Two reviews, by Fleming and Fischer


[Posted by BR]

Recently, I stumbled upon two thought-provoking book reviews which I missed when they first came out (one in 2007, the other in 2008). The first review is by Richard Fleming, and it considers Walter Jost’s Rhetorical Investigations (2004) and the essay collection Jost edited with Kenneth Dauber, entitled Ordinary Language Criticism (2003). The second review is by Michael Fischer, and it looks at three essay collections devoted to Cavell’s work, which were edited (in chronological order) by Richard Eldridge (2003); Russell Goodman (2005); and Alice Crary and Sanford Shieh (2006). Both reviews are well worth reading — as much for what they suggest about ordinary language philosophy/criticism and Cavell in general as for what they say about the specific titles at issue — and so in case I was not alone in missing these when they first came out, I thought I’d post links to them here.

Richard Fleming’s review can be accessed by clicking here, and Michael Fischer’s by clicking here.

And here is how each review begins. Fleming’s first, then Fischer’s:

Fleming’s review begins like this:

On the question of ordinary language criticism and philosophy, “Who pleases whom?” Judging by many of the articles, essays, and books of the last decade the answer might be: almost nobody pleases anyone. Whether in appreciation or incomprehension of its importance and substance, renewed efforts at understanding, redirections of thinking, and disappointments and frustrations with the subject-matter are prevalent when ordinary language is the topic of discussion. These two recent books tend to strengthen this assessment. Rhetorical Investigations is a sustained effort to “revisit” and “rethink” grammatical (conceptual) reflections on ordinary language and literature; and in so doing provide a “reinvention” of characteristics of literary theory through an extensive and detailed consideration of the work of Robert Frost. Although sometimes overreaching in its efforts (particularly when discussing logic), it imaginatively uses rhetoric and ordinary language concerns as a means of direction and focus for new, explanatory discussions in literary—philosophical analysis. Ordinary Language Criticism (part of the general series, “Rethinking Theory,” edited by Gary Saul Morson) is a diverse and uneven collection of fifteen articles concerning and using ordinary language interests, several of which (R. M. Berry, Garry L. Hagberg, Richard Eldridge, Gerald L. Bruns) valuably repay the diligence needed to discover them in 350 plus pages. The text includes an editors’ introduction that voices the wish to “return criticism to its grounds in the ‘ordinary’ or natural language we all speak” and (unsuccessfully but lustily) pronounces and explains “ordinary language criticism” as a new yet traditional area of study. (“New” in that it takes “as its point of departure” the ordinary language philosophy of Wittgenstein, and “traditional” in that “all criticism is really ordinary language criticism.”) The editors further undertake in this introduction the endeavor to sketch something of a program for the book, meant to show connected promptings among the various writings, whereas the specific authors themselves settle down quickly and separately to a critical work at hand without particular references to each other. Both of these texts, like others in this field of study before, valuably raise questions and apprehensions of what use there is in talk about ordinary language. The best of such material provides provocations for thinking that are to be found nowhere else. The worst of such books and articles is that they prejudice sensible people against the study of the ordinary.

And Fischer’s begins like this:

Stanley Cavell often speaks of inheriting and carrying on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and other writers. These writers help him move on in his own thinking, turning him around when he feels lost, provoking him when he gets discouraged or stuck. His indebtedness to J. L. Austin in the acknowledgements to Must We Mean What We Say? (1969) captures one way he benefits from all the writers who have influenced him: “To the late J. L. Austin I owe, beyond what I hope is plain in my work, whatever is owed the teacher who shows one a way to do relevantly and fruitfully the thing one had almost given up hope of doing.” By taking up the work of the writers he values, Cavell hopes to undo what he sees as their neglect and misappropriation by the culture at large and by the academic profession. He makes his case for these writers not so much by exhortation as by his own use of them.

The impact of Cavell’s own writing on his readers continues to unfold, as these three books attest. Each is a helpful collection of essays by scholars in various fields discussing his work. Reading Cavell includes an essay by Cavell (“The Wittgensteinian Event”), as does Contending with Stanley Cavell (“Passionate and Performative Utterance: Morals of Encounter”), which also features a response by Cavell to the other essays in the volume.

The contributors in these three volumes all begin from the assumption that Cavell, like the writers who have influenced him, remains marginalized even though interest in his work has grown. But his isolation can be overstated. In an otherwise insightful essay on Cavell’s literary criticism (“The Avoidance of Stanley Cavell” in Contending with Stanley Cavell ), Garrett Stewart laments “the regrettable undercirculation of Cavell’s ideas” (p. 140) in literary studies and predicts that “mainstream literary scholars will increasingly have a hard time” with his writing—Stewart calls it “literary prose”—because it calls on reading skills that in the “epoch of cultural studies, discourse analysis, and the semiotics of social energy” have “atrophied” (p. 153). In the introduction to this same volume, Russell Goodman offers a more measured, less pessimistic assessment that gets Cavell’s peculiar professional status exactly right: “Cavell occupies a curious position in all the fields in which he works: he is at the same time a major figure and one whose work people do not quite know how to use” (p. 3).

In figuring out how to use Cavell, several contributors to these volumes begin by explicating his key ideas and texts. The writers in Stanley Cavell assess his contributions to several broad areas, including ethics, theory of action, philosophy of mind and language, aesthetics, and Shakespeare criticism. Reading Cavell and Contending with Stanley Cavell include essays on such central topics as his view of skepticism and his understanding of the ordinary. Of special note is Stephen Mulhall’s close reading of the opening of The Claim of Reason, “On Refusing to Begin,” in Contending with Stanley Cavell. One barrier to using Cavell remains his style, which readers either love or hate. Mulhall shows that the very features of Cavell’s writing that some readers find most annoying—for example, his penchant for complicating and qualifying even the apparently most obvious point—in fact instruct us in how to read him. Mulhall astutely describes The Claim of Reason and Philosophical Investigations as modernist texts written in the absence of philosophical conventions that the writers can take for granted. Such writing must resemble “a half-built edifice whose form acknowledges both its origin in ruins and the completion it foreshadows” (p. 32)—but never attains.

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