At a recorded event with the American philosopher Stanley Cavell at Duke University in 2009, a member of the audience opens the discussion with the following: “So I’ve been reading your work for thirty years and always found it enlightening and inspiring, although I think at times—” “That’s very nice to hear,” Cavell responds, before the questioner adds: “…harmful to my prose style.” The camera is stationary, focused on Cavell throughout, so we never see his interlocutor, only hear him insouciantly carrying on with his preamble, apparently insensible to the visible effect on Cavell of his barbed, partially withdrawn compliment: though chuckling, Cavell winces and doubles over.
Evidently wounded, the good humor Cavell nonetheless sustains suggests the blow was one he was not unaccustomed to absorbing. This short scene in many ways encapsulates the trajectory of my own ambivalent response to Cavell’s work. Like the audience member in the video, I too have felt lastingly inspired and enlightened by Cavell’s writing and, at times, dismayed and embarrassed by its imprint on my own. Cavell’s style was the somewhat eccentric subject of my somewhat eccentric postgraduate dissertation. The dissertation was eccentric, first, because I was an English student, not a philosophy student. If a thesis on a philosopher ought properly to have been submitted to a philosophy department, a study of something as tenuous as a philosopher’s “style” is, presumably, less welcome there. Yet if a study of style belongs in—indeed is to some extent compulsory in—literature departments, it felt abnormal, amateurish and vaguely illicit to be paying aesthetic attention to the writing of a philosopher and critic (as opposed to that of a novelist or poet).
Not that Cavell’s brand of philosophy fit frictionlessly into his nominal discipline. He often strayed into ostensibly nonphilosophical subjects and writers—classic Hollywood comedies and Shakespearean tragedy (which was how I’d first encountered his work), romantic poetry and the transcendentalist essay. And his overtly subjective, literary way of approaching these subjects—his heterodox “manner,” as he often called it—departed from the established methods and modes of expression in philosophy. His work was institutionally restive, self-consciously nonconforming, and chafed against the analytic tradition in which he was trained in the 1950s, when logical positivism—which sought to recast philosophy as a scientific enterprise—still exerted a powerful, if waning, influence over American philosophy departments. Cavell preferred to think of philosophy as closer to an art than a science: an unpredictable activity more like composing music or writing poetry than solving logical puzzles or devising laboratory experiments.
Cavell was preoccupied by whether what he did “counted” as philosophy. “I started writing philosophy (if that is what I do)…” is a characteristic remark, found in his characteristically unconventional—nonlinear, incessantly self-reflexive—autobiography Little Did I Know (2010). He was, moreover, convinced that the question of what philosophy is is among philosophy’s central topics. (“There is no metaphilosophy” was another of his aphorisms, meant to imply that discussion of what philosophy is is internal to doing it.) At a time when “institutionalized” philosophy was at risk of becoming a rarefied, “more or less technical discipline reserved for specialists,” he sought to occupy various frontiers or “rifts” between, for example, analytic and continental philosophy, philosophy and literature, philosophy and autobiography, philosophy and everyday life. Philosophy, as Cavell understood it, was a “willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to learn to think undistractedly about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about.”
Why, then, if Cavell was so interested in making philosophy less technical and more inclusive—more admitting of “ordinary,” personal experience—did he write the way he did? Cavell’s writings, as his friend and fellow philosopher Marshall Cohen put it in a tribute after his death, “divide audiences into insiders and outsiders”; Cavell would have achieved wider recognition and influence, Cohen suggests, were it not for the disagreeable “eccentricities”—the “troublesome and even offensive” features—of his prose style. Cohen is not alone in feeling this way. “Tedious, thin, bombastic: way, way overrated. Loves the sound of his own voice,” read a recent, crisply representative tweet. Even among his appreciative readers, like me and my confrère in the Duke video, Cavell’s style rarely escapes critical mention as an unfortunate personal quirk to be weathered, an indulgence to be indulged—above all, a tiresome obstacle to thoughts even his critics concede are often brilliant and original. Reviewing Cavell’s 1988 book of essays on six of Shakespeare’s plays, Disowning Knowledge, the literary critic Frank Kermode lamented that its introduction, “full of bizarre parentheses and dependent on certain too often repeated locutions, may put some readers off before they get to the substance of the book.” Cavell’s readers often seem to wish for a version of his work unhindered by the way he was “fated” to express himself, as he sometimes put it.
