The Music of the Ordinary: On Stanley Cavell’s “Here and There”

Michael S. Roth considers Stanley Cavell's "Here and There: Sites of Philosophy."

The Music of the Ordinary: On Stanley Cavell’s “Here and There”

Here and There: Sites of Philosophy by Stanley Cavell. Harvard University Press. 336 pages.

WHEN I WAS in college, searching for what to do with myself after graduation, I felt more than a little lost. Loving my academic work but not feeling at home in any particular field, I went to my professors for advice. Henry Abelove, soon to become one of the trailblazers of queer theory, pointed me to an essay on Shakespeare and love from the extraordinary collection Must We Mean What We Say? Another professor, Louis Mink, already a foundational figure in the narrative-oriented philosophy of history, steered me to an essay that aimed to bridge the gap between Continental and Anglo-American philosophy. The two professors didn’t agree on much at the time, and I remember being amused that each had independently chosen the same author to light a path for me: this was Stanley Cavell, described by another of my mentors as “the most searching mind in America today.” It was 1978, and I started reading.

Like many graduate students, I found the transition to more professional academic education fairly bleak, but I had the good fortune to begin around the time Cavell published The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (1979). Each day after completing my assignments, I’d open up this study of Wittgenstein and wonder how one learned to think like Cavell. He seemed to be educating himself as he wrote — as I read. The book was a personal exploration, while also interrogating — hard — Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Whether Cavell was writing about pain or narcissism, language or privacy, he gave the impression of someone finding his own voice, his own variations on classic texts. The Claim of Reason was based on his dissertation, and in his later work the topic of voice in philosophy would become more and more important to him. Some might say that eventually he came to enjoy the sound of his own voice more than was necessary. As for me — I liked the music.

Cavell’s sound emerged from bouncing key ideas off resonant texts: the dark, rich sound of Wittgenstein’s Investigations could always be heard, and the melodic sweetness of Thoreau and Emerson over time came to have principal roles in the mix. Cavell’s teacher, the ordinary language philosopher J. L. Austin, ensured that his student’s music, no matter how sophisticated, would never stray too far from the popular. Perhaps the most basic of issues for Cavell was the uneasy recognition of our separateness from one another and the skepticism that was aroused by that separateness. There are limits to what I can know about another, so what would I make of those limits? Cavell was always interested in how a writer, an artist, a citizen came to terms with separateness — how we come to live with our occasional inability to know what we really want to know about (or to reveal to) another.

What to do with the skepticism that comes from acknowledging our separateness from others? Fundamental to Cavell’s thinking is that we cannot overcome this skepticism and that trying to do so leads to comic misadventures or painful tragedies. But he didn’t revel in that. He was not one simply to deconstruct what others took to be knowledge; in that critique he detected a familiar antidemocratic condescension. For Cavell, real education was learning to live with our separateness from others, especially when we yearn to connect with them. “The fundamental problem,” he writes, “is not to get over to the other, and work our way in, but to learn separateness.” Only when we recognize our separateness do we have possibilities for coming to agreement. There are no set rules for this process, no foundational criteria that specify what it means to come to accord: “Instead of providing the basis for judgments about courses of action philosophy seeks to understand itself as a way of life.”

Here and There is comprised of occasional pieces: forewords to translations of his work, lectures, introductions to catalogs, comments on the interventions of other scholars. Cavell had himself thought about publishing many of the essays together, but the volume’s editors tell us that he struggled to find a unifying theme. These are “situated” works — responses to invitations — and most are short. They show how themes emerging from Cavell’s own confrontation with the philosophical canon find echoes or harmonies with themes in anthropology, psychoanalysis, literary theory, or musicology.

Composed mostly in the 1990s and early 2000s, these pieces are responsive to two poles of academic interest: the popularity of poststructuralist literary theory and the persistent domination of analytic philosophy. Cavell was intrigued by the siren songs coming into literature departments from France, and he was hardly surprised that philosophy departments were deaf to their charms. Those departments, especially as Cavell came to know them as a young professor in the 1960s, remained enthralled to logical positivism and its mission to cleanse our utterances of nonsense. Analytic philosophy wanted to sound more like science and not at all like poetry. Cavell, as he writes in this volume, pursued “the redemption of philosophy and poetry by one another.” He sees himself in the tradition of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Emerson and Thoreau. Isn’t it Romantic? Yes.

Cavell’s Romanticism was always played in the key of the ordinary, and so he kept some distance from deconstruction. “You may be pained, or pleased, by the so-called flight from theory,” he wrote. “I am pained by what I might call the flight from the ordinary, which I think far scarier than theory.” Cavell was marked by Austin’s ordinary language philosophy: by the commitment to pay attention to how people do things with language. Wittgenstein’s Investigations proved to be an endlessly interesting text through which to explore this question. Philosophy offered no correction to how we connected to one another, but it could illuminate those connections and our aspirations for them. Cavell described his reading of Wittgenstein as a conversion, one that encouraged him to embrace “the experience of groundlessness.” But groundlessness was not a weapon to be wielded against the world, as some of the literary theorists of his day seemed to believe. Cavell chose instead Austin’s “mirth over the happy fact that the world is working out and that we are made for it.” He adored Emerson’s “violent efforts at cheerfulness.”

Having begun his college years as a music student, Cavell writes that “something I have demanded from philosophy was an understanding precisely of what I had sought in music.” He also demanded this of popular film, which in this volume he describes as the United States’ opera. Music and film spoke to our situatedness while acknowledging a desire for something more, something beyond our current conditions. Elsewhere Cavell writes of this as “moral perfectionism.”

Here and There is filled with situated insights into the academic debates of the end of the last century and the beginning of our own. Cavell himself demonstrates what he saw in Northrop Frye: a “tirelessly intelligent responsiveness.” Language was still at the center of things for Cavell, but what we have come to call identity, not so much. There is some talk of gender and no talk of race. He didn’t see the ordinary through these now popular categories or filters. To wish he had would be to wish he were here now, participating in our current debates — and that would be to wish to overcome the separateness he taught us to accept.

“I have recurred to the idea that in philosophizing we wish to escape our humanity,” he wrote. We wish to escape our finitude and “the maze of infinite desires in finite circumstances.” Those desires and those circumstances ring out in Here and There, and readers will find it worthwhile to tune in. Nowhere else will one encounter the sounds one encounters in Stanley Cavell’s mixtapes.


Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent book is Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses.

LARB Contributor

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are The Student: A Short History (forthcoming), Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses (2019), and Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (2014).


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