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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30 Jan '19 09:44:32 PM

'… take the idea of a maxim—as a subjective principle of a human action—as recognizing that human actions speak, that they have (interpretable) significance, something not governable by the laws of nature. The conditions of conduct—for example, that [actions] are motivated and have consequences (emphasized in every moral theory) and take place in specific contexts, more or less opaque, and can go wrong in a hundred specific ways—can no more determine what I do than the laws of grammar determine what I say. That my actions are part of the life form of talkers (as Wittgenstein characterizes the human, at Investigations [Part II, §i]) makes them open to criticism. That I am open to, perhaps responsive to, the criticism of being insensitive, cruel, petty, clumsy, narrow-minded, self-absorbed, cold, hard, heedless, reckless (careless is the marvelous charge made of Daisy and her crowd in The Great Gatsby) is as much a mystery as my being open to the charge of being imprudent or undutiful or unfair. That we are not transparent to ourselves means that such criticism demands confrontation and conversation. The mystery is not that we are impure but that we can be moved to change by speech, and (hence) by silence.'

22 Dec '18 01:58:09 AM

'They do not know it, but they are doing it.'

21 Dec '18 01:55:12 AM

Avner Baz, 'Stanley Cavell's Argument of the Ordinary'

17 Dec '18 01:57:38 AM

Byrne's Euclid

16 Dec '18 06:27:53 AM

'Instead of trying to specify it in full detail, you specify it only somewhat.'

15 Dec '18 05:08:53 AM

McCoy Tyner's Revolution

11 Dec '18 05:38:23 AM

I started reading Cavell in grad school because of the connection to Wittgenstein, and I kept reading him even once it seemed like it would not be doing me any good professionally. One of the most frequent frustrations I had was that there was almost nothing good done on his work, even though it was obvious that there should have been. One of the reasons I spent more and more time on him after my Ph.D., when I desperately should have been trying to publish anything at all, rather than the impossible projects I scraped together from reading him, was just my sense of scholarly justice, I guess you could say. A lot of his major work was published before I was even born, The Claim of Reason nearly so, yet someone installed at the apex of the profession just was not read seriously and responded to in kind by his peers. I always imagined there should have been a dozen books published just on The Claim of Reason by the time I was reading it; there should be multiple, involved responses to Part Four alone, just on the strength of its insights, the natural accessibility of his methods, and the strange order that runs through it. Not even what 'Cavellians' there are have really done justice to the most important claims in it about the connection between literature, skepticism, and tragedy—mostly they repeat them at the least helpful of junctures.

It's easy to say Cavell essentially invited this, in other words did it to himself, with his insistence on the most idiosyncratic aspects of his work, and with his deeply narcissistic tendency to make his work a world unto itself (not to say this is not balanced by concern for universality, to be approachable by others willing to meet him 'halfway', just that you're always compelled to get to the one via the other), especially after Claim led to the tangle of projects and lectures and reformulations of the 80s and 90s.

But I have always thought that it is at least as true, that he was laying down a challenge that his peers just failed to meet. There are several reasonably coherent strands of thought running through Must we mean what we say?, The World Viewed, Senses of Walden, and Claim, some of them taking up issues in the discipline that, however much it passed them by in certain ways, remained essential enough to still constitute the currency of conversation and education when I was first getting into philosophy decades later. He was talking in terms they should have been able to understand, if only they would have tried. My understanding of 'trying', though, is that it would have taken far more willingness to step outside some of philosophy's then—or still-now—worst habits about thinking and writing and working. I think of this comment by McGinn:

'Cavell was a highly distinctive presence on the philosophical scene. I never met him or even set eyes on him, but I read some of his work, mainly on film and literature. It struck me as very interesting, but I found it extremely hard to understand. His mind seemed to work very differently from mine. I wonder if other readers had the same experience.'

Probably an experience a lot of people had. But if philosophy is a serious discipline, devoted to the truth, training its students in the scholarly virtues, then why couldn't it just have applied itself to something so evidently in need of the effort to understand? Not in mystical terms, or terms that privilege Cavell's position as authoritative, but simply in the terms that should be familiar to philosophy as a member of the university and its traditions.

Personally, never having met Cavell and having no personal connection to any of 'his people' (a teacher I never studied with in grad school had taken some classes with him or something I guess, but she never seemed to me to be committed to any work that was recognizably shaped by his contributions), I've always felt like I worked on him as if he were already dead—in other words, just like most of the other writing in philosophy that I prefer to read.

I suppose that if you weren't doing that all along, as probably most of his peers were not, his work will seem especially pitched to irritate, frustrate, and maybe even outrage. I have had a taste of that recently, working on the supposedly Cavellian project of someone who was also not ever one of 'his people' (I think they rather disdain him), Mulhall, when I found that in trying to respond to his thinking, rather intuitively, as if he were my living interlocutor, I just could not sustain the perspective on the text that I think of as available to me when reading Cavell. Instead, trying to make sense of something, my feeling toward Mulhall was something like, 'How dare he!'—for leaving me with his problems, his obscurities, his unpolished contrivances that could appear to be more like self-indulgent trickery and posturing than inherently justified gestures and moments of genuine intellectual expression. For making me do something he should have done.

It's a bad but also encouraging sign that we can still have that response to another person's efforts to think, and to make contributions to our cooperative efforts, to think together. I think one thing it might mean is that we remain deeply motivated by a desire not to be taught, not by anything less than genuine teaching, not to be dictated to, but also that we are far more comfortable allowing ourselves to be taught by the thought of the past (which should be philosophically troubling!). We have trouble taking instruction from our living peers, our colleagues, our students, and would just as soon adopt a defensive, dismissive, neglectful stance toward anything they say to us, as if to say, 'What gives you the right to hold yourself out as a philosopher?!'. We also, in our capacity as scholars, remain far from possessing the virtues of humility, diligence, and patience that would enable us to set ourselves aside for as long as it takes to give some work the consideration it is due, to develop the tools and frames necessary to see it for what it is, assess its value for us, and make a place for it in our ongoing work. We are deeply uncooperative. But we sometimes give signs of wishing we could work together.

(from June, after hearing of Cavell's death)

9 Dec '18 09:40:09 AM

'εὐθὺς οὖν πάσῃ φαντασίᾳ τραχείᾳ μελέτα ἐπιλέγειν ὅτι "φαντασία εἶ καὶ οὐ πάντως τὸ φαινόμενον."'

1 Dec '18 08:24:48 AM

'… silence seems to belong to anyone's inner world…'