Chronicle of Higher Ed: “Stanley Cavell’s Philosophical Improvisations”

Photo credit: Fritz Hoffmann for The Chronicle Review

The Chronicle of Higher Education has just published an article — written by Thomas Hibbs (Distinguished Professor of Ethics & Culture and Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University) — entitled “Stanley Cavell’s Philosophical Improvisations.” To access the article online, please click here.

Here is how it begins:

In God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition, the latest in a number of recent books critical of the modern research university, the influential Irish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that “neither the university nor philosophy is any longer seen as engaging the questions” of “plain persons.” These questions include: “What is our place in the order of things? Of what powers in the natural and social world do we need to take account? How should we respond to the facts of suffering and death? What is our relationship to the dead? What is it to live a human life well? What is it to live it badly?” Now in his 80s, MacIntyre is among a small group of philosophers who have sought to address such questions. Other members, about the same age, include the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and, perhaps especially, the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, whose life both in and out of philosophy is on display in his just-published autobiography, Little Did I Know (Stanford University Press).

In his book, MacIntyre indicts the university for its lack of integration, the disconnections among the disciplines, and the intellectual disregard of one discipline for another. He writes: “In contemporary American universities, each academic discipline is treated as autonomous and self-defining, so that its practitioners, or at least the most prestigious and influential among them, prescribe to those entering the discipline what its scope and limits are. And in order to excel in any one particular discipline, one need in general know little or nothing about any of the others.” Returning philosophy to the concern of ordinary human persons and showing how it might speak across disciplinary lines of inquiry are not easy tasks. But the life and career of Cavell testify not just to the possibility of such achievements but also to just how rich the results can be.

Born to Jewish parents in Atlanta in 1926, Cavell spent his early life moving back and forth between Georgia and California as his father perpetually sought better business opportunities. His mother, a professional pianist, fostered in him an appreciation of music—clarinet, piano, composition. He would earn an undergraduate degree at Berkeley in music. He went on to receive a Ph.D. at Harvard in philosophy, and, after teaching for a few years at Berkeley, settled into the Harvard philosophy department in 1963 as Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value. Since 1997 he has been a professor emeritus at Harvard. That he has received such prestigious honors as being named president of the American Philosophical Association and winning a MacArthur fellowship tells one very little about the magnitude of his achievement or the scope of his influence. That there are nearly as many books in print on his thought as he has written himself (Little Did I Know is his 19th book) is a somewhat better indication.

Like MacIntyre and Taylor, Cavell was educated in mainstream analytic philosophy, an austere and rather narrowly focused style of the discipline. In the words of Colin McGinn, a leading contemporary analytic philosopher, the motivation in, say, solving the problem of consciousness or determining the logical status of moral assertions is “purely technical, a mere matter of writing your axioms the right way to get out the theorems you were looking for. It was the ever tempting hope of turning philosophy into science.” In Cavell’s view, philosophy will never be able to successfully model itself on the sciences, because it never really makes progress. Not just in moments of intellectual crisis, but at all times, philosophy circles back to its own assumptions and puts them in question and, even when it does not revise them, tries to see them in a new and enriched light. Cavell speaks repeatedly, in the course of describing his intellectual journey, of the need to “begin again,” to revisit and re-examine assumptions and purported conclusions that have gone untested.

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