Posts Tagged ‘Cornel West’

primal roots

January 26, 2011

Bruce Wilshire is a distinguished philosopher from Rutgers University. We’re sampling his Primal Roots of American Philosophy today in NW, to get a feel for what he considers the natural affinity between philosophy in the American grain and, well, the native American grain.

Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, James, Dewey, Royce… these classic American philosophers were meliorists devoted to making things progressively better. But their “progress” did not sunder mind from body, matter from spirit, subject from object. With Black Elk they sought Spirit under the big sky, on this planet, here and now. That, after all, is where we are.  America has “evaded” philosophy, said Cornel West. But that’s a good thing, when what’s being evaded is an unsustainable “modern” schism between humans and the life-world.

I’d never considered William James a Shaman, but maybe that is the right word for those whose own good words and examples help to cure some of us of our inveterate, debilitating habits of mediation and insulation from direct and immediate experience of our world. James urged receptivity to whatever might be present to absorb one’s “life-currents,” to the purity of “pure experience,” to the sufficiency of the present moment. Future fulfillments, so much the focal center of pragmatic philosophy, depend upon our successful attending to the now. Like Ed, of Cicely (“could be you’ve been called…”):

The best text in James I know to convey the lure of the primal and indigenous is this, from On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings“:

…we of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life’s more elementary and general goods and joys.

The remedy under such conditions is to descend to a more profound and primitive level. To be imprisoned or shipwrecked or forced into the army would permanently show the good of life to many an over-educated pessimist. Living in the open air and on the ground, the lop-sided beam of the balance slowly rises to the level line; and the over-sensibilities and insensibilities even themselves out. The good of all the artificial schemes and fevers fades and pales; and that of seeing, smelling, tasting, sleeping, and daring and doing with one’s body, grows and grows. The savages and children of nature, to whom we deem ourselves so much superior, certainly are alive where we are often dead, along these lines; and, could they write as glibly as we do, they would read us impressive lectures on our impatience for improvement and on our blindness to the fundamental static goods of life. “Ali! my brother,” said a chieftain to his white guest, “thou wilt never know the happiness of both thinking of nothing and doing nothing. This, next to sleep, is the most enchanting of all things. Thus we were before our birth, and thus we shall be after death. Thy people. . . . when they have finished reaping one field, they begin to plough another; and, if the day were not enough, I have seen them plough by moonlight. What is their life to ours,—the life that is as naught to them? Blind that they are, they lose it all! But we live in the present.”

We too often fail to live in the present, and thus fail to be present to our very lives. We lack the quality of experience that John Dewey revered as natural piety, “a sense of nature as the whole of which we are parts… marked by intelligence and purpose [and] a capacity to strive by their aid to bring conditions into greater consonance with what is humanly desirable.” A Common Faith

Appiahn Way

November 8, 2009

Ancient_Appian_Way(Not to be confused with the old Roman Road, though both– for better or worse– facilitate human connection…)

One of my favorite reads last summer was K. Anthony Appiah’s Cosmpolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. (He’s on my mind this morning because he has a gray box blurb in our next Intro chapter on sex, race, and multiculturalism.)

Appiah is another non-caucasian philosopher (like his former Princeton colleague Cornel West) everyone should read, especially in the Age of Obama. He too is a multi-cultural hybrid– I really wish Obama had not called himself a “mutt”– with an African Dad.  Like West, he’s also conversant with and congenial to the classic American philosophical tradition of James and Dewey. The spotlight in Cosmpolitanism is on the perennial pragmatic theme of pluralism. Lately, Appiah has been pushing the incipient “experimental philosophy” (or X-phi) movement.

Cosmopolitanism (which Appiah traces to the Cynics, though Socrates may have beat them to it)  means being a citizen of the world, not just of your neighborhood, community, tribe, nation, or gender, ethnicity, race, religion et al. It’s about transcending those particular personal markers without denying their importance in creating your identity. (Maybe that’s what John Rawls was really after, with his “original position” and “veil of ignorance.”)

Appiah’s “Way” is conversation:

Your conception of cosmopolitanism — being “citizens of the world” — emphasizes conversation. How do we learn to have such conversations and how do they happen?

