The Chronicle Review

Stanley Cavell's Philosophical Improvisations

Fritz Hoffmann for The Chronicle Review

Stanley Cavell, at home in Brookline, Mass.
October 10, 2010

In God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition, the latest in a number of recent books critical of the modern research university, the influential Irish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that "neither the university nor philosophy is any longer seen as engaging the questions" of "plain persons." These questions include: "What is our place in the order of things? Of what powers in the natural and social world do we need to take account? How should we respond to the facts of suffering and death? What is our relationship to the dead? What is it to live a human life well? What is it to live it badly?" Now in his 80s, MacIntyre is among a small group of philosophers who have sought to address such questions. Other members, about the same age, include the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and, perhaps especially, the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, whose life both in and out of philosophy is on display in his just-published autobiography, Little Did I Know (Stanford University Press).

In his book, MacIntyre indicts the university for its lack of integration, the disconnections among the disciplines, and the intellectual disregard of one discipline for another. He writes: "In contemporary American universities, each academic discipline is treated as autonomous and self-defining, so that its practitioners, or at least the most prestigious and influential among them, prescribe to those entering the discipline what its scope and limits are. And in order to excel in any one particular discipline, one need in general know little or nothing about any of the others." Returning philosophy to the concern of ordinary human persons and showing how it might speak across disciplinary lines of inquiry are not easy tasks. But the life and career of Cavell testify not just to the possibility of such achievements but also to just how rich the results can be.

Born to Jewish parents in Atlanta in 1926, Cavell spent his early life moving back and forth between Georgia and California as his father perpetually sought better business opportunities. His mother, a professional pianist, fostered in him an appreciation of music—clarinet, piano, composition. He would earn an undergraduate degree at Berkeley in music. He went on to receive a Ph.D. at Harvard in philosophy, and, after teaching for a few years at Berkeley, settled into the Harvard philosophy department in 1963 as Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value. Since 1997 he has been a professor emeritus at Harvard. That he has received such prestigious honors as being named president of the American Philosophical Association and winning a MacArthur fellowship tells one very little about the magnitude of his achievement or the scope of his influence. That there are nearly as many books in print on his thought as he has written himself (Little Did I Know is his 19th book) is a somewhat better indication.

Like MacIntyre and Taylor, Cavell was educated in mainstream analytic philosophy, an austere and rather narrowly focused style of the discipline. In the words of Colin McGinn, a leading contemporary analytic philosopher, the motivation in, say, solving the problem of consciousness or determining the logical status of moral assertions is "purely technical, a mere matter of writing your axioms the right way to get out the theorems you were looking for. It was the ever tempting hope of turning philosophy into science." In Cavell's view, philosophy will never be able to successfully model itself on the sciences, because it never really makes progress. Not just in moments of intellectual crisis, but at all times, philosophy circles back to its own assumptions and puts them in question and, even when it does not revise them, tries to see them in a new and enriched light. Cavell speaks repeatedly, in the course of describing his intellectual journey, of the need to "begin again," to revisit and re-examine assumptions and purported conclusions that have gone untested.

And yet, in his first exposure to analytic philosophy, Cavell found the study of symbolic logic "exhilarating." His subsequent realization that the reduction of philosophical problems to symbolic logic would require him "to leave" not just "natural language quite behind," but also the questions he found most pressing, forced him to face a "permanent choice, in blind ignorance, between what I wanted to understand and what was truly understandable."

For Cavell, electing a career as a logician would have meant more than the curtailing of certain lines of inquiry; it would have meant the severing of life from thought. At odds, throughout his career, with the canons of professionalization in his discipline, Cavell has regularly strayed, as he put it in a recent e-mail exchange, "from the pedagogically correct into the regions of literature and autobiography." The link between thought and life is vividly portrayed in Little Did I Know, in which he reveals the distinctively Jewish-American roots of his own philosophical calling.

In his appreciation of Wittgenstein's diagnosis of the modern subject as incessantly seeking an elusive rest and hence as always homeless, Cavell manifests the Jewish dimension of his thought. His reflection on the constant relocating of his family during his youth is framed by the story of the Exodus, with the Jews leaving in "haste, eating the chaste bread of affliction and innocence." It seemed to the young Cavell that his family existed "with bags packed and stuff near our hands, poised for departure."

