josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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25 Nov '12 12:46:02 AM

Never begin with 'My work…'.

23 Nov '12 11:42:10 PM

'A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.'

21 Nov '12 07:02:59 PM

Philosophers mustn't mistake pieties for truths.

20 Nov '12 06:06:08 AM


19 Nov '12 03:57:10 AM

Philosophers talk all the time about 'problems'. But I can't remember the last time I heard some philosophers talking like they were trying to solve a problem.

18 Nov '12 08:29:16 PM

—Grab the ball, launch it way over the fence.

18 Nov '12 08:22:31 PM

Something about Rilke can make you want to bully him; at least push him around a little, to toughen him up.

17 Nov '12 11:32:23 PM

Is it important that any talk of 'fantasy' is mostly confined to Part Four of The Claim of Reason? The exception is near the end—and only the end—of the diagnosis of skepticism about the external world.

17 Nov '12 12:49:13 AM

I've come to associate the internal dialogues Cavell sometimes represents himself as taking part in with the passages near the end of Part One (chapter V) of The Claim of Reason in which he links the idea of being 'thrown back upon myself' to an understanding, or interpretation of, philosophy as 'the education of grownups'. At the latter place he lists a number of questions of the sort children may ask him (e.g. 'Why do we eat animals?','Who owns the land?', 'Why is there anything at all?') and thus to leave him without reasons, perhaps without even wanting to say 'this is what I do' (or 'what I say' or 'what I sense' or 'what I know') and stand by it. So he associates being 'thrown back on oneself' with what sound like traditional, Socratic questions (he also names Augustine, Luther, Rousseau, Thoreau at this point); with perplexities, I would say, recalling the related discussion that spans too widely over the final pages of chapter I, which includes a discussion of Wittgenstein on philosophical theses in which the example Cavell supplies is 'The world exists'.

So I find it interesting that Cavell poses a similar-sounding question, in this 'thrown back' form, near the end of the third section of chapter XIII (i.e., Part Four), just when he is transitioning from a narrow interpretation of Wittgenstein on private language, to a broader interpretation of Wittgenstein on privacy which obviously accommodates or anticipates a number of Cavellian preoccupations (the ideas of expression, acknowledgment, voice; fantasies as underlying certain skeptical reflections). At this point of transition the perplexity, the feeling of being at a loss, is not about a thing or a concept, exactly, but about a problem: 'What is the problem of the other if it is not a problem of certainty?' (p. 353). Perplexity can extend not just to the things about which philosophers have traditionally been perplexed, but to their very tradition of being perplexed in the particular ways that they have, in the particular terms that they have, rather than any others.

In the earlier passage containing the idea of being thrown back on oneself, the contrasts drawn all come to be fundamental (and fundamentally dislodged) ones between what is natural and what is conventional, in a kind of recognition that 'my foregone conclusions were never conclusions I had arrived at, but were merely imbibed by me, merely conventional' (p. 125). Cavell identifies these conventions with his culture, and in considering how they might be questioned, tested, given some natural ground, he opposes himself to his culture, in a relationship of confrontation (elsewhere he would probably say 'contestation'):

'In philosophizing, I have to bring my own language and life into imagination. What I require is a convening of my culture's criteria, in order to confront them with my words and life as I pursue them and as I may imagine them; and at the same time to confront my words and life as I pursue them with the life my culture's words may imagine for me: to confront the culture with itself, along the lines in which it meets in me.'

'Imagination' is the very first concept Cavell heads for, back in chapter XIII, section 3, in answer to, or at least response to, his question about the problem of the other. From there he moves rapidly to ideas of interpretation (sec. 3), seeing aspects (secs. 3, 4), expressiveness ('My words are my expressions of my life', sec. 4), 'the allegory of words' (sec. 4), expressive attitudes (sec. 5), and varieties of the figurative and metaphorical and mythical (sec. 6). You might say that from this point on, imaginative uses of words are never far away. Likewise, I think that Cavell probably thinks that he is never far away, in the position or stance he pictured in ch. V as a confrontational one. This is a position he is liable to think of as isolated, or at least separate, as separate as can be. There's an evident sense in which this is plenty true of Parts One through Three, given (let's call them) Cavell's methods, but working with Part Four always gives me the sense that things work differently there. There's some support in the text for this; for example, Cavell registers a 'general and important limitation' to his account of Wittgenstein on language in ch. VII, 'Excursus on Wittgenstein's Vision of Language', viz. that moving from ordinary uses of words to the ones Wittgenstein calls 'secondary senses' of words, and Cavell tends to call 'figurative', involves 'moving more concentratedly to regions of a word's use which cannot be assured or explained by an appeal to its ordinary language games. One difference which marks these secondary or figurative uses: in trying to communicate with them (or about them?), 'the connection is intimate, but fragile' (p. 189).