When I was small we were sometimes visited by a moral philosopher. He always outstayed his welcome, and did many things which non-philosophers might regard as immoral or selfish, some of them more forgivable than others (I have forgiven him for confiscating the rubber ball that I enjoyed bouncing around the hall, but not for destroying it). Whenever my mother went to rebuke him for his misdeeds she would find him standing on his head, with his feet clad in purple socks, reciting over and over again the mantra: ‘Only I can feel my pain.’ It was, she would say, hard to address a pair of purple socks as though they were a moral agent.
Our unwelcome guest was one of the many enthusiastic followers of Wittgenstein in the 1960s and 1970s, and his meditations were no doubt intended to draw him into a deeper understanding of the discussions of pain and private language in the Philosophical Investigations. In the 1980s at Cambridge I was taught by a generation of critics who had developed a radically conservative aesthetics from a fusion of Wittgenstein’s writing on language and J.L. Austin’s on speech acts. Wittgenstein suggested that we could only say someone had grasped the rules of chess when they could offer a ‘criterion’ of having done so, by being able to make the right moves. In lectures I heard that claim developed into an argument to the effect that there were no mute inglorious Miltons out there, because the only criterion of having a beautifully complex thought was the ability to write in a beautiful and complex way. This great denial that the inarticulate could occupy the same world of experience as the articulate struck me as a pernicious falsehood, though it took me some time to realise that if one restricted the concept of a ‘criterion’ of having an emotion to a verbal expression that was the kind of nasty knot in which one might well end up.
Actually we read the emotions and sensations of our fellow beings in lots of different ways, among which the verbal is only one. Someone who saw their child run into the road and get hit by a car would, we know (as we say), feel a desperate pang even if they offered no visible criterion of shock or grief. We can think we know roughly what others might be feeling not only as a result of reading the criteria they offer of an emotion through language or expressive behaviour, but also through the circumstances of their lives, through both what they do and what happens to and around them, through hints and accidental gestures, and through what we do or don’t know about people in general. The fact that the human imagination is in part an interpersonal cognitive power or process means that in life as in fiction we routinely claim to ‘know’ things about other people’s experience, even though, if pressed, we would readily confess that we do not experience their experience as they experience it, and that we do not ‘know’ what they’re feeling in the same way that we might claim to know, say, that Sherwood Forest is much smaller now than it was when Robin Hood hunted in it. It is probably true that only I can feel my pain, but if you see me slip with a pruning knife and slice my finger open you will nonetheless almost certainly wince, at least a little, and would probably do so even if you cared nothing at all for me (I assume you are neither a sadist nor a psychopath). So the fact that only I can feel my pain is, for most of us at least, neither here nor there, so long as I am part of a human environment in which people know the kinds of actions and events that give rise to pain in others.
The philosopher Stanley Cavell (who died in 2018 at the age of 91) was, as it happens, hit by a car when he was small, and as a result had trouble with his hearing in one ear throughout his life. He was also a bit older and of a different philosophical and political tradition from the people who taught me in Cambridge, but he too developed an aesthetic and moral theory from a fusion of Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin. Probably the best way to understand Cavell – whose prose can be labyrinthine – is the way he increasingly sought to explain himself to the world, which is through his biography.
His family were Jewish immigrants to Atlanta from Eastern Europe. His father was a pawnbroker who was subject to wild rages, who never spoke fluent English, and who, Cavell believed, didn’t want his son to exist. His mother was a successful musician with perfect pitch. Cavell initially wanted to be a musician too, and changed his last name from Goldstein to a version of the original Polish name of his father’s family (Kavelieruskii) at the point he was carving out a career as a clarinettist in a jazz band. He graduated as a music major at Berkeley, but after a spell at Juilliard he lost the sense that he should devote his life to music, and eventually started work on a PhD in philosophy. The biggest event in his philosophical development was the visit of Austin to Harvard in 1955. Austin’s ordinary language philosophy subordinated the referential function of speech to its role in human social agency, and his philosophical method was to unpick conceptual confusions not by elaborate metaphysical speculation but by examining ordinary usages. Saying ‘I promise’ is the act of making a promise; the fact that we say ‘I didn’t intend to give offence’ gives us an understanding of what ‘intending’ in normal usage means. (We normally use it to reduce our responsibility for something unintended, hence we might infer that ‘intending’ is not a distinct psychological manoeuvre performed in advance of speech or writing but, usually, a retrospective construction of one’s own or another’s behaviour, often as a way of explaining what went wrong with it.) Austin provided Cavell with a means of stepping outside the then dominant logical positivist tradition in American philosophy.
