Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cavell and What We Are Doing

Just as Santayana is my favorite name to throw out when I need an example of an early 20th century philosopher, Stanley Cavell is clearly my favorite of a late 20th century one. They aren’t quite arbitrary examples, for the reason I usually need an example, and the reason why I’m usually grasping for them, is because the topic I’m often discussing is the difference between charismatic and systematic philosophers, philosophers who are respected and brilliant while they are alive and philosophers who leave behind a problematic and a school of followers. Santayana has no school, and as far as I can tell Cavell does not either. However, like Santayana (who famously left philosophy mid-semester when it was just too beautiful in Harvard Yard to spend it in a class room), Cavell is an extraordinarily intriguing figure and I’ve been collecting his books for some time.

Cavell made his name as a brilliant interpreter of both Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin. He was one of the foremost members, though most certainly the most idiosyncratic, of the now defunct school of “ordinary language philosophy,” or “Oxford philosophy.” I’ve known about Cavell for many years from my readings of Rorty, but he has remained enigmatic. After reading Danto’s essay, and having the book in question on my shelf, it became too irresistible to ignore. However, while the book isn’t unreadable, it isn’t exactly what you’d want if you were either trying to get into Cavell’s philosophy or find stuff you might find useful for yours. You’d already have to have a preexisting desire to know more about Cavell (which isn’t to say that it isn’t interesting to read).

I do have on my shelf, though, Cavell’s earliest book of essays, which shows how powerful he was early on and how little he’s changed in the subsequent fifty years. I’d read his opening preface a little while ago and had taken a few good lines from it, but I knew at the time that, if not quite inscrutable, Cavell wasn’t exactly “ordinary,” as his supposed school implies. Just as Danto says he has in his recent writings, Cavell’s been attempting to make his style reflect his theses since the very beginning, which is to say that Cavell wants “to make philosophy another kind of problem for itself.” (74) What that means is another thing altogether. But suffice it to say, I’ve found in Cavell’s writings an interesting window into a time now past. Cavell isn’t the clearest guide to Wittgenstein or Austin, but he is fascinating to watch.

I read two essays in his collection, Must We Mean What We Say?, “Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy” and “Austin at Criticism.” It’s difficult to read books in your free time if you have no compass, if there’s no particular reason why you’re reading, if you have no purpose. Most of the time when I struggle with books it’s because I find them boring because I’m just not that interested in the problems the author is struggling with. Cavell’s no exception, and his style makes it even more difficult, but as I worked my way through them (the shortest essays in his collection) I began to get a clearer picture of how they could help me. And there are a plethora of sumptuous lines to chew on.

“Aesthetic Problems” was interesting to read because of the lack of attention usually given by philosophers considered to be in the midst of the “central problems” in the field at that time (epistemology, philosophy of language or science) to “peripheral” fields like aesthetics. It gives us a good indication as to why Cavell is seen as marching to the beat of his own drum, even from the very beginning (though even more so from his essays on Beckett and Shakespeare). It is difficult to put the essay together, as it runs in two parts: a first section on two problems in aesthetics (the paraphrasability of poems and the tonality of atonal music) and a second section on the general problem of aesthetic judgment. I’m still not quite clear on how to connect them, but I think it runs along the lines of two specific examples of the general problem, that lack of consensus on the general problem of aesthetic judgment would preclude answering the specific problems of paraphrasability and tonality. Cavell’s treatment of the two specific problems are interesting, though that depends on if you find the problems of literary criticism exciting (I certainly do) or if you could give a rat’s ass about music theory (I could not).

The problem of paraphrasability, as Cavell generates it from a quarrel between Cleanth Brooks and Yvor Winters, is one about what we are doing when we are reading a poem, or more specifically, what is it really that the literary critic is in the business of doing. Brooks suggests that a paraphrase of a poem, i.e. a reading of a poem, does not limn the true essence of the poem, though it does point the way—as long as it’s properly done. Cavell rightly wonders who it is that “has just flatly given it out that the essence, core, structure, and the rest, of a poem is its paraphrase,” considering we should have some trouble “in understanding what is any or all of these things, since it takes so much philosophy just to state them.” (75)

It is in this that we begin to taste the power that Cavell wields from the ordinary language tradition. Cavell, at this stage, talks a bit about the “methods” or “procedures” of ordinary language philosophy, but I should think that, just as Rorty suggests that we distinguish between “deconstruction” as whatever it is that Derrida is doing and “deconstruction” as a method of reading texts (see “Deconstruction and Circumvention” in EHO), we should distinguish “ordinary language philosophy” as whatever it is that Austin is doing and “ordinary language philosophy” as a method that his less imaginative and skilled followers employ. Cavell is certainly not one of these less skilled followers, and whatever it is that Cavell is doing I would be apt to say is the heart of the wisdom in Austin and that so-called school.

