Cornel West Talks ‘Values, Virtue, and Vision’

UPDATED: October 6, 2016 at 3:01 p.m.

{shortcode-ed367322ae89ebdeffe09633fed528a2d34b09f0} Acclaimed philosophy professor Cornel R. West ’74 advocated for the power of continual self-examination and criticism of society during a packed event at the Science Center on Wednesday night.

With students and faculty members alike crowding into the auditorium, the event was part of a larger series organized by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. Discussion moderator and Center for Ethics director Danielle S. Allen cited West’s ability to analyze difficult issues without devolving into personal hatred.

“West is one of the greatest analysts of race and justice in the U.S.,” she said. “He always offers a powerful message of hope, integrity, and recognition of humanity.”

The conversation covered a variety of philosophical topics, including the definition of pragmatism, the power of defining events as “catastrophes,” and the importance hope in difficult societal problems.


West defined pragmatism by differentiating it from opportunism, saying that pragmatism is not “reducible to the utilitarian.” Instead, West stressed the importance of "values, virtues, and vision" when considering pragmatism.

He urged the audience to constantly question their beliefs and presumptions.

“It’s so easy to become self-righteous in your struggle against evil,” West cautioned. “You can learn from folk you disagree with.”

During the question and answer session, multiple audience members expressed concern over acting with integrity in the face of oppression, but West reminded listeners to “acknowledge the progress” that has been made.

“A tremendous sign of hope is the younger generation,” West said. “Breakthroughs [in regards to discrimination] have been made, and the younger generation has received them.”

West, who participated in protests in April 2015 demanding that Harvard divest its endowment from fossil fuels, also expressed his support for Harvard’s dining hall workers in their strike that began on Wednesday morning.

“Of course I would endorse what is going on. We have people having robust conversations, folks putting their lives on the line,” West said. “The beautiful thing is how the young people are recognizing the crucial role these workers play in their lives.”

Both Allen and West were very complimentary throughout the event. West was a professor at Princeton in the early 1990s, while Allen was an undergraduate there. He came to Harvard in 1994 before becoming a University Professor four years later. He then returned to Princeton in 2002 following a dispute with then-University President Lawrence H. Summers.

Allen cited West, her mentor at Princeton, as the greatest difference in her life. West responded with equal praise.

“To see students soar like eagles brings a joy to your heart”, West said, referring to Allen’s success.

A crowd of audience members gathered around West after the event.

“As someone who’s never seen him speak before, he said so much in such style,” Christina M. Qiu ’19, a Crimson editorial columnist, said. “He was so open minded and kind and tolerant of all walks of life, which is so rare to see in today’s world.”

“Cornel West was very inspirational in terms of his commitment to justice and equality,” said audience member Amanda Gorman ’20, who described herself as “speechless” after the event. “His effect rippled throughout this room with his continuous promise to challenge the unjust system and critique oneself.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: October 6, 2016

A previous caption for a photo associated with this story incorrectly stated Cornel West's class year.