A few years after encountering Austin, whom he calls ‘my old teacher’, Cavell began reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which offer a series of startling invitations to think of language not principally as a set of signs signifying something or other outside themselves but as a set of complex games which are embedded in a ‘form of life’, or a set of collective behaviours that determine how we can communicate, what we understand of others, what we can say (‘I have a pain in my finger’) and what, normally, we can’t quite say (‘I have a pain in my desk drawer,’ or ‘My pain is orange today’). One of Cavell’s favourite quotations from Wittgenstein is ‘What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.’ Other favourites (and after reading more than a little of his work one starts to see these coming a few paragraphs off) include the aim to ‘give philosophy peace’; his wonder that Wittgenstein begins the Investigations by quoting St Augustine’s description of how he learned to understand what words signified; and a passage in which Wittgenstein imagines being asked the question ‘How am I able to follow a rule?’ and responds: ‘Once I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.”’
What Cavell added to this feast of ordinary language philosophy was something he called ‘scepticism’. This begins, crudely put, from the insight that however much we can see from a conventional set of behaviours that someone is experiencing embarrassment or pain or guilt we can’t ever know what those experiences are like from inside. ‘I feel your pain in my finger’ is not something I can say outside the realm of science fiction or philosophical thought experiments, and in this case the norms of verbal usage reveal something about what human beings in general can and cannot do. Cavell regarded this scepticism as internal to Wittgenstein, and it is why he didn’t follow the Roger Scrutons of the world in regarding a ‘form of life’ as a set of codes embedded in a culture which enable human understanding through being both shared and more or less unalterable, and which might therefore justify the conservation of even apparently barbaric cultural practices such as dressing up in scarlet and encouraging dogs to tear foxes apart. Instead Cavell’s Wittgenstein is principally about the big dark things we don’t actually know about ourselves or one another, and which philosophers spend their time seeking.
The next step in Cavell’s scepticism was to argue that although we don’t have ‘knowledge’ of another’s pain we can ‘acknowledge’ or ‘recognise’ it. Making claims to be acknowledged and to have emotions, claims recognised by the other, and in return to acknowledge the claims of the other, is fundamental to living in language, which is a realm (as it is for Austin) of interpersonal ethical demands and needs. The world of art, in particular, is ethically charged: ‘The creation of art, being human conduct which affects others, has the commitments any conduct has.’
This doesn’t simply make the problem of other minds go away, since Cavell held that a further aspect of humanity is a desire – a desire which has its roots in the necessary limits of human knowledge, but which wilfully augments those limits – to turn away from or blind oneself to the emotions and demands of the other. People designate as ‘private’ things which others can’t know about them, and may reserve ‘certain particular sins or shames or surprises of joy’ to this realm of the ‘private’. A sense of pitch – of hearing the tonalities of language that convey the existence of other minds and the claims made by the emotions of others – is a key human skill which flows from grasping the linguistic form of life we inhabit. But we read or listen to one another while not quite knowing the whole story, in the way we might grasp the shape of a symphony without exactly being able to say what is meant by the themes it interweaves. And there is a further twist. As we might deliberately turn away from recognising what our form of life tells us might be the feelings of the other, so we might also (and here Freud makes a dark and noisy entry into Cavell’s intellectual foundations) not know ourselves, or seek not to know ourselves, and keep something hidden or unrecognised from ourselves as well as from others.
As Cavell put it in the conclusion to his first and to my mind best book, Must We Mean What We Say? (1969), ‘What scepticism suggests is that since we cannot know the world exists, its presentness to us cannot be a function of knowing. The world is to be accepted, as the presence of other minds is not to be known, but acknowledged.’ There is in this statement the spirit of Wittgenstein and Austin, but without either the blue-eyed intense stare of Wittgenstein’s aphorisms or the pipe-smoking clarity of Austin’s unpickings of normal usage. Cavell doesn’t say we’re just misusing the word ‘know’ when we use it of the world or of other minds; rather, he tries to work out a way of describing our engagement with these unknowables that does justice to their complexity, and which recognises that human beings sometimes don’t want to acknowledge what they know to be true about things outside or even inside their own heads. He also recognises that ‘knowledge’ or ‘recognition’ of the other is not an event, like stamping their passport or shaking their hand, but a process: ‘What is essential is that the discovery that you were wrong about another is as important, as well as painful, as the pleasant conviction that you were right.’
