Cornel West has been described as a man who plays two roles. First, he is a highly regarded scholar of religion, philosophy, and African-American studies. Formerly a university professor (a position held by only 17 of 7,000 faculty) at Harvard, he has now returned to Princeton, where he taught from 1988 to 1994. Second, he is described as an "intellectual provocateur" outside of the academic world, appearing in lecture halls, on television, at protest rallies, on his own rap CD, and, most recently, in the upcoming "Matrix" sequels.
His dual roles as Ivy League academic and high profile public intellectual have brought West great controversy as of late. His defenders see him as an outstanding scholar, electrifying speaker, author of 16 books, and a dedicated and much-loved teacher. His detractors call him arrogant, academically irrelevant, overly preoccupied with politics and his public profile, and a race-baiter. His recent move to Princeton occurred after Harvard's new president, Lawrence Summers, questioned him about missing classes, grade inflation, his recent CD, his politics, and what Summers saw as a lack of serious scholarship.
But for West, remaining sequestered in the academic world has never been a goal. "I've always wanted to use whatever celebrity status I have for the struggle for freedom, the struggle for goodness," West says. "So if all of a sudden I'm very controversial . . . I don't shy from it, because you can use it as a force for good."
In his scholarly work, West focuses on the area where religious thought, social theory, and pragmatic philosophy meet. His most influential book, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, is a history of pragmatism from Emerson to the present. His book Race Matters sold nearly 400,000 copies and influenced a national dialogue on race. More recently, he has co-authored two books on public policy issues: The Future of American Progressivism and The War Against Parents.
West's influences range from European philosophy to the black church and the Black Panthers. He also sees his parents at the root of his character and his activism. His mother was a teacher, his father a civil servant, and they brought him up in an atmosphere of progress, religion, and love.
West graduated from Harvard University magna cum laude and earned his Ph.D. degree in philosophy at Princeton in 1980. His political and social work includes serving as honorary Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, participating in President Clinton's National Conversation on Race, and advising on Al Sharpton's Presidential exploratory committee. He is the recipient of the American Book Award, and has received more than 20 honorary degrees.