140. Cornel West on Himself

Cornel West joins us to look back on the development of his thought and the many authors who have inspired him.

Audio Episode:

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

PA: Hello Brother West, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
CW: Hi brother, I salute you and I appreciate you being so kind and patient to have me and I just look forward to learning and listening to you. 
PA: Likewise. And we're going to start by going way back to 1977, when I was a small child, and essay that you wrote called ‘Philosophy and the Afro-American Experience’, which is an important founding text for African-American philosophy. Looking back, what was your aim in writing that piece and does it still reflect your view of what African-American philosophy ought to be? 
CW: Yeah, you know I want to begin by saluting my dear brother, Marx Wartofsky, who was a professor of philosophy at Boston University at that time. He had a student like Jesse McDay and others. Jesse wrote a wonderful dissertation on Franz Fanon and Marx. And he [Wartofsky] was the editor of that journal. And that was the first so-called mainstream journal that had a great interest in what black philosophers were thinking about and what we were reading. And that's why you see, which is [Lucius] Outlaw, Howard McGary, and so many others there. And when he asked me to do that, it just come from a conference at Tuskegee. Tuskegee used to have an annual conference of black philosophers. And at that time, I was so deeply into reading Heidegger and Wittgenstein and Dewey and Whitehead. And so those were the persons who were on my mind. Somehow think of my own formation. Think of my own tradition, my own history in regard to those towering figures who already had not just a legitimacy in professional philosophy, but they were the titans. And because I've always been tied to the Biko’s and the Marx’s and the Gramsci’s who have a deep sense of history and all of its complexity and specificity, I was concerned with trying to create a conversation between those European philosophers who were deeply tied to history, that philosophy going to school with historical narratives, going to school with historical analysis and so forth. And I had a lot of fun with it. I could dip into the black literary, a little bit of the musical, but especially the literary and intellectual tradition as a whole. But it was very much still tied to trying to show what the result of a conversation would look like if you took those historicist philosophers seriously and tried to take distinctive features and themes, black culture, black experiences seriously.
PA: I think an amazing thing reading it now is that, like I said, this came out in 1977. And it's amazing how much you already tell this very detailed, long running narrative of philosophy amongst African-Americans, mentioning a lot of the figures we've mentioned here on the podcast and some others as well. So did you have a sense already then that there was this unrecognized phenomenon? African-American philosophy that you could situate yourself in? 
CW: I was moving in that direction. Now, you keep in mind, I'm born in 1953, so I was about 24 years old. I had a lot of growth. Shakespeare says, rightness is all. This essay is not an exemplar of rightness. I was at the early stage of the development, embryonic moment of development, but just so right that already, I think so much of what I would do. And as you know, I'm headed now to the Gifford lectures, you know, in May, first two weeks in May, just a few months and working on those rethinking and reading and what have you, I can see that, as [T.S.] Eliot would say, so much of my end is in my beginning. There's no but where I'm ending up, the arc I'm reaching is rooted very much into that particular essay. You are so right about that. I'm talking much more about music now. What does it mean for philosophy to go to school, not just with poetry, not just with historical narrative, but with music in a particular genres of music, especially jazz. That's where I am now. But the two things that are so different would be much more concerned about the relation between the catastrophic and the tragic-comic. Black folk, we've always lived in catastrophic times. That's what it means to be a blues people. Blues is very much catastrophe lyrically expressed. And that's always been missing in much of not most of professional philosophy. You don't really get a sense of the catastrophies, ecological, nuclear, economic, social, psychic and so on. You do have the Sartre’s and the Camus’ and you do have the Montaigne’s and you do have the Schopenhauer’s and Leopardi’s and others who are concerned about the angst. Kierkegaard has always meant much to me, of course, deeply concerned about anxiety and dread to follow through on what it means to wrestle with catastrophe in everyday life. The steady ache of mystery and so forth. That's tragic comic. So that's one thing. And it's connected to some notion of folly and fantasy that I