The Afro-American Critical Thought of Cornel West as Critical Theory

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In his discussion of Wittgenstein, James C. Edwards writes that there is no such thing as a formula that applies itself, "one whose intrinsic meaning is independent of a conventional, public practice" (AL 163). The similar point can be made, and probably with less risk of controversy, that the significance of a theory will never be independent of the way people interpret that theory and respond to it. This paper evaluates how one might respond to Cornel West's "Afro-American critical thought." First, West's theory is outlined as it is presented by the theorist himself. Second, the significance of key features of his approach to theory with regard to formulating a response is evaluated. At the same time, we will assess the importance of those features to any theory which takes society as its field of inquiry.

The core of West's presentation of his Afro-American critical thought contains two elements. First, West provides an account of the history of African-American thought and the historical experience that has shaped it; this account includes West's assessment of the present situation. He fits these elements of the past and present, intellectual and non-intellectual history of the Afro-American experience within a conceptual framework. He ascribes a particular significance to each element as it falls within this theoretical framework, whether the element is as concrete as the African slave trade, or as academic as the treatment of the "marginalistic tradition" in the writings of Sutton Griggs and Charles Chesnutt. West's assessment of each element is in terms of its meaning for the situation of the Afro-American community in the present day. West's theory is not restricted to an interpretation, however. He presents the aforementioned historical analysis as a description of the present context from which he can draw up a recommendation for changes in existing society. This prescriptive part of West's theory draws from his historical analysis in two different respects. First, these prescribed changes would aim to alleviate or eliminate the undesirable elements West has identified in the status quo. At the same time, his recommendations for change are the result of his own historically influenced way of thinking. West explicitly traces the influences which have shaped the ideas his theory contains. The history he has analyzed is also his own history, and the theory he formulates in response is one more element of that history - a product of the factors in the historical progression which preceded it. West has drawn up his theory for a particular purpose, beyond the pursuit of "knowledge for knowledge's sake." That purpose is intimately connected with the course for social change West has plotted out. The theory West has created is to play a role in bringing about that change; creating that theory is an intellectual action intended on providing ideological support for the prescribed social transformation. West emphasizes that his purpose is not to provide a metaphysical "ground" for the undertaking (PD 15). He is not attempting to prove that there are objective reasons which would compel any rational agent to pursue West's own vision. Rather, he sees himself as involved in the task of creating a "textuality and distinctive discourse which are a material force for Afro-American freedom" (PD 15). This description naturally raises two questions as to his meaning. First, what is this "textuality and distinctive discourse" West seeks to create? Second, how can text and discourse be a "material force" for any kind of change? West clarifies the first question by explaining that the Afro-American critical thought he writes of "is a genre of writing, a textuality, a mode of discourse." This description reflects the fact that that his intellectual work is not a line of deductive arguments intended to relate the objective truth about its area of inquiry. At the same time, his inquiry is not...
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