Cavell as Educator

July 5, 2011

Adam Putnam, Untitled (Sundial), 2005, Paper, Wire, and Mirror, Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

“To poor students”


What can I profess? The age of new doctrines has closed.

The role of a professor may be to confess to what is already known. Thus one professes an established faith, as an adherent. But to what, or whom, could I cling? Is there any single thing, learned in school, that you can stick to for a lifetime?

The professor of philosophy stands at the junction of two worlds: the original and the rote. Emerson teased the scholar, calling him a divided philosopher. Impartial, but reduced thereby to part and halfway commitments. The scholar borrows plumage, a “parrot” of his betters. “The boy is not attracted. He says, I do not wish to be such a kind of man as my professor is.”1 Or such a bird. Thoreau put in, fatefully, in 1854: “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live.”2

At least Thoreau was a little encouraging. Professing, on his admonition, partway reclaims, at least recalls, what it formerly was to live. Life glows on one side of a chasm. And philosophy, curiously, shines from that same side, across from wherever we’re stuck.

But if philosophy and life are opposite to us, it still isn’t obvious what is on our side, or where we are. How do you name our entanglement in an unlived life? How could to live, in better, bygone times, ever have meant to live as a philosopher?

Nearly every great philosopher in the era of the university has said somewhere that there is no such thing as education in schools. Nearly every one of these, too, taught or lectured (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, James, Arendt), or was entangled as far as to have learned from a university, in its lecture halls and library, what philosophy would be.3 The terminal degree the modern university grants every Ph.D. recipient declares him or her a doctor of philosophy. As compensation, novice teachers of philosophy help themselves early to the ultimate title of their profession, and any young professional in a department of philosophy calls himself or herself, nowadays, a philosopher. Even graduate students try on the honor. To others in the university, this can seem like a presumption, unless they are putting on others’ coats themselves. Only lay readers, outside the university, of Plato, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, know it to be a sin and a betrayal, as the occupation of an unearned office.

Philosophy must be a practice apart, to those of us who resent the philosophy professor as no philosopher. We will keep the crown unworn if need be. By the royal road, to be a philosopher is something we think only genius can do. In the backyard, philosophizing is something that is done by anyone awake, without credentials, indifferent to degrees, not troubled by a neighbor’s waking. The enterprise belongs to night thoughts and daydreams.

Who, in modern America, can be the doer of philosophy? Ours is supposed to be the most practical, therefore unphilosophical, of societies. Yet we are not unschooled. The advancing campuses of our schools creep over the landscape of the country like an infinitely extensible college green.

Stanley Cavell is the only university professor of philosophy I knew personally to preserve a distinction between professing and doing. He thought enough, and solemnly enough, about the condition of philosophy, to ask whether he could say he did it, and what he was doing when he didn’t do it, when he couldn’t.

His career started with asking what is on this side of the chasm, where we all live, most of the time—what we are doing here. And what, in what we do here, will lead us to any other side. What acts, or speech, will erect a bridge from here to there, or lay a plank, or throw the philosopher’s “rope over an abyss”?4 Or what will move us, shuffling our feet, until perspective reveals the distance to the other side to be only a step, if life were differently viewed?


I was 17 when an older friend took me onto the Harvard campus to see a college lecture for the first time. The topic was the later Wittgenstein. I thought then, as I do still, that it is almost never too early for anybody to read anything. An exception for me seems to have been the earlier Wittgenstein, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which I had read that year. But in addition to certain bad reasons to be present at the lecture, having to do with my fog about Wittgenstein (and no lecture was going to clarify it), I had one good reason, which was that I was in some anxiety to know what college was like.

Philosophy spoke to me then because I liked the way I thought under its influence. It gave a sensual pleasure, as I lay on the broken couch in the high school music room, in fall term, after classes, and looked from the chalkboard ruled in noteless staves up to the casement where the evening chalked clouds over Boston’s roofs. Then back down to Nausea or The Birth of Tragedy in my lap, thinking: “Sartre, or Nietzsche, thinks just the way I do.” I still feel this as embarrassing, or unsayable. But is it only a thought of 17-years-old, or permanent and universal, until one gives up on oneself, on one’s own seriousness? I felt that these philosophical books helped me excavate some darkness within, pulling it up in buckets, of which college would give me the analysis.

Whoever built the philosophy building in Harvard Yard, Emerson Hall, seems to have had in mind a savings bank. My host met me on the steps, which had iced perilously on that winter morning, and led me to the stream of students pushing into the humid lobby. The hall held a list of professors’ names, of movable letters in a glass case, like a marquee. The students climbed upward in a mass like sibling strangers, producing the noisy shared disregard of a family relation. Streams drained off at each landing to the tall doors of lecture rooms.

In our room the students hung their coats on a line of wooden pegs. I kept my coat as I found my seat, fearing theft, and perspired as the crowd called over its murmuring. I thought I saw contemptuousness in the faces of the listeners. It was a mood I would later understand was common to lecture halls, but which I didn’t know how to judge rightly until, a year later, Cavell had us read in Emerson about some conditions for his kind of philosophy (that is, Emerson’s, who was installed as a bronze statue downstairs):

The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict.5

I was, I suppose, afraid, reverent, cynical, primed for disappointment, eager for an ideal, avid and withholding. Cavell was pointed out to me, and he mounted a few steps, put down his coat, and adjusted the microphone. The philosopher looked like “a philosopher” to me: I mean, like a statue already. He was then 67 to my 17.

He opened with words to me unforgettable (by which I mean also that I hope I don’t misremember them). Settling his papers, he began:

“Friends have said to me, ‘You must have been in a bad mood when you wrote chapter four of The Claim of Reason.’ It’s certainly possible. The question is, what would it mean, philosophically, about these materials, with these perplexities, to be in a bad mood?”

I laughed. I have a loud laugh. I supposed I had been asking myself, What does it mean to be in such a bad mood? for my whole life. Here was the reward, at long last, for the hell of being a child. Under the thumb of tyrants—parents and teachers, “whom an audaciously honest person has called nos ennemis naturels.”6 Not understanding myself, trying, for years, to discover myself in books. In college, people wouldn’t lecture on other people only. They would stand up as thinkers themselves. We had moods? And any mood was a pool into which you could dive. Cavell was at last really a philosopher, I came to understand, a species I had never before seen in the flesh, with wisps of white hair at the back of his head, an appropriately owlish face behind glasses, immense goodwill, and mortal frailties. Those included a visible, intense self-regard, critical as well as passionate, vulnerable to odd wounds from friends or critics.

The lecture moved on and lost me. It became fifty minutes on aspects of the Philosophical Investigations, the later Wittgenstein, as promised in the course title, and I took no more profit from it than from the book I’d read.

We know the real target of philosophy is life. Everyone feels it who has not been irreparably debauched by learning. Graduates who took one philosophy course in college will remember that etymologically it is philo-sophia, the love of wisdom, or love of truth. In most traditions, philosophy is not only the pursuit of truth, but also a discipline for managing suffering. Don’t the limitation of pain and access to the truth go together, through ties obscure but sensible to all? If one sees the target, then, how to draw the bow? And from what tree’s bough is the best arrow cut?