would spend much more time now than I would in 1977. But you're so right. So many of the seeds of what would come is right there in that essay. Now, again, it reflects my own parochialism in the sense that I'm primarily in conversation with towering Western features. The Whitehead’s and the Dewey’s and Wittgenstein’s and others. So when it comes to when we first had to encounter at Lucius Outlaw's place and have a way back in the early 80s and the African brothers came over -- it was all brothers at that time. And while we had a wonderful time; some had studied in Germany, I spent a year with Gadamer in Boston College. One of the great figures had spent time with Gottham or two. And then you had others who spent time with Habermas and Derrida and what have you. But they had some real deep African roots that I knew not of! And even when I read it, each deal was external. It hadn't become in any way constitutive of who I am. And that remains the case as much as I have deep interest. And that's why I many ways bow to you. You've got Africa, China, and so much more cosmopolitan brother than I am in that sense! [Peter laughs] Because I'm so rooted in the West and rooted in black doings and sufferings that even as I read and I have just had a lot to do with Karenga and a host of others who I deeply love and respect, they are very much in the Baha'i traditions, very much in the Egyptian traditions and so forth. You see, I still go to Erasmus and Biko and Marx and Gramsci. That's the Zayid’s of the world, those are the ones that speak to me at a very, very intense and deep level. And that's just part of my own context. 
PA: One figure that we wanted to ask you about, and I guess long time listeners will not be surprised. We wanted to ask you about him is W.E.B. Du Bois, because we've talked about him a lot in the podcast. He's probably the figure who's come up the most, actually. And you've talked about him, too. For example, in Philosophy and the Afro-American Experience, which we were just talking about, he's one of the important thinkers in that story that you tell there. And he's even the central subject of what you've described as one of your favorite writings, which is ‘Black Strivings and Twilight Civilization’. So he seems to be really important to you. Sometimes you're critical of him as being elitist, among other things. How do you see Du Bois? Can you summarize your feelings about him or are they too complicated to do that? 
CW: On the one hand, he means the world to me. I think that he's certainly the greatest intellectual to emerge, not only out of the Black intellectual tradition, but I think he's the greatest public intellectual of the 20th century in the American empire. And he's got some serious competitors. You've got John Dewey, you got Lionel Trilling, you got Susan Sontag, you got Edmund Wilson. You've got some towering figures. But when it comes to a figure who is comprehensive, encyclopedic, connects the spiritual and the social, the economic and the existential, the personal and the political, Du Bois is the candidate for me. At the same time, I've got profound ambivalence for Du Bois. You know, his towering figure is Goethe. And I respect Goethe as genius, but I'm with Beethoven. I'm with Schopenhauer. I mean, Goethe is metaphor is a cloudless sky. I'm a funk master! I'm concerned about what Samuel Beckett called the mess. So I'm closer with William James, let's say, who's concerned about the vague and the opaque and the indeterminate. Whereas Goethe is concerned about clarity, transparency, lucidity… sounds a little Cartesian, right? But he's neoclassical Weimar, he just has a different orientation. He's the one who takes von Kleist and throws it against the wall and says he doesn't want to read it. He's the one who rewrites “Antigone” and rewrites “Hamlet” because it's too dark. Well, you see, as a blues man, I begin in the dark. I stay in the dark. I'm concerned about that little small beam in the dark, that little flickering candle in the darkness of barbarism and the history of the species. See, that's my orientation. And that's why I'm very critical of Du Bois when it comes to his distance from blues in the tragic comic, his distance from jazz and in the history of the West, his distance from Kafka, his distance from Paul Celan. All of these are figures he could have written about. And he kept at arm's length. His distance from James Joyce, his distance from the greatest of all Chekov. So I have a very different temperament. I have a very different sensibility. I recognize him as the greatest on both of those left black and left tradition and public intellectual American empire. But we are in very different zones, very, very different. Now, we'd have been in the same demonstrations. We would have gone to the same jail cells together. There's no doubt about that! Very much so. It's true, too, that, you know, he's a man of his time the way I'm a man of my time. So he's much more kind of highbrow brother, whereas I'm much more “gut bucket”. You know, definitely.
