having a strong normative thrust, he interprets “Philosophy and Democracy” as arguing:

For Dewey, philosophy is a mode not of knowledge but of wisdom.  And wisdom is conviction about values, a choice to do something, a preference for this rather than that form of living.  Wisdom involves discriminating judgments and a desired future.  It presupposes some grasp of conditions and consequences, yet it has no special access to them.  Rather methods of access must be scrutinized in order to decide which ones are most reliable for the task at hand.[20]

Everything that West says about wisdom here is true.  Regrettably, this is where West goes astray in his reading of “Philosophy and Democracy.”  In that essay, and in other texts written by Dewey during that time period, Dewey defines philosophy not as a mode of wisdom; it is instead defined in its ancient sense as being the pursuit of wisdom.[21]   To say that philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom does not mean that philosophical inquiry makes philosophers wise.  What this means that philosophy, when done well, applies critical intelligence to contemporary social, economic, political, and cultural problems so that we can then make the wisest choices available to us on these matters.[22]  What it cannot do is provide the norms necessary for us to judge one form of life as preferable to another form of life.[23]  Our normative commitments enable us to do that.  Dewey acknowledges this point in one of his last writings entitled “Has Philosophy a Future?”[24]  In it he writes that philosophy is dependent on our already-accepted normative commitments and on the “cooperative practical efforts of men [sic] of good will in all occupations and professions”[25] to determine what possible alternative ways of being-in-the-world and living together are most preferable for us to actualize given the circumstances we find ourselves in, presently.

            Up to now, I have only demonstrated that while West’s prophetic pragmatism is similar to Deweyan pragmatism in that they both place the norm of democracy at the center of their thought, West’s prophetic pragmatism does something that Deweyan pragmatism (at least Dewey’s own pragmatism, anyway) does not allow itself to do – namely, to regard its normative commitment to radical democracy as an essential part of its philosophic method rather than as the extra-philosophical norm that happens to guide philosophers in conducting their philosophical inquiries.  I still have to show how West’s prophetic pragmatism differs with Deweyan pragmatism on the matter of having a prophetic religious tradition, specifically the prophetic Protestant Christian tradition, at the heart of one’s pragmatism

Contrary to West’s reassurance to non-religious persons in The American Evasion of Philosophy that prophetic pragmatism does not entail that a prophetic pragmatism should have any religious affiliation,[26] being a prophetic pragmatist presupposes having sympathy for, if not adhering to, one of the existing prophetic religious traditions.  In the West, these prophetic religious prophetic traditions originate either in the Hebraic prophets, the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, or the teachings of Mohammed.  Maybe I should restate this point along these lines:

While West is probably correct when he writes that a person could be a prophetic pragmatist without being an adherent to any religion, that person would have to at minimum be sympathetic with prophetic religion, as manifested within such religious traditions as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and willingly work with those persons who are religious adherents of these traditions.

West’s prophetic pragmatism, then, is hardly intelligible unless a person is at least sympathetic to West’s view that prophetic religion should be the primary normative basis for one’s criticisms of contemporary social, economic, political, and cultural institutions.  He himself admits in The American Evasion of Philosophy that prophetic pragmatism makes sense only if one (a) accepts it on an existential level and (b) accepts it on a political level, both of which take religious practices and traditions seriously.  If one accepts prophetic pragmatism on an existential level, then we are willing “to convey to others the sense of deep emptiness and pervasive meaninglessness one feels if one is not critically aligned with an enabling [religious] tradition.”[27]  This religious tradition should have the communal resources to enables us to combat the absurdities of human existence, especially in the dawn of a global, postmodern, capitalistic era where human persons are often regarded as interchangeable parts by the multinational corporations and international banks that dominate the vast global capitalist system.[28]  If one accepts prophetic pragmatism on a political level, then we accepts the Judeo-Christian-Islamic concern for and even preference for “the wretched of the earth” and that this concern acquires an increased political relevance in today’s age once we add “modern interpretations of racial and gender equality, tolerance, and democracy” to it.[29] 

Assuming that one has accepted prophetic pragmatism on a political level, one would be under a binding obligation to assist those who need material, psychological, and even spiritual assistance.  Moreover, one would be obligated to gear one’s ameliorative actions to the specific interests and needs articulated by those in need.[30]  For that reason one would listen to the testimony and witness of those persons who are less fortunate regardless of where they live and help them acquire control over the resources that they need to resolve their own problems.[31]  It also would oblige one to work with one’s local and regional grass-roots organizations, both religious and secular,[32] to improve the social circumstances of the less fortunate and economically disadvantaged. 