The wish is ironic, given Cavell’s iconoclastic insistence on the salience of style in philosophy. In his masterpiece The Claim of Reason (1979), a heavy reworking of his doctoral thesis, submitted nearly two decades earlier, Cavell provocatively announced his entrance by saying that he “wished to understand philosophy not as a set of problems but as a set of texts.” As early as his first book, Must We Mean What We Say? (1969), he can be found detonating claims such as “in philosophy it is the sound which makes all the difference.” He seemed to be insisting not only on the relevance of textual surface to philosophical substance—claiming that meaning inhered in the precise manner of its articulation—but, more radically, on form’s priority. The sound makes “all the difference”—not just a difference. The difference between what and what? we might ask. Perhaps between feeling an insider and an outsider, being convinced by a philosophical text or being unmoved, even repelled.
Cavell’s emphasis on the “sound” of philosophy is perhaps unsurprising given he had, until taking up the subject formally in his early twenties, assumed he would devote his life to music. Born Stanley Goldstein in Atlanta in 1926, Cavell—who changed his given name at sixteen—was an only child. His mother was an accomplished pianist with perfect pitch and his father (“musically illiterate”) was a Polish immigrant who never mastered English but had a knack for terse storytelling. Cavell himself was a gifted musician, playing in jazz bands as an adolescent and majoring in music at Berkeley. But while studying composition at Juilliard, he found himself bunking off to read Freud all day and to go to the movies in the evening. As Cavell recalled in his lecture “Reflections on Wallace Stevens at Mount Holyoke,” gathered in a new collection of occasional pieces titled Here and There—the inaugural installment of Cavell’s Nachlass—the wilting of his musical ambitions “precipitated the major intellectual, or spiritual, crisis of my life.” He enrolled in graduate school at UCLA, and then, in the early 1950s, transferred to Harvard to more seriously pursue philosophy, though without the galvanizing conviction that he’d found a vocation to replace music.
All that changed following a transformative encounter with the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin, who visited Harvard in 1955 to give the William James Lectures (published posthumously as How to Do Things with Words), as well as a pair of seminars, “the result of which,” Cavell recounts in passing in another of the pieces in the new collection, “was that I put aside plans for a Ph.D. thesis that I did not believe in, and other plans to leave the field of philosophy.” Austin’s lectures, in which he developed his influential notion of the “speech act,” elaborating a typology of instances in which to say something is to do something (“I do” during a marriage ceremony, for example), left Cavell feeling, as he recalls in a short memoir about his teacher included in Here and There (“Notes after Austin”), that he “had a life’s work ahead of me.”
Austin, Cavell writes in that brief tribute, was “the purest representative” of “the new thing” in philosophy known as ordinary language philosophy. Philosophy, in Austin’s fastidious, subtle hands, involved not metaphysical speculation but a detailed study of the way we use language every day. By unspooling a series of examples, Austin would clarify concepts such as “doing an action,” parsing the fine distinction between, say, shooting your donkey “by mistake” and doing so “by accident.” “That Austin’s practice”—whose combination of “seriousness and playfulness” resembled musical performance, Cavell writes—“had to do, in its own way, with the possession of an ear”—a knack, rather than a matter of expertise—“was surely part of its authority for me.”
Cavell crossed paths with Austin once more in 1959, at Berkeley, where Cavell had, fleetingly, returned to teach (he would leave for Harvard for good in 1963, taking up the imposing title of Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value). It was around this time that Cavell began reading the later Wittgenstein. In “To Place Wittgenstein,” another piece in Here and There, Cavell recalls his first engulfing encounter with Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown Books, which he’d been assigned to review: “The notes I was taking in response, or association, to reading Wittgenstein’s texts were becoming so extended that much of a summer went by without my arriving at the end of an initial reading through of those two sets of dictated notes, together making up a volume so modest in bulk.”
Cavell’s disproportionate response—or display of responsiveness, to borrow a term Cavell liked to use—to this slim book is typical. He sometimes refers to two “myths” of reading in philosophy: the philosopher who claims to have read nothing (Wittgenstein) and the philosopher who appears to have read everything (Heidegger). Cavell—who quite often confesses to not knowing, or only recently having become acquainted with, the works of seminal thinkers—embodies a liminal or hybrid myth: an extremely thorough, never-finished, almost exorbitant reader of a narrow personal canon. He chronically revisits fragments from his favorite texts—Wittgenstein’s Investigations; later, from the Seventies on, Emerson’s essays and Thoreau’s Walden—or rather appears to carry them with him, to unendingly coax new significance from phrases he knows by heart, a little as though these cherished works were scripture, or songs he can’t get out of his head.
