The Shadows of Stanley Cavell

The Shadows of Stanley Cavell

A posthumous collection of essays, Here and Now: Sites of Philosophy, reveals both what was insightful and what was profoundly lacking in the project of ordinary language philosophy.


The philosopher Stanley Cavell, who was the author of some 19 books, passed away in 2018. Fifteen years earlier, he had turned his attention to his death in Little Did I Know, a memoir occasioned by the discovery of his own declining health. There, as in much of his work, he was comfortable writing in the retrospective mode, reflecting again and again on his most famous collection of essays, Must We Mean What We Say? (1969), and the arguments, ideas, and distinctive style he developed there. The latter would be described by his critics as self-indulgent and by his defenders as profound. The reality was somewhere between these judgments, although often closer to the former than the latter.

Like his mother, Fannie Goldstein, Cavell began and then abandoned a career in music. Although she gave up music to work occasionally in her husband Irving’s pawnshop in Atlanta, Cavell would leave the arts for philosophy and at 16 would change his name to an anglicized version of Kavelieruskii, the name his father had exchanged for Goldstein on arriving in America from Poland. The portrait Cavell paints of Irving Goldstein in his memoir is of a deeply insecure man, ill and prone to bouts of rage, whose personality was defined by a series of typical immigrant anxieties—from class to cultural alienation. Little Did I Know begins with Cavell’s statement that his father had wished him dead. In the opening sections of his memoir, the philosopher suggests this was not unrelated to Cavell’s decision to move away from music:

I knew he was envious of people with more money than he, or with grander stores, or with insignia of small fame. He seemed free of this self-punishment in relation to people he believed to be genuinely possessed of learning and cultivating, which he regarded as simply beyond competition or accident or envy.

Cavell felt that the shadow of his father hung over his choice to leave behind the spontaneous creative expression of music, often associated with notions of natural talent, for a field ostensibly grounded in the rational debate of ideas which could, in theory, be grasped by anyone. His writing sought to bridge the gap between artistic and rational modes of expression. The appreciation of poetry and the attempt to understand the complexities of ethical decisions were, according to him, both attempts to interpret shared structures of meaning

Accordingly, Cavell’s writing was characterized by a sensitivity to nuance, grounded in the belief that the interpretation of meaning—the chief task of philosophy on his reckoning—required attentiveness to our ordinary use of language. Our ordinary usages of language emerged, according to Cavell, from shared social practices, habits, and customs, or “forms of life,” a phrase he took from the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, his greatest influence. But Cavell’s understanding of meaning ran the risk of becoming its own kind of dogma.

What this insight ignores is that our forms of life can also systematically distort the meaning of our actions or those of others. For this reason, truth about the world is often experienced through revelatory encounters that undermine our commonsense assumptions. The political culture of early-20th-century British politics, for example, was dominated by the aristocracy and the City. This, in turn, made abandoning the gold standard and tight fiscal policy inconceivable until economic crises in the 1930s broke traditional orthodoxies and forced radical change. From within the form of life of Britain’s ruling class, it was hard to imagine from where this transformation could emerge. Was it not facts such as these which led to the development of specialized forms of knowledge capable of thinking beyond the confines of restrictive forms of life?

The sources of Cavell’s views about meaning were Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin: These two philosophers, an Austrian who never really fit in anywhere but ended up in Cambridge and an archetypal Oxford don, were the chief inspiration for what came to be known as “ordinary language philosophy”—perhaps the dominant current of the discipline in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. This school of thinking insisted that abstract philosophical theory can claim no insight into such basic topics as truth, justice, and illusion and reality that could trump what is contained in the nuances of speech and common usage. Their understanding of the latter was, however, developed within the closed seminars of Oxbridge colleges.

Cavell’s work remained interesting to the extent that he was able to push beyond the complacency of the Oxbridge common room. In their own way, the “ordinary language” philosophers sanctioned a provincial vision of their discipline, proudly ignorant of political theory and sociology and thus unable to grapple with the idea, fundamental to all of the historically informed humanities, that knowledge about the world can often be hidden from us or change through social transformation. The question of how our “forms of life” came into existence, or what forces shaped them, became nonphilosophical issues. Such inquiries had no relevance to a field that had come to understand its task as that of pointing out and drawing fine verbal distinctions.

