Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cavell at Criticism

This is a companion piece to, as opposed to a part of, “Cavell and What We Are Doing,” primarily because I got a little carried away with reading his essay “Aesthetic Problems in Modern Philosophy.” I think there could be no better introduction to what it is that Cavell does then the second essay, “Austin at Criticism.” Seeing Cavell read Austin, one of his primary philosophical forefathers (with Wittgenstein and Emerson), is very interesting and shines a brilliant light on how Cavell views philosophy. It is filled with bits of philosophical wisdom concerning their self-image that philosophers would do well to think about. I shall try to highlight some of them.

Cavell talks a bit about “Austin’s procedures,” but as I had mentioned before, I don’t think there is anything much procedural. Instead, I think Cavell gives us a very insightful read as to where accepting Davidsonian philosophy of language leaves us (before Davidson had even finished his work besides). The first thing Cavell does is dismiss the notion that “Austin attends to ordinary or everyday language” which “is to go on saying, roughly, nothing.” (98) He also dissociates what Austin does from what a descriptive linguist would do: Austin is most assuredly not simply reporting the behavior of the majority of language-users. Cavell builds three insights out of how Austin writes as a better beginning towards a description of how ordinary language philosophy proceeds:

“(1) that one can as appropriately or truly be said to be looking at the world as looking at language; (2) that one is seeking necessary truths ‘about’ the world (or ‘about’ language) and therefore cannot be satisfied with anything I, at least, would recognize as a description of how people in fact talk—one might say one is seeking one kind of explanation of why people speak as they do; and even (3) that one is not finally interested at all in how ‘other’ people talk, but in determining where and why one wishes, or hesitates, to use a particular expression oneself.” (99)

(1) is the Davidsonian point about the erasure of the distinction between knowing a language and knowing your way around the world generally. Since this is Cavell’s starting point, his insights can be fairly seen as what we do after the destruction of the ghosts that Davidson was trying to exorcise from us, the dogmas of empiricism, namely the ones Quine identified, the dogma of the analytic/synthetic distinction and the dogma of reductionism, and Davidson’s third dogma, the dogma of the scheme/content distinction.

That being said, Cavell does seem to get off on the wrong foot when he immediately starts talking about “necessary truths.” This, I think, is negligible, both because of how little Cavell spends on it and because of how easy it is to ignore it. The invocation of “necessary” raises the spectre of the appearance/reality distinction, but it we excise it from the sentence, we still get the common sense distinction between being right and wrong—people may describe themselves a certain way and believe it, but they still might be wrong. Psycho guy might talk about his mom being alive, and sincerely believe that she is, but the fact is she isn’t. (2) is pointing out that, just because people do in fact talk a certain way, doesn’t mean that it is the most efficacious, that it is the best way to talk. What we need is an explanation of why people speak the way they do and those reasons will help us decide how to speak.

(3) seems the largest leap, but it seems perfectly reasonable and very insightful, particularly as to why philosophers could sometimes care less about counter-examples of speech. The investigation of others may help, but we finally rest on ourselves, on our own intuitive grasp of how the world is and what we want to say about it. The Davidsonian picture produces this particular kind of philosophy because in our person-community-world relationship, our “I” is produced in part by its relationship with the community and the world, but it is distinct. The sway of language use then becomes a conflict between a person and the community, as the person who wants to deviate from accepted linguistic behavior tries to convince the community to follow them. By trying to enunciate to others the reasons why you would want to withhold the label of “love” from the capricious philanderer’s feelings towards another person, you try to explain how you want to use the word love, how they should use the word love, what love in fact is.

Cavell talks about “Austin’s procedures” and “proceeding from ordinary language,” but after we learn from Davidson that we are everywhere and always in touch with the world, that no language gets the world wrong and was produced by something and for some reason, we see that Cavell’s description of philosophical procedure is obfuscated by saying “from ordinary language.” Cavell would seem to like to restrict the Davidsonian point to “ordinary language,” but it isn’t clear that Cavell or anyone else even knows what that might be—especially considering the efforts Cavell makes to ward us away from others. Davidson, however, goes the whole way and provides us a good reason as to why we should be suspicious of Cavell’s greater and greater fascination with “the Ordinary.” All languages are in touch with the world and the trick is to find out which ones are better than others, not which ones are more ordinary than others. I don’t think Wittgenstein’s spirit is best served by thinking that he espoused the elimination of linguistic innovation. It is one thing to think that philosopher’s problems are created by taking ordinary words out of ordinary contexts and transplanting them into new contexts. That is certainly true, but if people never did that, then cultural evolution would grind to a hault. The problem with the Plato-Descartes-Kant sequence is that not everything they did, not all of the new contexts, panned out. Sometimes the new contexts, the new metaphors, worked; sometimes they didn’t.