The geography of frustrated aspiration is on view in his description of the different sources of depression afflicting his parents, "their individual sense of what they had been deprived of, or saved from, call it the Egypt of sumptuousness and of oppression. My mother knew beauty, but not how to surround herself sufficiently with it. My father knew my mother, but not how to attract her undivided attention."

In addition to commenting on his mother's musical career and the impact it had on his early course of study, Cavell returns repeatedly in Little Did I Know to the tensions with his father, a relationship fraught with misunderstanding, both accidental and deliberate. He confesses to have felt nothing less than hatred toward his father at numerous times. The animosity comes to the fore in the immediate aftermath of one of his family's many moves, this time from one part of Atlanta to another, one result of which is to uproot the immediate family from a wider community of relatives. His father's temper flares at his son here for no good reason, just as it does when, in another moment of rage, he nearly destroys his son's clarinet.

One wonders how much the struggling, entrepreneurial father and the artistic, soon-to-be philosophical son could ever have had in common. And yet one detects positive influence here and there, not least in the observation that the only activity that ever seemed to make his father truly joyful was going to the movies. Cavell notes in passing the similarities in vocabulary between commerce and philosophy, in their shared use of terms like "interest, inheriting, borrowing, owing, terms, conditions, account, utility, obligation, responsibility, etc." He discerns in Thoreau's Walden a continuing attention to the "economic dimensions of human existence." And Cavell's father's restless uprooting of the family can be seen as a version of the American pursuit of happiness, an idea that has informed so much of the son's philosophical work.

The capaciousness of Cavell's philosophical thinking certainly owes a great deal to those complex and conflicting familial influences. Equally important is the fact that he settled upon philosophy rather late in his intellectual journey, after searching for what he calls his "life's work" in music, psychology, and literature. None of those are left behind in, or excluded from, Cavell's philosophy—a point that the autobiographical genre enables him to make more directly and more dramatically than he ever has before.

By turning to neglected philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, attending to disciplines outside philosophy, and insisting on the link between philosophy and autobiography, Cavell has helped reshape the landscape of contemporary philosophy. No philosopher has ranged as widely in his thinking and writing. Take the topics included in his first book, Must We Mean What We Say? (Scribner, 1969). Alongside chapters on the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin are essays on the Danish religious thinker Kierkegaard, on a play of Beckett, on music, and on King Lear. Cavell would later devote an entire book to Shakespeare (Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1987). He has also written a great deal about film, including the widely read Pursuits of Happiness (Harvard University Press, 1981), an analysis of what the subtitle calls "comedies of remarriage," such as It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, and His Girl Friday.

It is not uncommon now for philosophers to use literature or film in their classes or to publish philosophical reflections on novels and movies. But they almost never have the impact on those disciplines that Cavell's writings have. A sign of his enduring influence is that this fall, 13 years after he moved to emeritus status, Harvard will hold a major conference on "Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies."

Similarly, in the field of film studies, Cavell's writings have called forth books and articles commenting on, responding to, and applying his writings. What is most unusual about his interest in film is how deeply American it is. The few philosophers who write about film do not focus on American films, much less American comedies. They typically look to European film for philosophical sustenance. Of course, there are philosophers who work in the subfield known as American philosophy; they often attempt to work out a standard set of philosophical conundrums—for example, by applying the pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce or John Dewey to problems in epistemology or political philosophy. Cavell's attention to America is different, and not just because he elevates, in terms of philosophical significance, the writings of Emerson and Thoreau above those of Dewey, Peirce, and James. For Cavell, America itself has philosophical weight. In Pursuits of Happiness, America is the land of second chances, for individual couples and for the human race. It is the place where marriage can be reconceived as a kind of adventurous friendship between husband and wife, a friendship rooted in conversation. Cavell does wonders with the allusions to American history and its founding vision in the very title of The Philadelphia Story, which in his view highlights the democratic insight into the extraordinariness of the ordinary and the constituting role in a democracy of human reciprocity, of a certain kind of open, spirited, and amiable conversation.