Skepticism, in modern philosophy, names the fear, or thought, that one cannot be certain of knowledge. The philosophical chronology of modern skepticism starts with Descartes, when in his Meditations he looked into the street in northern Holland and recognized that the men he saw hurrying might be clockwork men; he might be dreaming; a demon might be deceiving him. It enters Hume’s attacks on causation and induction, and reaches Kant’s attempted settlement and solution, letting us possess and know the categories of the understanding, but depriving us forever of access to the things behind appearances.

These fundamental challenges to certainty continue, with other philosophers’ ripostes and new bases for proof, proceeding over centuries; who can say when they will determine an answer? The arguments seemed idle to me at first, like moves in games of chess played by correspondence, mailed from one generation to the next. Where was the feeling beneath them? What is the dread that lets you doubt the external world is knowable or still there?

At his arrival in philosophy in the early 1960s, Cavell became known for his investigations of modern skeptical thought and its solutions. He added to skepticism about the physical world the problem of a fundamental doubt about other minds, taken over from solutions proposed by his teacher, J. L. Austin. That problem arises at its simplest when I ask whether I can know that another person is angry, or that his or her pain feels like my pain.7 Then, if I can know another’s thoughts are like mine. At its far extension, rarely asked, whether I can know that in my neighborhood, even in the world, there exists a single other mind like my own.

I was often puzzled how skeptical thought could be so central to someone whose philosophy is so social, talkative, communal, and diurnal as Cavell was on the lecture platform. Yet I do remember, or know I thought I heard, him sounding the note of failure or fear. In terms of his own voice.

“To whom am I speaking?” He spoke to us, in the afternoon gloom of a darkening hall. The terror seemed to be that no one might have listened to these words coming back to him from the maple-paneled walls, over a forty-year career. Or that no one might care. “For whom am I speaking, by what right?” The platform, raised off the floor, couldn’t be departed until the end of the hour. The wooden lectern and the table bound the circle of the world. Why don’t professors let themselves leave mid-lecture, as audiences can do? Maybe there was no one here who could receive the thought as it needed to be taken. “What is that voice of philosophy?” Cavell might say. The voice spoke into a void.

I had never seen the isolation of the lecturer staged like this: the isolation that fears the step from solitude to solipsism. The school produces the unreality; it cages the speaking, if the teaching is rote, or unlistened to.

But the philosopher was not lecturing on others’ behalf—not, at least, for the sake, or soul, of anyone else but himself and those in the room. “By what right does the philosopher say ‘we?’ ‘We’ speaks of a consent that is not common, that, by rights, is yours.” “Can you hear me? Am I making myself . . . clear?”

In laying bare the conditions of his enterprise he repelled as many people as he enchanted. Although “the arrogation of voice,” the theft of the right to speak for others, was one of Cavell’s signal topics about how philosophy is pursued, it was personal arrogance, and the pursuit of his own unique interests, that others (peers in professional philosophy, principally) accused him of. The master violated philosophy’s consensus on what was an “interesting problem,” as well as the circumspection and terseness with which one was supposed to enunciate it. Cavell didn’t like to be disliked, but he knew what was said about him. An explanation he once wrote concerning Wittgenstein:

So some of Wittgenstein’s readers are made impatient, as though the fluctuating humility and arrogance of his prose were a matter of style. . . . To me this fluctuation reads as a continuous effort at balance, or longing for it, as to leave a tightrope; it seems an expression of that struggle of despair and hope that I can understand as a motivation to philosophical writing.

I remember in the lecture hall thinking reassurance at him. Knowing also that, if, by magic, this thought got through, it would vitiate the doing of his philosophy, a part of its mood, the density of it, the talking in loneliness. The philosopher puts forward true words, as best he or she can, true in the moment, and can’t tell what sensitivities will twitch. When my pen moved, I wasn’t heaping up facts. I was allowing a recording of inner tremors, as with a stylus on the paper of the soul.

I found things said that I felt I already knew from birth, and was newborn. Lineage in education is unusual. In philosophy, the philosopher doesn’t choose who will be the offspring of his or her thought. Ordinarily, creative power is all in a parent’s hands; I don’t choose my father and mother. Yet the apprentice philosopher fills in his own birth certificate and signs it. He roams the halls and selects his theater of delivery. The “boy” can be surer of this parentage than of anything else, knowing what it was that changed him, or allowed him to change himself.


The first class he offered that I could enroll in was a general education course in “moral reasoning,” a field of study the university required of all students. It meant, for Cavell, that he could teach a course for anyone and everyone.

It was good to be springlike, green and receptive. I brought along any friend who would listen to my advertisements for the possible experience of a lifetime. Lectures occurred two days a week. I took the class with my new girlfriend, and others we knew, or came to know, as the lecture hall brought us together. So I always sat with friends. One of the secrets of a modern American college is that before undergraduates take up “extracurriculars,” or if they choose not to take up any (as I didn’t), studying is itself the passion and the activity. The challenge is to be curricular—to run through the course set by civilization up to one’s own time, and then exceed it.8

To be a first-year student is to be so coddled, patted, petted, fed, housed, to have so little expected of you, as a new arrival, to be so incipient, that it seems a misfire of spirit not to commit yourself to some single concern: even reading. I could read day and night, in bed, walking to and from lectures, or while eating dinner, without shame. The library was overgrown. Beneath one layer of fronds was another. Books that would have been precious or restricted or unheard of in my town library were fallen leaves here.

What do people ever mean by community? Lucy took the course with me. She could equally say that I took the course with her. We offered each other confirmation. “Was that incredible—what he said?” It was. None of us knew Cavell or talked to him. I thought of Cavell standing in the frigid slush waiting for the trolley in Brookline, or pulling wet galoshes off in his entrance hall, calling to his family, waiting to learn if anyone was home, while we 18-year-olds lived as gods, talking, reading, romancing, in our Cambridge garden, knowing good and evil thanks to him. We took the course unknown, we did the reading privately, and yet we lived together in dorms, ate together, had a Friend City produced for us by university forces we otherwise considered sinister. If we could have farmed, on the ludicrous green where tourists are invited to pump a wooden replica of the college well, we would have recaptured the whole virtue of Oneida or Brook Farm, and with more freedom. There is something better in communities whose leaders inhabit a connecting world, not far, just adjacent. Leaders who do not rule, who do not set limits to action. Who won’t know you, or what you do. Who only talk, largely in colloquy with themselves—who only insist, regardless of the world’s habits, that life is this worthy of inspection and concentration. Leaders like this hand over what they have to teach like the previous tenant’s ring of unlabeled keys. They give their followers the courtesy of retreating, to let youth live its life with the reminders of an inspirer’s pressure of experience.

To body forth a philosophy on a stage, you would think, is not to live. Unless the teacher could take his or her meals there, and read the paper. Fight with a spouse, make up, make love. But it is enough to speak of life sometimes. To put yourself in front of eyes and let yourself be taken in.

Socrates was the first to take a seminar outside. In the streets of Athens, he taught as one should. Certain kinds of things can only be said outside, free of walls. Plato removed to the Academy, after Socrates’s death—the closed porch of a temple. Aristotle followed his example when founding the Lyceum. Epicurus put two worlds back together, indoor and outdoor. He took a house, pleading for the ordinary life, and in his garden made a school. The school had the name of its locale. In the Garden he taught women as well as men, something neither Aristotle, Plato, nor Socrates had ever done or conceived. Here he proposed a philosophy once again devoted to learning to live—and live in company—not just to know.

