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Stanley Cavell

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Last month, Stanford University Press published Stanley Cavell‘s autobiography, LIttle Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory. I might have missed out on this if not for a cover story about him in last week’s Chronicle Review. I’m not a very consistent Chronicle reader anymore. I bring it each one in and dump it on top of the others, giving attention first to the parallel mounting piles of New Yorkers and New York Reviews. When I brought last week’s issue in, I didn’t even notice Cavell staring at me. I went back to the issue only after seeing a reference to the article in some blog post two days ago. (I don’t remember which blog, so I can’t give a proper hat tip.)

I just read the article, and now I’m about to order the autobiography, which I don’t want to receive too soon. After all, I have other reading to do.

I have long wanted to read Cavell. When I was an undergraduate, I came to understand that he was brilliant, a giant of the Philosophy department. (But they were all giants.) But I never understood what he did or why he was considered brilliant. I understood, among his colleagues, what John Rawls did and why he was brilliant. And Hilary Putnam. At least I presumed to understand. And I took courses from both of them. But Cavell was a mystery.

When the opportunity arose my final semester to apply for a spot in a seminar with him, I leapt. It was for majors only, or “concentrators”, to use the local terminology, and as a math and philosophy concentrator, I was eligible. I was doubly eager to take it, both to learn from Cavell and to learn more about NIetzsche, the subject of the seminar, having read many of his books, but never having studied him formally. I got in, and I viewed this as a perfect way to conclude my philosophy studies.

Alas, I didn’t get much out of the seminar. Cavell’s genius eluded me. Nietzsche’s too. Was it because I was insufficiently mature as a student? Or human? Or was it simply because the course was at best fourth among my priorities that term? No doubt a little of each. Ranking ahead of the seminar in my priorities were my senior thesis, my graduate real analysis course, and crew. Maybe not in that order. A true ordering, with another item thrown in, might be: crew, [big gap here], waiting to hear from graduate schools, senior thesis, real analysis, Nietzsche. Which is too bad. I really wanted the seminar to be special.

Now I get another chance. I can read Cavell’s autobiography and get a glimpse of what I was missing. Here’s a hint, from Thomas Hibbs’ Chronicle piece:

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. . . . 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.

. . .

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.”

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