Friday, 15 November 2013

Must We Mean What We Say?: On Stanley Cavell


Must We Mean What We Say?: On Stanley Cavell
Stanley Cavell, born in 1926 and now 86 years old, is one of the greatest American philosophers of the past half-century. He was also something of a musical prodigy and like many prodigies his accomplishments struck him as a matter of fraud.

Cavell’s response to all of logical positivism: to demand that we only speak about what is absolutely true and false, that about that which we cannot speak with certainty, we must be silent, is to demand that we not speak at all—or else that we lie to ourselves about the ambiguity inherent in even the most carefully defined language.

Cavell’s larger argument is this: If we must bring the world with us to understand a definition, then we cannot define away the ambiguity in words, for the world we bring with us is already hopelessly ambiguous. 

A philosopher who limits the meaning of her words to carefully set out definitions, attempting to root out all ambiguity, in effect says, “I say, and you should hear, only what I mean.”

Cavell insists that language cannot be limited in this way. Language, to Cavell, is ambiguous not because it is imperfect, awaiting precise definition, but because we do not all see in the same way; it is a reflection of our basic predicament as distinct human beings. Thus, we must dare to mean what we say, take responsibility for all the meanings our words might be taken to have—even if those meanings go beyond what we understand as our intentions—because in our unintentional (though perhaps meaningful) slips, and the misapprehensions, mistakes, and insights of those with whom we speak, we bring together not just words but worldviews. 

 More striking, Cavell finds in classic Hollywood comedies like The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib (discussed in Pursuits of Happiness [1981]) perhaps the best available examples of how to actually deal with skepticism.

Given the rise of writers like Slavoj Zizek such claims about the importance of film to philosophy may seem unoriginal. But Cavell was among the first philosophers to take film seriously (his half-crazed 1971 book The World Viewed partly founded the philosophy of film), and he has set an example that others might more profitably follow.

Cavell found in Emerson and Thoreau the idea not of the “best self,” which we always look up at from below, but of what he calls, somewhat jocularly, the “next self”—the self we cannot help but see from wherever we happen to be standing. Whether more ordinary or extraordinary than ourselves at present, this self draws us on, makes us skeptical of our current selves, ashamed of them, as if we were nothing but frauds.

“The worst thing we could do is rely on ourselves as we stand,” Cavell writes, channeling Emerson.

“We must become averse to this conformity, which means convert from it,. . . .as if we are to be born (again).” And the self we are born into is, obviously, not in any sense our “best self”; it is by no means final; it is only our “next self.”

As Emerson himself puts it: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.”