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Stanley Cavell

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The philosopher Stanley Cavell, who died yesterday at the age of 91, wrote a piece on the Marx Brothers for the LRB in 1993:

Movies magnify, so when pictures began talking they magnified words. Somehow, as in the case of opera’s magnification of words, this made their words mostly ignorable, like the ground, as if the industrialised human species had been looking for a good excuse to get away from its words, or looking for an explanation of the fact that we do get away, even must. The attractive publication, briefly and informatively introduced, of the scripts​ of several Marx Brothers films … is a sublime invitation to stop and think about our swings of convulsiveness and weariness in the face of these films; to sense that it is essential to the Brothers’ sublimity that they are thinking about words, to the end of words, in every word – or, in Harpo’s emphatic case, in every absence of words.

Reviewing Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare in 1988, Frank Kermode wrote:

Stanley Cavell calls himself an amateur, which is modest, considering the celebrity of his Shakespeare essays, of which one, the long meditation on King Lear, has been on reading lists for twenty years. However, he is by vocation a philosopher, of distinctive orientation since he has close dealings with Emerson and William James as well as with Wittgenstein, and with Hollywood comedies as well as with Thoreau; and he often turns to Shakespeare for contributions to philosophical issues, confident that he explores ‘the depth of the philosophical preoccupations of his culture’. Thus he likes to work, as John Hollander once remarked, in the buffer-zone between poetry and philosophy.

Michael Wood reviewed Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow in 2005:

The ordinary slips away from us. If we ignore it, we lose it. If we look at it closely, it becomes extraordinary, the way words or names become strange if we keep staring at them. The very notion turns into a baffling riddle. Shall we say that the ordinary doesn’t exist, or that it exists only when we don’t look at it closely? Stanley Cavell has been thinking about the ordinary (although not only about that) for the whole of his philosophical career, and he knows the riddle inside out. But the riddle is not where his interest lies. He doesn’t mind if the world goes strange on us, as long as we keep looking at it, and he is happy to assert ‘the extraordinariness of what we accept as the ordinary’. The question for him is not a linguistic one, and beyond the simple, slippery word is a whole range of human practices crying out for, but not often getting, our attention.

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