Must We Mean What We Say?: On the Life and Thought of Stanley Cavell

April 27, 2019   •   By Marshall Cohen

THE BOUNTIFULLY GIFTED Stanley Cavell was unique among American philosophers of his generation in the range of his philosophical, cultural, and artistic interests. He resisted the split between Anglophone and Continental traditions that has characterized post-Kantian philosophy, writing with distinction about epistemology and aesthetics, Emerson and Thoreau, Shakespearean tragedy and Hollywood comedy, as well as about modernism in film and music. Modernist works, he believed, divide audiences into insiders and outsiders, create unpleasant cults, and demand for their reception the shock of conversion. Such works are not easily received, as Cavell, who regarded himself as a modernist writer, painfully discovered. Many features of his writing have been found troublesome and even offensive by a significant number of readers. I believe these features are not an expression of modernist impulses but rather manifestations of personal idiosyncrasies that Cavell’s autobiographical reflections, in his 2010 book, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory, can help us to understand, if not accept.

Little Did I Know obeys a double time scheme. It comprises a series of entries presented in their order of composition from July 2, 2003, to September 1, 2004. The depicted events reporting Cavell’s Emersonian journey occur in loose chronological order, interrupted by philosophical meditations, portraits of friends, and editorial comments about the original drafted entries. The formal arrangement honors the fundamental importance granted to the time and context of utterance in the work of J. L. Austin and the late Wittgenstein. The depictions allow Cavell to exploit techniques reminiscent of psychoanalysis (free association) and film (flashbacks and flash forwards, jump cuts, close-ups, and montage). And modernism’s experimental departures from traditional narrative facilitate his representation of philosophy as an abstraction of biography.

At the age of seven, Cavell and his parents left South Atlanta, where their extended family and most of the city’s Eastern European Jews lived. During the next 10 years, they moved back and forth between North Atlanta and Sacramento five times. This wandering life left Cavell, an only child, isolated and friendless, and he claims never to have drawn a happy breath in those years. His mother, an exceptionally gifted professional pianist blessed with perfect pitch, said she would rather be Stanley’s mother than the mother of an emperor. She was trapped in an unhappy marriage and suffered migraines, a sort of melancholy that Cavell would later study in Hollywood melodramas. Cavell believed that his father, a struggling pawnbroker, wished him not to exist. His father’s shame at his precarious business would later help Cavell recognize King Lear as ashamed (and find tragedy in a loving daughter’s efforts to protect him from knowing it).

Cavell refused to take sides in his parents’ quarrels, suggesting that this reaction manifested itself again in his reluctance to take sides in metaphysical conflicts. Cavell compares his own labors in the pawnshop to Dickens’s in the blacking factory. His only solace in his adolescent years came from playing jazz in high school bands and ultimately lead alto in an otherwise black big band. But he discovers a poetry of pawnbroking many years later when writing The Senses of Walden (1972), finding Thoreau’s book to be explicitly about the economic dimensions of human existence. His immigrant father, lacking any “ordinary” language, is nevertheless a masterful teller of well-pointed Yiddish stories. They attune Cavell to Austin’s stories and examples (such as shooting one’s donkey by accident or by mistake) that reveal the subtle but significant distinctions embodied in ordinary language. At the age of six, Cavell permanently damaged his left ear in an automobile accident, and possession of an “ear” — crucial to the detection of “voice” — became a major theme of his thought.

His blissful, irreplaceable undergraduate years at Berkeley were devoted to music and theater. Writing incidental music for a production of King Lear revealed that he was more interested in the actions and ideas and language of the play than he was in the music in which he expressed what he could of his sense of those actions and ideas. In a music theory class with Ernst Bloch, his ability to discern and appreciate the difference between a Bach chorale played on the piano with and without a half tone altered spoke to him of a domain of culture beyond the world he knew. Cavell dates from that time the knowledge of the moral life as containing a dimension of what he came to call Emersonian perfectionism. But it was not until 10 years later that he found elements of a voice in philosophy that permitted his participation in that perspective.

Although he matriculated for a year in the Juilliard extension division ostensibly continuing his composition studies, he in fact spent 10 to 12 hours a day reading Freud, attending Broadway plays, frequenting 42nd Street revival houses, and devouring little magazines like Partisan Review. Indeed, his account of his childhood and adolescence is strongly reminiscent of the Jewish fiction PR was publishing in that period. He next undertook the study of philosophy at UCLA and then at Harvard, where he commenced his life-long struggle with professional philosophy — and, until he met Austin, almost abandoned it.

