Cornel West

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The capacity to produce social chaos is the last resort of desperate people.

Cornel Ronald West (born 2 June 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma) is a prominent African-American scholar and public intellectual. Formerly at Harvard University, West is currently professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary, New York. West's intellectual contributions draw from such diverse traditions as the African American Baptist Church, Marxism, pragmatism, and transcendentalism.


  • I focus on popular culture because I focus on those areas where black humanity is most powerfully expressed, where black people have been able to articulate their sense of the world in a profound manner. And I see this primarily in popular culture. Why not in highbrow culture? Because the access has been so difficult. Why not in more academic forms? Because academic exclusion has been the rule for so long for large numbers of black people that black culture, for me, becomes a search for where black people have left their imprint and fundamentally made a difference in terms of how certain art forms are understood. This is currently in popular culture. And it has been primarily in music, religion, visual arts and fashion.
    • "Cornel West interviewed by bell hooks" in Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (1991)
  • In situations of sparse resources along with degraded self-images and depoliticized sensibilities, one avenue for poor people is in existential rebellion and anarchic expression. The capacity to produce social chaos is the last resort of desperate people.
    • "The Role of Law in Progressive Politics" in Keeping Faith : Philosophy and Race in America (1993)
  • To be an intellectual really means to speak a truth that allows suffering to speak.
    • "Chekhov, Coltrane, and Democracy: Interview by David Lionel Smith." in The Cornel West Reader (1998)
  • The authority of science … promotes and encourages the activity of observing, comparing, measuring and ordering the physical characteristics of human bodies.… Cartesian epistemology and classical ideals produced forms of rationality, scientificity and objectivity that, though efficacious in the quest for truth and knowledge, prohibited the intelligibility and legitimacy of black equality…. In fact, to "think" such an idea was to be deemed irrational, barbaric or mad.
    • Prophesy Deliverance! (2002)
  • I remind young people everywhere I go, one of the worst things the older generation did was to tell them for twenty-five years "Be successful, be successful, be successful" as opposed to "Be great, be great, be great". There's a qualitative difference.
    • Speech in San Francisco: Democracy Matters (1 October 2004)
  • From whence are these "rights of individuals" derived, and why should we care? Unless we presume the existence of some greater power that determines what is good, isn't it arbitrary to posit that human survival is more important than private property rights, an equally artificially construed concept? Isn't it arbitrary to assume that some sort of equality is preferable to a system where, say, the poor are assumed to have bad karma? If these 'rights of individuals' are derived only from shared humanity, then do 'individuals' (a thoroughly meaningless term, by the way), begin to lose them when they act inhumanely? And isn't it totally arbitrary to grant rights to humans rather than other creatures anyway?
    • Lecture in New Haven: On Constructed Rights (28 February 2013)
  • The Enlightenment worldview held by Du Bois is ultimately inadequate, and, in many ways, antiquated, for our time. The tragic plight and absurd predicament of Africans here and abroad requires a more profound interpretation of the human condition — one that goes beyond the false dichotomies of expert knowledge vs. mass ignorance, individual autonomy vs. dogmatic authority, and self-mastery vs. intolerant tradition.
  • You can't lead the people if you don't love the people. You can't save the people, if you don't serve the people.
    • Hope on a Tightrope : Words and Wisdom (2008); also on "The Way I See It" Starbucks Coffee Cup #284
  • Analytical philosophy was very interesting. It always struck me as being very interesting and full of tremendous intellectual curiosities. It is wonderful to see the mind at work in such an intense manner, but, for me, it was still too far removed from my own issues.
    • Interview in George Yancy (ed.) African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations, ISBN0415921007, p. 35

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