Let no one delay the study of philosophy while young nor weary of it when old. For no one is either too young or too old for the health of the soul. He who says either that the time for philosophy has not yet come or that it has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or that it has passed. Therefore, both young and old must philosophize, the latter so that although old he may stay young in good things owing to gratitude for what has occurred, the former so that although young he too may be like an old man owing to his lack of fear of what is to come.9

To be poised halfway through a course, after fourteen lectures with a master, knowing that there are fourteen still to go, is a rare position, as against feeling a great treatise coming to an end, seeing a great painting, watching a great movie, and knowing that event to be closed. The blessed thing is not ending. Joy is continuous, discovery daily. The term is far off, and all the training has led to motion that is effortless. There is not one world in books, and another that is ours. You cannot hold on to the fear that the age of new doctrines is over. Our time is as great as any time, greater because it’s ours.

Cavell, rather than being the type of all college professors, turned out to be unique. His tutelage at that time seemed the big experience of my life, and I can’t say that it wasn’t, even now. I was afraid of him, personally—afraid, I mean, of damaging the relation by something personal. I went in later years to his lectures on aesthetics, attended his screenings of operas and films, tried to focus on sessions on Wittgenstein, on language and epistemology.

I have often asked between then and now what I got myself in for, not that it was Cavell’s fault, not that I wouldn’t have gotten in for it anyway. Nietzsche, when young, advised the initiate, in “Schopenhauer as Educator,” which we read at Cavell’s direction, to cultivate an impersonal self-hatred in order to grow, hating that within yourself which is weak and inferior.10 It took me more years than it should have to learn that this advice wouldn’t work for me; hatred became personal. (This year, fourteen years later, I saw a note of Nietzsche’s set down when he was fourteen years older: “I wish men would begin by respecting themselves: everything else follows from that. To be sure, as soon as one does this one is finished for others: for this is what they forgive last: ‘What? A man who respects himself?’—”11 )

At least I can say I had a teacher in my life, who laid a table. He couldn’t be responsible for what I took.


Cavell communicated four central doctrines, I would say now, of various degrees of novelty. They were: the doctrine of knowledge as acknowledging; of perfectionism as the succession of next selves; of the world on film as our world, viewed; and of marriage between equals as remarriage.

I’ve often asked myself what it means for there to be completeness to a philosophical system. Kant’s critical philosophy, our modern reference point for systems, became integral in three critiques, but no one but Kant himself could have predicted that the completion of his epistemology and ethics would have required an aesthetics. Cavell’s sequence of writings seems particularly idiosyncratic, more irregular than most thinkers’. There is, however, I think, completeness to the system; it has to do with the ways one can surpass the boundaries of isolation and find relations to a world of other people. (Maybe this is nothing more than other interpreters say naturally, that Cavell’s work is an unending investigation of reactions to skepticism, considered in its widest view. I’m just not sure that does justice to the whole, making it more like the line of an obsession, a tunnel into the earth, than an illustrated map of the whole earth’s surface.)

The underlying ambition of his philosophy is to become worldly, with all the accents of cosmopolitanism, civilization, and maturity that the word bears. A surprising quantity of philosophy, both Anglo-American and European, wants the opposite, wishing to become simple and primordial. Cavell’s ambition for the person who lives philosophically is not to give himself or herself to the world primordially, nor privately, nor metaphysically, nor alone. Cavell’s worldliness implies, however, that one remembers standing on the threshold, waiting to enter or join. The isolation of the novice does not end with the overcoming of adolescence, but will recur, at intervals, wherever and whenever one is cut off, or one’s words are not listened to, or one’s best thoughts pass unheard.

The divisions in his philosophy correspond to three relations to the world which human life can disclose, from the standpoint of that threshold. There can be the world with me, which leads Cavell to the recovery of the ordinary, in the action of acknowledgment. There can be a world beside me, which leads to the discovery of a next self, in the action called perfectionism. Perhaps most difficult to accept, or honor, there is a world without me, which leads to something Cavell least names; call it, in its hopeful instances, community or eternity. Its actions are viewing and conversation, once you see that these commend thinking and listening as much as seeing and talking.


As college-level training in American philosophy became consumed with logic, logic became the origin for increasing numbers of Cavell’s fellow students and colleagues in the 1950s. Math and science didn’t impel Cavell to philosophy. He came to it, as he said, from “crisis.” It appeared to him as a solution when, pursuing graduate study at Julliard in New York City, he discovered that he no longer wanted to be, or would never really be, a composer of classical music, which had been the subject of his undergraduate degree at Berkeley and supplied much of his sense of self.

The first thing I did . . . was to recognize that music was no longer my life and thereupon to avoid my composition lessons. The next thing I did was to realize that I was in a state of spiritual crisis. My solution to that realization, not to say my expression of it, was to decide that I had learned nothing in college and to resolve to know and to see everything worth knowing and seeing. This led me, or released me . . . to attend the theater or the opera almost every night and to see at least two films a day and to begin reading whatever it was that people called philosophy. . . . While I had studied essentially no philosophy in college (except for a semester course in aesthetics, which as I recall it, required no reading), I had heard that philosophy had something to do with examining one’s life.

In graduate school at UCLA and then at Harvard he became expert in Kant and logical analysis but did not see how someone with his talents and interests could make a contribution that others couldn’t already offer. At that time, 1956, J. L. Austin came to Harvard for a semester from Oxford and delivered the series of lectures that would become How to Do Things with Words (a book of 1962, published, like all of Austin’s books, only after his untimely death). On the basis of the oral teaching, Cavell determined that what Austin did, he could do. History does not record what Austin made of this decision about patrimony.

Austin’s philosophy worked by diagnostic examples, from our ordinary speech, not an ideal speech formalized as logic,

those examples apart from which ordinary language philosophy has no method, [which] required what you might call “ear” to comprehend (as in, more or less at random, setting out the difference between doing something by mistake or by accident, or between doing something willingly or voluntarily, carelessly or heedlessly, or between doing something in saying something or by saying something, or between telling a bird by its call or from its call).

Taking Austin’s method as his own, becoming an “ordinary language philosopher,” Cavell discovered that he could give the American philosophical mainstream a superior account of something it wanted to understand. This was the new post-analytic language philosophy coming from Oxford, where Austin and Gilbert Ryle taught. Logical analysis, as it had developed into logical empiricism or logical positivism or the Anglo-American “analytic” orientation, had leaned on ideal or artificial languages to sift out the real questions of philosophy from superstition, irrationalism, and religion. It formed its first generation from Russell, Carnap, and the early Wittgenstein, and found its best publicist in the 1930s in Ayer. But a second generation (including also Quine and Sellars in the United States) identified flaws in the project of the first. Austin and Ryle specifically showed how natural language, what we all speak, contains necessary dimensions not articulable in truth-functional propositional logic. Yet ordinary language also rebuked traditional philosophical “superstitions” (for example, mind-body dualism and external-world skepticism) in even more credible ways. The most profound revisionist, unnervingly, was believed to be Wittgenstein himself, whose last decades of work had become known only after his death in 1951. Thus just a few years after Cavell had committed to Austin, he found himself in circles where Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which also belonged to the enigmas and discomforts of ordinary language, even more urgently demanded an explainer and defender.