When Cavell entered the Harvard graduate program in philosophy in 1951, it did not seem an obvious place for someone with his talents and inclinations to inaugurate his career. (I entered the program in the same year and make a number of appearances in Cavell’s memoir.) As Cavell saw it, logical positivism constituted the avant-garde in many of the major philosophy departments, and he often considered leaving philosophy before he came into contact with Austin in 1955. Cavell reports that rarely in a life can one know intellectual gratitude of the kind he felt after attending Austin’s seminar and finding in his theory of performative utterances a way beyond positivist theories of meaning. More generally, Cavell found in the ordinary language philosopher’s practice of asking “what we say when” a way to use himself as a source of philosophical evidence. In doing so, he felt for the first time his pertinence to philosophy. He had begun to find his voice.

The second half of Cavell’s memoir is, he says, mainly an account of an American academic life. In his case, it was a notably distinguished one: fellowships in Harvard’s Society of Fellows and at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, faculty appointments at Berkeley and Harvard, where he was Walter M. Cabot Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at his death in 2018. Over the course of his career, he developed significant friendships with Terrence Malick, Michael Fried, John Harbison, Thomas Kuhn, Seymour Shifrin, Morton White, Bernard Williams, and Hilary Putnam, as well as with the two philosophers he was closest to, Rogers Albritton and Thompson Clarke. But the main topics of the second half of Cavell’s book are his struggle to write and the difficulties attending the reception of his work.

In the months before Cavell came East to take up his faculty position at Harvard, J. Fodor and J. Katz of MIT published an attack on the two articles Cavell had submitted (along with his dissertation) for consideration in his tenure candidacy. Cavell remembers them as saying that the articles were “deleterious to the future of philosophy.” (What they actually said was that they were “pernicious both for an adequate understanding of ordinary language philosophy and for an adequate understanding of ordinary language.”) Cavell regarded their dismissal as unmitigatedly vicious. (This incident will remind the reader of the moment in Cavell’s childhood when his enraged father picked up his son’s empty clarinet case and threw it into the garbage.) These essays were included in his first book, Must We Mean What We Say? (1969) — which, he reports, was greeted with a silence and dismay that, with fond exceptions, lasted for 20 years.

Cavell revised his dissertation irregularly over 16 years; it was published as The Claim of Reason in 1979 and is regarded by those who make strong claims for Cavell as a philosopher as his masterpiece. In 1980, it was the subject of a symposium at the American Philosophical Society (at which I was present); the occasion proved a fiasco for Cavell. Barry Stroud, a distinguished epistemologist and former Berkeley colleague, offered a careful, penetrating examination and critique of Cavell’s approach to skepticism and to Cavell’s use of the concepts of acceptance and acknowledgment. Cavell responded abusively and unprofessionally to Stroud’s highly professional, respectful paper. In reflecting on the event, Cavell concludes that his work creates infectious ill will among an imposing body of philosophers who know of it.

I believe Stroud bore Cavell no ill will and displayed none on this occasion, but there are certainly many who have been put off reading Cavell by the eccentricities of his prose and the obstacles put in the way of gaining a clear understanding of his arguments and positions. This is true even of many who acknowledge the fact that he is also capable of great eloquence and deep insight. I believe Cavell paid a great price for persuading himself, as he says in the memoir, that one can no more choose how one writes than one can choose what makes one happy. This is a preposterous claim and one that an Emersonian friend (editor, analyst, professional colleague) might have helped him abandon.

Many, especially philosophers, who aspire to impersonality in their work are offended by the insistent foregrounding of self in Cavell’s writing. Some are also allergic to the craving for profundity he frequently exhibits. (Austin regarded this impulse as the mortal enemy of philosophy.) Is it helpful or simply pretentious to invoke Kant’s metaphysics in explicating the barrier screen in It Happened One Night (1934)? Cavell’s convoluted sentences frequently run 60 to 80 words in length; the main text of The Claim of Reason begins with a sentence 216 words long. Not surprisingly, his grammar has been found unstable and his intent often obscure. Asides, parentheses, and extended fragments constitute frequent distractions and diversions. His 17 published volumes are repetitious and their frequent reformulations confusing. One reason for this is that Cavell would not let go of intuitions, allowing them into print before they had been satisfactorily refined, elaborated, or defended — before, as he says, the intuitions had been transformed into Emersonian tuitions. This is true even of the concepts most central to his philosophy — skepticism and the ordinary.

Cavell took skepticism to be the essential business of (modern) philosophy. In modern philosophy skepticism is understood as a set of arguments supporting the view that we do not know (with certainty) the existence of the external world, of oneself, or of others. (In The Claim of Reason, Cavell perversely defines it as any view that raises the question of knowledge, whether it affirms or denies its possibility.) Richard Rorty and others consider the arguments of the epistemologist a frivolous form of academic make-work. By contrast, Cavell, like Thoreau and Emerson, found in skepticism something other than what skepticism finds in itself.