PA: Something else I guess you have in common with him is at least an attraction to socialism or maybe better, Marxism. I was reading something you wrote about this, where you say that to Marxism, you say both no and yes. 
CW: Indispensable, but in the end, inadequate. 
PA: So where do you see the main kind of payoff of Marxism for you? And where do you see its limitations? 
CW: No, as one who was born at the very beginning of the Americanization of the world, at the very end of the Europeanization of the world in 1492 and in the 1945, the age of Europe. We can't understand that age without understanding capitalism. You don't stop there. But if you don't have a serious, sophisticated grasp of the complex dynamics of capitalist growth and expansion, then you're going to miss much of what that age of Europe was all about. And so Karl Marx becomes a brook of fire through which one must pass, that you have to go through a tradition that's trying to understand one of the most fundamental processes in the making of the age of Europe or what we call the modern world. Now, Americanization, which builds after Europe is divided. You're in Munich now, you know the story, right? What is Germany? It's almost a symbol, right? Divided, devastated, completely decimated, dependent, one part on the American Empire, the other part depending on the Soviet Empire. So it's a different world after 1945. I was born eight years after that. And therefore in America, my God, you know, the capitalist mode of production and its various forms, especially the ugly predatory forms, become fundamental, elemental. But in the end, you got to understand a whole lot of other things, too. But that's one of the things you have to understand. So that Marx is indispensable, but also inadequate. He's inadequate when it comes to understanding dynamics of nation, states and cultures, and structures of feeling, structures of value. He has no conception of death, of dread and despair and disappointment and disenchantment. Those things a are part of life! You can't have a philosophic Weltanschauung or a worldview and not have anything to say about death. It's not just something that happens to a particular member of the species. No, it's a precious human being trying to make sense of the world and having loved ones who you leave behind. And you had to read some Kierkegaard, you have to read some Strindberg. You got to be somebody else other than Karl Marx. And as you know, you know, when Jenny Von Westphalen died, what did Marx do? Walking in the Alps all by himself with a picture in her back pocket. We with you, Karl! But you knew it was coming, brother. You got to fortify yourself! You got kids at home. So that's just one small example. But Du Bois, Du Bois came to Marx much later than I did. I mean, you know, I wrote my dissertation on Marx, as you know, for instance, way back in the late seventies, right at the same time I was writing that essay. Philosophy and the Afro-American Experience, 1977. And I wrote my dissertation in 1979 on ‘Ethics, historicism and Marxist tradition’. But we published it in Monthly Review, the Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, in 91. Thank God to Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff of Monthly Review, who were kind enough to push me to publish that. I worked so closely with them. But Du Bois doesn't really come to Marxism until about 1912, 1913. He was born in 1868, so he's already in his early 40s. He had been shaped. He's there in Germany, where he's studying with Weber. And that's, that's iconic. I mean, that's Some business, the great back Max Weber himself. But they had pushed Marx aside when he was in Germany. They had pushed him smaller than the others, pushed Marx aside. And he doesn't really encounter Marx, he says, until after World War I. 
PA: Fortunately, he still had another five decades to live or something. So he had plenty of time to think about it. 
CW: Isn't that the truth? Another 50 years, almost 50 years. 
PA: It's interesting that your critique of Marxism is not so much that Marx himself is getting things wrong on the topics that he addresses, as that there are topics he just doesn't touch. So as you say, something like existential dread, right? If you want to know about that, and that's part of life, as you say, as part of philosophy, although you're not always philosophy the way it's done these days. But for that, you have to go to Kierkegaard. Is that also where you see Christianity playing a role by, as it were, supplementing what you can get from other philosophical sources? Obviously, Kierkegaard is a Christian thinker as well. 
