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Cavell, Stanley (1926–)


Stanley Cavell, American philosopher and long-time professor of philosophy at Harvard University, has written on epistemology, philosophy of language, moral philosophy, and aesthetics; on Shakespeare and Romanticism and Samuel Beckett; on modernism in the arts, classic Hollywood film comedies and melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s, and opera; on his most direct influences, J. L. Austin and Ludwig Wittgenstein, especially with reference to their attempts to draw words back to their everyday homes; on Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, who articulate our perhaps inevitable ambivalence toward what the latter calls "average everydayness"; on Kant, who in limiting knowledge to make room for faith makes the conditions and boundaries of human understanding and the recognition of our finitude dominant themes for subsequent thought; and also on the Kantian inheritance in the transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson, who conceptualize these issues in terms of lost contact with things themselves and the possibility of an intimacy regained that allows for acceptance of the world's independence from us. Cavell's circle of interests has its unity: his overarching concern is with philosophy's aspirations to self-knowledge and with obstacles the intellect erects to self-knowledge, particularly in the form of distortions of self-expression and loss of voice. Cavell links these threats to skepticism, conceived not just as a general doubt about the extent of our cognitive capacities, but as an expression of a tragic condition of withdrawal haunting the present age. Later, he finds acknowledgment of and response to this condition in images of recovery articulated in the dimension of the moral life he calls "Emersonian perfectionism."

Several essays in Must We Mean What We Say (1969) defend the salience of philosophical appeals to ordinary language. In doing so, they prepare for the comprehensive diagnosis of skepticism and the impulses behind it offered in Cavell's central work, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (1979). Because appeals to "what we say when" draw on knowledge of native tongues, they do not directly refute the skeptic by convicting him of linguistic mistakes. The skeptic, after all, remains a master of language. On the other hand, because skeptical procedures do not fully fit ordinary ways of raising and responding to doubts about particular claims, Cavell interprets skepticism's negative conclusions about the limits of human knowledge not as failures of certainty, but as intellectualized disappointment with the sources of our capacities for making sense of the world.

Accordingly, part one of The Claim of Reason offers a reading of the later Wittgenstein's notion of criterion, on which criteria constitute not certainty, but the relevance and applicability of our concepts to worldly circumstances. On this view, our capacity to speak intelligibly is based on nothing deeper (nor less deep) than our agreement in judgment, which agreement is not secured prior to particular judgments. Criteria are thus subject to repudiation, as our agreements may seem to run thin. The skeptic errs in implying that criteria should be grounded in something deeper, lest our whole conception of things be deemed irredeemably subjective. But because the skeptic reminds us of the repudiability of criteria, the skeptic's progress (or lack thereof) conveys an important moral: our sense of things is not a cognitive accomplishment.

Part two elaborates the external world skeptic's failure to live up to his own self-conception as a perfect knower. This skeptic faces a dilemma: either he fails to specify concrete claims about the external world for scrutiny, or his doubts about the claims he does single out do not generalize to all beliefs about external objects. Here Cavell discerns a truth behind the external world skeptic's effortsthat our relation to the external world as a whole is not a matter of knowledge about an, as it were, all-encompassing object, but rather one of acceptance. While such a conclusion may seem to exacerbate the skeptic's sense that we are cut off from the world, Cavell asks whether this discomfort, expressive of disappointment with ordinary modes of inquiry, criteriaeven our manner of involvement with thingsis self-imposed.

Part three of The Claim of Reason explores the nature of practical reasoning and the limits of both morality and traditional moral theorizing. Cavell sets himself against the "moralization of morality": the assumption that if morality is genuinely rational, it must rest on rules grounding its verdicts and rendering it competent to assess the value of every action. Much as the skeptic prescinds from actual practices of evaluating epistemic claims, so the moralist refuses the concept of morality by failing to locate its role in everyday life.

Part four, exploring symmetries and asymmetries between external world and other minds skepticism, argues that in the case of other minds, acknowledgment of othersnot certainty about their inner livesis in question. The tragic fate of the present age is that for the most part, we live our skepticism, tending, as a matter of historical fact, to shirk our responsibilities in knowing others and in making ourselves known to them. At stake is the voiceour expressiveness, and the barriers we erect to it.

Cavell's later writings explore his sense that responding to our tragically skeptical state, working through the issue of the voice, is a crucial task of modernity. Cavell reads romanticism (exemplified in Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as Emerson and Thoreau, thematized most explicitly in In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism [1998]) as registering both the success of and dissatisfaction with Kant's settlement with skepticism. Acknowledging that the quest for knowledge, at least as conceived by skepticism, blocks our access to the things themselves, romanticism seeks other routes to their recuperation. These lie in the particulars of our ability to make sense of them, despite the lack of philosophical grounding for our ways of doing so. At the same time, in reading the defining texts of moral perfectionism (especially in Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism [1990] and Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life [2004]), Cavell finds in this openness the potential for the creation or discovery of a self capable of articulating its own identity, its own ideals and possibilities, again without need of a foundation from outside. In large part, recovery from the threat of skepticism lies in everyday uses of words, not because they express a set of commonly-held beliefs, but insofar as they manifest a responsiveness to ourselves and the world that enables us to find our conditions intelligible.


works by cavell

Must We Mean What We Say. New York: Scribners, 1969.

The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. New York: Viking, 1971.

The Senses of Walden. New York: Viking, 1972.

The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984.

Disowning Knowledge: In Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Philosophical Passages: Wittgenstein, Emerson, Austin, Derrida. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1995.

Contesting Tears: The Melodrama of the Unknown Woman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Emerson's Transcendental Etudes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

selected secondary works

Eldridge, Richard, ed. Stanley Cavell. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Goodman, Russell, ed. Contending with Stanley Cavell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Gould, Timothy. Hearing Things: Voice and Method in the Writings of Stanley Cavell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Mulhall, Stephen. Stanley Cavell: Philosophy's Recounting of the Ordinary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Edward Minar (2005)

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