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Philosophy Department Honors Late Professor Emeritus Stanley L. Cavell

Memorial Church
Memorial Hall

To honor the life of emeritus Philosophy emeritus professor Stanley L. Cavell, Harvard’s Philosophy Department held a tribute at Memorial Church followed by an all-day conference on Friday and Saturday.

Cavell passed away on June 19. He was 91. Cavell was appointed to be a professor at Harvard in 1963 and published 18 books throughout his academic career. His academic research focused on applying philosophical concepts to film, theater, and other artistic works.

The event was attended by several faculty members in the philosophy department, including Philosophy Professor Richard Moran and acting Philosophy Chair Alison J. Simmons; former students and colleagues; as well as members of Cavell’s family.

Moran opened the tribute in Memorial Church late Friday afternoon, attesting to Cavell’s influence on academic philosophy and calling his writing a “model of passion, brilliance, and sheer beauty.” In a subsequent speech, Rabbi Matthew V. Soffer discussed Cavell’s legacy as an academic and as an individual.

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“Certain characters are privileged with the grace of having their life lessons passed down to the next generation and the next,” Soffer said.

Cavell’s son, David F. Cavell, moderated Friday’s tribute, which featured speeches from the elder Cavell’s daughter Rachel L. Cavell, his son Benjamin W. Cavell, and his daughters-in-law Emily Cavell and Kate Cavell.

“We never really had to say goodbye to someone who left so much of himself behind,” David Cavell said of his late father.

Nancy F. Bauer ’82, a philosophy professor and dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, spoke after the Cavell family members, highlighting Cavell’s exemplary conduct as a colleague.

“We learned from Stanley that believing in and reaching for our higher selves is of the utmost ethical importance,” Bauer said.

Saturday’s all-day conference — held in Emerson Hall — focused on Cavell’s academic influence and work. Conference attendees, many of whom had known each other and Cavell for years, waved at and greeted each other jovially before speakers took to the podium.

Eleven professors hailing from a variety of institutions took turns speaking about Cavell’s influence on both their intellectual pursuits and their personal lives.

Alice M. Crary ’89, a philosophy professor at Oxford University, spoke about Stanley Cavell’s empathy during her battle with depression and his role as officiant for her commitment ceremony with her partner. Crary recalled once revealing to Cavell her need for “someone to tell me that they believed I could do this.”

“He showed his appreciation of my words by responding to me in his slow, winning manner, ‘Anyday,’” Crary said.

The academic portion of the conference concluded with a round-table discussion of Cavell’s works held by seven of Cavell’s former colleagues. The discussion was followed by an evening reception in the Philosophy Department’s Robbins Library.

In an interview during the reception, Gary Ebbs, a philosophy professor at Indiana University Bloomington, recalled a poignant memory of his former colleague. After telling Cavell one time that he was feeling frustrated with philosophy, Cavell responded to Ebbs simply, “Yes, well, there’s also pleasure there.”

“This is the kind of remark for which he’s well known for,” Ebbs said. “To see what’s needed to make the transformation away from conventional ways of thinking to something that is more genuine, but takes courage to do. I think of that remark quite often.”

Conference attendee James Laff, who said he wrote his thesis on Cavell, said he hoped the philosopher’s work will continue to remain relevant in the future.

“Today was a great event, but hopefully the beginning of many such events,” Laff said. “What today symbolizes is the planting of the seed that will hopefully be the way in which Stanley’s work will continue to impact future generations of philosophers.”

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