Top Ten With West
We recently had the pleasure of hosting Ivy League scholar Dr. Cornel West on our weekly podcast, Anchored. An immensely literate man, it was hard for several of us to keep up with the titles he was referencing! We selected ten works that Dr. West recommended to suggest to our readers here at the Journal:
10. Athens and Jerusalem by Lev Shestov, 1966. Shestov was a Russian Jewish existentialist philosopher, influenced by Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. His point of departure is the experience of despair; science and reason, in his view, limit and even stifle human life. His response, like that of Kierkegaard, is faith—a faith that, though reason seems to define certain things as impossible or hopeless, “with God all things are possible.”
9. The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu, 2016. Wu is a professor of law at Columbia University, and has made significant contributions to anti-monopoly policies (he coined the phrase “net neutrality”). In The Attention Merchants, Wu examines the ways, past and present, in which corporate interests cultivate (and reap profit from) our minds, through the ceaseless activity of advertising, social media, and similar forms of messaging. The political and personal effects of this barrage are profound.
8. Politics As a Vocation by Max Weber, 1919. Weber was an early pioneer of sociology. This essay, delivered in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in World War One and before the establishment of the Weimar Republic, discusses the nature of political authority, and the significance of the state’s claim to a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. He also offers an analysis of the character traits necessary for a politician to be not only successful, but morally and practically good.
7. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, 1959. Titled from a poem by Langston Hughes, this play deals with the social and financial challenges faced by a Black family trying to improve their living situation under segregation. It is one of the most celebrated plays of the twentieth century, and was the first by a Black woman to open on Broadway.
6. Adventures of Ideas by Alfred North Whitehead, 1933. A teacher and colleague of Bertrand Russell, Whitehead began his career as a mathematician and logician, but later pursued an interest in metaphysics. Adventures of Ideas traces the development and power of ideas on personal, cultural, and cosmological levels.
5. The Talented Tenth by W. E. B. Du Bois, 1903. This essay was written in response to the Atlanta Compromise promoted by Booker T. Washington and the “Tuskeegee Machine.” Du Bois was convinced that the leadership of the Black community needed to be classically educated, both for its own sake and as a political statement of their human dignity and equality with white elites.
4. Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot, 1942. This collection of verse by the famed Anglo-American poet is among his subtlest work. Wrapped in the idiom of Christian mysticism and dealing with the relationship between sin, time, eternity, and salvation, Four Quartets represents Eliot’s thought and artistry at their zenith.
3. Beloved by Toni Morrison, 1987. This renowned novel is set in the aftermath of the Civil War. Based in part on the historical account of Margaret Garner, Beloved tells the story of a former slave, Sethe, whose home is unexpectedly visited by a young woman. Sethe comes to believe that the young woman is her daughter, returned from the dead—but others think that she is a malevolent ghost.
2. Truth and Method by Hans-Georg Gadamer, 1960. Much Enlightenment philosophy and science, right down to Wittgenstein’s 1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, had been concerned with attaining a wholly objective point of view. Gadamer, by contrast, advanced the theory that complete objectivity was not only impossible but undesirable, and that truth was best approached primarily through the lens of historical and interpersonal context.
1. Phaedo by Plato, ca. 380-360 BCE. This is one of the most famous of all Plato’s dialogues, and bequeathed to us, among other things, the statement that “Philosophy is the practice of death” (a refrain to which Dr. West often returned in these episodes). Just before his execution by hemlock, Socrates has one last conversation with his friends, putting forth arguments for the immortality of the soul and, in the end, accepting death with serenity.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this author profile of St. Thomas More, this “Great Conversation” post on mathematics, or this essay on film studies.