CW: Right. Oh, no, absolutely. And of course, you know, there's no Kierkegaard without Luther and Augustine and Pascal and Montaigne, those who came before. But absolutely. But for me, you know, the Christian formation, which is almost like my skin is tied to Mom and Dad and Shiloh Baptist Church and growing up and working with Black Panther Party right alongside Shiloh Baptist Church in Sacramento. It provided a lens of wrestling with what it means to be human across space and time. For this particular member of the human species, this particular person, individual, always embedded in family, community tradition, and very God-abiding about that, right? Everybody has a tradition. The question is, which one is it? Usually not just one, but it's inescapable. It's unavoidable. But those traditions have varieties of possibilities and modalities that open themselves to various interpretation. That fusion arises that the great government used to talk about. I still take very seriously, and I think all of us are poly-traditional in that sense that we're a composite of a variety of different traditions. But I've always remained tied to one of my earliest wants. And that has to do with the conception of what it means to be human and what it means to be you when you got to come to terms with death, dread, despair, disappointment. But also social arrangements, also issues of justice, but also beauty. Also laughter, also folly, also fantasy. And Christianity in some way is like Marxism. Jesus weeps, but never laughs. Just like Socrates never cried. Now, Socrates doesn't shed tears. I mean, you give up on Socrates. Just means he's for me, one of the greatest examples of intellectual integrity that we have willing to die for. But if he doesn't shed a tear, he probably never loved anybody intentionally, but therefore he's not somebody who I'm going to follow uncritically. I want to out-socratize Socrates. I want to raise questions about him. Jesus weeps deeply. He loves people. He weeps for Lazarus, he weeps for the people of Jerusalem. And he comes from a weeping people. Jewish brothers and sisters that unleashed to the world's magnificent conception of Hesse, spreading that loving kindness to the orphan and widow, and fatherless and motherless and oppressed and so forth. Adorno said that condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. That's scripture. Adorno was half Jewish, but he didn't talk about it too much. But the important point is that these are lenses through wish to look at the world, which for me are constitutive of who I am. But, you know, there's not a whole lot of stress on laughter and beauty, even in the Christian tradition. But where do you go? There's a lot of places you can go. You go back to the Greeks if you're in the West. Or you can go to which philosopher put beauty at the center of their Weltanschauung. Whitehead. “The teleology of the universe is the production of beauty”, that's what he said in Adventures of Ideas, right? Or in The Aims of Philosophy, that one lecture he gave at the end of his career for the graduate students at Harvard and Radcliffe. Philosophy and poetry are a key in philosophy. Mathematical formula, poetry to meter. He's a mathematician as well. So we understand his backdrop and he understands physics very well. We understand his backdrop. But he's got a comprehensive understanding of things that embraces poetry, music, historical narrative. He's one of the few who, like Plato, has this kind of synodic imagination, a sense of the whole. I know Hegel talked about the whole itself. Only the whole is true. Adornos says only the whole is false. But we need his conception of the whole. I'm tied to synoptic vision, synodic imagination, synthetic analysis that has a sense of connecting parts and showing how they're interrelated and intertwined. That's very much a part of my understanding. And therefore, I know that every tradition that feeds me has its own blindness. It's a jazz-like situation. The improvising as you move, pulling from various insights and these various traditions that shape you, but they're critically filtered. 
PA: Actually, that's something I have to ask you about. So unfortunately, the listeners can't see that you're sitting in front of an amazing John Coltrane image. Actually, I guess it's various Coltrane album covers, right? 
CW: And that's right, about 30. 
PA: Yeah, I think I can only see about 12 on the screen. It's so impressive. And that's something that we really resonate with in your work, because in the podcast series, we've highlighted a whole bunch of different connections between different musical genres and philosophies. So we talked about reggae, we talked about funk, we talked about jazz, we talked about gospel and spirituals as well. I think this is a really interesting idea and maybe a rather unfamiliar idea to a lot of people. So the notion that music could somehow be philosophical or play a part in the history of philosophy, I guess it also, though, connects to religion, what we were just talking about, because you've written that African-American music plays a ritual role as well. And I think actually that's immediately understandable that music does have the, even if you think about early soul music, it's obviously coming out of the church and so on. But could you explain why it is that music can similarly fulfill a philosophical function? 
