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Stanley Cavell Knows Emerson

Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome By Stanley Cavell University of Chicago Press $8.95

By Alexander E. Marashian

Stanley Cavell has done it again. As usual, just what he has done is hard to say, but anyone who reads Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome with the commitment it demands and deserves will percieve that that is part of its point.

Comprised of the Carus Lectures Cavell presented to the American Philosophical Association in 1988, this unruly--at times unfathomable--little book traverses the vast range of Cavell's recent thought, providing brilliant (if brief, sometimes sketchy) insights into the work of Emerson, Wittgenstein and Rawls, and charting a course for the future of American philosophy.

In the lengthy introduction, Cavell presents his conception of Emersonian (or Moral) Perfectionism. Resisting the possibility of an "essential definition" of Perfectionism, Cavell seeks to establish "an open-ended thematics." Perfectionism does not represent a competitor to today's most prominent moral theories (versions of utilitarianism and Kantianism). Instead, it constitutes a dimension of the moral life founded on the possibility of self-knowledge and transformation. Perfectionism receives extensive treatment in the writings of Emerson.

That Perfectionism cannot simply be defined, that it must be confronted and "received" in reading Emerson (and, significantly, Cavell), is a theme that pervades Conditions and exemplifies itself in Cavell's own writing and in his preoccupation with the act of writing and its role in the "task" of philosophy. For Cavell, Emerson's attitude toward the 'ordinary' in existence, as manifested in a kind of "investment in words," bears an allegorical relation to an "investment in our lives" and so is worthy of serious philosophical investigation.

Cavell's concern with philosophy's mode of presentation--just one of the points where he departs from (or perhaps collides with) the prevailing attitude of professional American philosophy--is the source of much that is rich and illuminating in his readings of Nietzsche, Heidegger and especially Emerson and Wittgenstein, which he undertakes in these three lectures.

The first lecture, on "Aversive Thinking," is discursive, provocative and nearly impossible to synthesize. This is no doubt part of Cavell's plan, since this lecture concerns the conditions for a conversation about (and with) Emerson's texts. In his efforts to retrieve Emerson from the longtime neglect of professional philosophy, Cavell locates him in the center of a dialogue involving Nietzsche (whom Emerson influenced profoundly) and Heidegger (influenced, in turn, by Nietzsche).

Unlike many who seek to revive Emerson, Cavell does not apologize for the excesses and eccentricities of Emerson's prose. He cultivates them, demonstrating the sense in which Emerson's writing constitutes a manner of thinking that can be characterized as a kind of "transfiguration"--of the terms and images of Plato, of Kant, of everyday experience.

Cavell takes this writing (a "conversion of words") as representing a dissatisfaction with what is traditionally understood by 'thinking' and as spurring an alternative mode--one securely tethered to natural language yet which represents the overcoming of thinking as grasping (what Emerson calls that "most unhandsome part of of our condition"). Here Cavell aligns his Emerson with Heidegger.

The second lecture, a careful reading of Saul Kripke's account of the Wittgensteinian "solution" to the problem of skepticism, appears at first to bear little relation to the first lecture. Here Cavell is intent on untangling Kripke's seductive interpretation of Wittgenstein's passages on rule-following. Kripke, Cavell suggests, misconstrues Wittgenstein's sense of the skeptical in his very supposition that there is a problem to be solved.

Cavell's treatment of the Kripke reading reflects his longtime concern with establishing the "seriousness of Wittgenstein's investment in the ordinary." According to Cavell, Wittgenstein shares with Emerson an attitude toward thinking characterized by an "entrustment of ordinary words." This attitude, if I understand it, is also the condition for the "Conversation of Justice"--the conversation whereby a democratic society comes to know and to criticize itself from within.

In part, the first two lectures provide the common ground for this crucial conversation, which Cavell undertakes in the third. Here he is at his most engaging, most provocative and most discursive, drawing erratically on his film studies, readings of Shakespeare, interpretation of Rawls and other varied interests. Cavell is an excellent conversationalist.

Although Cavell's Moral Reasoning course draws on much of the material found in the book, Conditions is not an introduction to philosophy. It presupposes considerable familiarity with Emerson, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Rawls. But the book does serve as an introduction to Cavell's thought, to his stunning literary interpretations, his mind-bending prose and his commitment to the future of American philosophy. As Cavell himself notes, the lectures are open-ended--their achievement, in part, lies in the relations they establish and the foundations they lay. And so, while not as satisfying as some of Cavell's other work, they are an excellent indication of work to be done. For anyone who suspects a poverty in contemporary American philosophy, Conditions provides a welcome relief.

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