Cavell, in the above, is just getting started, and runs us through an imaginary dialectical encounter between a Brooksian critic and his defense of what he is doing. Jumping on Brooks’ concession, that a paraphrase is all right if you know what you are doing, Cavell retorts, “Which is about like saying that of course criticism is all right, in its place.” Cavell then offers a wonderful little description making fun of the lit crit’s typical habits of writing books:

“But how, in particular, are we to assess a critic’s reading the opening stanza of Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations’ Ode and writing: ‘… the poet begins by saying that he has lost something’ [Well Wrought Urn, 116]? We can ransack that stanza and never find the expression ‘lost something’ in it. Then the critic will be offended—rightly—and he may reply: Well, it does not actually say this, but it means it, it implies it; do you suggest that it does not mean that? And of course we do not. But then the critic has a theory about what he is doing when he says what a poem means, and so he will have to add some appendices to his readings of the poetry explaining that when he says what a poem means he does not say exactly quite just what the poem means; that is, he only points to its meaning, or rather ‘points to the area in which meaning lies.’ But even this last does not seem to him humility enough, and he may be moved to a footnote in which he says that his own analyses are ‘at best crude approximations of the poem’ [189]. By this time someone is likely to burst out with: But of course a paraphrase says what the poem says, and an approximate paraphrase is merely a bad paraphrase; with greater effort or sensibility you could have got it exactly right. To which one response would be: ‘Oh, I can tell you exactly what the Ode means,’ and then read the Ode aloud.” (75-6)

Cavell is thus able to quite quickly thrust himself into the middle of a dispute about the self-image of literary critics: what is it that they are doing? Not, what do they think they are doing, but what are they doing? I find the above passage hilarious, if for no other reason than I’ve had such dialectical encounters before, and ended them with something like, “Well, if you’re being such an ass about it, I can just read you the section from Pirsig.” Those are definite endpoints because being pushed there, with no other outlet of response, effectively evacuates the area in which both you and your difficult counter-interpreter were existing—the position of a writer. And we even find in a literary critic like Stanley Fish, from a book from that era, Self-Consuming Artifacts, just those kinds of appendices.

Of course, the need that Fish was forced into fulfilling was entirely antithetical to the need being fulfilled by the New Critics. As Fish would later make more clear in books like Is There a Text in This Class?, he was providing an anti-theoretical rebuttal to the continual theoretical repositionings that literary critics felt they were forced to include ever since Eliot and Frye and their lot became hegemonic. And this is the splash of cold water that Cavell is involved in giving us. The part that should make us laugh is the idea that we need a theory to justify what we are doing. “If you put such phrases as ‘giving the meaning,’ ‘giving a paraphrase,’ ‘saying exactly what something means (or what somebody said),’ and so on, into the ordinary contexts … in which they are used, you will not find that you are worried that you have not really done these things. We could say: That is what doing them really is. Only that serenity will last just so long as someone does not start philosophizing about it.” (77)

Cavell’s Wittgensteinian project is then to try and diagnose why we think we need a theory. Why are commonsensical descriptions not enough? Why must we get into a debate about what metaphors are and what the literal/metaphorical distinction is that allows a theory, and a condemnation of paraphrase on the part of Brooks, to be possible? Cavell would like to get us on the couch and apply the right kind of therapy so that we may stop philosophizing when we want to. The hope is that we may then be able to face up to the self-image problem in literary, and artistic criticism generally (which can just as easily be applied to philosophy): “namely what it is we are doing when we describe or explain a work of art; what function criticism serves; whether different arts, or forms of art, require different forms of criticism; what we may expect to learn from criticism, both about a particular piece of art and about the nature of art generally.” (82)

The next, thankfully brief, part of his essay is about music theory, and specifically tonality. As you may have guessed from my earlier comment, I found it boring and would like to jump right over it. On reflection, however, my gut reaction might highlight something about the problem Cavell is dealing with. I’ve never understood what music or art theory thinks it is doing. It has always seemed to me to be quite stupid. The catch is that, while I’ve always found theory about music or paintings to be stupid, I’ve not always felt the same about philosophy. Why is that? I have a feeling that my gut reaction to music theory is the gut reaction that Wittgenstein and Cavell would like to instill in us in general (not exactly true for either of them, but I’ve read too much Rorty and Fish to care). Why on earth do we need theory?