The originality of Cavell’s way of reading Wittgenstein and Austin lay in his insistence on the relevance of the style or literary surface of these not obviously writerly, if powerfully charismatic, works by thinkers whose philosophical credentials were not in doubt. The provocative novelty of his approach to Emerson and Thoreau, meanwhile, derived from an opposite insistence that their obviously, even flamboyantly, rhetorical writings were in fact instances of coherent, serious philosophy. In both cases, style was not an extraneous or ornamental feature of Cavell’s reading but central to his understanding of how these texts could “count” as philosophy, and why they were powerful. In “To Place Wittgenstein,” Cavell reflects that “I was evidently determined, having been so fundamentally affected by Wittgenstein’s text, to explore not merely the topics it proposed, and transfigured, but the mode in which it presented them, the fact of its remarkable writing … it was clear enough that the writing was essential to what was convincing, not to say transforming, about the thinking of the Investigations.”
Cavell’s elaborate, circumlocutory prose style is notably unlike those of his lodestars—especially Austin and Wittgenstein, whose writing is if anything distinguished by a kind of wry laconicism: Austin’s clipped English wit and Wittgenstein’s beguiling, elliptical shards. Yet one occasionally discovers that one of his signature phrases has a kind of etymology. A hallmark of Cavell’s prose is the repertoire of strictly superfluous, oddly indelible phrases on which he likes to draw to introduce, hedge—withdraw the assertiveness of—his assertions: “I would like to say…,” “I am prepared to say…,” “I wish to understand…,” “It may help to say…,” “call it…,” “let’s say…,” “and again I have to say…” A selection drawn from the new collection: “Suppose I say…,” “I would like to assume…,” “What I wanted to say…,” “I have to ask myself…” “Here, so I would like to say…,” “the canonical reading is, let me say…,” “I wish to say something like…” Turn to section §300 of the Investigations and you find: “It is—we should like to say—not merely the picture of the behavior…”
This may seem a flimsy example—“we should like to say” is perhaps not a Wittgenstein original. But in broader terms, Cavell’s prose is suffused by the influence of the techniques and ethos of ordinary language philosophy—by its invitation to ask yourself what you would want or be tempted or inclined to say when. The auto-narrating trail Cavell leaves in his prose—his tendency to voice, even dramatize, his promptings or temptations to certain utterances—bears the unmistakable imprint of Austin’s and Wittgenstein’s methods.
“Undisguised” and “unguarded” are words Cavell sometimes used to describe his prose—in his preface to the Italian edition of The Claim of Reason, collected in Here and There, he alludes to “the undisguised struggle in its writing.” But it’s not difficult to see how this desire or willingness to expose the fiddly mechanics of composition could be perceived as exhibitionism or ill-discipline: “self-indulgent” is perhaps the most common criticism leveled at Cavell’s work. Instead of efficiently expounding an argument, Cavell was, his prose insists, conspicuously intent on expressing himself—on, as he puts it in the Duke video, having “you know exactly what I think.” Instead of the assertiveness and logical orderliness prized by conventional philosophical writing, Cavell offered a voluble clutter of qualifications and complications, and a kind of recklessly rigorous authenticity. Words were not indifferent symbolic counters but finely calibrated notes on a delicate scale on which he built virtuosic improvisations. It’s as if his subject is not purely the nominal topic of his inquiry, but his own articulations (and desires): what he “wishes” or “would like” or is “prepared” or “manages” to say about it.
One can see this relentless self-reflexiveness in Here and There, whose pieces often open with a kind of compositional prehistory. “Silences Noises Voices,” for example—a lecture Cavell delivered in 1996 to mark the occasion of the translation into French of The Claim of Reason—begins: “What could I have been thinking, those months ago when I was asked for a title for my remarks tonight, in proposing the words ‘Silences Noises Voices’? Imagining the occasion on which I would see The Claim of Reason appear in French, I surely would have wanted to commemorate…” It’s as though he is applying in reverse ordinary language philosophy techniques to himself (or his former self), imaginatively deducing what he could have meant or intended by his choice of title.
