Cornel West has never shied away from disagreement, which is one of the qualities that has kept him prominent as a public intellectual for decades. Another is his intense, even lyrical style of expressing those disagreements — and everything else he has to say besides. In his academic career he’s built a reputation as not exactly the average professor, as his former students at Harvard, Yale, Princeton University, the University of Paris, and other schools have experienced first-hand. Now, online education platform Masterclass has made his distinctive pedagogy available to anyone willing to pay USD $20-per-month membership price with its brand new course “Cornel West Teaches Philosophy.”
“This class revolves around three fundamental questions,” West says in the trailer above. First, “What does it mean to be human?” Second, “What are the forms of love that constitute the best of our humanity: love of truth, love of goodness, love of beauty?” Third, “How does community, tradition, heritage shape and mold our conceptions of who we are as human beings?”
This material, one senses, will be less straightforwardly practical than in some other Masterclasses; but then, is there any viewer to whom it could be irrelevant? Whatever our particular field of endeavor, each of us is, as West puts it, “a featherless, two-legged, linguistically conscious creature, born between urine and feces, whose body will soon be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms.”
Yet in West’s view, we can also reach toward higher things. This requires the proper attitude toward wisdom, the love of which is at the root of the very term philosophy: hence the lessons in West’s Masterclass dedicated to “How to Think Like a Philosopher” and “How Philosophy Serves Humanity.” Later he goes deeper, and at one point even “unsettles the mind and empowers the soul by illuminating the delicate interplay between hope, optimism, and despair.” Carrying on the expansive tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois, West has created a role for himself that encompasses the work of academic, activist, public intellectual, and even music-lover. For his dedicated listeners and readers, his lesson on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and the “jazz-like conception of philosophy” it encourages will surely be worth Masterclass’ price of admission alone. Explore the course here.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.