CW: Yes, yes, yes. One is that you go back to Plato and you say, why does he ban flute in the Republic? He allows for the lyre, just like he bans most of the poets, but he preserves those poets who will write hymns to the gods and encomiums to the good men. So he doesn't ban all of the poets, but most, he doesn't ban all of the instruments, but the flute goes. Well, he understands the power of music, just like he understands the power of poetry. And of course, the irony of Plato himself is probably the greatest poetic prose writer in the history of the West. So he understands the power of poetic expression and therefore he wants to constrain it and wants to limit it. Now, if that's the case, then you say, hmm. So when he's trying to displace Homer in 607 b5 and Book 10 of the Republic with that traditional quarrel between philosophy and poetry, he's understanding the power of Homer. Homer's the most poetic of poets and that's precisely why he's my major enemy in terms of shaping people, the paideia that's necessary, the deep forms of education that's required to sustain an ideal republic. I come along and say that it echoes really about Lorraine Hansberry. You know, she rewrites Waiting for Godot, the great Samuel Beckett, with the use of flowers after the nuclear catastrophe and you have to start all over again. And she starts with the professor of English who teaches the two students how to play the flute. And you say, hmm, you say, what's going on there? Well, you turn to Vico. Let's turn to Vico, 1725 with the new science. Vico, what do you have to say? Well, I see that history in many ways actually is generated in part by human beings burying their loved ones, the corpses in the ground and the moans and groans and sighs that they make after the silences are responses to a catastrophe that overwhelms them. And it's going to take a while for them to get to rational discourse. It's going to take a while for them to get to consistency and clarity and lucidity that you get, let's say, in a Descartes obsessed with geometry and math and the new science of the 17th century, that human beings are the kinds of creatures who do make sounds in face of their sorrow, who wrestle with grammar later on in face of their grief. And therefore, we could argue that the moans and groans that serve as the raw stuff of moving from noise to sound on the way to music cuts deeper than does rational discourse. “Oh, it's sounding romantic!” Well, Vico was on to something very important. That's why that third chapter in that book about Homer. And he says Homer's not an isolated individual. It's the collective voices of a people who are wrestling with from the catastrophe of war with Achilles and we go on and on and on. And that it's inescapable. That doesn't mean he's anti-philosophy. He just wants philosophy to be honest about itself. And if it does, in some sense, come a little later, vis-a-vis be the catastrophe that human beings have to come to terms with. And every human being has catastrophes on their way to their house. This is just no escape. Mom was going to die. Dad's going to die. Love was going to die. Friends don't betray your girlfriend, a boyfriend, a sibling friend or whatever. Don't hurt you. That's just life. That kind of sounds like the blues right there. But what's important for me is that because you see the black musical tradition, which I understand to be the greatest tradition of the most catastrophic century of recorded time, which is the 20th century, the millions and millions and millions, hundreds of millions people killed, that it begins with catastrophe. Most philosophers don't begin with catastrophe. They just don't. And they don't linger. They don't stay there. And the three fundamental bases and pillars of the black musical tradition, which is for me the greatest tradition of artistic creativity, moral courage, and spiritual fortitude, is connecting catastrophe to a certain concept in the time, which Duke Ellington calls swing, and then improvisation, which I view as phronesis, as practical wisdom. So it's connected to Aristotelian talk, connected to what Sophocles ends up with in Antigone, and it's connected to what the Latins would call prudence. That's why somebody like Erasmus means very much to me, because of Praise of Folly. See, I would argue, and this is going to be one of my claims actually in the Gifford lecture that I talked about before, that Praise of Folly would be a fascinating starting point for modern philosophy in the West rather than Descartes. Because instead of beginning with the clear distinct ideas and the obsession with indubitability and certainty and transparency, you begin with the unbelievable crisis in everyday life and the forms of folly that are operating and the various kinds of illusions that are being produced, and yet the need in the end for prudential, for practical wisdom, how to live, how to make it from day to day, week to week, and month to month. You see, that's what blues people start with. 