The papers with which Cavell engaged the philosophical profession through the 1960s were collected at the end of the decade in Must We Mean What We Say? (1969). They show why Cavell could be recognized within analytic philosophy and also why he was an odd duck. He taught the usefulness of Austin to his peers in his title essay and pleaded the “Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy” in another. But he also wrote on Kierkegaard, not a mainstay of the Harvard curriculum, and on King Lear and Endgame, which were acceptable, but preferably in the literature classrooms of Sever Hall. It could be said that Cavell satisfied philosophy’s residual obligation to aesthetics, at least, a field on the distaff side of a now-scientized discipline, whose masculine hierarchy of fields rewarded epistemology and philosophy of math.

The assessment of ordinary language, which his colleagues were unprepared to make, in a sense became Cavell’s Trojan horse, the gift he brought to Harvard philosophy, hiding foreign impulses inside. Another way to see the matter is that the collection of talent at the university in the 1960s was strong enough to welcome the intrusion. Cavell received lifetime tenure in 1963, at age 37. There was a moment by the end of that decade when the department had assembled in one place W. V. O. Quine, John Rawls, Hilary Putnam, Nelson Goodman, and Robert Nozick, with Michael Walzer and Judith Sklar nearby in Government. They freed him to roam the fortifications without fear, because what even Cavell’s most “establishment” colleagues were doing—second- and third-generation analytic philosophy, with Quine the aging iconoclast and leader; a wholesale reorientation of political philosophy toward distributive justice, led by Rawls; ethical and political grappling with the student revolts, democracy, and the Vietnam War—was all momentous, all strange.

Cavell took up the old question of skepticism from the core of modern epistemology. How do I know with certainty that the world is as I experience or perceive it? Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Cavell confirmed, wielded ordinary language philosophy to confront philosophical skepticism. Yes, skepticism’s inadequacy to us was thereby revealed. But, no, a proof against skepticism is not therefore attained. To the will to argue against the skeptic, Cavell’s interpretation said both yes and no. Wittgenstein showed (by Cavell’s lights) that the notion of a final, certain disproof of the challenge to certainty, a solution by some new move of conventional knowledge, repeats the impulse to skepticism.

Skepticism is reunderstood not as a series of experiments or challenges within reason, but broadly as the intellectualist separation of ourselves from our shared condition of being in the world—which, however it starts, issues inevitably in a refusal of that world’s reality without us, and denial of our conversation with other minds within it.

Cavell insisted that the resumption of the world was not a matter of knowing it. It was rather what he called “acknowledging.” As early as Must We Mean What We Say?, he could write:

[W]e think skepticism must mean that we cannot know the world exists, and hence that perhaps there isn’t one (a conclusion some profess to admire and others to fear). Whereas what skepticism suggests is that since we cannot know the world exists, its presentness to us cannot be a function of knowing.

Because Cavell was a devotee of language, his basic therapeutic thought, voiced in many keys, was that the thing that saves what we have in common, and preserves your claim upon others and theirs on you, is recovering the certainty that our shared medium is words. Speech hooks you, or invites you, entices, incites. He inquired into forms of that linguistic acknowledgment, how it occurred and where it failed. And, in many scenes, on the lecture room stage and in written works (especially an unfolding series of essays on Shakespeare’s plays), he dramatized it. “Our relation to the world as a whole, or to others in general, is not one of knowing, where knowing construes itself as being certain,” Cavell reiterated in 1979, in The Claim of Reason, his midcareer summa. It was both the book that drew most from his analytic practice (as a partial rewriting of his 1961 graduate dissertation, “The Claim to Rationality”), and an expanded brief against dry knowledge, ending in a sort of experimental writing, with aphorisms and an infection of the literary—it possessed “style.” Still later in his career, in a little summary:

[T]he idea of thinking as reception . . . [puts] forward the correct answer to skepticism. . . . The answer does not consist in denying the conclusion of skepticism but in reconceiving its truth. It is true that we do not know the existence of the world with certainty; our relation to its existence is deeper—one in which it is accepted, that is to say, received. My favorite way of putting this is to say that existence is to be acknowledged.

Thus the analytic tradition, via Wittgenstein, was found to be treading a different path to the same clearing that the Continental line, as it issued in Heidegger, had sought: a therapeutic restoration of contact with a world that exists in touch with us, ordinarily, whether we admit it or think about it or not. Skepticism implied an intimacy with fear or anxiety, an unsettledness, loneliness, homelessness, which the philosopher should address but cannot get rid of. This prescription, indeed, sounded “existential.” Keeping our condition open to the skeptical threat, trying to find a way to some commonness, or community, that acknowledged but did not give in to it—these were not the sorts of words with which analytic philosophy had wanted to do things. And as Cavell added terms that were ultimately intolerable to much of his collegial, Anglo-American world, he also said explicitly that he did not think philosophy was worthwhile without some recovery of the Continental. So it was said, in return, that what Cavell did was “not philosophy.”

The years after 1979 Cavell perceived as his years in the wilderness. “The ordinary” in Cavell’s hands spread from ordinary language to a positive philosophy. No longer just a term for a methodology, it seemed to name a sphere or view of our life. It became obligation-creating. You might think a commitment to the ordinary would spell an acknowledgment of whatever already is. Instead it became an investigation of what we hide from ourselves, what our intellectual condition divides us from, therefore what sort of condition we really are in, and how else we might be.

Cavell pursued these questions through previous civilized efforts to recover touch with the world, like the English Romantic poets’ reversion to common language to regain contact with nature, set off from them by Kantian Enlightenment (fully considered in In Quest of the Ordinary, 1988), and the skepticisms staged by Shakespeare (collected finally in Disowning Knowledge, 1987). Yet the most fruitful and unexpected of his lines of thought had been opened quite a bit earlier, before he had come openly into conflict with his discipline. He had had a year off, and a contract from Viking (rather than the university presses that published almost all his other books), and found the inspiration for two nearly simultaneous, very short books: The World Viewed (1971) and The Senses of Walden (1972). In these he had asked, with little enough seemingly at stake: Where in his life did he see twinklings of the positive philosophy he cared for? And what was it that America offered philosophy, the America in which one could get usefully lost, as once he had been lost in New York City, and find oneself again?

To which Cavell had issued two unexpected and confounding answers: He saw a positive philosophy, and an American motive, in cinema, which aesthetics had not yet acknowledged was a philosophically distinctive art; and he found them, too, in the always-unclassifiable book Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, crank and nature writer, which the American university did not yet conceive as a great work of philosophy.


Everyone is saying, and anyone can hear, that this is the new world; that we are the new men; that the earth is to be born again; that the past is to be cast off like a skin; that we must learn from children to see again; that every day is the first day of the world; that America is Eden. So how can a word get through whose burden is that we do not understand a word of all this? Or rather, that the way in which we understand it is insane, and we are trying again to buy and bully our way into heaven; that we have failed; that the present is a task and a discovery, not a period of America’s privileged history; that we are not free, not whole, and not new, and we know this and are on a downward path of despair because of it; and that for the child to grow he requires family and familiarity, but for a grown-up to grow he requires strangeness and transformation, i.e., birth?

