West on Bradley's Gravitas

JKSCHW at aol.com JKSCHW at aol.com
Sun Jan 16 11:37:01 PST 2000

In a message dated 00-01-16 13:53:40 EST, Nathan writes:

<< As if a hitpiece by THE NEW REPUBLIC is anything but an attempt to take out one

of the only avowed socialists who gets a regular hearing in the public media.

Why anyone would applaud a hit like that I don't know. Adolph Reed is of course

a very different case since he has substantive differences on left and

African-American strategy and approaches.

Nathan and I are as usual on opposite sides. I don't know why West insists that he is still some sort of socialist. I have never seen any particukar evidence that he is. He did writea half-decent, if not very deep, book on Marx once upon a time. But then Isaiah Berlin did too, a rather better book, and he was no sicialist. Hell, Thomas Sowell's book on Marxism isn't half-bad--probably the best thing he's ever done.

The review by Ralph underlined for my how much I miss his participation in these discussions. I often disagree with Ralph, but he is invariably intelligent, thoughtful, and stimulating. I am a pragmatist myself, and don't agree with Ralph that West's pragmatism is the source of his problems. I'd say it was something a lot less deep--mainly his publicity-seeking opportunism and lack of real principle. Although he is capable of being interesting, as in the Marx book or his American Evasion of Philosophy (Ralph would disagree that these are interesting, but he might concede that they represent concerted attempts to think something through), he prefers sound bites and always moves to the respectable and incoherent center, letting himself be defined by what sells rather than where his premises might take him.

> But the attacks on West go to his bias for organization over criticism, action

over theorizing. Ralph Dumain's anti-pragmatic view sums up the virtues of Cornel as far as I'm


> Now not to dip to far into philosophical depths, the above statement [which I have snipped] seems silly

on its own terms. By definition, a dependence on the utility of an idea in

solving problems is objective for there is clear proof of its worth-- i.e.

whether it works.

"Works" means what? That is the sort of vague handwaving that gives pragmatism a bad name. Works as in, makes a difference in people's lifes? The ideas of Pol Pot sure as hell did.

Works as in, makes a difference in people's lives for a long time? Well, Stalinism made a difference in a lot of people's lives for several generations. Russian Orthodoxy and absolutist rule lasted even longer.

The point is just that "making a difference": isn't enough. You have to ask, for good or for ill. And that depends on your point of view: Stalinism was great from the perspective of the bureaucrats.

> Pragmaticism is heavily scientific for that reason alone.

The difference between science and abstract philosophy is precisely that science

has no use for ideas that do not include "specific problems" which the

scientific method can test various solutions against.

I don't know why Nathan uses Pierce's "pragmaticism" instead of "pragmatism" (P hated what James had done to what P considered "his" philosophy, so he changed the name. But West has a lot more in common with James than with Pierce, including the cheezy religiosity and subjectivism.

It's true that some strains of pragmatism are very scientific, including Pierce and Dewey and also the logical positivist flavored neopragmatism of Quine, Goodman, and Rawls, in which tradition I place myself. Rorty and West, alas, are resolutely antiscientific.

> Why social needs are "arbitrary" in this definition is unclear, unless you have

no sense of moral outrage and no sense of injustice. And if you don't, I have

never believed that any objective philosophy delivers them.

I think what Ralph means is what I said above: whether something works depends on your social group's needs and interests, which may be in conflict with those of other groups. West, the supposed socialist. refrains from identification with the working class and talks vaguely about how African Americans can be fitted in our "our: common American culture. That's arbitrary. Ralph, correct me if I misread you.

> And why with the paucity of left-leaning public intellectuals, folks would

attack Cornel is beyond me.

What's this, no enemies on the left? No criticism out of school? West's ideas

of late are often pernicious pomo claptrap (better written than most, I grant you) with about as much left content as your standard Goodman/Willis liberal fare. Left, schmeft.

> it was great

seeing West . . . defending grassroots

organizers and anticolonization leaders over conservative choices of

"anti-Communist" politicians.

That's good, although I don't think it redeems the stuff he writes these days or his supportof a noted supporter of contra aid (Bradley).

> I far prefer having

West out there in the public media trashing Churchill and Reagan then Cockburn

out there trashing John Sweeney.

We need both, don't we. As far as public intellectuals go, I wouldn't give up Cockburn for 20 Wests, although AC has fallen off of late as well. AC once inscribed my copy of Corruptions of Empire with a quote he attributed to Lenin, although I ahve never been able to locate it. "Be as radical as reality itself." That's a problem these days, and maybe AC is a bit at sixes and sevenses. But even then, AC adrift has more momentum pushing him in the right direction than West ever did even when he was going full steam ahead.

I agree with Ralph: Richard Wright over Cornell West. It's been a long fall for black public intellectuals.

I was happy to see, btw, that Nathan agreed with me on the legal questions we were discussing.


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