Review of Cavell’s autobiography

Stanley Cavell is a professor of philosophy at Harvard, and has had a significant influence on a range of philosophers today. He’s interesting because he’s unusual and provocative in a kind of urbane way. Though trained in analytic philosophy, he spends a lot of time musing over Emerson and Shakespeare and old Hollywood movies. He never quite presents an argument, but tries to put the reader/listener into a new space of appreciating the ordinary. He has his enemies, too, who charge him with writing self-indulgently and never really coming out with any clear ideas. The review of his autobiography sounds about right:

Reading Cavell can be a similarly frustrating, even infuriating experience. In an otherwise positive review, the British philosopher Anthony Kenny castigated Cavell’s “self-indulgent” style. And Cavell’s teacher J.L. Austin once referred to a bad piece of Cavell’s prose as a “bit purple.” But aiming less to prove this or that thesis than to reshape the way readers see the world, themselves, and others, such a style of writing engenders cultish devotion among the insiders. Cavell’s teaching is designed to have the same impact on his students that Austin’s lectures had on the young Cavell, the effect of “knocking him off [his] horse.” That philosophical plunge is precisely what happens to many characters in the comic films Cavell cherishes. The most notable example is perhaps the Katharine Hepburn character, Tracy Lord, in The Philadelphia Story, who suffers a series of indignities on the way to rediscovering what it is she most desires.


In resisting the circumscribing of philosophy, Cavell asserts the discipline’s pervasiveness. There is, he argues, “no predicting what text, or conversation, will produce in this or that mind, a conviction, I might say, in the reality or presence of philosophy.” Little Did I Know includes a telling illustration of the point. Although he could not see it at the time, Cavell’s awakening to philosophy came not in a philosophy class, or in a music or literature class, but in the theater.

I had the chance to meet and talk with Cavell once at an NEH Summer Institute on Emerson. I was really charmed by his gentle manner, though I have to say I haven’t really learned anything very significant from what he said or from what I’ve read by him. Seemed to me a nice, intelligent guy, fun to listen to.

Read the rest of the review here.

Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

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