For the past several decades, Cornel West has been one of the most controversial and prolific academics in America. As an outspoken voice in left-wing politics, West has held professorships and fellowships at some of the top universities in the country. In his scholarly work, West focuses on the area where religious thought, social theory, and pragmatic philosophy intersect.
In addition to his Ivy League positions, the prominent author and activist has lectured at more than a hundred colleges and universities, including a short stint teaching philosophy in a federal prison. The recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees, and an American Book Award, West has written or contributed to over twenty published books, many of them exploring the African American experience and social justice. Aside from academia, West also enjoys a high public profile. On TV he is a frequent guest for the Bill Maher Show, CNN, C-Span, and Democracy Now. Following his big screen debut in the Matrix sequel, West has also appeared in over 25 documentaries and films to date.
In 1973, West first arrived on Princeton's campus to begin his doctoral work in the school's philosophy department. At Princeton, West was heavily influenced by the American philosopher Richard Rorty who had developed a distinctive and controversial brand of pragmatism called, "neopragmatism." Recognized for his prodigious mental gifts (he already graduated from Harvard with honors in three years) and deep commitment to social justice, West published his first book, Black Theology and Marxist Thought, the year before completing his graduate education in New Jersey. The title of his doctoral dissertation was "Ethics, Historicism and the Marxist Tradition." In 1980, West received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in philosophy, earning him the historic distinction as the very first African American student to receive a PhD in philosophy at Princeton.
For nearly 40 years now, West has enjoyed a deep and abiding relationship with his alma mater. In 1988, Princeton University tapped him to be the director of its African American Studies Program and as a professor of religion. In the former program, West was responsible for drawing together a multi-disciplinary group of literary artists and scholars who interpreted the African American experience in history and literature. During the six years he held those positions at Princeton, West earned a reputation as a scholar of infectious enthusiasm, sharp insight, and wide-ranging interests.
He left in 1994, but not for good. In 2002, following a widely publicized dispute at Harvard University, West returned to his alma mater to focus on teaching again. This lasted until 2012 when he left again, albeit on good terms with university leaders. He also agreed to teach occasional courses there when possible. Currently, West remains a professor emeritus at Princeton, where he remains the school’s first full faculty appointee to the Center for African American Studies.