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Cornel West on Truth (Part 2): An Excerpt from Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers

An Excerpt from Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers


Friday, September 18, 2009

The following is an excerpt from Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers, a 2009 companion book to Astra Taylor’s documentary film Examined Life, where she talks to influential philosophers about concepts as far-ranging as Meaning, Ethics and Justice. Here, Taylor speaks with Cornel West about Truth.

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

Cornel West: Truth
Excerpt from Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers
Edited by Astra Taylor

Taylor: I just want to ask you a basic question. What do you mean when you refer to your work as “prophetic”?

West: Well, for me the prophetic has to do with mustering the courage to love, to empathize, to exercise compassion, and to be committed to justice. Now of course, as a Christian I come out of premodern narratives, I come out of Hebrew scripture. Micah 6:8: “Do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” Hesed – hesed is the Hebrew word for steadfast love. Now, of course you know in a capitalist society and a market-driven culture, love tends to be viewed as a wayward sentimental feeling – it’s sentiment. Whereas for the Hebrew scripture and Christians and for many secular folks influenced by the legacies of Jerusalem, love is fundamentally a steadfast commitment to the well being of the other, with that other being especially the most vulnerable. Leviticus 19:18: “Love thy neighbor as they self.” The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew: keep track of “the least of these,” the widows, the elderly, the disabled, those who have been victimized by white supremacy or homophobia or patriarchy or imperial subjugation and so forth, those Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.” So that the prophetic fundamentally means this attempt to courageously live and speak on behalf of the dejected, on behalf of those whose humanity has been rendered invisible, those whose humanity is hidden and concealed. So that the notion of being a philosophical prophet or poetic prophet or what you have you is integral to my own conception to what it means to be a lover of wisdom. Therefore, again, we’re back to philosophy in the generic sense. And because, you see, the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak, it means then that if you have a prophetic sensibility, you are committed to loving others and if you love others, you hate injustice. That’s why Jesus goes into the temple and runs after marketeers [sic] when he first enters Jerusalem, right? That this unbelievable righteous indignation – I know my dear brother Simon Critchley calls it anger. I don’t think it’s anger, though. I think anger’s different; anger’s not the same as righteous indignation. Anger can be a bitterness that devours your soul while righteous indignation is morally driven, it’s ethically driven. Now Simon agrees with that cause – he, as you know, wants strong ethics.

Taylor: Earlier today I was filming with Michael Hardt and our theme was revolution. We got a bit tangled up in the question of violence.

West: Well, I’m not a pacifist at all; I think there is a notion of “just war” that can be persuasively argued. I think in the face of Nazis, in the face of apartheid, that I would have joined those armies. But that’s the last, last resort. I think nonviolence and the mediation of conflict by means of respecting civility must be promoted. But being the kind of beings we are – you know, wrestling with greed, and wrestling with fears and security, anxieties, wrestling with hatred that’s shot through all of us – wars are here to stay. And the question is how do you very selectively choose, so when you send your soldiers out to fight Hitler, it’s still a tragicomic affair, but you’re going to have to kill the mother-huckers because they want to dominate the world, put Jewish brothers and sisters in concentration camps, and subordinate the women, and eliminate people of color.


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