Despite his intellectual origins in ordinary language philosophy, however, there is something profoundly unordinary about Cavell’s syntax, in its refusal to let words rest, or to arrive where they seem to be going. This style, clotted, retortive, says to its readers: ‘Paraphrase me if you dare, for I have still secrets from you.’ Cavell’s mazy syntax is evidence of the deep influence of psychoanalysis in his conception of the ordinary work of philosophy: thought is not declared clearly, but is always in search of itself, and tends to retreat from a reader’s advances towards it. This can be frustrating, though it isn’t simply frustrating, because it is programmatically frustrating. In his thinking but also in his style Cavell enacted his own conception of Romanticism, which he defined as naming a period in which ‘thinkers and writers no longer know what they need to know in order to say what they have it at heart to say.’ He suggested this was the reason ‘the characteristic masterworks of Romanticism take the form of studies in education.’ Within this form he included the jolty flow of Wittgenstein’s Investigations from its beginning with Augustine as he learned to utter sounds that signified things to the moment when the spade hits bedrock, when a pupil refuses to recognise that sometimes explanations stop, and one has just to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’ Not knowing what one needs to know is a necessary consequence of Cavell’s kind of scepticism, which runs deep into the darker channels of the mind and suffuses its habitual syntax.
Cavell was, in his autobiography Little Did I Know (2010) as well as in his frequent autobiographical references in his philosophical writings, open about the influence exerted on his philosophy by his parents. The relationship between a father who didn’t want to acknowledge him, or for him to exist, and a mother who had perfect pitch can seem to lie with almost allegorical clarity behind his philosophy, in which (in a phrase of Wittgenstein’s which Cavell repeatedly quoted) ‘understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think.’ A sentence heard by a competent language user is not decoded or turned into a meaning, but is felt with an instinctive sense of how it fits and sings. But despite this instinctive grasp of a form of life that is our language we also continually run the risk of not being acknowledged by or not acknowledging the other to whose words we are responding with such intuitive pitch. The mother plays a tune we instinctively follow even if we don’t ‘understand’ it in the sense of being able to ‘say what it is about,’ since our grasp of what it is doing is a manifestation of our ‘shared attunement in the human voice’; but the father denies us all knowledge or recognition and turns away in rage or shame from human connection. We swing, pitched between the two, knowing and unknowing, instinctively recognising the other and impulsively averting our gaze from them for fear of what they might know of us and of our sins if they were to recognise us. So in Cavell’s essay on King Lear, one of the few truly great pieces of writing on that play about a father’s demand for and denial of love, he says: ‘If the failure to recognise others is a failure to let others recognise you, a fear of what is revealed to them, an avoidance of their eyes, then it is exactly shame which is the cause of his withholding of recognition.’
Over the years these large themes were supplemented by others. He wrote about Emerson and Thoreau and what he called ‘moral perfectionism’. Surprisingly, he wrote little about music, yet, just as surprisingly for someone so relentlessly highbrow in most of his references, he did write about Hollywood ‘remarriage’ comedies. He had several oblique engagements with Derrida, with whose anti-foundationalist view of language he had both affinities and deep disagreements, since Cavell’s thinking about language began from a concern not with its referentiality or with authority, but with its ethical texture and demands.
The miscellaneous essays from the 1980s and after gathered together and provided with a very good introduction in Here and There offer a sample of the main currents of his thinking, as well as his intellectual range. There are pieces on the idea of revolutions in music and on the concept of a ‘collection’ as a manifestation of a philosophical project or even as an idea of personal identity, on Walter Benjamin, on Wallace Stevens, and on Faulkner. A couple of them originally appeared in the LRB, while others were twenty-minute talks for this or that event at which Cavell was appearing as a philosophical eminence, and in which he can sometimes seem as though he is trying to say exactly what his audience would have expected someone called ‘Stanley Cavell’ to say while not wanting to do anything quite so obvious. His favourite passages of Wittgenstein roll off the tongue. The dilemmas of scepticism, the wonders of Freud, the insistence that Emerson was a philosopher, the recapitulations of his own intellectual development, the references to Austin as ‘my teacher’, all curl and involute through the lugubriously Cavellian sentences, and after a bit make one rather glad that one is not oneself burdened with the responsibility of being Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, or indeed by any kind of eminence.