Conversation, in this view, is not just a matter of easygoing repartee but also of meeting the demands of an unpredictable human exchange. One has to keep up. That may provide a clue to the style and success of Cavell's own renowned teaching, his reputedly demanding and mesmerizing classroom presence. In the preface to The Claim of Reason (Oxford University Press, 1979), which had its roots in his doctoral dissertation, and which constitutes his most sustained engagement with mainstream philosophy, he describes Wittgenstein's writing as esoteric. He means that Wittgenstein wrote in such a way as to keep some readers out while inviting others in.

Reading Cavell can be a similarly frustrating, even infuriating experience. In an otherwise positive review, the British philosopher Anthony Kenny castigated Cavell's "self-indulgent" style. And Cavell's teacher J.L. Austin once referred to a bad piece of Cavell's prose as a "bit purple." But aiming less to prove this or that thesis than to reshape the way readers see the world, themselves, and others, such a style of writing engenders cultish devotion among the insiders. Cavell's teaching is designed to have the same impact on his students that Austin's lectures had on the young Cavell, the effect of "knocking him off [his] horse." That philosophical plunge is precisely what happens to many characters in the comic films Cavell cherishes. The most notable example is perhaps the Katharine Hepburn character, Tracy Lord, in The Philadelphia Story, who suffers a series of indignities on the way to rediscovering what it is she most desires.

Cavell explores films in which ordinary characters leading ordinary lives make the discovery that the ordinary is the extraordinary. For him that is a theme straight out of Wittgenstein, who once described his own philosophical writing as consisting of a series of "observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes." The recovery of the ordinary is Cavell's way of responding to the dilemma of modern philosophy, which finds itself vacillating between peremptory certitude and despairing skepticism.

In resisting the circumscribing of philosophy, Cavell asserts the discipline's pervasiveness. There is, he argues, "no predicting what text, or conversation, will produce in this or that mind, a conviction, I might say, in the reality or presence of philosophy." Little Did I Know includes a telling illustration of the point. Although he could not see it at the time, Cavell's awakening to philosophy came not in a philosophy class, or in a music or literature class, but in the theater.

While studying music at Berkeley, Cavell was involved in numerous productions and performances. But the one that had the most impact on him was his role in composing and performing on piano the music for a production of King Lear. Working on the production, he became aware, "not without considerable anxiety," that he was less interested in the music than in the "actions and ideas and language of the play, and in learning what might be said about them and what I felt I had to say about them."

Years later, as a student at Harvard, Cavell would find himself elated as he listened to Austin's lectures on such seemingly pedestrian topics as the language of excuses. What was it in these lectures that prompted in him such an exuberant response? It was, quite simply, an appreciation of the philosophical significance of the drama of ordinary speech. Austin's philosophical manner arises out of a "perpetual imagination" of "what is said when, why a thing is said, hence how, in what context." That is quite similar to Cavell's description of his own experience working on Lear as "overtly and continuously demanding explicit and systematic exercise of imagination and articulation." As was true in Austin's classroom, so too in the theater you must "weigh with others every word." Cavell would later call this, in an essay he would write for Austin's class, the "theatricality of everyday life," the way in which practical deliberation and language are suffused with a dramatic sense of how we understand where we are, where we have come from, and what we do next.

In Must We Mean What We Say?, Cavell acknowledges his debt to Austin, to whom he owes "what one owes to a teacher who has shown the way to do relevantly and fruitfully what one had almost given up the hope of doing." Many years after his initial encounter with Austin, Cavell continues to do very fruitfully what began in that Harvard classroom.

Asked to reflect on the therapeutic value of writing and publishing his autobiography, Cavell responds, "The process of composing the autobiography has provided me with some distinct reassurance, I might say inspiration, in my bid for certain lines of liberation in imagining that I am an acceptable participant in the human family." That humble and grateful disposition toward his own work has been characteristic as well of Cavell's attitude toward the various academic disciplines, arts, and human inquiries that have drawn his attention over many decades. Despite his at times oracular and prolix style, Cavell's books will, for quite some time, provide readers the occasion to "begin again," to discover philosophy not just as a discipline but also as a worldview to probe what Cavell, after Wittgenstein, calls "the uncanniness of the ordinary."

Thomas S. Hibbs is a professor of ethics and culture and dean of the Honors College at Baylor University.