Remembering Philosopher Stanley Cavell


One of the persistent themes in the work of American philosopher Stanley Cavell (1926-2018) was that of voice — both in the sense of having a distinctive voice of one’s own, and of giving voice to experiences and truths that may (or may not) have escaped notice. The voice that Cavell displayed throughout his career in philosophy was uniquely his. The style of this voice — meandering, often conversational, elliptical — could be both enchanting and exasperating; it was at antipodes to that of the other great philosophical stylist of the late twentieth century in the United States, Richard Rorty. Rorty’s prose style was clear, unadorned, and straightforward. Few voices outside academia could explain the complex thinking of a Heidegger, a Wittgenstein, a Derrida, or a Davidson as Rorty could (often in one single sentence), and fewer still could enlist all of the above in a program designed to undermine the idea of philosophy as an everlasting set of methods tackling an eternal set of problems.

If Rorty was the Hemingway of American philosophy, Cavell was its Melville. It would be easy, if not altogether fair, to cast Rorty in the role of the blunt antagonist to not only the academic discipline called “philosophy,” but of philosophy as a coherent way of life. While this may or may not have been Rorty’s aim, wholesale debunking was not Cavell’s ambition. Cavell was interested in re-casting many of those issues Rorty satirized as dead letters, such as skepticism, into something different — something rich and strange. Art and poetry were not, as they seemed to be for Rorty, alien to philosophical practice and a distinct improvement on it. Instead, with fresh eyes, Cavell wanted his readers to see philosophy in everything, everything from the edifying prose of Thoreau and Emerson to the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks and Frank Capra. Philosophy for Cavell was neither a set of doctrines nor an optional mode of conversation: it was a performance whereby one can come to see, and thus give voice to, aspects of things usually passed over in silence. Performative seeing, if you will.

“Seeing aspects” was a key element in the later philosophy of Wittgenstein, the figure who, along with J. L. Austin, set Cavell off into the thicket of philosophical reflection. I find it odd that most of the encomiums written since Cavell’s passing hardly mention his debt to Wittgenstein. Cavell’s take on Wittgenstein is indispensable to his entire project. One of his major accomplishments as a philosophical commentator has been clarifying what Wittgenstein was up to in Philosophical Investigations (1953), a book that is less “deceptively simple” than not simple at all. Unfortunately, Wittgenstein remains a much-misunderstood philosopher, and nowadays a neglected one. Cavell was one of the few readers to “get” the later Wittgenstein, to get to the heart of things with him, and to insist on his significance.

Cavell wrote “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy” as the introductory chapter of his dissertation, later revised and published as The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (1979). Much of this essay is a ruthless critique of an early expositor of Wittgenstein, David Pole, who in The Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein (1958) maintained that at the core of the Philosophical Investigations was a multifaceted idea that the world was articulated by language, that language was a “game” consisting in a system of rules, that rules were simple conventions, and that if one adds or subtracts or alters a rule of language one is “playing a different language-game.”

Cavell insists that each of these observations is not only unsubstantiated by Wittgenstein’s text, but nearly the opposite of what the Philosophical Investigations actually says. Citing chapter-and-verse, Cavell notes that, for the later Wittgenstein, language-games are not everywhere bounded by rules. Language is not an arbitrary calculus of symbols but part of the ebb and flow of Forms of Life, those customs, practices, and shared responses which establish a kind of attunement between those who inhabit those forms, and grasp the world, themselves, and other selves, in and through them.

Pole was attempting to view language from a God’s-eye position one which will provide a theory of language and the manner in which it either “hooks onto the world” or “arbitrarily” divides it up. That is the crux of Pole’s misunderstanding. If there is any lesson to be learned in Investigations, it is that this task of attaining a “view from nowhere” is as impossible and misguided as it is unnecessary. To paraphrase John McDowell, Pole misunderstands Wittgenstein as just another philosopher trying to view thought and its linguistic expression “sideways on,” to philosophize by thinking outside thought and speaking outside speech. Cavell understands Wittgenstein as not so much trying to prove the incoherence of this approach (even if it is) as to uncovering the motives for it and advocating an alternative. Thus Cavell takes Wittgenstein’s project in Investigations, as literally therapeutic: a way of guiding the patient, i.e., his reader, back from metaphysical sickness to the healthy, ordinary way of words.

It is striking (and more than a little distressing) to note how many contemporary commentators on Wittgenstein ignore Cavell’s interpretation of the Investigations as an appeal to “the ordinary,” and thus fall into the same trap as did Pole, who published his book way back in the 1950s. Two recent examples should suffice. Anthony Grayling, inWittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction (2001), construes the shift from the Tractatus to the Investigations as a movement from a kind of semantic realism about objects to a form of linguistic idealism — where language functions as a kind of conceptual cookie-cutter on the bland featureless dough of the world. But this is precisely the kind of “sideways-on” understanding of the language-world and thought-world relationship that is therapeutically undercut by Wittgenstein’s appeal to “reminders for a particular purpose,” which lead us back to sound, ordinary linguistic practice, rather into the brambles of realist or idealist metaphysics.