But there is something strangely gripping about the whole performance, since the repetitions – of which there are many – often bring with them slight rephrasings that shift the ground on which Cavell operates even as they set out its boundaries. So he states his major conviction about the relationship between philosophy and psychoanalysis in two rather different ways, once in an essay titled ‘Silences Noises Voices’ and again in an LRB review of Adam Phillips.First it’s put this way:
In philosophy I have to recognise the arrogance with which I arrogate the right to speak universally, for all other possessors of language; in psychoanalysis I have to recognise the disgrace that I do not so much as speak for myself.
A year later, in 1997, this becomes:
The arrogance of philosophy is to show that I can speak universally, for everyone. The confidence of psychoanalysis is to show that I do not so much as speak for myself.
The underpinnings of these statements are the same: ‘ordinary language’ philosophy assumes there is a universal ‘we’ to whose usages ‘I’ claims (arrogating the universal to itself) to have access (‘We can’t say “I have a pain in my desk drawer”’), while psychoanalysis would question whether what I think I am saying corresponds to whatever latent content might lie within or beneath the words I utter. But the second statement of these beliefs seems like a bad recollection of the first, which is far more revealing of the asymmetry and overlap between the two disciplines in which Cavell thought of himself as principally operating. ‘In philosophy’ means both ‘while philosophising’ but also ‘in the discipline of philosophy’, while ‘in psychoanalysis’ means more ‘during psychoanalysis’ than ‘in the abstract discipline of psychoanalysis’. This might make us wonder again what ‘in philosophy’ means: is being ‘in philosophy’ like being ‘in psychoanalysis’? The arrogance and the disgrace – both seen as highly moralised performances – of the two disciplines are things he ‘has to’ recognise, rather than simply things he sees. What’s interesting here is the sense conveyed of someone grappling with an ego and internal resistance to the claims of that ego (I can speak for all; I can’t speak for anyone, not even myself). This is enough to quell (almost) the voice within which says actually these sounding antitheses rest on a failure to distinguish between the rhetoric of the philosophical ‘we’ (which in ordinary language philosophy means ‘an orthodox user of the language’) and the psychoanalytical ‘I’, turbid, opaque to itself and to others.
If that is a logical failure then it is a logical failure on which Cavell’s entire career rested, but it would probably only appear to be a logical failure to someone who is committed to believing that philosophy and psychoanalysis occupy distinct discursive fields. It is more like a recognition that both ‘in philosophy’ and ‘in psychoanalysis’ I am claiming to know more than I can actually know either about the world or myself, and that our minds and our language are always resisting our claims to state truths which can’t be overturned. For Cavell, the Philosophical Investigations don’t slice through the philosophical problems of the past with aphoristic force. They are full of fear: ‘A fear of inexpressiveness or suffocation, and a twin fear of uncontrollable expressiveness and exposure, are fundamental to my reading of Wittgenstein’s Investigations.’ But where does the fear here come from? From Wittgenstein? Or from Cavell, who believed that writing and reading have a kind of agency and hidden design of their own: ‘Now I might say that my way of impressing upon myself, perhaps upon my reader, the human subjection to words as well as the human disappointment in words, is to get my writing to recognise, in every word if I can, that it does not know all that it knows.’
I’m not sure that his writing achieves this, or that writing could ever do so, let alone do so ‘in every word’. And how universal is ‘the human disappointment in words’? I quite like them, most of the time, or the good ones anyway, when they are well used. They often cheer me up. That claim to ‘the human disappointment in words’ is arrogating universality to itself, which is what philosophers get paid to do, but it is also histrionically self-flagellating: the combination of ‘impressing’ and the ‘human subjection to words’ has a faint flavour of Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ to it, as though words, unreadable by the victim, are inscribed in his body by a diabolical machine, ripping disappointment into the flesh as they go. Words used with care can say quite a lot, though when they are contorted into a torpid and reflexive mulch they do tend to squeal.
