The spirit in which things are said

Arnold Davidson

  • Themes out of School: Causes and Effects by Stanley Cavell
    Scolar/North Point, 288 pp, £16.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 86547 146 0

Since the publication of Must we mean what we say? in 1969, it has been said that Stanley Cavell’s books are unreviewable, a remark that will no doubt again be applied to his latest work. This remark has been repeated too often, by too many distinguished and distinctive philosophers, to be simply false, but neither should it be taken as flatly true. His work is explicitly meant to raise the question of what philosophical thought and writing is, and hence the question of what it is to review such thought. It is true enough that the essays in this book do not yield to standard philosophical review, which consists in the statement of an essay’s thesis with the arguments used to establish and support this thesis, and the elaboration of counter-examples intended to force a modification in the initial thesis. Cavell’s essays do not employ arguments in the service of theses designed to solve philosophical problems, and the use of counter-examples inspired by such argumentation, a dominant technique of contemporary analytical philosophy, seems irrelevant as a form of critique of his claims. Cavell’s awareness of his differences from the practices of current Anglo-American professional philosophy causes him more than once to attempt a characterisation of what he wishes philosophy to be. In the first essay of this book, in the context of addressing the claim that philosophy and film share no common border, he says that he understands philosophy as a ‘willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to learn to think undistractedly about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about, or anyway cannot help having occur to them, sometimes in fantasy, sometimes as a flash across a landscape... Such thoughts are instances of that characteristic human willingness to allow questions for itself which it cannot answer with satisfaction. Cynics about philosophy, and perhaps about humanity, will find that questions without answers are empty; dogmatists will claim to have arrived at answers; philosphers after my heart will rather wish to convey the thought that while there may be no satisfying answers to such questions in certain forms, there are, so to speak, directions to answers, ways to think, that are worth the time of your life to discover.’

This characterisation of philosophy should not appear as alien as it is sometimes made out to be. It is in fact an amplification or variation of Kant’s claim in the Critique of Pure Reason: ‘Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.’ But whereas Kant views this fate as leading to illusion, antinomy and paralogism, Cavell sees it also as a source of something positive, a virtue of philosophical thought, even if it can degenerate into a vice. His concept of philosophy is most obviously opposed to the picture of philosophy ‘as a more or less technical discipline reserved for specialists’, a picture that has recently come under increasing attack from very different quarters, most notably in the writings of Hilary Putnam, a philosopher of unimpeachable technical accomplishment. Throughout these essays, Cavell worries aloud about how his hopes for philosophy can be met in the institutional practice of philosophy, more specifically about whether directions to answers, ways to think, ‘are teachable, in ways suited to what we think of as schools’: hence one dimension of the title Themes out of School. These speculations reveal his unfailing awareness of the difficulty of his writing, although his essays are certainly no more difficult than those of Jacques Derrida, or than every third article in the Journal of Philosophy. They are, however, difficult in a different way from both Derrida and technical analytical philosophy, and his book calls on one to formulate a typology of philosophical difficulty, to account for the different kinds of difficulty to which philosophical thought can submit itself. Reading his essays does require a continuous concentration, but they are aimed at those for whom the pleasure of the text is not a mere literary slogan.

This book consists of 12 essays, most of which develop and extend concerns found in Cavell’s two previous books, The Claim of Reason and Pursuits of Happiness. Since these essays are not amenable to summary, I will consider portions of a few of them, each of which, in a different way, begins with the question of Cavell’s relation to the present practice of a different discipline: history, philosophy, film studies and literary theory.

‘The Ordinary as the Uneventful (A Note on the Annales Historians)’ originated as a response to Paul Ricoeur’s critique of the Annales historians’ attempt to produce what he called ‘eventless’ history. Ricoeur’s argument is that history cannot be eventless, since it is tied to narrative discourse which requires the concept of an event. Cavell’s response to this argument embodies one of his most remarkable capacities, his ability to get inside a position and uncover its motivations, as if he were a diagnostician of the spirit in which things are said. After admitting that he has not read enough of the Annales historians to provide an expert’s opinion of how they understand themselves, he says: ‘I can still go on to do something philosophers typically do in the absence of a command of the facts: I can ask what such a self-understanding might look like, and I can do that in the guise of asking myself what I would mean if I claimed that there is a history of the human being to which we are blinded by the traditional histories of flashing, dramatic events.’ Cavell’s concern is that the life of the ordinary man and woman may not be perceived so long as our historical interest is dictated by ‘high events’. With such a concern, a desire to turn away from events as made by exceptional people is a turning towards a history of the unexceptional, a desire to interest oneself differently in human existence. And this different interest will manifest a competing conception of the human being and of what it is to know human existence. So Cavell proposes that ‘such a history is interested not in what Ricoeur calls the eventless, as though it seeks, as it were, what is not happening; such a history is interested rather in the uneventful, seeking, so to speak, what is not out of the ordinary.’ He finds this interest also in Emerson and Thoreau’s concern for the common, the low, the near, and even in the return of Wittgenstein and Austin to ordinary language; moreover, the perception of the ordinary, the unexceptional and uneventful, is, for Cavell, one of the domains opened up by film. It is evidence in favour of his proposal for understanding the Annales school that the first volume of Ferdinand Braudel’s Civilisation and Capitalism: 15th-18th Century is entitled The Structures of Everyday Life.

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