These are Cavell’s words, in The Senses of Walden, but not his sound. He imitates biblical prophecy, of which Thoreau was a better imitator, though it wasn’t Thoreau’s native tone, either. Despite the slight strain for each man, when he turned to the tenor of prophecy, the point was in part, in each case, to remind himself that coming later does not mean coming late. Prophecy persists, even with a change of key.

If the Founding Fathers had laid down the rules and hopes of America, Thoreau was a son who tried to say what it meant to live in the world they had made. Thoreau questioned what had been supposedly settled. He wanted something uncommon still from his neighbors’ common language, and something better from the country’s democracy. How do you make a new founding, if the country has just been founded for you—and is now inherited property? The scales Cavell heard Thoreau warming up were, first, the writer’s plays on the meanings of words—his famous punning exercises. They run deftly in Walden, on both black and white keys, up to ultimacies and back to the mundane things, as if testing the language for its temper.

The simplest and most fundamental pun was Thoreau’s opening joke on his readers who “are said to live in New England.” The doubt was not about whether we have our addresses here, but whether we live, so dead do we seem in spirit. Cavell’s interpretation of Thoreau’s way of existing in these double entendres, in an inherited language, was that they asked what inheritance meant, generally, and whether acknowledgment must mean acquiescence. It need not mean, in Thoreau’s word, resignation, as if one had to simply re-sign the social contract, once one grew to adulthood and learned it. Such fated acquiescence, simply for having lived and attained majority in a country or society, is of course a core topic of the liberal doctrine of consent, as it was articulated in Locke. A standard alternative is to out-migrate, to flee to a new world. Thoreau’s proposal was that one could be an emigrant even at home. (“I have traveled a good deal in Concord.”) America had once been Locke’s word for the untenanted places of the earth. “Thus in the beginning all the world was America.”12 If one were already here, and still found a foolish conformity, there was no hope of going anyplace else. America had to be the place of the migration as well as the place of home. Cavell summarized the Thoreau of democratic question-and-answer in this way: “His problem—at once philosophical, religious, literary, and, I will argue, political—is to get us to ask the questions, and then to show us that we do not know what we are asking, and then to show us that we have the answer.”

What was the fundamental American question in the generation of Thoreau? The young writer moved to Walden Pond on July 4, 1845. He built a visible Republic, with its one representative subject, himself, in Concord (in the vicinity of the Battle of Lexington and Concord), sixty years after the founding of the larger Republic. That should have been long enough for a country to have reached the age of wisdom. Or, at the very least, to have generated one wise man—an authority, a father—whose wisdom would obviate the need to find new values. Yet Thoreau said he knew no such wise men; or, anyway: “You may say the wisest thing you can, old man,—you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind,—I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that.” His own voice, of course. Once all men had been created equal, in other words, what became of their sons and daughters? To what would they be equal?

The great founding act of philosophy in the United States, of thinking in an American vein, had been made by Jefferson. He challenged fundamental right as it had been established by Locke and the English liberal tradition. Locke had proposed the unalienable rights to be those to “Life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, transformed this trinity, overseen by Franklin and Adams. For their America, “Life, liberty, and property” would be too fixed. Right would now be to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” In “the pursuit of Happiness,” the problem was to pursue something that enjoyed endless evanescence and renewal. Something perishable, more like wild apples on the trees than the gold in a bank vault. Where did the pursuit lead, what had the sons chased, and were they happy? “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. . . . The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost.” (Locke’s doctrine of property had specified it as those parts of nature into which one mixes one’s labor. But what a man then mixed into property might be his youth and, soon enough, his bones.) Improper property was the worst dependence, a Northern institution of slavery.

Thoreau’s answer seemed, in that awkward American vernacular, a self-improvement. In law, you can improve a property. In cliché, you can improve the time. But Thoreau spoke of improving “the nick of time” rather than our idleness or our houses. If the world is to be really with us, we must run to catch it. If it sometimes seems too much with us, there must be other ways of accessing its abundance, urgent means which will help us make it new. This ecstatic need might be articulated in the modest terms of besideness. Cavell made much of Thoreau’s pun, “With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense.” Here I am, myself; but there is also another self, just beside me:

The writer specifies my relation to the double as my being beside it. Being beside oneself is the dictionary definition of ecstasy. To suggest that one may stand there, stay there in a sane sense, is to suggest that the besideness of which ecstasy speaks is my experience of my existence, my knowledge ‘of myself as a human entity,’ my assurance of my integrity or identity. This condition—the condition of ‘having’ a self, and knowing it—is an instance of the general relation the writer perceives as ‘being next to.’

In making the inner and emotional (“I was beside myself”) outward and topographical (“what I truly wanted, all along, was right next to me”—and there is something still next to it, and next beyond that), an important modification is made to self-improvement. I may live in this world, acknowledging it. But I also know a just slightly better one beside it. Say my more urgent world is just next to the town of Concord—on the shores of Walden Pond. And next to me, in my sojourn at Walden, may be a world still better. (As to be next to the pond, in Thoreau’s comic mythology of Walden as the clearest, deepest, freshest, and most perfect of all ponds, fed by an inexhaustible source, is a way to get next to the infinite waters of rebirth. To make your settlement on the banks of an element that will inspire you to be renewed again.)

Recalling an old sectarian term for the utopian Protestant project of self-improvement, a knot in the American grain, Cavell identified this pursuit as perfectionism. (In 1848, one year after Thoreau left Walden, Christian Perfectionists established their Oneida Community, and stayed there thirty years; Thoreau’s vision proved the longer-lasting.) Perfectionism is certainly not the most attractive name for a philosophy of today. Cavell’s election of the historic term, with its modern noise and interference, pushed his hearers to ask its provenance, how far back the impulse goes. It has been part of the project of philosophy, Cavell would ultimately insist (in Cities of Words, 2005), in Emerson, Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Nietzsche, and many others in modern times. It was part of the permanent project of philosophy in ancient times first indicated by Socrates or Epicurus. But the name should not connote the illusion of human perfectibility. It must not imply finality. In perfectionism there is no perfect state to be attained. You do not become perfect; nor could you. Nor would you want to, were it conceivable. Perfected stasis of character would be the termination of the self, the end of hope.

Over three decades, Cavell moved from the specificity of Thoreau’s pictures in Walden to a generalized philosophical project, making the journey by traveling with Emerson, Thoreau’s neighbor and teacher. What Cavell ultimately named “moral” or “Emersonian” perfectionism is oriented to an interior dynamism. It does not displace the kind of moral philosophy that addresses lying, theft, saving lives, and letting die. It does not dispute the title of such issues to the name of ethics. It simply wants me to admit that, day to day, I have very little occasion to decide when three lives may be taken to save five, or whether it is right to steal radium for my ailing spouse. Whereas, morally, there isn’t a day that goes by that doesn’t involve some perfectionist reflection on what the persons and things around me would call me to do, if I were to become different, new, and better—not because of their spoken demands but by their example, positive or negative, of other forms of life than mine, and my decision whether it would be conformity or growth, death or life, to become like them.