Indeed, prophetic pragmatism, on its political level, demands that one act on the norms of individuality and democracy that West articulates in his first published book, Prophesy Deliverance![33]  These norms are ones that originate not in a secular ethos or in secular practices, but out of the prophetic Protestant Christian tradition.  Indeed, West derives his norm of democracy from the prophetic Christian tradition.  He even separates the norm of individuality from the norm of democracy, saying that democracy is the best means of upholding the dignity owed to every human person as a creature created imago dei in a fallen world.  This only further proves that the normative dimension of West’s prophetic pragmatism is religious in nature and is dependent on his theological (and ontological) commitments to the prophetic Christian tradition, particularly the Black prophetic Christian tradition.  Hence I agree with Charles Mills when he writes: “West’s own prophetic pragmatism seeks to combine the [American] pragmatist tradition with Black liberation theology.”[34] 

Yet, West desires to do more than just combine the American pragmatist tradition with Black liberation theology, even though Black liberation theology does advocate most, if not all, of what West demands of his prophetic pragmatism.  He yearns for the American pragmatist tradition to take religious sensibilities, traditions, and practices seriously as a means of advancing radical democracy and betterment for all persons.  Granted, West does focus a lot of his critical attention on the social plights of urban African-Americans, but he does so because he is most familiar with their plight and their religious and cultural traditions.  His main intent, however, is to “negate what is and transform prevailing realities against the backdrop of the present historical limits”[35] in such a way that more and more human persons are able to live out their existential freedom in this world and have others recognize their social freedom. 

But what, exactly, does West mean by existential freedom and social freedom here?  Existential freedom is ontological in nature “and is ultimately transhistorical.”[36]  It is “an effect of the divine gift of grace which promises to sustain persons through and finally deliver them from bondage of death, disease, and despair.”[37]  It also “empowers people to fight for social freedom, to realize its political dimension.”[38]  Social freedom is an outgrowth of existential freedom, manifesting itself in history.  Unlike existential freedom, it is “thoroughly a matter of this-worldly human liberation”[39] and “results from the promotion and actualization of the norms of individuality and democracy.”[40]

We can now recognize just how central prophetic Christianity is to West’s prophetic pragmatism.  Unlike Deweyan pragmatism, which is content to be at best noncommittal concerning prophetic Christianity, West’s prophetic pragmatism is intelligible only in light of these three crucial Christian values: “‘the notion of the imago dei,’ the ‘subversive’ universalism and egalitarianism implied by the concept that we are all made in the image of God; the ‘fallenness’ that points toward ‘radical democratic values’ to prevent institutional corruption; and the ‘kingdom-talk’ that empowers one in the face of evil.”[41]  Even his notions of existential freedom and social freedom are essentially religious in origin.  This means critics of West’s pragmatism such as Richard Rorty[42] and Clevis Headley[43] are right when they both argue that Deweyan pragmatism does not entail prophetic pragmatism.

§ 3: Concluding Remarks

            Once we have differentiated West’s pragmatism from Deweyan pragmatism, we are left with many questions.  These questions include:

1.       How does such a Christian-inspired pragmatism as West’s prophetic pragmatism fit into the American pragmatist tradition?

2.       How does interpreting West’s prophetic pragmatism as a non-Deweyan pragmatism alter West’s genealogy of American pragmatism? 

3.       What would such a revised genealogy look like?

I do not have the definitive answer to any of these questions, even though I have some suggestions about how these questions should be answered.  I just hope that this paper has made these questions live ones for some of my fellow members of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy.   