The refutation of skepticism was a major preoccupation of ordinary language philosophy, and in the years following his conversion Cavell became dissatisfied with the approach of Austin and the orthodox Wittgensteinians. The orthodox Wittgensteinian believes that one can refute skepticism by appeal to the criteria that govern the use of ordinary language. Thus, if someone’s behavior satisfies the criteria for being in pain (wincing, groaning), the person exhibiting this behavior is in pain and one can know it. Cavell contends that this is a mistake and a misreading of Wittgenstein. The person may be feigning pain or exhibiting some other form of appearance. There are, at best, criteria of pain behavior, but there are no criteria for distinguishing feigning from reality. Furthermore, criteria depend on conventional agreements and it is always possible to violate conventional usage, to speak “outside the language game.” The costs of employing language apart from ordinary criteria are high, however: not knowing what we are saying, having the illusion of meaning something, making claims to impossible privacies suggestive of madness. The skeptic cannot be refuted, but what the force of skepticism suggests is that, since we cannot know that the world exists, its presence to us cannot be a matter of knowing. In Cavell’s view, the world is to be accepted and the presence of other minds acknowledged.

For Cavell, Shakespeare’s tragedies engage the skeptical problematic. Lear knows that Cordelia loves him and Othello knows that Desdemona is chaste, but each of them brings on tragedy by attempting to disown the burden of knowledge. Lear interrogates Cordelia and Othello requires “ocular” proof; in each case, avoidance is disguised as a quest for knowledge. Tragedy is the place where we are not allowed to escape such cover. Othello’s problem is his inability to forgive Desdemona for existing separate from him, for being flesh and blood. For if she is flesh and blood, then so is he, and this possibility tortures him. The source of Lear’s tragedy is his inability to accept the human condition — his finitude, his separateness — to acknowledge what he already knows: that Cordelia loves him. Just as the skeptical epistemologist in his search for certainty loses the presence he craves, so the tragic hero in his quest for knowledge avoids what he already knows. What we need is not more knowledge but the willingness to forgo knowing. Cavell thereby aligns himself with Wittgenstein and Heidegger, who in their radically different ways call into question modern philosophy’s obeisance to epistemology’s preference for (certain) knowledge.

Cavell rejects the view that skepticism is simply a theoretical claim. Rather, it is, he thinks, a cover for an attempt to convert the human condition, our metaphysical finitude, into an intellectual difficulty. Sometimes he identifies this attempt with skepticism itself, sometimes he calls it an interpretation of skepticism; mainly, he conceives of it as a cause of skepticism. But while some such evasive cover may be at work in Othello’s doubt about Desdemona’s chastity or in Lear’s of Cordelia’s love, there is little reason to think that the modern epistemologist is engaged in any similar covering activity. Nor is he typically engaged in pondering the catastrophic skeptical consequences of the “New Science” to which Cavell frequently alludes. In the case of the ordinary language philosopher, his objective has not been to avoid acknowledging love or human separateness but to defeat skepticism and uncover bad arguments.

In addition to serving as a cover, Cavell believes that skepticism has as many guises as the Devil. It is this discovery that allows Cavell to bring so much of his thought, however sketchily, under the concept of skepticism. What is known to philosophy as skepticism is known to literature in Emerson and Thoreau’s “silent melancholy” and “quiet desperation,” in Wordsworth’s perception of us as without “interest,” in Poe’s “perverseness.” But it was most elaborately exhibited by Cavell in his analyses of the Shakespearean tragedies, in which he finds skepticism figured and allegorized. What philosophy knows as doubt, Othello’s violence allegorizes as jealousy. Tragedy and skepticism have similar structures and rhythms. The precipitousness of skepticism’s banishment of the world is figured in the precipitous banishments of the Lear story as it is in the extreme rapidity of progress from the completeness of Othello’s love to the perfection of his doubt. But elsewhere, Cavell suggests a still closer connection: Lear’s “avoidance” of Cordelia is an instance of the annihilation inherent in the skeptical problematic. And this suggests at some level of abstraction that the structures of skepticism and tragedy (and, presumably of all the other guises the Devil assumes) are identical. Tragedy, Cavell says, is an interpretation of what skepticism is itself an interpretation of. What that is, however, he does not say.

Cavell’s concept of the ordinary undergoes an expansion similar to the one he located in the case of skepticism. Cavell tells us that what he has meant by the ordinary is something Emerson and Thoreau have meant in their devotion to the common, the familiar, the everyday, the low, the near. It is what Wordsworth means by the rustic and the common; it is figured in Plato’s image of the cave and enacted in a dance routine of Fred Astaire’s. The figuration Cavell has examined most carefully is, of course, that of marriage or the domestic. Skepticism is cloaked in literature as that which attacks the domestic. And, as skepticism is overcome by returning language to its ordinary uses, so threats to marriage are overcome by remarriage or by the restoration of the mutual, diurnal devotion of the ordinary or the everyday. A crucial moment in the development of Cavell’s philosophy occurs when he intuits that Emerson and Thoreau’s commitment to the ordinary underwrites the procedures of ordinary language philosophy. Cavell says that most of his colleagues would find the idea of underwriting ordinary language philosophy by transcendentalism about as promising as enlivening the passé via the extinct. I expect that the less historically minded among them would be more likely to find it about as promising as grounding the under-analyzed in the irrelevant. And they would certainly want to know more about what Cavell means by underwriting.