My general feeling is that aesthetics, and music and art theory, never took off as, or at least are still not today, philosophical hot topics is because they seem on their face to be silly (which isn’t to say that you wouldn’t have to take a theory class if you were in a Music or Art, or even Dance, department). The difference between theories of music or art and theories of knowledge or texts is that, on their face, the former are non-discursive, while the latter discursive. This made it easier for reflections on the latter to be more easily confused with their objects (Cavell’s problem of paraphrasability), whereas nobody confuses a painting with its critical review. As Cavell suggests, for all his talk of approximation, the critic himself “furthers the suggestion that paraphrase and poem operate, as it were, at the same level, are the same kind of thing. … And then he has to do everything at his philosophical disposal to keep paraphrase and poem from coinciding….” (76) But nobody confuses a poem for an essay about the poem. (Pace Bloom, who says delightfully that “All criticisms that call themselves primary vacillate between tautology—in which the poem is and means itself—and reduction—in which the poem means something that is not itself a poem. Antithetical criticism must begin by denying both tautology and reduction, a denial best delivered by the assertion that the meaning of a poem can only be a poem, but another poem—a poem not itself.” (The Anxiety of Influence, 70) But discussion of Bloom’s engrossing attempts to make poetry a kind of criticism, and criticism a kind of poetry, a grand pragmatic attempt I must say, are for another time. Until then, see my “Bloom and Criticism.”) It is this position from common sense, where nobody confuses Iggy Pop with Lester Bangs or Michelangelo with Freud or Shakespeare with Samuel Johnson or reality with dreams, apples with sensations, or people with robots, that Cavell and Wittgenstein would like to return us to. For as long as we make the distinction between theory and practice that traditional philosophy since Plato has taught us to make, theory will itself seem pointless, superfluous, and generally unhelpful.

(I might at this point say something about Wittgenstein, silence, and the fact that I’ve just made the differentiation of discursive modalities as easy as that between the discursive and non-discursive, but I don’t know enough about Wittgenstein to do so. However, for all that, I certainly wouldn’t want to claim that differentiation between discursive modalities is necessarily easy. It can be hard, just as science fiction tells us that the differentiation between people and robots might someday be hard. For instance, is it easy to tell the difference between what Derrida does and Christopher Norris or Jonathon Culler does? Probably. But what about Foucault and Ian Hacking? Or worse, Heidegger and Gadamer? It’s a practical problem, not a theoretical problem. At his worst, Pirsig seems to think that its easy to tell the difference between what Wittgenstein did in the Tractatus and Heidegger did in his lectures on Nietzsche (reflective system-building versus parasitic criticism), but Pirsig’s distinction between philosophy and philosophology has nothing to do with the continuum I just drew. For more on criticism and philosophy, with special attention to Pirsig, see the first part of my “Philosophologology”.)

Moving on to Cavell’s second section on a general problem of aesthetics, Cavell suggests that “the aesthetic judgment models the sort of claim entered by these philosophers, and that the familiar lack of conclusiveness in aesthetic argument, rather than showing up an irrationality, shows the kind of rationality it has, and needs.” (86) This is a good suggestion because one of the problems Platonic philosophy set itself is the rationality of its own claims. As time wore on, fields like mathematics, science, and logic all showed themselves to be able to gain consensus, whereas philosophy more and more looked like a field like aesthetics, where the slogan “in the eye of the beholder” rose to prominence. Plato wanted philosophy to look like geometry and contemporary philosophers want philosophy to look like science for this very reason—the ability to gain consensus seems to mark its rationality. Cavell, however, comes to much the same conclusion that Rorty has, that philosophy is something different. Cavell even uses the same Hegelianism, aufhebung, to refer to what (as Rorty calls them) strong poets do to philosophical issues, “a criticism in which it is pointless for one side to refute the other, because its cause and topic is the self getting in its own way.” (85) If this gloss on a familiar Rortyan point remains obscure, it is only by working through what Cavell is saying (and saying Wittgenstein is saying) that some of his more opaque lines (usually left to sparkle by Cavell) gain resonance.