The essays collected in Here and Now: Sites of Philosophy comprise posthumously published texts, mostly previously unseen essays, and talks written between the late 1980s and the author’s death. The Cavell they present differs from the figure that a reader of his works has come to expect, mainly because these writings are mostly responses to invitations—lectures, keynotes, and the like. They therefore have a sense of something improvised about them. Cavell in this mode is not trying to chart out any new ground but seeks instead to mobilize a back catalog of references, built up over decades, and bring them to bear on a wide range of disparate themes.

As in all of Cavell’s other work, the figure of Must We Mean What We Say? looms large. There he developed many of the distinctive features of his writing that would eventually divide readers into two opposed camps. A representatively divisive line can be found in “Aesthetic Problems in Modern Philosophy,” an essay from his first book. There he describes the question of whether poems can or cannot be paraphrased as having the “the gait of a false issue—by which I do not mean that it will be easy to straighten.” What Cavell means by this is that there is something confused in the whole line of reasoning deployed by philosophers writing about poetry. They failed to understand that the critic does not discuss poetry so as to decipher it, as if it were a puzzle (though some poems may need deciphering), but to share with the reader the experience of encountering an artwork and convince her of the validity of this experience.

For Cavell, whether this jump from the aesthetic experience of the critic to the explanation of this experience to the reader entailed a break with our common understanding of the world was a deeply vexed question. Within the ordinary language tradition, it was hard to make sense of how the revelatory experience of reading a poem or a novel that shifts the way that we think about the world could even be possible. In general, Cavell’s school of thought was characterized by a deep hostility to the possibility of transcendent experiences and forms of technical philosophical knowledge about reality that run counter to commonsense assumptions.

For instance, if someone is asked whether they acted “voluntarily,” what is at stake, according to this view, is not some metaphysical problem of free will. Rather, the meaning of the word raises the question of whether they were in some way compelled to do what they did. Everything depends on context. We do not normally ask of someone cycling in the countryside whether they are doing so voluntarily, but we do ask this of someone accused of being an accessory to a crime. The point here, Cavell argues in the title essay of Must We Mean What We Say?, is that attention to the pragmatic uses of language can help elucidate the meaning of concepts such as freedom more clearly than philosophical abstractions. This meant that philosophy could do without the metaphysical explanations of how human agency escapes causal determination that thinkers like Leibniz and Hegel had been advancing for centuries.

Accompanying this shift in focus is an existential reorientation of philosophy, spurred on by a recognition that the question of how “we” come to use words is inseparable from that of how “I” must use a word. The criteria for testing out the validity of Cavell’s claims is equally subjective—requiring inward reflection: “The philosopher appealing to everyday language turns to the reader not to convince him without proof but to get him to prove something, test something against himself.”

Naturally, one may wonder whether this shift is brought about through a sleight of hand. Wasn’t the philosopher who asked whether we do what we do voluntarily concerned not with the meaning of a word but with a fact about reality? Cavell’s response to this worry is as neat as his dismissal of the concerns of traditional philosophy. To think that an investigation of reality is a prerequisite for knowing whether we are free is to rely on a bad analogy with other forms of discovery. If I wonder whether I have left a dollar in my back pocket, the best way to find out is to check. But freedom isn’t something we can stuff away in a trouser. Its meaning, according to Cavell, is decided socially through dialogue with other members of a community of language users.

Consequently, the fact that we do live in a shared community of other language users, the foundation on which his philosophical outlook rests, takes on an enormous importance for Cavell. Philosophy becomes a reflection on the quotidian, rather than a means for rising above it.

If Cavell had stopped here, his thinking would have run the risk of falling into a stuffy form of conservatism, assuming in advance that anyone who disagreed about whether a state of affairs was good or right was merely mistaken about the meaning of these words. He attempts to avoid this trap by building into his theory of language a recognition of a contradiction that is ineradicable from any form of communication. On the one hand, as users of language we exist within a shared world, and the meaning of terms can be derived only from this shared context. Consequently, disagreement, when it arises, should be resolvable. The problem is, of course, that fundamental disagreements do arise. One of Cavell’s insights was that the level at which disagreement appears varies depending on whether we are making aesthetic claims about, say, the experience of engaging with Samuel Beckett’s plays, moral demands of one another, or political arguments about the unjustness of our society.

