After graduating from John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento, California, he enrolled at Harvard University at age 17 and graduated in three years, magna cum laude in Near Eastern languages and literature. He went on to Princeton to complete his graduate education, where he was influenced by professor Richard Rorty, specifically his dedication to the pragmatist school of philosophy. His dissertation, completed in 1980, was later revised and published as The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought. In his mid-twenties, he returned to Harvard as a Du Bois fellow before becoming an assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
In 1985, he went to Yale Divinity School in what eventually became a joint appointment in American studies. While at Yale, he participated in campus protests for a clerical union and divestment from apartheid South Africa, one of which resulted in his being arrested and jailed. As punishment, the university administration cancelled his leave for Spring 1987, leading him to commute between Yale (where he was teaching two classes) and the University of Paris (where he was teaching three).
He then returned to Union and then taught at Haverford College for one year before going to Princeton to become a professor of religion and director of the Program in African American Studies, which he revitalized in cooperation with such scholars as novelist Toni Morrison. He served as director of the program from 1988 to 1994.
1993 saw the publication of Race Matters, a best-selling collection of essays, as well as his departure from Princeton to join the Afro-American studies program at Harvard, chaired by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (who called West "the preeminent African-American intellectual of our generation"). In 1998, Harvard appointed him the first Alphonse Fletcher, Jr., University Professor.
In 2003, West appeared as Councillor West in the science fiction films Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions and recorded commentaries on philosophy for all three films in the Matrix trilogy for their DVD release, along with integral theorist, Ken Wilber.
West published Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, his follow-up to Race Matters, in 2004. In the book, West calls on Americans to "forge a mature hope that fortifies us on the slippery tightrope of Socratic questioning and prophetic witness in imperial America".
The introduction to The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, entitled "The Making of an American Democratic Socialist of African Descent" is an autobiographical essay. In addition, the first section of The Cornel West Reader, entitled "Autobiographical Prelude", provides further information on West's personal and intellectual background. West is a prominent member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the first collegate African-American fraternity . He is also a supporter of animal rights and PETA.