The call to a next self may come from trees, paths, creatures, and seasons (as Thoreau tells us). It may come from an artwork or manmade representation (as Rilke tells us with his archaic torso of Apollo). The call may come from persons who don’t yet exist, free spirits, imaginary future friends who inspire us to become more now than we are (as Nietzsche tells us). The call may come from past exemplars, the honored dead, those “representative men” who issue a call to revolution in the self (as Emerson tells us). Or from living friends (as the philosophical reflection on friendship since Plato and Aristotle tells us).

What matters most is that the next self isn’t above the clouds, but right beside you, at the edge of vision. You might sometimes step right into who you might be, without breaking stride. The rebuke the next self issues is that it is right there: not in India, not in Africa, not in prayer. It may be nagging, but it is not inconsiderate. Its expectations are only your own, in hearing the call that is from outside; no one else has a right to expect so much of you.

Perfectionism in the American context does indeed resemble the enterprise called self-improvement. It can’t entirely disclaim a family connection with How to Stop Worrying and Start Living or Wherever You Go, There You Are. Things that matter to us in philosophy will always have a range of eruptions. What matters in a book is that it is the book you need, not where in the library it may be found. Perfectionism admonishes self-improvement only as far as to say that the spirit of popular improvement has shown a susceptibility to fixity, or recipes for career success, rather than spiritual succession. Perfectionism’s lead title would be How to Succeed Yourself.

World Viewed

How many paintings do we possess, as opposed to how many movies or photographs, that linger in the American mind as some expression of what is essential about Americans? Rothko’s, I suppose, and Eakins’s, Cole’s, O’Keefe’s, and Rockwell’s. No one, though, seems to earn as much respect and commitment, both high and low, as Edward Hopper.

Hopper is our national portraitist of the act of thinking. It is possible to see his scenes as lonely. The diners and windy bright apartments can have that look, since solitude without speech may look like isolation. Yet these are places we would often be happy to be ourselves. His solitary female figures have embarked on meditation. “Nighthawks,” the lonesome diner sheltering city-dwellers in a darkened street, lit with the uncanny brightness of heaven, has become a national black-velvet painting. It has been repopulated, in pastiche, with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart and Elvis, dream visions of our most extravagant selves.

The picture I find myself thinking of most, “New York Movie,” is one of several Hopper painted of moviehouse interiors. The figure in this painting is an usherette, standing on the right, inhabiting a different light from the silver reflected on the auditorium seats by the screen on the picture’s left edge. Under the yellow luminary of a sconce by the exit, marking a staircase up and out, the usherette thinks. She does not watch the movie. Maybe she’s seen it too often. The pessimistic critic’s interpretation is that she is mocked in her isolation by the aristocrats onscreen and their love affairs; she is a worried girl, servant to a missing audience of, presumably, unhappy fantasists like herself. My intuition, thinking about the painting over the years, is that she is pictured as watching the movie, metaphorically, and that it is the source of her troubled introspection. The seats seem mostly empty because she is the audience. In the picturing of her meditation, we face an allegory of the kind of thinking that gets done covertly by an American before her entertainments, which can indeed be more like introspection or worry than like thoughtless escape.

The movies, which became so major a subject of Cavell’s philosophy, held a place at the center of his childhood, as his mother took him along on her part-time career as a piano accompanist to silent films in Atlanta moviehouses. In 1950s New York, when he was a young person seeking an ultimate vocation, cinema ran alongside his days as a second life. Cavell did not remember moviegoing ever to have been the pursuit of escape, precisely—though people so often termed films escapist.

It was certainly a place where citizens gathered. The cinema Cavell started with was one where there weren’t timed seatings and evacuations of theaters, as for a stage play, but a continuous cycle of A-movie and B-movie, short and newsreel, into which you could wander. A world ran there all the time, alternative to and separated from this one. In the “movie palace” all social classes met. The rich went to movies and the poor went to movies. And the films concerned rich and poor. Their democratic character was obvious to Cavell when he first saw the movies of the 1930s, as a child, and anyone could know them to be a reflection on America in the Depression and New Deal. The medium had seemed suited to a nation of movement already in its silent era. From the first sound movie, in 1927, it found it could talk as rapidly as it moved.

Obstructing a philosophy of movies, however, stood something like 1,000 years of sophistication to undo, if one were to claim a relation of film to thought rather than to illusion. One can acknowledge retrospectively what Cavell was up against, in attempting to construct in the 1960s an American philosophy of film, after Bazin, Krakauer, Arnheim, as well as the revilers of the “culture industry”—but also after Plato. For cinema conjured a most primordial philosophical picture. Cinema could seem to literalize Plato’s original allegory of illusion and ignorance of a “true world” as perhaps no other material artifact of human life ever had. The cave in the Republic, with a source of light projecting the enlarged silhouettes of idols upon a wall, exhibited deceptions to an enchanted and enchained humanity. This seemed like a blueprint for the movies’ projected images of absent stars upon a silver screen. The enraptured, fantasizing audience handed over two bits for the privilege of “escape,” to sink deeper into a prison of unconsciousness. This ogre of intellectual sorcery or enslavement sneaked into intellectuals’ critique of ordinary Hollywood movies. The idols of the matinee could be added to Bacon’s other idols of the mind. Nor had the Platonic critique of all representations vanished: that any manmade picture of the real signified a copy of a copy, twice removed from the Idea.

In The World Viewed Cavell upset these notions on every side, yet genially, calmly, as if he were not upending basic truths. What was the medium of film? Cavell answered evenly that its medium was the world. Photo-sensitive emulsion on celluloid simply did not fill the role that pigments and oil did for painting or bronze and stone for sculpture. Unmetaphysically, the thing projected in film was actually our world, the true and only one. Here was the photographic condition, as he distilled it: “A photograph does not present us with ‘likenesses’ of things; it presents us, we want to say, with the things themselves. But wanting to say that may well make us ontologically restless.” Cavell cheekily defined a moving picture, for the sort of readers who needed a definition, as “a succession of automatic world-projections.” An artist puts an eye to a viewfinder and frames his or her shot, to be sure. But the automaticity and dehumanized mechanics of the camera, its assemblage of light, film, and the material world, does all the representational work. And viewers took these real people, filmed through automatic mechanisms, to teach things beyond the filmmakers’ intention, as if the model had taken over from the painter.

Cavell pointed out that the core of film satisfactions involves the actor not falling into the role and disappearing. The actor is kept before the mind by attention to his or her unalterable incarnate features, closely observed. When a hat is lifted above a previously shaded face, it is John Wayne’s face, not the character’s. The cigarette is flourished in Bette Davis’s hand, not the role’s. Every movie the star played in previously is carried into this one, as a dimension of who he or she is or can be here, this time. And the roles themselves are often not so much fictional persons as types. Here, the star plays a cowboy, stepping into one functional place in the nation; here a military man. Here she is an heiress, here a striver. This is not a weakness, but an intelligible feature. Unlike ordinary fiction or drama, the odd overlap is with our experience of evaluating people in a democracy. We exalt the single individual, making him representative; and simultaneously think in types, groups, and factions, the repeating positions that arise in a collectivity. Likewise, the audience taking seats in a theater, coming and going, is not unlike a rotating jury of one’s peers, or a seated assembly chosen by lot. Our talk before movies, after them, and even during, to friends we’ve arrived with, or to the screen and everyone—for those who won’t contain themselves, who even want to enhance the democratic feeling with their remarks (earning grateful audience laughter, or angry shushing)—makes probably our most vivid and warmly beloved sphere of national chatter, politics and sports included.

