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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27 Jun '13 02:31:08 AM

Several months ago, I was bothered by a phrase I read, ‘philosophical belief’. Cavell was using it to refer to the effect Descartes’ Meditations had, of ‘refining the options for philosophical belief’.

The point seems right enough—that the fact of philosophical writing can often powerfully, perhaps unduly, affect what we take to be possible or permissible for ourselves and from others—but what bothered me about it was that in making it Cavell seemed not to question the idea of philosophical belief.

Though it’s not a phrase he repeats, it seems to sit comfortably with his frequent talk of ‘conviction’ and of other strong forms of belief and adherence. I guess Cavell means this talk sincerely, but it often seems to me as if it’s—also?—meant defensively, as his way of securing himself against the kinds of accusations philosophers who favor Wittgenstein are often subject to, essentially repeating Russell’s jibe that the later Wittgenstein seemed to have given up on serious thought. For what could be more serious than a conviction deeply rooted in oneself and embodied in one’s written performance? And how better to insist on the necessity of serious thought, than to find convincing ways to pit one’s own sense of conviction against the cant of the class of professional thinkers, the managers of ‘our’ convictions, on behalf of something the managers are liable, out of professional deformity, to deny, distort, or neglect, something we all share in called ‘the ordinary’?

I guess I would describe Cavell’s written performances as being meant to show that it is possible to find conviction in the ordinary. But aside from that conviction, exhibited or voiced in performance, what is convincing about his performances is mainly meant to be convincing to his fellow thinkers, ‘serious thinkers’—and that, insofar as the performances try to show that thinking needn’t dissolve the ordinary or relegate it to a lower status, and that finding conviction in the ordinary need never put a stop to further thought.

But note the ‘needn’t’ and ‘need never’ there. They pertain to those serious thinkers—they seem to stem from ‘a serious thinker’s’ conception of the ordinary and of the appropriate, or best possible, relation between thought and the ordinary, between the vita contemplativa and everyday life. It seems to me as if the wish to persuade these serious thinkers, to be endorsed by them or to receive their acknowledgment and thoughtful response, explains many of the difficulties that Cavell’s written performances pose to any reader. At one point (in an addition to his film book, contrasting his ‘procedures’ in his writing there to those of his earlier writing), Cavell describes them:

‘There my hope for conviction from the reader was placed in my ability to motivate assertions, and objections to them, and to voice them in such a form and at such a time that the reader would have the impression that he was himself thinking them, had been about to have said them—not about to have said something generally along their lines, but as it were to find himself thinking those specific words just when and just as they were appearing to him. (Naturally this need not, even when done well, occur on a first perusal. Then what in a first should encourage going back?)’

The main difficulty posed by Cavell’s writing is not stated here, but implied: the massive degree of control he attempts to exert in writing. Shall we call it control over the reader? Cavell’s description here refers to a practice he associates elsewhere with his efforts to say ‘we’ as the ordinary language philosopher does, drawing on his own authority as a speaker of English to recall his readers to community with him by reminding them of what they ought to know as well as he does, what they mean by their words. Voiced in the right form and at the right time, these sorts of claims of ‘what we should say when’ would be ideally suited to be made to a reader who would thereby ‘have the impression that he was himself thinking them’. Cavell and his reader would be of one mind—in agreement.

If I call his effort to achieve this result an exertion of control over the reader, it’s partly because the result seems intended not just intermittently but continuously. I take it that this has something to do with Cavell’s efforts elsewhere, at points in his writing where other than major assertions and objections are being made, to as it were flatten the text, to exclude as much of the apparatus of scholarship as possible and to diminish as much of the scaffolding of scholarly signposting as possible, so that the text as a whole comes to seem, or to approach seeming like, an unbroken performance by a solitary voice, speaking freely from within the confines of the ordinary.

In combination with the wish for perfect unanimity, this results in what I often find to be the characteristically philosophical effect of Cavell’s writing on the reader: the discovery that though you’re sure Cavell doesn’t fully speak for you, he says a great deal you don’t wish to deny, so that you’re unsure how it is your own thoughts have not yet been voiced.

I suppose this is experienced as a difficulty (besides the usual reasons pertaining to the effort it takes to go over the writing, to be controlled by it, to try to piece extremely long pieces of it together when it seems as if Cavell has not deigned to do so) particularly because the conventional modes of response are denied to the reader but the reader feels (quite naturally, as anyone fond of his individuality and over-proud of his capacity to think would) as if he must respond.

24 Jun '13 08:19:40 AM

'… there will simply be facts, facts, and facts but no Ethics.'

24 Jun '13 04:20:52 AM

'Trust is gone. The way people used to love is gone.'

23 Jun '13 04:31:43 AM

'… reading as a place to be…'

22 Jun '13 06:15:52 PM

'… which questions these facts answer and which facts would begin to speak if other questions were asked are hermeneutical questions.'

19 Jun '13 01:50:16 AM

H. writes from Dubai, sez the Doritos in the airport are refrigerated.

I don't know what to say about that.

16 Jun '13 12:04:35 AM

'It is finished can never be said of us'

14 Jun '13 07:06:07 AM

'For now, we need only consider a thoroughgoing position that any ingredient or constituent could be describable in terms of properties. Only a philosopher could want to say that an omelet has the property of being made of eggs. Why?'

13 Jun '13 09:23:07 PM

When you buy a bike, they don't tell you that you're basically going to bleed a lot more often, if you didn't much before. All over the place! It's like your body is a pump or something.