PA: So begin not in enlightenment but with ironic confrontation of our own limitations, something like that. 
CW: That's exactly right. In fact, it's beyond irony. Irony is a moment within it, but it's tragic comic. It's tragic comic. So that was Vico is definitely tragic comic because it's cyclical. He's pulling from Polybius and Plato. He's got a cyclical conception of history. Different ages go round and round and round. Now you don't get that in Erasmus because he's a good Christian humanist, but you do get the sense that, well, any breakthrough is cruciform. Any breakthrough is tied to being crucified with the shedding of blood, being misunderstood and misconstrued, and that even though it may in the end have a telos, in the interim, you see nations, empires, persons undergoing a kind of cycle. It looks as if we don't learn from the past too well, so we recycle the same kinds of new forms of organized hatred, new forms of institutionalized greed, and so on. And then Erasmus actually has that work. He's deeply influenced by Lucian, who we translated with Thomas More. Lucian is the great comic writer of the pre-modern West. We're somebody who, like Marx, broke a fire through which one must pass.
PA: I think that a lot of philosophers, if they're asked, okay, well, if you associate just one, two-word phrase with Cornel West, I guess a lot of them might say prophetic pragmatism, right? So there's a label that is stuck on you sometimes, and it is a phrase you've used as well. And I think that this conversation has helped me understand it better, because at first it looks like a bit of a contradiction in terms, like pragmatism is dealing with things as they come. Prophetic mode, which you associate with the Old Testament prophets, which you mentioned before, is some kind of visionary mode, right? But that idea that on the one hand, we're kind of muddling through and having to face these tragedies as they come, but on the other hand, kind of keeping hope that there is some kind of deliverance in the end that we're working towards. Is that something like what you mean by prophetic pragmatism? CW: It's true. I mean, I coined that term back in the 80s, when I was writing American History and Philosophy. I was teaching at the University of Paris at the time – [University of Paris] 8 in San Denis - in dialogue with Rorty. Rorty wrote some wonderful comments about that book. He wanted me to exclude most of the parts about himself. I said, no, no, no, no, no, no. 
PA: This is Richard Rorty, who is like a major sort of neo-pragmatist who was 
CW: my former teacher and brother. Absolutely. But again, you know, the prophetic pragmatism had not really come to terms with tragicomic, had not come to terms with folly, had not come to terms with the catastrophic in the most more explicit way that I talk about. That's one of the differences. But it's true that, you know, I said pragmatism, building on James, really is a house with many rooms, just a mansion with many spaces therein. And prophetic pragmatism would just be one little room within that larger house. I think there's always a pragmatist sensibility that's deeply shot through who and what I am. I mean. You take two things, we think of there's three sources. I mean, Pierce has a Kantian source and Dewey has a Hegelian source and James has a British empiricist source of their pragmatism. But they're fundamentally concerned about the richness and variety of experiences that it's very difficult to ever get a hold of. But that's the fundamental source from which one pulls and what one falls back on. Now, see, I do take that very seriously. There's no doubt about that. It's just that when you look at it through catastrophic comic lens with a different concept of the time swing concerned about practical wisdom, how do you keep on living, then the roles of tradition become much more important. You see, when Dewey defines pragmatism, you remember that wonderful essay, forget what it's called, I think it's just called On American pragmatism. He said that pragmatism is unique among philosophical tradition because it describes metaphysical status to futurity. The consequences and results, you're always looking to the future. That's a very new world, very American, very USA-ish, very Stoneham and Sacramento and Birmingham. But the danger there, of course, is to think that somehow you generate and produce a tradition of newness and novelty and not understood the way in which it's Whitehead says, nothing novel is wholly novel. Nothing new is wholly new. It's always rooted in some sense in an appropriation, interpretation, engagement of the past. And I'm much more with T.S. Eliot on this. He's right-wing about his politics. I radically oppose, but he's a literate genius, a towering figure and fellow Christian too after 1927, after his conversion. That tradition and individual thinkers' talent, individual figures, individual philosophers are always in some ways understood against a larger rise. So all the talk about newness in the world is just a matter of situating you within a certain innovation, within a certain tradition, just like the jazz tradition. Well, Charlie Parker is brand new. No. Go back and listen to Jelly [Roll Morton] and some of the others and you'll see elements there, but he's going to sound different than Louis [Armstrong]. Louis is not going to understand it at all. We'll call it, we won't use a language because it's a bad language, but Louis wasn't crazy. Can't dance to it. It's not tied to the ritual of the culture. It's too isolated, individualistic. Hey, Louis, we don't exist without you, man, but this is a new historical moment! We're in the clubs now! They're small. They can hardly even drink, let alone dance! [Peter laughs] But just listen to the music and take it in. So with these changes, Sun Ra is going to go off to Pluto and Mars with it. I mean, that's part of our tradition. And yet in the end, I do come back to these three pillars. Catastrophic, concept of the temporality in the form of swing and improvisation, not just the way Levi-Strauss talks about it in terms of bricolage and bricolour and eclecticism, but the art of improvisation. And the art of improvisation is actually rooted in some ways in the history of folly and of fools. 