 


 

Bibliography

 “Afterword: A Conversation between Cornel West and Bill E. Lawson.” Pragmatism and the Problem of Race, 225-230. eds. Bill E. Lawson and Donald F. Koch. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana

University Press, 2004.

Cowan, Rosemary. Cornel West: The Politics of Redemption. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2003.

Dewey, John. “Has Philosophy a Future?” Later Works of John Dewey, volume 16: 1949-1952, 358-68. ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

_____. Later Works of John Dewey, volume 1: Experience and Nature, 3-326. ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988 [1925, 1929].

_____. “Need for Recovery in Philosophy.” Creative Intelligence: Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude, 3-69. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1917. Reprinted in Essential Dewey, volume 1: Pragmatism,

Education, Democracy, 46-70. eds. Larry  A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.

_____. “Philosophy and Democracy.” Characters and Events. ed. Joseph Ratner. New York Henry Holt and Company, 1929, 2:841-55. Reprinted in Essential Dewey, volume 1: Pragmatism, Education,

Democracy, 71-8. eds. Larry  A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.

_____. “Qualitative Thought.” Symposium 1 (January 1930): 5-32. Reprinted in Essential Dewey, volume 1: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy, 195-205. eds. Larry  A. Hickman and Thomas M.

Alexander. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.

_____. “Time and Individuality.” Time and Its Mysteries. Series 2. New York: New York University Press, 1940. 85-109. Reprinted in Essential Dewey, volume 1: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy, 217-

26. eds. Larry  A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Dewey, John and James H. Tufts. Ethics. rev. ed. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1932.

Eldridge, Michael. “Dewey on Race and Social Change.” Pragmatism and the Problem of Race, 11-21. eds. Bill E. Lawson and Donald F. Koch. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Garrison, Jim. “The Crossroads of Poetry and Prophecy.” Philosophy of Education 1997. <http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/EPS/PES-Yearbook/97_docs/garrison.html> (Last accessed: August 30, 2006).

Gooding-Williams, Robert. “Evading Narrative Myth, Evading Prophetic Pragmatism.” Massachusetts Review 32 (1991-92): 517-41.

Headley, Clevis. “Cornel West on Prophesy, Pragmatism, and Philosophy: A Critical Evaluation of Prophetic Pragmatism.” Cornel West: A Critical Reader, 59-82. ed. George Yancy. Maden and Oxford:

Blackwell, 2001.

McClendon, John H. “An Essay-Review of Mark David Wood’s Cornel West and the Politics of Prophetic Pragmatism.” APA Newsletter 2.1 (Fall 2002): 65-69.

Mills, Charles W. “Prophetic Pragmatism as a Political Philosophy.” Cornel West: A Critical Reader, 192-223. ed. George Yancy. Maden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Rorty, Richard. “The Philosopher and the Prophet.” Transition 52 (1991): 70-78.

West, Cornel. “Afterword.” Cornel West: A Critical Reader, 346-62. ed. George Yancy. Maden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

_____. American Evasion of Philosophy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

_____. Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism, volume 2: Prophetic Reflections. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1993.

_____. Cornel West Reader. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999.

_____. Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.

_____. Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1991.

_____. “Interview with David Lionel Smith: Chekhov, Coltrane and Democracy.” In Cornel West Reader, 551-63. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999.

_____. “Introduction: The Making of an American Democratic Socialist of African Descent.” Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, xi-xxxiv. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1991.

_____. Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002 [1982].

_____. Race Matters. New York: Vintage Books, 2001 [1993].

_____. “Sense of the Tragic.” Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America, 107-18. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.


 

[1] Jim Garrison, “The Crossroads of Poetry and Prophecy,” Philosophy of Education 1997. <http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/EPS/PES-Yearbook/97_docs/garrison.html> (Last accessed: August 30, 2006).

[2] Ibid.

[3]  Michael Eldridge has written an excellent essay about Dewey’s neglect of racism against African Americans in early twentieth-century America entitled “Dewey on Race and Social Change.”  This essay is in Pragmatism and the Problem of Race, 11-21, eds. Bill E. Lawson and Donald F. Koch (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004). 