I think that, for educated people, the beginnings of conversations across boundaries of identity — whether it be national,cosmopolitanism-kwame-anthony-appiah-paperback-cover-artreligious or something else — come with the sort of imaginative engagement you get when you read a novel or watch a movie or attend to a work of art that speaks from some place other than your own. So I’m using the word “conversation” not only for literal talk, but also as a metaphor for engagement with the experience and ideas of others. And I stress the role of the imagination here — and the role of the sorts of encounters that are central to the humanities — because it’s crucial, I think, that these encounters be undertaken not just because they make it more likely that we can live together in peace, but because the encounters, properly conducted, are valuable in themselves.

And that’s another element of the metaphor of conversation: Conversation allows us to understand others, teaches us things, but it’s also a pleasure. If you try to persuade people to engage in conversation across societies as a kind of necessary drudgery, they won’t take it up in the right spirit — they probably won’t take it up at all. So cosmopolitanism, in short, has to be defended as a delight, not as a duty.

In this excellent talk, listen for the references to Adam Smith and the invidious comparison between a pained finger and the large-scale loss of human life– that’s where his pal David Hume got it– and to Balzac’s”Box” prequel. Also, interesting thoughts on utilitarianism and Peter Singer.


November 4, 2009

Our chapter on this large theme  starts slow but then delivers a solid point too often neglected by partisans of free-market democracy: “In a good society, there will be something more than prosperity; there will also be justice.”

Dr. King’s dream is a step closer, segregation is no longer defended by “respectable” people, there’s a Caucasian-African-American in the Oval Office… but bigotry and ugly race-hatred still frustrate the full flourishing of a genuinely Good Society, a Kantian Kingdom of Ends, a republic of virtue, a land of liberty and justice for all.

“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’… I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

Philosopher Cornel West is one of our more charismatic and energetic dream-keepers today, a “drum major for justice” in books like Race Matters and in pop culture venues (like musical recordings and film) where academics rarely tread.  It’s his tireless theme (check all the references to justice in the Cornel West Reader, for instance.) “Who wants to be well-adjusted to injustice? What kind of human being do you want to be?”

Here he is, in a snippet from the film “Examined Life,” talking about philosophy, democracy, and some of the reigning impediments to justice in our time.

“From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” The Marxist conception of justice, so summarized, sounds eminently fair. But perhaps fairness doesn’t unleash the incentives required by those who will work only for more than they need.  Do the industriously rich sometimes deserve it, earn it by the sweat of their brows and the cleverness of their entrepreneurial or inventive skills? No question, there have been benefactors  as well as malefactors of great wealth– sometimes wrapped up in the same skin– from Carnegie and Rockefeller to Gates and Buffett.

BlindJusticeArtJohn Rawls‘ 1971 classic A Theory of Justice, a modern version of the old social contract approach to political philosophy, explores fairness behind a “veil of ignorance,” the “original position” we should supposedly want rational contractarians  to occupy when deliberating principles of justice. (This is not quite the traditional sense in which justice is supposed to be blind, but it’s related.) It asks: what principles of social justice would be chosen by parties thoroughly knowledgeable about human affairs in general but wholly deprived—by the “veil of ignorance”—of information about the particular person or persons they represent?

Rawls thought they’d pick these two: (1) fundamental  individual equality, allowing (2) only those inequalities that can be presumed to work out to everyone’s advantage.

Rawlsian procedural justice raises this challenge: can we be motivated to think constructively about justice, or anything else, if we’re supposed to be ignorant of the most pertinent details of our personal identities (vocation, income, party allegiance, et al)? Would we still be capable of mustering a King- or West-like passion for justice, behind Rawls’ veil? Robert Solomon is among those who’ve raised this worry, rightly I think. Rawls was more concerned with securing the dispassion, the detachment necessary to unleash our full commitment to the common good undistracted by private self-interest.

There must be a connection between this question and the vexing issue of psychological continuity and personal identity that I’m trying to be lucid about by Saturday. Possibly it’s something to do with the forward-looking , prospective nature of both the contractarian approach to justice and the continuity of persons.

In a word, might it be our vision of the future that both impels the march for justice and unifies the self?