In the late 1960s, Cavell had felt the danger for the first time that the movies were becoming modernist in the way that painting had, meaning that this vast audience could be divided. “Sophisticated” taste would no longer coincide with the common, shared, democratic run of movies, the best that the Hollywood studio system had created. Cavell started to encounter people in Berkeley or New York or Cambridge who wanted to talk about Bergman and Antonioni but not Cary Grant or the Marx Brothers—that is to say, he met fools of a dangerous type. Snobbery would cause the loss of a unique aesthetic forum, and, unless someone philosophized movies differently, it would be the fault of the intellectuals. “The movie seems naturally to exist in a state in which its highest and its most ordinary instances attract the same audience (anyway until recently),” Cavell wrote. “[M]y claim is that in the case of films, it is generally true that you do not really like the highest instances unless you also like the typical ones. You don’t even know what the highest are instances of unless you know the typical as well.”

If film were truly respected for all that it can do, it would be seen that cinema could offer the audience, as a “people” and also as a million individuals, a total vision recognizable as an impulse to philosophy. The views projected by film show you above all else what the world looks like without you in it. Film may be necessary, in the methods of democracy, to gain the vantage of shared objectivity. Here, the “I” and one’s own voice, and all the temporary collective passions of the audience, are not the all in all. Movies constitute an ordinary, non-supernatural way to reflect on our situation, singly, in a world of others. And also to reflect upon the mortality that is our human portion without waving our fear of it away. In the still somewhat terrifying and unexpected last words of Cavell’s book:

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film—and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world, either because I left it unloved (the Flying Dutchman) or because I left unfinished business (Hamlet). So there is reason for me to want the camera to deny the coherence of the world, its coherence as past: to deny that the world is complete without me. But there is equal reason to want it affirmed that the world is coherent without me. That is essential to what I want of immortality: nature’s survival of me. It will mean that the present judgment upon me is not yet the last.


The point on which all these paths converged was marriage. It seemed the most incongruous step imaginable. The book of 1981 that announced this unforeseen expansion and reworking of so many themes from Cavell’s career possessed a title like a coffee table book: Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. It constituted a work, too, of diagnostic philosophy—not quite argument, deduction, or even speculation—unlike almost anything else in philosophy, though it featured Kant and Mill and Nietzsche alongside Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Cavell’s curious intuition was that there existed a class of Golden Age film comedies as great as anything Hollywood had made, appreciated as such, indeed loved and shared (The Philadelphia Story, It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, others)—which we also have appreciated so much because they give a rare, perhaps unique account of equal marriages that we could ratify, without allowances or reservations, for our times. If Cavell could diagnose why these films formed a set, and why they were unique in our esteem and acceptance, and also what remained painful or went unsaid in them, then he would identify much else that was right and wrong in our condition.

But why marriage, at all? It is not a subject unknown to philosophy, but it is certainly one of philosophy’s most excruciating topics, on which the tradition, historically, had gone most wrong. This is because the tradition had been only male, and, more than that, misogynist. By tradition, Socrates walked the streets of Athens, schooling boys, because the alternative was his wife Xanthippe to go home to. Not until the Enlightenment learned emancipation do you see the publication of women philosophers like Wollstonecraft—who would be refused by all but political radicals—or de Staël, who was set aside as a midwife to male thought. Marriage as its own topic found its most interesting male exegetes among 19th-century thinkers who pathologically could not marry. One likes to think that their sensing of the inequality and stunting of women was the root of their trouble (in an era, after abolitionism, when feminism began to liberate women politically). But the men remained, themselves, hysterical, castrated, unenlightened: Kierkegaard, in Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way, obsessing over the ethical possibility or impossibility of marriage; Nietzsche, betraying his gifts with his stupid epigrams on “woman” in Beyond Good and Evil, his desperate loneliness, and the curdled will to power. From such acting out of contradictions, which leaves one puzzled but dirtied, to seek cleansing from recent male philosophers of marriage, like Roger Scruton, is worse, like scrubbing your eyes with soap.

Marriage accomplished some purely philosophical syntheses for Cavell. Speaking of the world without us, it gave a special institution for us to take views of—a test case for the fatefulness of viewing, in which my position as audience, outside, accentuates my intimacy with “the marriage,” the shared creation which neither married partner can quite see. (This transpires first in our ancient views of mother and father, the most basic couple we ever stand to view; judging the pair affectionately and implacably, a child is material witness, and sitting jury, and the party most affected by any decision.) As Cavell looked for the world beside us, marriage made perfectionism social and reciprocal. It overcame the bind that kept perfectionism isolated and egocentric, in its communion of self with next self. The model of a conversation between one self and another, which called to it but was not the same, could be the conversation between men and women.

As for the post-skeptical world with us, marriage made a real task for acknowledgment, a most ordinary and yet most difficult one. Acknowledging the external world isn’t hard for most of us, when we’re not in the skeptical mood. Acknowledging other minds like ours, equally feeling and capable, is a generosity we routinely pretend. But the true acknowledgment of another mind—even just one other—in equal marriage is, our civilization knows, the most difficult, and most outwardly verifiable, act of acknowledgment we face. There is nothing harder in the world than acknowledging the other who is under your roof, who is as close to you as you are to yourself but has other wishes and another will, another past and loves; who is fundamentally different, in the smallest thing, that looms largest.

Marriage also let Cavell intersect feminism. What should an American become equal to, in our times? To equality between men and women. There had been a new birth of equality and genius in America, from 1848 (the time of Seneca Falls) to the 1920s (suffrage and the New Woman) to the present, and it was unfinished and still too unappreciated. The first women to become world-historically significant and transformative openly as philosophers, standing at the forefront of their generations—Arendt and Beauvoir preeminent among them—were educated in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Among Cavell’s contemporaries, maturing in Anglo-America in the 1960s and after, the explosion occurred of women philosophers as contributors to the tradition that has made our time superior, in this respect, to all previous eras. Today, to be a person educated only in English-language philosophy, one can be expected to have run into the work of Murdoch, Langer, Anscombe, Foot, Jarvis Thomson, Baier, Nussbaum, and Butler (Judith, not Joseph); then, if one has broader interests, Sontag, MacKinnon, Dworkin, Gilligan, Chodorow, Okin, Pateman, Daly, Sedgwick (Eve, not Henry), Felman, Benhabib, Fraser, Haraway, Spivak, Scarry, Moi, Ronell, and Kipnis (missing many other thinkers on this first tour d’horizon). Not all these thinkers are feminists. But second-wave American feminism is the native intellectual movement that constitutes the United States’ post-1968 contribution to world thought, in the years when Cavell was partly alienated from the analytic establishment. And radical feminism is our philosophical achievement on par with European poststructuralism, but more practical, deeper, more activist, more productive of change, less hermetic. It took 200 years, but feminism in America developed with an intensity and genius unmatched by any other country. By 1976 we completed a new 1776.