[4] Garrison mentions these same differences between West’s pragmatism and Dewey’s pragmatism in the above cited essay.  However, Garrison mistakenly thinks that there is such a thing as a Deweyan prophetic pragmatism.  I consider Garrison to be mistaken on this point, because I think that any pragmatism which deserves to be called prophetic pragmatism should self-consciously tie itself to a particular prophetic religious tradition, if not a specific religious institution.  Deweyan pragmatism does not count as a prophetic pragmatism because it does not root itself in any particular prophetic religious tradition.  In fact,

[Dewey] left the church in the name of human community, abandoned the idea of special revelation in the name of truth and morality, and eventually rejected the God of the church theologians in order to overcome humanities alienation from its own essential goodness and in order to realize the spiritual meaning inherent in ordinary human relations.... (Steven C. Rockefeller, John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 216-17; qtd. in Garrison).

I realize that one can object to how I have defined prophetic pragmatism in this paper.  Garrison would probably be one of those objectors.  Nevertheless, I see no reason at this time to expand my definition of prophetic pragmatism to include pragmatists (e.g., Dewey) who were not or are not rooted in a particular prophetic religious tradition.

[5] See Cornel West, “Introduction to Part III: American Pragmatism,” Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 141, and “Interview with David Lionel Smith: Chekhov, Coltrane and Democracy,” Cornel West Reader, 558 for evidence that West has distanced himself from the American pragmatist tradition.  In recent years, West has not identified his philosophic thought as a full-fledged pragmatism.  Rather he has characterized his thought as one which rummages through many diverse intellectual traditions, with classical American pragmatism being just one of those traditions.  His rummaging through intellectual traditions is aimed at unearthing resources that can sustain hope in radical democracy and human possibilities for self-transcendence in late twentieth and early twenty-first century America. 

This is how he characterizes his relationship with the American pragmatism tradition in one of his later comments on it in his Afterword to Cornel West: A Critical Reader, ed. George Yancy (Maden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), especially on pages 350-51 where he discusses one of the central aims of his work:

[P]rophetic pragmatism is a particular historicist interpretation of American pragmatism put forward after such developments as the decolonization of Third World peoples, the second wave of feminism, and the collapse of American apartheid; it is a specific historicist philosophic intervention into our postmodern moment after the rise of analytic philosophy, structuralism, deconstruction, and Western Marxism.  The “prophetic” in prophetic pragmatism refers to both the Protestant sources of the philosophical movement and my own attempt to be true to the blues notes in American history (its own forms of evil and death and its wrestling with tragicomic darkness)…. [T]he prophetic has little or nothing to do with prediction.  Instead, it has to do with identifying, analyzing, and condemning forms of evil and forging vision, hope, and courage for selves and communities to overcome them.  Radical democracy is visionary plebodicy – the grand expression of the dignity of the doxa of the suffering demos.

[6] See, for example, Cornel West’s comments in “Afterword: A Conversation between Cornel West and Bill E. Lawson.” Pragmatism and the Problem of Race, 225-230, eds. Bill E. Lawson and Donald F. Koch (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), esp. p. 230.

[7]  Cornel West, American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 5.

[8] Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002 [1982]), 24.

[9] There is ample evidence that West still retains this reading of classical American pragmatism, at least as of 2001when he writes in the Afterword to Cornel West: A Critical Reader,

[T]his rich though imperfect tradition [i.e., American pragmatism] can provide resources of existential and democratic hope for radical democrats in the USA (West, Cornel West: A Critical Reader, 349).

[10] See Charles W. Mills, “Prophetic Pragmatism as a Political Philosophy,” Cornel West: A Critical Reader, ed. George Yancy (Maden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 197; Cornel West, “The Political Intellectual: Interview with Anders Stephanson,” Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism, volume 2: Prophetic Reflections (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1993), 81; West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 71; West, Cornel West Reader, 278; West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 71.

[11] West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 90.

[12] Ibid., 199.