Picking up a line of thought advanced by Immanuel Kant in The Critique of Judgment, Cavell argues that in aesthetic matters we demand the assent of others, contrary to the dominant view that such issues are simply a matter of individual taste. Nowhere are Cavell’s powers more vividly on display than when he is urging us to agree with his views on literature (philosophy deals with “texts, not problems” is a representative aphorism). This is not surprising, Cavell’s view of the role of a critic as a persuader implicitly assumed a break with his usual line of investigation. The experience of encountering a vivid line of poetry or being enraptured by a painting entails a break from our everyday understanding of the world and an encounter with something genuinely new. The enthusiasm with which Cavell wrote about literature in particular often conveyed the excitement induced by reading a text for the first time. The problem was that he attempted to incorporate this radical experience back into the rigid confines of ordinary language philosophy.

In an essay on Beckett from Must We Mean What We Say?, he sees the Irish writer as attempting to break free of two canonical models of waiting in his play Endgame. These are Jewish messianism and Christian suffering. In both, the game of waiting forces us to endure the misery of the present. Reading Cavell’s description, it is hard not to feel the excitement of wheels turning in one’s head driven by the author’s curiosity. What Beckett shows, Cavell argues, is that to truly dissolve these traditions, “winning” or salvation “has to be brought to an end; suffering has to stop being used, has to stop meaning anything, and become the simple fact of life.”

In his discussion of morality, Cavell takes the exact opposite approach to the one he employs when thinking about art and literature. Instead of assuming disagreement and working toward its opposite, he insists that morality presupposes differences of perspective. On its own, this observation is scarcely original, but Cavell’s strengths as a describer of the complexities of the interpersonal realm were so considerable that it was easy to feel as if through reading him one had been elevated to a more refined plane of thought.

In Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, a series of lectures published in 1988, he argued against the idea, espoused by the liberal political theorist John Rawls, that what gives promises their authority are the social rules and institutions that support them. This view, Cavell claimed, led to the reductive conclusion that the wrongness of violating a promise lies in the failure to conform to the rules laid down by a given institution. Cheating on a partner would, in this case, be structurally the same as voiding the terms of a contract. What Cavell showed was that Rawls, at least in his early writing, failed to appreciate the irreducibility of morality to contractual terms and hence the unique form of harm that we can do to one another by breaking promises.

Cavell insisted that there was something more than social obligations at stake when someone breaks a promise as straightforward as a marriage pact:

You and I had an understanding—so I say; maybe you say so too, or deny it. No judge or rule knows better than we, and we have no rules that will decide the issue or that will rule one of us out as incompetent to decide. This is why there is a moral argument between us, why it has its forms. No explicit promise would have been more sacred than our understanding, or, given our supposed mutual trust, even appropriate.… Whatever the court (or anyone in the office of umpire) decides does not enforce my judgement of you (e.g., that you are morally incompetent) but replaces my need to judge you.… Recourse to court might not replace my need for revenge, but it modifies the form that revenge might take.

In passages such as these, Cavell’s sensitivity to the subtleties of moral experience can feel almost bracing, as if he has reflected on life with a unique intensity. The value of these results was unclear. Cavell was fond of conceding that the insights of his philosophy of language were trivial or banal but that they served to draw our attention to the nuances of the everyday. In the above passage, his insistence that promises are not reducible to the legalistic forms of authority that inform them draws our attention to the centrality of agency and freedom in supporting even the most bureaucratic and soulless institutions. But again, Cavell’s commitment to the undertheorized notion of “ordinary experience” made his whole project seem limited: If his observations about morality were already clear to us, why did we need reminding of them?

The problem lies with the whole idea of ordinary experience, which Cavell relied on for his style of criticism. It is unclear whether such a thing actually exists, other than as a means of lending authority to our own views about how we feel people ought to behave and think. To put this in another way, isn’t everyday language itself shot through with theory? Just think, for example, of the way concepts from psychoanalysis—like the idea that someone is projecting—have filtered into normal ways of talking about people and their behavior. But by defending his claim that we should be more attentive to the moral foundations of the law through an appeal to our common-sense intuitions, Cavell could rightly be held guilty of circumventing criticisms by those who might point out that there could be something conservative about using the concept of morality to understand complex social structures within a modern state.