PA:This is all very complicated, what we've been talking about. I'm wondering, is this too simple? So I'm struck by the hypothesis that in your early work, you're thinking a lot about humanism, and then you move on to thinking about pragmatism. And then you move on to this tragic comic sensibility, which almost looks like a kind of concern with the same phenomenon, except maybe with a deeper appreciation of just how absurd or horrifying, but also how hilarious the life is that we're confronted with. Is that right? 
CW: You hit the nail on the head. But the whole project is the humanistic project. Pragmatism itself is a particular species, kind of New World humanism, a kind of USA American humanism of a certain sort, that itself remains rooted in Socratic legacies of Athens and prophetic legacies of Jerusalem. So Ciceroan legacies of Rome, let's say. I'm speaking just kind of broadly, but you can see how these strings feed into the Deweys and the Jameses and others. And yet for me, the Black musical tradition and Black philosophy, which go hand in hand, are profoundly humanistic projects that are informed by the best of the West, but at the same time are rooted in certain non-Western sources in terms of African bodies, African rhythms, African styles. But they're so composite, they're so hybrid, they're so cross-culturally fertilized in a US situation, which is deeply European and deeply Western as well as non-European and non-Western in certain ways. So you'd think somebody like Chekhov to me is the greatest figure that the West produced. See, and I think he's even deeper than the Blues because Chekhov has a catastrophic consciousness rooted in everyday life. That's what makes him comic rather than just tragic. He has a different conception of time. A short story on Rothschild playing the violin and the ways in which the Yiddish sensibilities shot through the Russian oppressor circumstances to generate this sense of being off the beat, before the beat, under the beat, in the minor key, which is very Blues-like. When Duke Ellington said Black people's make dissonance a way of life, Chekhov understood. He said, there's no accident. You know, when the Yiddish writers read Chekhov, they said, he must be Yiddish. There's no way he speaks my experience and not be Yiddish. Russian is the translation of the Yiddish. That was the highest compliment he received, right? Because he's thinking, well, I'm touching on something human here. What makes that deeper, even than my own Blues tradition is, is that Blues is still New World and American. So there's still some crucial role for maturity. And there's some possibility of a substantive futurity to break through that green light that F. Scott Fitzgerald talked about at the end of the great Gatsby. Gatsby still believed that's all he went through in the green light. Tomorrow will be better. Tomorrow will be bigger. Tomorrow will solve every problem. Tomorrow will have no constraints. That's very American. Deeply so. That's not the rightness that Shakespeare was looking for when Edgar says, rightness is all that King Lear. That for Chekhov, even futurity itself have any kind of special status. It's what human beings do in light of their formation of the characters that they have honed out given circumstances under which they have not chosen. And that future will be a future, but it doesn't have any physical status. No sense is going to be better. It's going to be a breakthrough. No, with the end of Lady with a Lapdog, the problem's just beginning when they make the breakthrough. Or the inner three sisters, if only we knew, if only we knew we ain't gonna ever get to Moscow. We're waiting like Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot. You're waiting. You never get there so that the future doesn't have this little special zone, special status that it has in pragmatism. And in the blues, it's much, much, much, much less than pragmatism. But even that good morning heartache, it's almost like I'm just really waiting for this. Come on, next morning is it going to be? You really think the next morning is going to be a heartache again? You really think what Chekhov was saying? Of course. The question is how you're going to deal with it, give up on that futurity obsession. And it's hard for Americans to do that. Very, very difficult. That's something to do. Henry Adams, Eugene O'Neill and The Iceman Cometh, he in some ways wrestled with it. But still, Eugene O'Neill begins that play talking about Jimmy Tomorrow because O'Neill understands what we're talking about at a very profound level. And you think who are the philosophical analogs to Chekhov, Eugene O'Neill? No, I don't have anything. 