What we have between Cavell and somebody like Rorty (who I summon in my moments of need) is a struggle over the spirit of Wittgenstein, just as Rorty has struggled over the spirit of Dewey with Richard Bernstein (among others) and the spirit of Heidegger with Hebert Dreyfus (among others), and just as I have struggled with others over the spirit of Pirsig. One of the bonuses of Cavell is his cognizance of this kind of struggle. In this particular essay, Cavell is struggling over the spirit of Austin, but what he says here about Austin and his fans is cogent just about anywhere you apply it:

“To accept Austin’s explanations as full and accurate guides to his practice would be not only to confuse advice (which is about all he gave in this line) with philosophical analysis and literary-critical description (which is what is needed), but to confer upon Austin an unrivaled power of self-discernment. It is a mystery to me that what a philosopher says about his methods is so commonly taken at face value. Austin ought to be the last philosopher whose reflexive remarks are treated with this complacency, partly because there are so many of them, and partly because they suffer not merely the usual hazards of self-description but the further deflections of polemical animus.” (101)

So not only for Austin, Wittgenstein, and Pirsig, but also for Cavell himself. “Procedures” is far to methodical sounding a word to be appropriate for what Cavell enacts on the page.

Cavell locates in Austin (and Wittgenstein for that matter) a new style of philosophizing: “a change of style in philosophy is a profound change, and [is] itself a subject of philosophical investigation.” (102) What we see in Austin’s practice, in his manner of investigation, is a focus on the nuances of particular words, like the difference between a “mistake” and an “accident,” and this focus in distinguishing and comparing creates a “crosslight” in which we see that the “capacities and salience of an individual object in question are brought to attention and focus.” (103) This crosslight doesn’t just tell us what the difference between a mistake and an accident are, it tells us “what a mistake is and … what an accident is.” (104) This is the appropriate response to the panrelationalism that pragmatism unfolds in front of us. We can’t simply define a mistake in isolation, we can only define it in relation to other things, non-mistakes, because the very act of definition is a relational act. That is what Wittgenstein taught us when he said there is no ostensive definition by itself.

In this seed-crystal we find the pearly wisdom of Bloom, that life is an agon, a family romance, which it is so much more in philosophy if for no other reason than that philosophy purports to be in love with wisdom, that is life. Cavell mounts a series of explosive questions to show how Austin might sunder philosophy’s pretensions, though in the end I think he might claim too much for Austin and not enough for those following after him:

“How can we learn something (about how we—how I—use words) which we cannot have failed to know? How can asking when we would say ‘by mistake’ (or what we would call ‘doing something by mistake’) tell us what in the world a mistake is? How, given such obvious data, have philosophers (apparently) so long ignored it, forgetting that successful knowledge is a human affair, of human complexity, meeting human need and exacting human responsibility, bypassing it in theories of certainty which compare knowledge (unfavorably) with an inhuman ideal; or elaborated moral philosophies so abstracted from life as to leave, for example, no room for so homely, but altogether a central, moral activity as the entering of an excuse? What is philosophy that it can appear periodically so profound and so trivial, sometimes so close and sometimes so laughably remote, so wise and so stone stupid? What is philosophy that it causes those characteristic hatreds, yet mysterious intimacies, among its rivals? What kind of phenomenon is it whose past cannot be absorbed or escaped (as in the case of science) or parts of it freely admired and envied while other parts are despised and banished (as in art), but remains in standing competition, behind every closed argument waiting to haunt its living heirs?”

Here someone like Rorty may wish to lodge a complaint, that Cavell is housing too much power in philosophy’s past. Cavell, in the years after, will start talking about something called Skepticism that is a condition of humanity. Rorty’s problem is not that skepticism isn’t common, but rather that it doesn’t look properly philosophical, that it isn’t entirely clear why we will always have to keep talking about the Platonic canon when we talk about skepticism. This may be true, and Cavell may imply too much (in this case overpowering) power to the philosophical canon, but I think there is some truth in the idea that we still haven’t yet overcome it. Cavell’s view of spectres still captivates, but we see in these lines what exactly Rorty’s effort of therapy has been. Rorty wants us exactly to break off our agon with Plato, to view Plato as we might a piece of art rather than as a competitor to be wrestled with. And Rorty’s practice is to compare and to distinguish, to tease apart and give new contexts to old words, to show when skepticism means Skepticism and when it simply means showing a little doubt.


  1. See any similarity between ordinary language philosophy (Cavell and Austin are fine examples) and postmodernism? See any common heritage? (cf. Lyotard taken on Wittgenstein as adumbrated in Wikipedia.)


  2. Firstly, let me say that, as I think I mentioned in this post, I have certain doubts about using "ordinary language philosophy" as a handle on a school of philosophy, and those doubts are tenfold when applied to something called "postmodernism." However, I think as long as we acknowledge the difficulties in the very idea of these kinds of handles, especially with these two, we can use them usefully enough for broad brush strokes.