Cavell provides an interesting discussion of the genesis of the aesthetic problematic in Hume and Kant before facing us off between the positivist and post-positivist: “the positivist grits his teeth when he hears an analysis given out as a logical one which is so painfully remote from formality, so obviously a question of how you happen to feel at the moment, so psychological; the philosopher who proceeds from everyday language stares back helplessly, asking, ‘Don’t you feel the difference: Listen: you must see it.’” (90) In a fascinating reversal, Cavell aligns the anti-pragmatist efforts of Frege, Husserl, and Kant with the efforts of Wittgenstein to help suggest a way out of this standoff:

“We know of the efforts of such philosophers as Frege and Husserl to undo the ‘psychologizing’ of logic (like Kant’s undoing Hume’s psychologizing of knowledge): now, the shortest way I might describe such a book as the Philosophical Investigations is to say that it attempts to undo the psychologizing of psychology, to show the necessity controlling our application of psychological and behavioral categories; even, one could say, show the necessities in human action and passion themselves. And at the same time it seems to turn all of philosophy into psychology—matters of what we call things, how we treat them, what their role is in our lives.” (91)

In an excellent footnote, Cavell adds:

“Consider, for example, the question: ‘Could someone have a feeling of ardent love or hope for the space of one second—no matter what preceded or followed this second?’ [Philosophical Investigations, §583]. We shall not wish to say that this is logically impossible, or that it can in no way be imagined. But we might say: given our world this cannot happen; it is not, in our language, what ‘love’ or ‘hope’ mean; necessary in our world that this is not what love and hope are. I take it that our most common philosophical understanding of such notions as necessity, contingency, synthetic and analytic statements, will not know what to make of our saying such things.”

I think this is a tremendous description of Wittgenstein’s achievement and it links quite well with the hopes of Iris Murdoch, who, in The Sovereignty of Good, reacts to the underpinnings of analytic and existentialist moral philosophy, with their conception of the individual as a monad who chooses freely, by suggesting a phenomenology of choices that seems to make more sense with the way in which we proceed in our lives: we don’t simply choose, willy-nilly, between two alternatives, our attempts to choose by weighing pros and cons and the like force our hand into making the choices we make. By the time we make a choice (at least in the things that matter), the route we choose doesn’t even appear to us as a choice, but rather as the only good option available. This is the kind of real life necessity that Cavell is talking about that analytic philosophy can hardly acknowledge.

I’m going to leave to the side for now Cavell’s perceptive treatment of the “procedures of ordinary language philosophy” at the end of his paper, one in which we find an illuminating cross light for Rorty’s legendary “we’s” (I will continue on in a second reflection on Cavell), and instead end with a comment about where Cavell leaves us with this description of Wittgenstein’s achievement, with the hopes of illuminating Cavell’s earlier opaque claim that the cause and topic of philosophical criticism is “the self getting in its own way.” With where he leaves us, Cavell says that is difficult to name it, that “Wittgenstein called it ‘grammar’; others might call it ‘phenomenology.’” (93) Murdoch herself doesn’t, I believe, use “phenomenology” to describe what I noted above, but these seem like fitting descriptions, and as Cavell notes in “Austin at Criticism,” Austin’s nigh only title for what he did, thrown out sheepishly once, was “linguistic phenomenology.” (99) The title captures something important, that what Wittgenstein, Austin, Cavell, and Murdoch were all doing is making themselves at home in the language games we find ourselves inhabiting. They wish to shove aside some recent philosophy as pathetic, failed attempts to flee these language games, these forms of life.

But can we flee our language games? I believe we can, but my grasp of Cavell leads me to believe that he isn’t so sure we should want to, that all fleeing endeavors are perverse. As I understand it, in recent years Cavell has been apt to talk about something called the “Ordinary” that is supposed to be the object philosophers strive after. This, to me, seems to be a maneuver that kills the imaginative genius of our poets, those intellectuals that try and conceive a new form of life. No doubt, Plato created a new form of life, but not all new creations are necessarily good ones. Talk about the “Ordinary” as some kind of control on what we should be able to think about or conceive seems to me to be just one more Platonic twist on ending philosophy, ending the progress of intellectual life, as if once everything were “ordinary” it’d all be hunky-dory and we philosophers would be out of a job.

There are two other ways of putting this point. One is by reference to the wisdom Rorty pulls out of the two competing schools of linguistic philosophy circa 1960. In Rorty’s brilliant, expansive and informative introduction to his anthology, The Linguistic Turn, Rorty pits “ordinary language philosophy” (with alums like Austin, Strawson, Cavell, and Urmson) against “ideal language philosophy” (with alums like Carnap, Quine, Goodman, and Bergmann) to see what their differences might be. His concluding wisdom runs along the lines of, “Any stick will do to beat the devil, and it would seem that offering an alternative to ordinary English might be effective in some cases, whereas demonstrating a misuse of English would be effective in others.” (LT, 15) What lies at the bottom of Rorty’s difference with Cavell is that Cavell would like to read Wittgenstein as simply returning us to common sense, whereas Rorty would like to read Wittgenstein as envisioning a new form of life, that for the Philosophical Investigations to “return” us to common sense, we must also extirpate the Platonisms and Cartesianisms that are our common sense, thus changing it and not leaving it as it always was, us where we always were.

