Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Other Stanley: Introducing Cavell


While procrastinating in the LTSS library, I noticed that The Chronicle Review had done a cover piece on philosopher Stanley Cavell. I referenced Cavell's work on Wittgenstein and language learning n an earlier post (er, web article?) - the one with the dinosaurs - and had the wonderful opportunity of studying him along with Wittgenstein and Austin with the fabulous Toril Moi during my last semester at Duke. Despite teaching at Harvard, where he is Walter M. Cabot Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value (like I said, Harvard), Cavell is an inspiration to me for the ways he manages to combine the study of philosophy and literature, bridging the unnecessary disciplinary gap to the great benefit of both sides. Few thinkers have challenged me more to look at the world, my self, and others with renewed wonder and fresh questions, while taking seriously the tragic reality of human limitations, and the even more tragic attempt to be more than human in the effort to escape, by our own skeptical efforts, those limits which make us the creatures that we are.

Despite his appreciation for Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, and his challenging yet ultimately friendly reflections on theology, Cavell remains largely unknown and underappreciated in the theological world. The Chronicle Review article, is a splendid and accessible introduction to his major concerns and works. Dukies may find it particularly interesting for the ways the author, the Dean of the Honors College at Baylor, situates Cavell with MacIntyre and Charles Taylor in his criticisms of the fragmentation of the disciplines in modern universities. I offer the following excerpts by way of introducing the Other Stanley:

In Cavell's view, philosophy will never be able to successfully model itself on the sciences, because it never really makes progress. Not just in moments of intellectual crisis, but at all times, philosophy circles back to its own assumptions and puts them in question and, even when it does not revise them, tries to see them in a new and enriched light. Cavell speaks repeatedly, in the course of describing his intellectual journey, of the need to "begin again," to revisit and re-examine assumptions and purported conclusions that have gone untested.

Cavell explores films in which ordinary characters leading ordinary lives make the discovery that the ordinary is the extraordinary. For him that is a theme straight out of Wittgenstein, who once described his own philosophical writing as consisting of a series of "observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes." 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.

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