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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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…'

15 Nov '18 10:09:27 PM

'If you wish to drop us a note we would be glad to hear from you.'

21 Oct '18 04:01:12 AM

'One reason for the conservatism is satisfaction. Protagoras had lived the prime of his life in the greatest age of Athenian political culture. He still seems to us to be a part of this glorious, relatively happy past; he stresses the fact that he is old enough to be the father of anyone else present. He is not gripped by the sense of urgency about moral problems that will soon characterize the writing of younger thinkers, for example Euripides, Thucydides, Aristophanes. The setting, with its allusions to the plague, its metaphors of disease, works to make this jolly conservatism seem anachronistic, inappropriate to the seriousness of the impending contemporary problems. We hear it in the way we might now hear a speech in praise of the Great Society made at the beginning of the Vietnam War – with our hindsight, and in the knowledge that failures of practical wisdom being made at that very time would erode the moral consensus the speaker was praising. We suspect that young Hippocrates, even without hindsight, will be less contented with things than his would-be mentor, inclined to look for stronger medicine. And if he is still content, the reader cannot be. It is no surprise that the dialogue compares Socrates' interview with these sophists to a living hero's visit to the shades of dead heroes in the underworld. It is a dead generation, lacking understanding of the moral crisis of its own time. Socrates compares himself to artful wily Odysseus, deviser of life-saving stratagems; compared with him, his rivals are without resource.'

14 Oct '18 06:41:57 PM


13 Oct '18 05:04:20 PM

'I am not I, but the street, the lanterns, this and that event, nothing more.'

23 Sep '18 09:16:08 PM

'… a work of diligent, lucid, and ultimately serene pedagogy…'

18 Apr '18 03:34:27 PM

'… I still had to get out…'