Another example is Saul Kripke’s far more rigorous book Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1982).Kripke views Wittgenstein’s excursus on “understanding a rule” — in a student’s expansion of a numerical sequence that goes wildly wrong — as expressing a substantive skepticism about meaning, which can only be surmounted by an equally skeptical solution. For Cavell, this distorts Wittgenstein’s views on both meaning and skepticism. There may not be a rule to show that Wittgenstein’s hypothetical student gets the numerical sequence wrong, but that the student is getting it wrong is clear. The student either does not yet possess, or is unable to possess, the “agreement in judgment” that is also “agreement in form of life,” and who either needs to be initiated into the practice of continuing the sequence or, tragically, excluded from the community of aspiring mathematicians. “Rules” drop out as superfluous: the student is not bereft of rules, but lacking in skill, of knowing how to go on in this language-game which is part of this form of (human) life (i.e., mathematics). “Skepticism” thus is not a coherent philosophical thesis preventing one from “knowing how to go on,” from projecting words and concepts into new situations. It is however, a human problem, a problem of the human condition, of our inability to acknowledge that we cannot leap outside our practices, and our sound practical judgment, to view them sub specie aeternitatis, as if we were God or gods. This existential angst is a far cry from Kripke’s worries, which are primarily logical and epistemological.

What these commentators miss about Wittgenstein is, from Cavell’s vantage, a failure to grasp just how extraordinary “The Ordinary” is. “The Ordinary” is our attunement to others in the act of speaking, which enables us to make claims, to question, to hold others responsible — in short, to give voice to the network of meanings infused in the Forms of Life we share. Cavell came to notice features that the Wittgensteinian Ordinary shared with certain key terms in Heidegger: that of “average everydayness,” of our “fallenness” when we refuse to take responsibility for our words or to acknowledge our inseparability from a world of things and others, and of the “attunement” (Befindlichkeit) that precedes any explicit articulation of reality. He also saw premonitions of the Ordinary in the transcendentalist reflections of Thoreau, and especially in the Essays of Emerson, who also provided Cavell with one of his dominant later themes, that of “Moral Perfectionism,” of becoming who one is by giving voice to oneself, and perpetually striving to attain that goal.

Perfectionism, however, is not an easy task. Cavell’s counterpoint to and threat against Emersonian Perfectionism was, once again, skepticism, not as a philosophical problem but an ever-present possibility inherent in being human. Cavell’s constant obsession with skepticism is often contrasted with Rorty’s insouciant dismissal of it, but this is, I think, to miss the ways in which Rorty’s and Cavell’s attitudes toward skepticism complement each other. For Rorty, skepticism is a philosophical mistake — and just a philosophical mistake. Rorty takes Wittgenstein’s achievement to be not having solved the skeptical problem on the skeptic’s own terms, but to have dissolved it by showing it to be optional, pointless, and rather silly. I do not think Cavell would have contested Rorty’s estimate of skepticism as an epistemological dead-end. Skepticism is epistemologically self-defeating, and ought to be epistemologically transcended, but life is more than epistemology. If, as Cavell maintained, along with both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, our fundamental relation to reality is not that of knowing (or not what we usually think of as knowing), then skepticism remains a lived problem. Skepticism marks our fear that we may not find anything beyond or outside our voices themselves, something outside the unsettled and unsettling contingency of it all. Thus we are tempted to avoid the otherness of the other, and the strangeness that we find in ourselves.

Cavell entertained and expanded this notion through many readings of literature, art, music, and film: Beckett’s EndgameIt Happened one Night, atonal music, Robert Caro’s sculptures, Fred Astaire tap dancing, and above all Shakespearean tragedy. His reading of King Lear in “The Avoidance of Love” is, as Lear himself might put it, “the thing itself,” a tour de force that reads lived skepticism as central to the play’s language, plot, and characters. Each of the characters, whether heroic or villainous, is either plagued by a skeptical avoidance of love and a failure to acknowledge others as other humans, or else is redeemed by letting go of skepticism’s grip and loving others “by their bond, no more or no less.” The play’s tragedy lies in a failure, on the part of Lear especially, of “seeing as”: of seeing Goneril and Regan as manipulative liars and Cordelia as one who loves without compromising her dignity. It is hard, if not impossible, to shake off Cavell’s powerful analysis of Lear once you have learned its skeptical (and anti-skeptical) lesson.

It was Cavell’s great achievement to have articulated the risks we all take by integrating philosophy into the fabric of life and human culture — the skeptical risk of acknowledging that ultimately, the only things we may have to go on are the ordinary certainties and wonders expressed by, and in, the human voice. It was, for Cavell, a real risk, but one worth taking.

Requiescat in Pace.

Michael Quirk is an independent scholar, author, and educational software analyst.

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