PA: Cornel West, maybe? 
CW: [laughs] I'm certainly leaning and lurking in that direction. You're right about that. You're right about that. 
PA: Actually, that's kind of the last thing I wanted to ask you. So I was reading a much older interview of yours, which is collected in the Cornell West Reader. I think it's called. And you were asked point blank, do you consider yourself a professional philosopher? And you said no. You sort of said, well, I do philosophy, but I'm kind of doing all these other things too. And when you describe yourself, you use words that don't sound like philosophers. So you say things like I'm an insurgent. Obviously, you're an activist, right? So you're many things. But since this is a history of philosophy podcast, since after all, you do have a PhD in philosophy, you've moved into philosophical academic circles. Where would you place philosophy kind of in the whole spectrum of what you're doing? So obviously there's music, there's literature, there's history, there's a lot going on here. Do you think that philosophy was maybe the best umbrella term for all of it? Or is it more like figures like we started with Heidegger and Wittgenstein, so people who are recognized as being philosopher philosophers, are they just one part of a mosaic? Or is philosophy for you the kind of the whole thing? 
CW: Let me put it this way that certainly my two closest soul mates would be Coltrane and Chekov. 
PA: Who we very rarely teach in philosophy courses. 
CW: Exactly, very rarely. Even though I was thinking, you know, I think Love Supreme might actually fit in Plano's public because it's a quest for God and it's a tremendous hymn to the gods. So you think that's quite fascinating. Reminds you of Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot. He means a lot to me, but he's not as close to Chekov and Coltrane. But I can't conceive myself without philosophy and philosophical traditions that inform me. They just mean that much. Kierkegaard was my first intellectual companion of the highest caliber, and I'll always remain a certain kind of Kierkegaardian. No doubt about that. But I love reading Whitehead. I love reading Santayana. I love reading Ernst Cassirer. I love reading Suzanne Langer. I love reading Stanley Cavell. I love reading Lucius Outlaw. I love reading Angela Davis. But you can see again, you know, I'm not as rooted as I should be in the African and the Asian and more non-Western tradition. I'm just in love with Rumi. Rumi and Shams and company, all that. He's on the love train, and I'm just lucky to be at the back of the caboose on that love train! And I consider myself a love warrior, you know, but no, Rumi, oh my God. But he was a little bit Sufi, and got a lot of other things going on. So I do have an appreciation of certain individuals, but I'm not rooted in Rumi’s traditions that shaped him. So that I know I would never call myself a professional philosopher. That's just too narrow. I have an appreciation of philosophers who are in the profession. Oh my God, yes, I'm shaped by them very much so. I mean, Rorty's anti-professionalism in some ways is parasitic on the profession. And we used to remind him of that all the time. Very important. And he would recognize it. He'd read his dissertation on Aristotle's Potentiality on the 700 page dissertation he wrote under Paul Weiss at Yale. And you see, Rorty, I think you're a member of the profession, brother! Indeed, indeed, indeed. But there's certain favorites, you know, there's like an American tradition. James and Dewey with me. Very much so.



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