The purpose of this paper is to assess how the existential work of Søren Kierkegaard has informed contemporary philosopher Cornel West’s notion of “prophetic pragmatism” and how West’s notion of the prophetic serves as a corrective to Kierkegaard’s ethics of love. West argues that, due to the prioritization of capitalist values, an insidious nihilism—that is, a lack of meaning, hope, and love—lies at the heart of American culture, especially among marginalized groups. This is because the capitalist tendency to commodify everything and everyone leads to a breakdown of communities, which are the source of meaning and hope for individuals. West maintains that we must strengthen our communities by taking on a prophetic pragmatic vision, or a “political mode of cultural criticism” which seeks to confront structural evils and ameliorate human suffering. Nevertheless, in a nod toward a Kierkegaardian notion of despair, West warns that prophetic pragmatism is not utopian; human finitude and fallibility limit our capacity to completely eradicate evil.
I argue that operating in the background of West’s “tragic sense of life” is Kierkegaard’s view that selfhood is not easily won or maintained; even the earnest Christian (Kierkegaard’s paradigm of authentic selfhood) may fall from grace and into despair. Despite his stress on a single individual’s relationship with her Creator, in Works of Love, Kierkegaard constructs an ethic of agapic love which may serve as a basis for Christian fellowship. However, Kierkegaard’s conception of agape is still too individualistic. In light of this, Kierkegaard fails, unlike West, to take into account the existence of structural evils which may impede agape. West’s prophetic pragmatism conscientiously ties an individual’s meaning up with a community’s ability to be a source of meaning and hope. Finally, unlike Kierkegaard’s view of selfhood, prophetic pragmatism is not exclusively Christian, but rather can be applied to a variety of communities, be they religious or secular. I find this humanistic move to be effective in facing evil; by stressing pluralism, West opens up the possibility of democratic discourse among communities and also growth within individual communities.