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Cornel West on Truth (Part 1)

Taylor: So is philosophy about speaking truth to power?

West: Absolutely, very true. But you also speak truth to the powerless – see, the powerful have no monopoly on greed, hatred, fear, or ignorance. [We stop at a red light. A large crowd of people is gathered around a group of performers on the steps of the New York Public Library.] Look at these folks dancing right there. Oh yes, we got a little hip-hop here. That’s the break-dance dimension of hip-hop. Isn’t that nice? I was at a session last night; we had four hours of dialogue with all the great hip-hoppers in the country.

Taylor: I just saw your CD.

West: My Never Forget: A Journey of Revelation with Prince, André 3000 of OutKast, the late great Gerald Levert, M-1 of Dead Prez, and KRS-1. Towering, prophetic, and progressive hip-hop artists. KRS-1 is a philosopher, you know – dropped out of school at thirteen, grew up on the streets until he was nineteen, and was in on the first wave of hip-hop.

Taylor: So let me ask: What is your definition of a philosopher? Do you have to go to school to be a philosopher?

West: Oh, God no. God no. Thank God you don’t have to go to school. No, a philosopher’s a lover of wisdom. It takes tremendous discipline, takes tremendous courage, to think for yourself, to examine yourself. The Socratic imperative of examining yourself requires courage. William Butler Yeats used to say it takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield. Courage to think critically. Courage is the enabling virtue for any philosopher – for any human being, I think, in the end. Courage to think, courage to love, courage to hope. That’s what I like about brother Simon Critchley’s work and the debate we’ll have tonight.

Taylor: This is an old idea, right? Going back at least to the death of Socrates. That philosophy both requires and instills courage. Is music a similarly courageous endeavor?

West: You see, the thing to keep in mind for me is line 607b in book ten of Plato’s Republic, on the traditional quarrel of philosophy and poetry. And of course there what Plato is trying to do is to displace Homeric paideia with Platonic paideia. Homer, representing the poets, has his own way of getting us to live our lives wisely, and Plato thinks he has a better way. And of course the death of Socrates was at the center of Plato’s whole project: how do you keep alive the memory of Socrates, the legacy of Socrates, in the face of what he considers to be an inferior form of paideia, which is Homer? And in this first section of book ten in Plato’s Republic, Plato talks about his traditional quarrel between philosophy and poetry. Now for me, I believe philosophy must go to school with the poets; it’s not either/or, it’s not over or against.

Taylor: Are you getting at different kinds of knowledge?

West: Different kinds of knowledge and the degree to which the poetic is shot through the philosophic and the philosophic is shot through the poetic. Now, what I think separates me from most philosophers probably is that, see, I’m a bluesman in the life of the mind, I’m a jazzman in the world of ideas. Therefore, for me music is central, so when you’re talking about poetry, for the most part Plato’s talking primarily about words, where I talk about notes, I talk about tone, I talk about timbre, I talk about rhythms. See, for me music is fundamental; philosophy must go to school not only with the poets, philosophy needs to go to school with the musicians. Keep in mind Plato bans the flute in The Republic but not the lyre. Why? Because the flute appeals to all of the various dimensions of who we are given his tripartite conception of the soul – the rational, and the spirited, and the appetitive. The flute appeals to all three of those, whereas he thinks the lyre, with one string only, appeals to one and therefore it’s permissible. Now, of course the irony of Plato was that on his deathbed, what did he do? Well, he requested the Thracian girl play music on the flute. Isn’t that interesting? And you remember she forgets the melody; he has to hum it right before he dies.

Taylor: So he knew it.

West: So he knew it! The same way he had Aristophanes under his pillow. So that Plato unfortunately juxtaposes philosophy over and against poetry in his project even though his writing is so poetic – of course his practice defies his own ideology. Because Plato was very much a poetic philosopher and a philosophic poet. But for me it’s not just about being a poetic philosopher or a philosophic poet; it’s also about being musical. Now, what’s very interesting is that Plato refers to the musical life once and it’s in his dialogue Laches – and in Laches, what is he talking about? He’s raising a question: What is courage? And for him a musical life is the most courageous life. Now, what does he mean by that? He’s not referring to somebody that plays an instrument, but he’s really referring to somebody who’s trying to weave together a certain kind of melody and harmony,  though he knows there’s no melody and harmony without dissonance, without minor keys. But I’m a bluesman, which means that I put an emphasis on the minor keys. 

(This is Part I of the interview. Click here to read Part II.)

Copyright © 2009 by Astra Taylor.  This excerpt originally appeared in Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers edited by Astra Taylor. Published by The New Press.  Reprinted here with permission.


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