Cavell from the start discerned the essential elements of Emersonian perfectionism in the Hollywood films he studied. He found that these films investigate the personal relationships neglected by the dominant academic moral theories, utilitarianism and Kantianism. The aim of moral perfectionism is not to lead one from irrationality to rationality through an appropriate distribution of satisfactions, as in Mill, or from a will corrupted by sensuous concerns to one measured and chastened by the moral law, as in Kant. The perfectionist journey is not from bad to good or from wrong to right; it involves a divided self that has lost its way moving from confusion to clarity. The aim is not to achieve the rational perfection of the Platonic sage but to progress toward an attainable next self in an attainable future society. For Emerson, the perfectionist journey takes one from unthinking conformism to self-reliance, a state in which one summons the courage to say, “I think,” “I am.” In doing so, he transforms himself from a ghost haunting the world to an existing human being. Emersonian morality defeats Cartesian skepticism, allowing one to find one’s own voice.

In his 1981 book, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Cavell studies a genre in which a romantic pair are not trying, as in classical comedy, to get together but to get back together. The women in these comedies are descendants of Ibsen’s Nora: they are on a spiritual quest and in need of an education, which must be provided by the man within an atmosphere of equality. Nevertheless, the man will carry a taint of villainy, thus preparing the way for the complementary genre, the melodrama of the unknown woman. In Milton’s conception, “a meet and happy conversation” is the chief and noblest end of marriage and it can be achieved only if the man relinquishes control (he must often play the fool) and the woman acknowledges her desire. The improvisatory battle of the characters in these “talkies” is an adventure in finding the truth.

The generic features of the melodrama of the unknown woman, studied in his 1996 book, Contesting Tears, can be derived by negation from those exhibited in the comedies of remarriage. The woman in the melodramas rejects marriage, which is destructive in the world she knows. The man is psychically frozen, and the woman alone seeks change. He cannot provide the education offered by the man in the comedies and he struggles against mutual recognition. Conversation is everywhere defeated by irony. There is no shared language, and the woman is unknown. But, like her comedic sisters, she is on a spiritual quest. Marriage is transcended (not reconsidered), and she seeks a self-reliance that will allow her to achieve her attainable but unattained self.

What philosophy calls friendship and the comedies figure as marriage is a central feature of moral perfectionism. The journey of perfectionism cannot be taken in the absence of the credible words of a friend who helps one find one’s way. In the marriage comedies, the male character is the friend; in the melodramas of the unknown woman, the heroine must find and assert her own truth in the absence of a friend. The friend will need to be a provocateur, even an enemy, who contests one’s present attainments. In the absence of such a friend’s perhaps painful provocations, those unconscious or repressed thoughts and desires that represent one’s unattained but attainable self would not be accomplished.

Emerson represents his writing as such a friend, and Thoreau considers writing an exposure to be read. Cavell, who was strongly attracted to Wittgenstein’s use of philosophy as therapy and to Freudian psychoanalysis, offers an analytically oriented account of reading that considers the text as analyst and the reader as analysand. Such a reading will return one’s repressed thoughts and desires to consciousness. They are the rejected thoughts that Emerson tells us will return with a certain alienated majesty. They represent our unattained but attainable self, and their return provides the perfectionist reader with the freedom to take a step toward a next attainable self.

With the change of the millennium, Cavell, a reverse Rip Van Winkle, awoke from a dream of work and found that there were a considerable number of strangers who apparently recognized him, or knew what he had been doing. I believe their numbers continue to grow. But much that has been written about him, especially by his philosophical admirers, appears to be motivated, as Cavell observes, by the sense that if his work were only explained a little more clearly, its readership would suddenly become fruitful and multiply. Admirable as some of this secondary literature is, however, Cavell’s philosophical work will be fruitful and multiply only when philosophers engage it critically, find it useful, and perhaps develop it further. For the most part, this has not yet happened.

In his foreword to The Claim of Reason, Cavell writes that, when he says of Wittgenstein that he is “still to be received,” he means to suggest that Wittgenstein’s writing, “and of course not his alone, is essentially and always to be received, as thoughts must be that would refuse professionalization.” It is the pathos of Cavell’s situation that he longed for a wider professional acknowledgment that his work so often, and in my view so often unnecessarily, refuses.


Marshall Cohen is University Professor Emeritus and Dean Emeritus of the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences at the University of Southern California.