why Stanley Cavell?Posted: June 5, 2010
I was first attracted to Stanley Cavell’s study of Thoreau, The Senses of Walden, and his deep probing of Emerson’s ideas in essays throughout his many books. All his books circle around American thought, American originality, while pulling in Wittgenstein, Kirkegarde, J.L. Austin, Heidegger, and others, with a commitment to use ordinary language and works of literature as a common ground of thought through which we all can assess and explore life, not something separate from philosophy but a living part of a philosophy that identifies itself with a deeper sense of experience.
I think the passage below from the preface to Must We Mean What We Say?, as well as any, summarizes his intent and purpose:
I suppose that the idea of the philosopher as guide was formed in me in resistance to the still current idea of the philosopher as guard. So I should perhaps add that at no period in my life has it occurred to me that philosophical problems are unreal, that is, that they could be cured and philosophy thus ended, as if left behind. The problems I was concerned with are better expressed as about the all but unappeasable craving for unreality. Kant’s diagnosis of such perplexities was as “transcendental illusions.”
I had in Must We Mean What We Say? already suggested understanding the philosophical appeal to the ordinary in relation to Kant’s transcendental logic, namely, as the sense of uncovering the necessary conditions of the shared world, but not until the second essay in the book, The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy, was I able to give a certain textuality to this relation to Kant, at the point at which Wittgenstein in Investigations announces that “Our investigation….is directed not toward phenomena, but, as one might say, toward the ‘possibilities’ of phenomena.” And it would not be until the Claim of Reason that I would feel I had secured some significant progress in assessing the difference it makes that Wittgenstein sees illusions of meaning as something to which the finite creature is subject chronically, diurnally, as if in every word beyond the reach of the philosophical system. The idea that there is no absolute escape from (the threat of) illusions and the desires constructed from them says there is no therapy for this, in the sense of a cure for it…[that] was evidently something that captured my fascination halfway through Must We Mean What We Say? with Samuel Beckett’s Engame––in effect a study of the circumstances that say, “You’re on Earth, there is no cure for that.”