Politics—which requires an understanding of relations of power, of the historical development of social institutions, and of the economy—largely escaped Cavell. His preferred argumentative move was always to draw our attention back to what he understood to be ordinary: the worldview of the individual moral agent. Within this small world he managed, nevertheless, to produce memorable insights unevenly dispersed throughout Here and There.

The essays here do not compromise on Cavell’s usual style, which is defined by digression and self-reference. Divided into three sections—“Departures,” “Assignments,” and “Music”—the collection draws its name from the generally unrelated nature of its content, which is made up of texts found “here and there” that Cavell had previously hoped to compile and publish.

The first section includes a talk Cavell gave in 1998 at the Guggenheim Museum on the nature of collecting (not only art, but the practice in general). Jumping back and forth from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and Wittgenstein, he makes a series of loosely connected observations over 40 pages. Their central theme is the distance between ourselves and the world of objects created by modernity. The fast pace of “Western late capitalism” stops us from attending to the world around us. He then assumes his usual position as an attentive observer of the ordinary, turning his attention to Chantal Ackermann’s Jeanne Dielman, the classic film depiction of a sex worker and mother shot almost entirely from the perspective of the other side of the kitchen table. But here, as is usually the case in his discussion of film, Cavell has little to add other than a well-written summary. Ackermann’s use of lighting, her near-complete rejection of montage, the low angle of the camera throughout her film, are not even remarked upon.

Occasionally, Cavell’s reflections connect more directly with the conflict-laden social world. He remarks at one point that our distance from the world of things is a “metaphysical condition” that makes the “the use of the bomb” possible. It remains unclear whether he thinks that a lack of spiritual enlightenment, rather than America’s overwhelming military superiority, is what led to the horrific use of nuclear weapons to close out the war in Japan. At another point he tells us that “respect, or tolerance, should have a way to prevail in the absence of offerable reasons. It seems hard to imagine the members of a society flourishing in which their commitments to one another are based upon sheer indifference toward their differences.” At some level, it’s hard to disagree with such feel-good observations. But as with many of Cavell’s other political remarks, they evince a refusal to grapple with actual politics and an insistence that everything about the world must be understood in ethical terms.

This aversion to big thoughts is a general rule; it has its exceptions. In an essay for the London Review of Books, Cavell finds himself at odds with the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, who, in some of his argumentative modes, downplays the extent to which he as a professional has access to any unique expertise. In his more exuberant moods, Phillips can write things like “[Psychoanalysts] forget…that they are only telling stories about stories and that all stories are subject to an unknowable multiplicity of interpretations.” Cavell rightly worries that the denial of expertise encourages a hollow notion of analysis and insists—contrary to his Wittgensteinian outlook—that Phillips must also hang on to some deeper commitments. This is Cavell at his most brilliant: What he observes is that psychoanalysis does not, unlike philosophy in his view, assume that we are “all in the same boat.” The analysand is a practiced self-deceiver, and the analyst is an expert on these forms of deception.

Philosophy, Wittgenstein tells us, “simply puts everything before us…. What is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us.” But analysis is different, Cavell contends, primarily because systematic self-deception and an inability to understand oneself are the basis for the relationship between the analyst and the analysand. The task of the analyst is therefore to uncover what the patient really means, to trace the origin of symptoms and to reveal this origin. In every sense, analysis differs from philosophy as Cavell conceived of it.

What was always puzzling about Cavell was that he never seemed willing to apply this psychoanalytic insight to the world more broadly. His work was instead plagued by an attempt to bring philosophy down to earth by aligning it with the experiences and self-understandings of ordinary people. Of course, what we must mean by what we say is always something that makes sense only within a world of language users who share commonalities emerging from what Wittgenstein unhelpfully called a “form of life.” The more fundamental questions have always been: From where do the forms of meaning that we do share emerge? How can we change them? How do we respond to radical transformations that completely undermine the forms of self-understanding rooted in a world disappearing around us?

The defining feature of English-language philosophy toward the second half of the last century was its increasing lack of interest in these questions. Cavell’s writing exemplified a brand of philosophy that came to understand its task as tending its own private garden, an admittedly provincial enterprise. But it is hard to deny that, even within the small garden of the ordinary, flowers worth admiring grew.

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