This striving for a kind of impossibly complete authenticity of expression, though certainly enervating to some, is partly a way of opening up philosophy to what Cavell called the “human voice”—such that it becomes possible to speak philosophically about what you can’t help thinking about, including all those emotional, moral or simply trivial things the logical positivists would dismiss as drivel. But Cavell’s way of seeming to strenuously wring every last drop of a thought out of his mind also expresses a certain intellectual anxiety: “If you give up something like formal argumentation as the route to conviction in philosophy,” Cavell explained in an interview with his former student James Conant, “then the question of what achieves philosophical conviction must at all times be on your mind. The obvious answer for me is that it must lie in the writing itself … the sense that nothing other than this prose just here, as it’s passing before our eyes, can carry conviction.” The extremity of “nothing other than this prose just here” recalls the subtle excess of his claim that it is the sound that makes “all the difference.” It is as though Cavell is radicalizing the importance of style: it’s not just that it matters how something is articulated, but that this articulation is so ultraprecise and singular—so exactingly faithful to his thought—that no other articulation will do.
“All the philosopher, this kind of philosopher, can do is to express, as fully as he can, his world, and attract our undivided attention to our own,” Cavell writes at one point in Must We Mean What We Say? The task of the critic, Cavell claimed in another of his ineradicable pronouncements, is not to “discount his subjectivity … but to master it in exemplary ways.” One must learn above all, to borrow the subtitle of Ecce Homo (Nietzsche was another touchstone for Cavell), how to “become what one is.” It’s an ethos articulated perhaps most fully in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” an essay to which Cavell never tired of returning, where Emerson extols the “primary wisdom” of “Intuition.” For Emerson, “the idlest reverie, the faintest native emotion, command my curiosity and respect.”
The dogged responsiveness to one’s own interests and investments, inklings and hunches that Cavell’s writing models has its potential pitfalls. In particular, a critic so attuned to their own “surmises” and “presentiments” risks becoming unconvincing, self-serious or, as Cavell’s detractors have long held, self-involved. Later on in the Duke discussion, an audience member asks Cavell, “How do you confront the limits of what it is you can teach? And how do you defend against—I want to say, against the potential narcissism of the possibility of this way of thinking?” Cavell admits that his style “runs the risk of narcissism, and I think that should just be said: it does. The only excuse for it is that you find it in yourself, so if it’s narcissistic it’s because the human wish for expressiveness and for being understood is narcissistic.”
Cavell was fond of a lovely paradox of Emerson’s: “the deeper [the scholar] dives into his privatest, secretest presentiment, to his wonder he finds this is the most acceptable, most public, and universally true.” The notion that self-inquiry and self-exposure need not be self-involved but in fact become more interesting and recognizable to others the more thoroughly they are pursued is an encouraging, even wondrous thought. But the idea is attractive precisely because it dispels or mitigates the possibility of solipsism—the risk that elaborately plumbing one’s mind can become boring or exhausting for others. The problem of narcissism vanishes, Cavell suggests, if seen as a universal “wish for expressiveness and for being understood.” But is there no distinction between the sheer wish to be understood and the willingness to communicate in a comprehensible, hospitable way, between fidelity to private response and concern for public acceptability? Is ostensibly untrammeled self-expression the kind of authenticity readers want?
Watching this exchange about narcissism, I couldn’t help noticing that Cavell’s questioner was not immune to his addictively self-conscious circumlocutions (“I want to say…”). The creep of such expressions into my prose was one of the most pronounced symptoms of my own Cavellian infection, and it strikes me now that they are catchy because they are useful, almost literally liberating. It seems to me that Cavell’s “undisguised struggle” to rigorously, exhaustively express himself is not a personal indulgence but intended as a pedagogical extravagance. It is as though he is taking his readers under the hood of meaningful, interested utterance, and inviting us to discover and articulate what matters to us, what we find worth saying. In this sense, reading Cavell, and internalizing his handy turns of phrase, can draw us into our own speech, and encourage us to be—perhaps can educate us in being—responsible for it.
As with many of the modernist works of art and philosophy he admired (Wittgenstein’s Investigations among them), Cavell’s own writing can seem to demand of the reader nothing less than a sensibility-transforming degree of absorption. It is an exacting, intrusive demand that some readers—perhaps every reader, in their own way—will be tempted to refuse. As Cavell knows. He often described his reading of his canonical philosophers as just such a conversion experience. In “To Place Wittgenstein,” he writes that Wittgenstein’s “words and example, such as I conceive them, are never far from my thinking. How could they fail to be, given that they represent for me not merely an agenda of topics or problems … but an attestation that convincing philosophy … is still urgently called for, so far as I feel I have a contribution to make to that urgency?”