The large problem with Cavell’s insistence that no one knows even what they know is that the thought processes to which it gives rise always end at more or less the same point, as the crutch to understanding that is a shared ‘form of life’ strikes against the inability of the mind to get beyond its own limits, or penetrate its own or others’ privacies, or even to ‘know’ what it knows. There are also strange moments when a desire to be monstrous surfaces from the depths of this unknowing. A fine essay on Wallace Stevens is eventually pulled back towards the gravity of Wittgenstein, the dark star into which all of Cavell’s universe seems always to be collapsing:
In philosophising we wish to escape our humanity – our finitude – from above or from below, a wish I have also expressed as the all but inescapable wish of the human to become inhuman, as if to accept monstrousness would be to escape the perpetual knowledge of our disappointments, the rage of infinite desires in finite circumstances.
If ‘the rage of infinite desires in finite circumstances’ is indeed the human condition, then so be it. But if it is, then I would much rather be a dog. My suspicion is that we humans can probably know a little more than Cavell allows of ourselves and others, if we try, and that in doing so we can probably avoid becoming monsters, and that life is not entirely full of disappointment, but also of the joy of knowing things and of (somewhat, cautiously) knowing people and their idiosyncrasies, right down to (or up to, depending on which way up they happen to be) their purple socks.
Which may be as much as to say I am not a moral philosopher. But when I stand back from Cavell’s writings, what do I see? Brilliance, yes, and a restlessness of mind, as well as the self-indulgence of which his critics often complain. But mostly I see a sadness that is apparently at odds with, though it may be the foundation of, his intellectual adventurousness, and it is an ontological sadness that emanates not from him alone but from wider currents in philosophy and psychology in the 20th century. The unknowable things within others and ourselves, hidden behind an opaque screen of thought woven from Freud and Wittgenstein, with a glimmer of Nietzsche and Heidegger to give it sheen, are chiefly figured as guilt, or pain, or shame, or attitudes and emotions that privately hurt or which we want to conceal from the gaze of another or deny to ourselves. The joy in recognising others is sometimes there (‘The knowledge of others, as of myself, is not an act but an adventure; if one is lucky it is an interesting and unending one’), and there is too the wonder of encountering literary or musical works which act as provocations to thought (Cavell’s essay on Beckett’s Endgame is great, and he evidently found in the orotund Emerson more thinking and more delight than I am able to see). But Cavell’s form of scepticism leads relentlessly towards the dark: ‘While philosophy, as I care about it most, seeks to free us from self-imposed metaphysical darkness, it does not in that process protect us from empirical darkness to ourselves.’
What I miss from his descriptions of human encounters is the most surprising but best feature of human beings: that in some respects we can know more about another than they know about themselves. There’s an old joke about two behaviourists who meet in the street. One says to the other: ‘You’re fine; how am I?’ That, like the best jokes, conveys a profound truth. It conveys something that teaching teaches us in particular, because when teaching you rapidly learn that someone can have a skill or a charm that they don’t know they had, and the main pleasure of talking to others in the key of instruction (when it works), or indeed in the key of friendship or affection, is gently persuading someone else to recognise in themselves what you can see in them: the good, hidden things, the skills denied or the resources suppressed. In this respect, teaching is similar to being in love, when people are often able to see more in the object of love than they can see in themselves, and in a long-term process of understanding another a lover or a beloved can come to see or recognise in themselves the things that initially only the other could see.
Although interpersonal life, I would acknowledge, is not always as good as that, the fact that it can be is more valuable than the fact that it isn’t always. These processes of enticing the other to know what you know about them are among the main things that make human life pleasurable, valuable and worth living, and I’m sad that Cavell, brilliant though he was, and quasi-therapeutic though his view of philosophy was, seems not quite to have been able to bring himself to acknowledge that. Maybe it was the pessimism of Freud that cast this pall over his thinking. Maybe one could flat-footedly blame the parents (I didn’t have a father who I believed didn’t want me to exist, and can only imagine what that would be like), or the self-enclosing processes by which late 20th-century American academics established and secured their status (you painfully develop a thesis in competition with your peers, then you keep on elaborating it until you die). But whatever its origins, the sadness is there; not a dull aching sadness but a metaphysical and restless one.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.