A Note on Cornel West, Nihilism and New Trope Building

by Mark Staff Brandl

Cornel West is a professor of Afro-American Studies, of Religion and of Philosophy. He contributes one of the most stirring political philosophies now in discussion. West doubts the relevance of much of the literary-critical thought still now being idolized in the art and literary worlds. West has said in an interview with Anders Stephanson Art and Philosophy, that “the linguistic model itself must be questioned. The multi-level operations of power within social practices — of which language is one — are more important.” 1 His work revolves around questions of power and inequities in society. West's has been a central inspiration behind my thought. West supplies ideas which meld well with my notions and allow the examination of ways in which trope may be used in questioning foundational reasoning and subverting harmful metaphors.

West calls his approach “prophetic pragmatism.” This term describes his philosophy well. West is concerned with hopeful analysis (the prophetic), and realistic action (the pragmatic). Prophetic pragmatism “promotes the possibility of human progress and the human impossibility of paradise.” 2 Prophetic thought, according to West, can be broken down into four basic components: discernment, connection, tracking hypocrisy, and hope. “Discernment” means being historical and analytical; “connection” is his word for cultivating empathy with others; “tracking hypocrisy” is the demand that humans, especially intellectuals, be self-critical and not self-righteous; “hope” is his call that we face our contemporary, generally accepted misanthropic disbelief in humans as a challenge. 3 In this light, one can understand West's controversial Left Christianity (many in the political Left do not like his Christianity, many Christians do not care for his social politics). His involvement with progressive African-American churches is instrumental to the extent that he finds in them “resources for sustenance and survival.” He is a genuine believer as well, stating that he finds "Christian narratives and stories empowering and enabling. 4

West is an adamant critic of nihilism, especially because of its current, fashionable acceptance by many creators and scholars. His clear-sighted accounts of this phenomenon in the interview in Art and Philosophy demonstrate where his hopefulness merges with his pragmatism.

[N]ihilism is not cute. We are not dancing on Nietzsche's texts here and talking about nihilism, we are in a nihilism that is lived. We are talking about real obstacles to the sustaining of a people. Cornel West 5

Reality exists in what West repeatedly calls “brutal fact,” especially for those without much power such as disadvantaged minorities.

[T]here is a reality that one cannot not know. The ragged edges of the Real, of Necessity, not to be able to eat, not to have shelter, not to have health care, all this is something that one cannot not know. The black condition acknowledges that. Cornel West 6

It is mandatory, then, that we hope against all hope. Creative and theoretical activity must be foregrounded against a background of the tragic. “Culture is, in part, convincing people not to kill themselves...,” West has written in Prophetic Reflections, continuing that “the question becomes, then, as cultural critics and as cultural artists, how do we generate vision and hope?” 7

One answer I came to, inspired by West, is that we can do so by building NEW tropes to live by, ones which criticize inadequate cultural metaphors, but additionally point to wider vistas of inspiriting desire metaphors of operativeness for “existential empowerment.” 8 I thus began to see West through the lens of metaphor, although I encountered his work before I discovered cognitive linguistics and ventured into metaphor(m). I hope to discuss this in more depth in a future article.


  • This article is based on pp. 41-43  of “Chapter 1; Wandering and Surveying: Links to Literary Theory and Contemporary Aesthetics” of my dissertation.
  1. Cornel West, interview with Anders Stephanson in Art and Philosophy, ed. Giancarlo Politi (Milan, Giancarlo Politi Editore, 1991), p. 155.
  2. West, Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in America, Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism, vol. 2 (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1993), p. 10; all italics in quotations from West are in the original.
  3. Ibid., pp. 3-6.
  4. Idem, Art and Philosophy, pp. 160-161.
  5. Ibid., p. 173.
  6. Ibid., p. 161.
  7. West, Prophetic Reflections, vol. 2, p.4-5.
  8. Idem, Art and Philosophy, p. 168.