In Cavell’s phrase “agenda of topics or problems” you can hear an echo of that early provocation in The Claim of Reason when Cavell introduces himself by saying: “I have wished to understand philosophy not as a set of problems but as a set of texts.” Here Cavell seems to be associating this supersession with another: a philosophy made up of texts doesn’t try to overcome readers with argument, to reason them—as though trapping them—into a submissive certainty, but to convince and transfigure through its charismatic “mode of presentation.”
“Believing persons, accepting testimony, is the, or one main, point of talking,” Austin writes in his essay “Other Minds.” Elaborating on this idea in The Claim of Reason, Cavell writes, “I would like to say that the home of belief lies in my relation to others.” There was, it seems, the closest and most concrete of relations between Cavell’s writing and his talking, which is also to say his teaching. In the moving final text in Here and There—a short epilogue titled “Bon Voyage,” written on the occasion of Cavell’s retirement from teaching in 1997—he thanks his students for having “constituted as perfect a set of occasions for the public exploration of great philosophical texts of our tradition (eventually including literary texts and films) as I could wish to imagine” and adds:
I had the feeling that in such a forum … what I most had it at heart to say about these works that I love, if articulated clearly and fervently enough, with no withholding, time permitting, of any suggested nuance or complexity at my command, would be fully understood and assessed with intelligence and good will. No comparable experience has had a greater effect on my quest for a sound of philosophical prose that I could place conviction in.
If the “hearing” Cavell gets in the classroom is partly what allows him to find conviction in his prose—as though he can only believe himself to the extent that he trusts that he is intelligible to others—then Cavell’s students, we could say, are “internal to” his writing, to his having gone on writing. “If I can find a way to write philosophy that I can believe in day after day,” Cavell recalls telling a philosopher friend in his memoir, “I am going to go on doing it.”
As I was finishing up my dissertation, I decided to include a preface titled “acknowledgments” (itself a quintessentially Cavellian word and concept), forewarning my reader of the way in which Cavell’s voice had come to “occupy” my own. I also appended a postscript in which I reflected on my urge to write a letter to Cavell—an urge I explained I had pointedly not consummated. By not writing the letter I was again—as I didn’t fail to point out—taking my cue from Cavell, who at one point in his autobiography observes that such private expressions of gratitude, which I evidently was not the first to be tempted to offer him, risked implying that his work was for some reason not fit for public recognition, as though “what I was publishing was inherently private, even secret.” Such an attempt at a special, intimate kind of acknowledgment, I realized, could misfire. It might be interpreted as a form of denial, an “instance of rejected acceptance”—the sort of tragic pattern Cavell detected in Shakespeare’s plays.
I didn’t have to resist writing to Cavell for long. He died while my dissertation was still being marked. This can’t have come as a shock to me: he was then 91, had been retired from teaching for over two decades, and hadn’t published a book since his autobiography appeared in 2010 (which he had started writing to keep himself occupied while awaiting heart surgery). It occurred to me that I had been working on my insufferably derivative if heartfelt dissertation instead of a conventionally rigorous academic thesis in semiconscious anticipation of his death, as though as a way of preparing for it. Again, I’m plagiarizing Cavell, who suggested that philosophical writing—or “any serious writing”—is engaged with death, or “finitude.” But perhaps, too, as I speculated in my preface, I had allowed Cavell’s style to imbue my own partly in order to rid myself of the influence, as though I’d deliberately contracted an infection—one from which I’ve not emerged unscathed—in order to build some immunity to it. In which case I wasn’t so much keeping Cavell alive through my ventriloquy as, in a way, attempting to kill him off.
The “terrible risk and vice of serious narcissism,” Cavell went on to say at the Duke event, “would be the fact that I wouldn’t know how to live without teaching, without teaching and without learning: that’s what we do. So to stand in the way of a student’s finding their own voice—their narcissism?” he proposes playfully, “would really defeat me. I mean it would be the discouragement for me.” Finding a way to write that you can believe in—an authentic voice in which you can say exactly what you mean and explore and convey what matters to you, what can’t help mattering to you—is a difficult, perhaps lifelong, perhaps daily task. It’s an ideal that Cavell’s example encourages and authorizes us to aspire to, and that, ironically, adopting his idiom may prime us for, even if we later wish to outgrow it, lest it come between us and our own narcissism.
For more on Cavell’s style, listen to Lola Seaton discuss this essay with Jon Baskin on our podcast.
Art credit: Fritz Hoffmann. American philosopher Stanley Cavell plays his Mason & Hamlin A Grand piano, originally his mother’s, in the living room at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts (2010). © Fritz Hoffmann / Redux, courtesy of Redux Pictures.