[13] John Dewey, Later Works of John Dewey, volume 1: Experience and Nature, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988 [1925, 1929]), 312. For the entirety of this paper, after I initially cite a Dewey text, I will either refer to it in the most accessed for in contemporary Dewey scholarship (e.g., LW 1 for Later Works of John Dewey, volume 1: Experience and Nature) or refer to its pagination if I did not cite it from the Works of John Dewey series.

[14] LW 1:306.

[15] Dewey, John and James H. Tufts. Ethics. rev. ed. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1932), 175-76.

[16] West recognizes this in The American Evasion of Philosophy when he writes:

In an important essay, “The Ethics of Democracy” (1888), Dewey used [Thomas Hill] Green’s original conception of society, defense of self-realization, and support for democracy as the primary resource against Sir Henry Maine’s influential attack on democracy in his Popular Government (1886).  Green enabled Dewey to make explicit the moral teleology required by his psychology – and to support his growing democratic political convictions. (West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 78)

[17] See Dewey, Experience and Nature (LW1:3-326); John Dewey, “The Need for Recovery in Philosophy,” Creative Intelligence: Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1917), 3-69, reprinted in  Essential Dewey, volume 1: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy, eds. Larry  A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), 46-70; John Dewey, “Qualitative Thought,” Symposium 1 (January 1930): 5-32 (LW 5:243-62), reprinted in Essential Dewey, volume 1: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy, eds. Larry  A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), 195-205; and John Dewey, “Time and Individuality,” Time and Its Mysteries, series 2 (New York: New York University Press, 1940), 85-109 (LW 14:98-114), reprinted in Essential Dewey, volume 1: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy, eds. Larry  A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), 217-26, for a few of the most obvious, articulate, and persuasive writings where Dewey reinterprets human nature and Nature itself along the lines of his democratic sensibilities.

[18] John Dewey, “Philosophy and Democracy,” Characters and Events, ed. Joseph Ratner (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1929), 2:841-55, reprinted in Essential Dewey, volume 1: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy, eds. Larry  A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), 76.

[19] West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 86.

[20] Ibid.

[21] See LW 1:50, 305-6, and 308.

[22] See LW 1: 295-326. 

[23] West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 86.

[24]  John Dewey, “Has Philosophy a Future?” In Later Works of John Dewey, volume 16: 1949-1952, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 358-68.

[25] Ibid., 367.

[26] West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 233.

[27] Ibid.  West chose prophetic black Christianity as the “enabling tradition” that he has aligned himself with because it nurtures the hope that enables him, and numerous others who are often less fortunate than him, cope with the absurdities of human existence, especially in this particular historical epoch, and motivate us to alleviate the social suffering that we are able to alleviate.

[28] West has given this critique of contemporary capitalist culture in numerous articles, essays, and interviews throughout his career.  For the sake of brevity, I shall mention only two of the most popular writings that critique contemporary capitalist culture in the United States of America and worldwide.  He intimates this critique of contemporary capitalist culture on pp. 9-13 of Race Matters (New York: Vintage Books, 2001 [1993]).  He does so in more detail in his most recent book, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), especially in chap. 1, “Democracy Matters Are Frightening in Our Time,” and chap. 2, “Nihilism in America.” 

[29] West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 233.

[30] Ibid., 233-34.

[31] Ibid., 235.

[32] These local and regional grass-root organizations include trade unions, community groups, political organizations, synagogues, temples, and mosques that represent the multitude of persons who are not members of the privileged socioeconomic classes in America, e.g., upper middle class and upper class.

[33] West, Prophesy Deliverance!, pp. 16-19.

[34] Mills, 198.

[35] West, Prophesy Deliverance!, 19-20.

[36] West, Prophesy Deliverance!, 18.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] West, “South Africa and Our Struggle,” Prophetic Reflections, 184-85, qtd. in Mills, 200.

[42] Richard Rorty, “The Philosopher and the Prophet,” Transition 52 (1991): 70-78.

[43] Clevis Headley, “Cornel West on Prophesy, Pragmatism, and Philosophy: A Critical Evaluation of Prophetic Pragmatism,” Cornel West: A Critical Reader, ed. George Yancy (Maden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 59-82, especially his “Appendix: Richard Rorty and West’s Prophetic Pragmatism” on pp. 77-79.