Cornel West: Truth

Cornel West in Examined Life.

Don’t miss a special Killing the Buddha event with Astra Taylor at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture on November 18th, featuring a screening and discussion of her film Examined Life, which includes scenes from this interview.

As dusk fell over Manhattan, I stopped to pick up Cornel West from his midtown hotel. He agreed to let me conduct an interview while driving him to the New School, where he was scheduled to give a lecture with the philosopher Simon Critchley. Although Examined Life was conceived as primarily pedestrian, the car ride seemed an appropriate way to bring the peripatetic concept up to date. How else would a modern-day flaneur travel? The cameraman sat in the front passenger seat; West and the soundman, who also operated the second camera, took the back. I did my best to guide the conversation while navigating rush-hour traffic.

Cornel West: So here we are in the middle of the Big Apple.

Astra Taylor: Since we haven’t settled on a theme in advance, let me throw some possibilities at you: truth, faith, love—

West: Truth is fine, truth is fine. Absolutely.

Taylor: OK, let’s go for truth. A big topic. [The engine starts and we begin our drive downtown.]

West: I think in many ways it is the ultimate question: What is truth? How do we understand truth and what are the ways in which we wrestle with truth? And I believe that Theodor Adorno was right when he said that the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. He said that the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak—that gives it an existential emphasis, you see, so that we’re really talking about truth as a way of life, as opposed to a set of propositions that correspond to a set of things in the world.

Taylor: When we settled on this topic, my mind immediately went to Plato.

West: Well, in many ways I wish people would think of Plato, rather than Bertrand Russell. Bertrand Russell, one of the grand exemplary analytic philosophers, tried to convince us that truth really was about propositions that correspond to objects in the world, whereas Plato always understood truth as tied into a way of life, as a certain mode of existence. And so what he’s trying to get us to enact is paideia*,* Broadly defined as training or teaching, but not in the sense of learning a trade. Greek paideia, according to Xenophon, was “the process of educating man into his true form, the real and genuine human nature.” which I think at the end is really at the center of any serious philosophic project. How do you engage in that formation of attention? For Plato, that’s to move from becoming to being, but I would just characterize it as moving from the superficial to the substantial, moving from the frivolous to the serious, and then cultivating a self to wrestle with reality and history and mortality and, most importantly, promoting a maturation of the soul. And for Plato, that had to do, of course, with a turning of the soul, so that you become a certain kind of person. So I’m actually with the classics in general in terms of understanding truth in an existential mode. Therefore, philosophy becomes more a way of life as opposed to simply a mode of discourse.

Taylor: Let’s talk about that transformative aspect of philosophy. The title for this project is “Examined Life.” So what we’re trying to do is bring the Socratic imperative to the big screen.

West: Absolutely. How do we examine ourselves in a Socratic manner? “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Plato says in line 38a of The Apology. How do you examine yourself? What happens when you interrogate yourself? What happens when you begin calling into question your tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions and begin then to become a different kind of person? You know, Plato says philosophy’s a meditation on and a preparation for death. By death what he means is not an event, but a death in life because there’s no rebirth, there’s no change, there’s no transformation without death, and therefore the question becomes: How do you learn how to die? Of course Montaigne talks about that in his famous essay “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die.” You can’t talk about truth without talking about learning how to die because it’s precisely by learning how to die, examining yourself and transforming your old self into a better self, that you actually live more intensely and critically and abundantly. So that the connection between learning how to die and changing, being transformed, turning your world upside down, inverting your world the way in which that famous play by Ludwig Tieck** ** The World Turned Upside Down.highlights so that you actually are in a different kind of zone, you have a new self. That’s why love is so inseparable from any talk about truth and death, because we know that love is fundamentally a death of an old self that was isolated and the emergence of a new self now entangled with another self, the self that you fall in love with.

Taylor: Let’s talk more about love. It seems to me that might be something that folks may not see as a properly philosophical concept.

West: I think love is central to any philosophical discourse. Plato understood that you have to talk about eros in talking about truth. That’s why philosophy is in fact a quest for wisdom based in sophia; that quest for wisdom has everything to do with a love of wisdom. I mean, my criticism of Plato is that he’s too in love with the abstract forms as opposed to loving concrete human beings. [West pauses to look out the window. The street overflows with people queuing for an event.] Oh, we’re having an opening. Isn’t that nice. A line on both sides—this is New York. Red carpet and everything!

Eros is at the center of it all. Remember, Socrates defined eros in an autobiographical way. It’s lack on the one hand and it’s ingenuity on the other. Plato’s definition of eros emerges out of his wrestling with love in Symposium, which is his great text on love, you see. So that eros is crucial. There’s simply no philosophizing without a love of wisdom, absolutely.

Buy 'Examined Life'!

Buy 'Examined Life'!

Taylor: I like this idea of the transformative power of philosophy. When I say the tagline for this project is “philosophy is in the streets,” does that resonate with you?

West: I think philosophy is all about lived experience, which is to say life in the streets, life in a variety of different contexts. I don’t want to make it just urban; you can have life in the streets in the country. But it’s fundamentally about how you come to terms with living your life and trying to do it in a wise manner, and, for me, that means decently and compassionately and courageously and so forth. See, I put it this way: that—for me—philosophy is fundamentally about our finite situation. We can define that in terms of we’re beings towards death, we’re featherless two-legged linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces whose bodies will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. That’s us; we’re beings towards death. At the same time, we have desire while we are organisms in space and time and so it’s desire in the face of death. And then, of course, you’ve got dogmatism, various attempts to hold on to certainty, various forms of idolatry. And you’ve got dialogue in the face of dogmatism. And then of course structurally and institutionally you have domination and you have democracy. You have attempts of people trying to render accountable elites, kings, queens, suzerains, corporate elites, politicians, trying to make these elites accountable to everyday people, to ordinary people. So if you’ve got on the one hand death, dogmatism, domination, and on the other you’ve got desire in the face of death, dialogue in the face of dogmatism, democracy in the face of domination, then philosophy itself becomes a critical disposition of wrestling with desire in the face of death, wrestling with dialogue in the face of dogmatism, and wrestling with democracy, trying to keep alive a very fragile democratic experiment in the face of structures of domination, patriarchy, white supremacy, imperial power, state power, all those concentrated forms of power that are not accountable to people who are affected by it.

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 is 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 is 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.

Copyright © 2009 Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers, edited by Astra Taylor. Reprinted by permission of The New Press.

Astra Taylor’s films include Examined Life, which was also adapted in book form by The New Press, and a documentary about the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Žižek! She has also produced videos for The Nation, and her writing has appeared in numerous magazines. A lifelong autodidact, she was raised in Athens, Georgia with almost no formal schooling.