The other way of putting this point is to say that Cavell’s description of Wittgenstein as undoing the psychologizing of psychology, which itself ironically psychologizes philosophy, parallels precisely Rorty’s description of Davidson’s achievement: “Davidson, in other words, seems to me to have found a transcendental argument to end all transcendental arguments—one which tears down the scaffolding upon which the standard paradigms of ‘realistic’ transcendental arguments were mounted.” (“Transcendental Arguments, Self-Reference, and Pragmatism,” 78*) The idea Rorty is suggesting about Davidson, and that I think Cavell is suggesting about Wittgenstein (though unwittingly counter-productively), is that they worked through the dialectical structure of the language game of Platonic-Cartesian philosophy to its very end and showed how it defeated itself, and was therefore a pointless, superfluous, and self-defeating enterprise (“its cause and topic is the self getting in its own way”).

And we see in Cavell things that sound reminiscent of Davidson’s working out of this “transcendental argument to end all transcendental arguments” first proposed in “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” The one that should leap out is when he says, “the philosophy of ordinary language is not about language, anyway not in any sense in which it is not also about the world.” (95) That counterintuitive statement about what Austin is doing should remind us of Davidson saying, “we have erased the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around in the world generally,” which leads to his shocking formulation: “I conclude that there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed.” (“A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs,” 107**) The erasure occurs, according to Davidson, once we drop the notion of conventions as ruling linguistic behavior and adopt a holistic picture of functioning, Davidson’s picture of triangulation between world, community, and person.

Cavell, I believe, is gesturing towards what Davidson worked out systematically, which isn’t too surprising given Cavell’s love of Wittgenstein and Rorty’s love of both Wittgenstein and Davidson. Unlike Davidson, however, Cavell is a more romantic thinker who is not content to plug away at posed problems, but is also concerned with self-creation, with the giving of wisdom for us, not just the wisdom Davidson dispenses primarily to other philosophers of language. The primary bit of wisdom is this: just as Cavell says that “Ordinary language philosophy is about whatever ordinary language is about,” we should see that what we do in life is about whatever it is that we do—there is nothing deeper, or secret, underlying our actions. We may not always understand what we are doing, and should always seek better descriptions of them, but there is no key to unlock what’s truly happening, certainly not any philosophy can provide.

*Found in Transcendental Arguments and Science, eds. Peter Bieri, Rolf-P. Horstmann, Lorenz Krüger Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979.
**Collected in Davidson’s Truth, Language, and History.


  1. Matt,
    you never followed up with any comments of Jeffrey Stout's "Democracy and Tradition". Is it worth the read?

  2. Hey, enough with "Anonymous" you people. There's more than one of you, and I don't know who's who. It takes about five seconds to get an account and you don't need to do anything else with it.

    Anways, Anonymous, I never did because, after being extraordinarily excited by the beginning, I encountered my usual bout of distraction--I started doing something else, probably finals, and I've yet to go back. I brought it with me (didn't pack it away and leave it in Wisconsin), however, with the intention of going back to it, so, ya' know, maybe soon I'll get back into it.

    As far as I'm concerned, anything Stout writes is worth the read, and the beginning of the book is wonderful in weaving Emerson and Ralph Ellison together. Its pretty good just for that, before it even gets into all the more professional debates.

    But, yeah. Maybe I'll do Chapter comments, that way I won't have to wait a year to say something about it.

  3. Matt,

    Slowly making my way through your posts one at a time in no particular order. I don't want to get in the way of a conversation between Scott and you, so this is the first one I thought I might be qualified to offer an informed opinion on.

    Music Theory. I am not a great musician. I am a self-taught guitar player who played a a few rock-n-roll bands while in my twenties and thirties. I learned a couple of chords and then a couple of Ramones and The Clash songs and from there just monkeyed around with what seemed to sound good to my ears.

    All of this was going on while I was in college as an undergrad and I thought that since I needed to take some electives and I thought of myself as a budding musician, perhaps an intro to music theory would be a good thing.

    I think music theory is different from literary criticism in the sense that it explains what or why some notes played together with other notes sound good to our ears. It is a mathematical description. You can go a lot further than I did in music theory, but once I learned which notes made a major scale and what chords should be played together in each key I was good to go. Basically, there are some rules that are backed by theory and you stay within these rules until you decide that it would be a good time to break them so you can get the attention of the listener or other musicians. Or, maybe, come to think of it, that isn't much different than literature or art.



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