Thinking has not taken place enough from the male side about how philosophy changes when it ceases to be divided in half—as if equality only needed to be thought through by the equalizers. There are too few feminist books by men. Taking up remarriage comedy meant Cavell’s finding in himself (via the world onscreen) a certain maleness that had held a character of immaturity, exclusion. You can feel a radical change in tone from his books of 1971–72, which are male in expectation and a kind of ordinary blindness, to the altered books of the early 1980s forward. The “we” in The World Viewed still looks from the point of view of men at women, without a reverse angle or speculation on how views will be different through other, including female, eyes. (“A woman in a movie is dressed (as she is, when she is, in reality), hence potentially undressed. . . . [I]n seeing a film of a desirable woman we are looking for a reason.”) That changes. The “I” can start male; the “we” should not, or not without acknowledgment of all the places it may find itself.

Cavell returned for his diagnosis to a set of films he remembered from his childhood. They belonged, starting with the earliest, It Happened One Night (1934), to the era that “discovered” sound, with the old plots of heiresses and high society intact. But it was the era, too, of the equality-minded women who entered the media and professions and government, evident in such masterpieces as His Girl Friday (1940) and Adam’s Rib (1949) before America suffered the post–World War II backlash that Betty Friedan named a decade later in The Feminine Mystique. It was as if what movie sound first discovered, what it could record most extraordinarily, was the rapid and ingenious conversation and banter between men and women (also song, which Cavell saw as closely related) that defined their new equality in social mores, well past their new assurance of political equality. As the movies spanned the period through the Depression and the war, one couldn’t help but notice, too, that these films had things to say about money, democracy, and a nation fragmenting or pulling together in love and justice. The right comic pair, trying to reach a marriage under conditions of equality, without falsification or tyranny, formed itself as the microcosm on which all other burdens rested.

Without asking what marriage was in advance of watching and rewatching these filmed examples, Cavell tried to say neutrally what plots, motifs, turning points, conditions, and constellations of figures reoccurred across all the masterpieces of the genre. He noticed, for one thing, that it was remarriage that was at stake in these films. Whether because a pair had already split or was in jeopardy of separation at the start of each film, the movies seemed uninterested in first love, purity, or the usual ideas of virgin fate—here was marriage under conditions of divorce, in a world of experience. Yet when the movies presented the ultimate success of the pair, it was necessary to conjure an allegory of wholeness based on a shared experience prior to, and surpassing, all others—as in a common childhood, sometimes real, sometimes symbolic. The proof of that experience was not a matter of sex (no children, and a certain libertine indifference to the prurience of others), but the ability of this pair to sustain a conversation.

That conversation was never the cooing of lovebirds or infants. Nor did it deny that the pair stood at odds even in what attached them. They must give as good as they get; the speed and fitness of their language is its quality of lovers’ magic, and that they hear each other (as we do, too, getting their jokes). The survival of conversation meant having known the tyranny of each partner upon the other, and holding it in mind, while still managing to forgive. While forgiveness meant, in practice, largely continuing their conversation, regardless of what had been said or done. In part they chose to continue with each other because of love; in part because only from this other person could they get the right education. In part, because any other people, hearing them talk, just wouldn’t ever understand them right.

More people I know have read Pursuits of Happiness than any other of Cavell’s books, and rightfully so. The only comparably rich modern book I know on marriage is Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives (1984), and these two books of the early 1980s, successors in an everyday spirit to more solemn utopian and critical achievements of ’70s and ’80s feminism, stand almost alone for asking, artfully and playfully, what can be redeemed in the institution, by sane people, equals, once marriage’s tyrannies and inequities have been exposed.

But the turn in Cavell’s project to inequities, and a different set of tools for critique, continued to develop. As did his need to ask by what right an American philosopher spoke, and who else was not being listened to. Perfectionism became a ground for democracy and distributive justice in what may be his most philosophically important later book, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (1990). Cavell returned, in his late books, to seek insistently within the subject matters that had always spoken to him most powerfully for the danger (and redress) of men’s ignorance of women’s voices, the drama of women not being attended to even at moments of highest expression. This meant, in classical music, the exploration of opera (A Pitch of Philosophy, 1994). In film, the melodrama, “weepie,” or “women’s film” (Contesting Tears, 1996). In the tradition of ordinary language (to which Cavell owed his career), the recognition of a fatal refusal in Austin’s theory of performatives to acknowledge unmasculine, “emotional” speech acts. These special speech acts, Cavell termed “passionate utterances,” devoting one of his last, or latest, philosophical papers to date (“Performative and Passionate Utterance,” in Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow, 2005) to an astonishing effort “to question a theory of language that pictures speech as at heart a matter of action and only incidentally as a matter of articulating and hence expressing desire.”

As the author of a philosophy that forgives and acknowledges, that seizes the second chance first, that has a place for man and woman and each in the other, Cavell becomes distinct, as I understand him, from Emerson and Thoreau. Even if he claimed their authority for the perfectionism he excavated and reconstituted, he differs from them ultimately. He becomes a founder. It makes sense to speak of Cavellian perfectionism, and to know it as a major philosophy independent of all that precedes it.

Love is one thing Cavell doesn’t often write about explicitly. Yet one can’t help but think of him as a philosopher of the forms of love. The other central thing he doesn’t often write about explicitly is music. Yet it, too, seems like a ground of whatever is particular in his philosophy. Love and music are the conditions, say, respectively, for thought and for speech. Together they mark the movement toward the world. This journey becomes the tutored recognition that one is already irresistibly inside the shared world. The transit from the outside in is actually a circulation inside something without limit or exterior. Together, however, love and music also teach the limitations of this world, made by men and women, in this world’s failure to meet up to and fulfill all that men and women can be, desire, and need. “Music, like infancy, marks the permanence of the place of understanding as before what we might call meaning, as if it exists in permanent anticipation of—hence in perpetual dissatisfaction with, even disdain for—what can be said.”

  1. Emerson, “Beauty,” The Conduct of Life

  2. Thoreau, Walden

  3. Nietzsche was a professor at Basel, Heidegger at Freiburg, Hegel at Jena, James at Harvard, Wittgenstein at Cambridge, Arendt at the New School. Thoreau early in life taught school with his brother, but otherwise returned to Harvard only for its library. Of the two main figures at the late edge of a pre-university moment in two peripheral countries, Emerson became a star of the American lecture circuit; Kierkegaard went to Berlin to see Schelling teach but defended his dissertation (The Concept of Irony) in Denmark and published independently. Both retained the marks of their nations’ premodern institution of ideas, the Church. 

  4. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue. 

  5. Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Essays: First Series

  6. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, II, §267. 

  7. Austin, “Other Minds,” Philosophical Papers. 

  8. Cf. Kierkegaard, “Preliminary Expectoration,” Fear and Trembling

  9. Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus.” 

  10. Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” Untimely Meditations

  11. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, §919. The note importantly clarifies: “This is something different from the blind drive to love oneself: nothing is more common, in the love of the sexes as well as of that duality which is called ‘I,’ than contempt for what one loves.” 

  12. Locke, Second Treatise of Government, V, §49. 

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