    The similarity I see between Oxonian philosophy and "postmodernism" (I can't help but use scare quotes for a handle that obfuscates more than it elucidates) is, very roughly, that of antiessentialism. If we define essentialism loosely as "the idea that there is something that is nonrelational or unchanging" both were reactions to the essentialism of Plato that Descartes and Kant carried on with them in various ahistorical kinds of notions (like Descartes' "clear and distinct ideas" or Kant's transcendental method).

    This isn't everybody's interpretation of either, say, Wittgenstein, Austin, and/or Lyotard. But the way I see things, Rorty's PMN (and his writings in general) is the confluence of most of the stuff that is (or was) good about those authors.

    A very, very rough outline of the dialectical sequence that led to these trends is something like this: Descartes reacted to scholasticism by rejecting ontology-before-epistemology--we have to get straight about what we can know first. This launched the rationalist projects (which talked about our natural human capacities like reason) which vacillated the next hundred years with empiricism (which talked about how all knowledge comes from the senses), culminating with Hume. Kant eclipsed both rationalism and empiricism by arguing that everything comes to us through the senses, but we can only make sense of them by essential concepts for understanding: "intuitions without concepts are blind, concepts without content are dumb" (or something like that).

    Then things get tricky. Playing Aristotle to Kant's Plato, Hegel quickly transumed Kant by historicizing his whole framework (concepts are not ahistorical, they evolve through history), thus ushering in the age of Idealism on the Continent and F.H. Bradley transported Hegel to Britain (in his own way). This sets the stage for the reaction to Hegel--on the continent, Husserl reacted to Hegel by inventing phenomenology, an attempt to get at essence of experience, thus leading us back to Kant. In England, Russell and Moore (and Wittgenstein) reacted to Bradley (and thus Hegel) by inventing analytic philosophy, an attempt to analyze and pin down "meanings," thus leading us back, though slightly differently, to Kant also. When anglophone philosophers tell their own history(which is rare, because Hegel is the one who told stories), they usually do the Descartes-Hume-Kant sequence and then skip to Frege and Russell (Frege doing in Germany when Russell did England, and thus creating the Vienna Circle).

    Thus, ordinary language philosophy arose as Austin, Ryle, and (the later) Wittgenstein's reaction to Carnap (of the Circle) and Russell's search for an ahistorical framework of meanings. They thought that all the problems that arose with logical positivism (and earlier philosophy) arose because ordinary words were taken out of their ordinary contexts and forced into extraordinary service. Ryle in fact, working in the philosophy of mind, links this explicitly with Descartes.

    What has come to be called "postmodernism" arose as a reaction to not just Husserl, but all that Husserl represented--modern philosophy. The only reason Continental types have the appellation they do (which I believe is more used in anglophone countries than Europe) is because they are much more historically conscious than anglophone philosophers. So, post-modern philosophy.

    To take Lyotard's example, postmodernism is the eschewal of metanarratives. There are no ahistorical narratives about the course of history (like the kind St. Paul and Marx offered), all we have are competing narratives that we must argue over.

    That's a very rough and very bad summary. I've had better days. But I'd like to take up a few thoughts you recorded on your blog about the two.

    You clearly don't think too highly of either, but I think you do point out quite rightly that some people take Wittgenstein's talk about language games too seriously. One category of person who does this in addition to some second- and third-rate literary critics are people who get really upset about Wittgenstein's talk about language games or Derrida's talk about texts. Neither one was denying the world, they were making specifically philosophical points against some of the junk thrown up by Plato, Descartes, and Kant (and Russell and Husserl).

    I also think it is fair enough to wonder, when Austin or Cavell or, lately, Putnam talk about "the ordinary," "what is ordinary? And why should ordinary be good"? I think its a bit of a wild goose chase to think that the answer to that question, when talking about philosophy, has a lot to do with politics (after all, you list Heidegger third on your list of useful thinkers, and he was an unrepentant Nazi), but it is absolutely well we should ask it. What it brings to consciousness is the idea that words belong in contexts--not _one_ context, which is just as bad as Kant, but whatever context is useful. The funny thing is, this point is one often associated with postmodernism (for instance Alasdair MacIntyre is often identified as some kind of pomo, and think of his book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?).

    When you go on your screed about the silly pomos at the end, what I find amusing is the idea that postmodern philosophers are conservatives, considering they are most often identified with radical politics, as still trying to hold true to Marx. The story of the connection between politics and philosophy is a tale for another time, but being a huge fan of Rorty's, I'm used to being thought of as a parochial conservative by people who read too much philosophy. People who don't read much philosophy don't think of me that way at all--they look at, say, my voting record and think of me as left as anybody else.

    I already alluded to above that I think tying politics together with philosophy is a red herring, for both pomos who think they can create a radical political philosophy and people who hate pomos who think that the physical world is going to tell us who to vote for. I particularly think that kind of tie interesting from someone who likes Heidegger....


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