Symposium Introduction

It is not too much to say that with the passing of Stanley Cavell in June of 2018, the contemporary philosophical landscape looks significantly barer, and that the very project of conceptualizing the United States of America has seen one of its guiding lights glimmer and fade (a light that doesn’t originate with Cavell, but that guides here as much as Thoreau, Emerson, King Jr., Baldwin, or others). I mention this to suggest one immediate point: that in the wake of Cavell’s death, things are not bare, nor entirely dark. Cavell’s writings will continue to be mined for the topics that fascinated Cavell—topics ranging from politics to aesthetics to language to film to literature to music to much else beyond—and equally, his writings will inspire reflection on things far beyond Cavell’s personal interests.

In this way, Andrew Norris’s book is exemplary, and even though it admittedly—and wisely—doesn’t aspire to serve as a comprehensive account or introduction to Cavell’s thinking, it nonetheless presents a deeply compelling and unified account of Cavell’s thinking, ranging from Cavell’s engagement with ordinary language philosophy and epistemology (especially around Austin and Wittgenstein) to Cavell’s engagement with politics (especially around Thoreau and Emerson). I do not think that I overstate things when I say that—because of its clarity, concision, and precision—this book will likely remain a staple in study and discussion of Cavell’s work. Norris’s work is rich and oftentimes richly illuminating; it is also commendable for never resorting to an imitation of Cavell’s own style of writing and philosophizing, preferring instead to engage with Cavell in a sort of seesaw process, where Cavell’s thought is understood in terms of its own interlocutors, and then oftentimes probed in terms of Norris’s thoughts and interlocutors.

There is so much that I might say about this book, but—because there are three other contributors, all three of whom had so much to say themselves—I want instead only to highlight one point and to invite Norris to see if he might suggest any Cavellian insights in response. Towards the end of the book, after drawing out the claim that I am about to quote in some detail from Cavell’s reading of Emerson, Norris notes that

self-reliance, as Cavell has it, is itself the exercise not of power but of reception. Socrates, the greatest perfectionist exemplar in the Western tradition of philosophy, recounts his own debt to Diotima in the Symposium, a debt which includes learning that philosophy is a mode of love or desire that draws the self beyond itself. (212)

This stress on receptivity is essential to understanding Cavell, and especially to marking the full measure of Emerson’s import and influence on Cavell; it is also what allows Cavell to rework notions like autonomy and the individual. At the same time, its inflection here—in terms of love—is something about which I would like to hear more from Norris. I especially want to pose a point that may seem far afield of both Cavell’s and his own concerns.

Norris compellingly traces out how at the heart of Cavell’s reading and inheritance of Emerson is a stress on the necessity of responding to “quite ordinary incapacity and failure” (221). The sort of moral perfectionism that Cavell presents engages with the strange, the uncanny, locates it in the ordinary, and acknowledges it as a constant feature of what it means to be human: in being unsettled with and in being ashamed of our society, we are able more fully to actualize that society, and ourselves.

What is the object of the love here though? My sense of Cavell’s work—lest it draw itself too close to Rorty (or Dewey)—is that conceiving of philosophy as a “mode of love” here does not mean a love for one’s neighbor or oneself (the way in which, say, Rorty talks about a future utopia where “love is the only law”—this difference is one way, I think, to get the sense of the enemy/friend operation in Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome). Instead, for Cavell, the love in question seems to me best understood as a sort of “love” of the world. Cavell stresses that “to live in the face of doubt . . . would be to fall in love with the world. [. . .] And if you find that you have fallen in love with the world, then you would be ill-advised to offer an argument of its worth . . . Because you are bound to fall out of love with your argument, and you may thereupon forget that the world is wonder enough, as it stands. Or not.”1 By my lights, Cavell here is highlighting that this is exactly how any self-made individual does live in the world: anyone who pursues selfhood in the world, does so in such a way that she acknowledges the world and her standing in it; in both such cases—where the world, as it stands, is wonder enough or where it is not—one has a practical engagement with the world.

In light of such a phenomenological inheritance, which Cavell locates in Heidegger and Wittgenstein as well as Thoreau and Emerson, I wonder whether we are entering some sort of “special” phase in how we ought to conceive of such phenomenological themes, and thereby Cavell’s moral perfectionism. Specifically, if something like, in genocide scholar Mark Levene’s terms, “omnicide”—the destruction of all living life—becomes a distinct possibility for and in the world, then how do we understand the status of the world and of ourselves in it? Are there dimensions of the sort of Emersonian moral perfectionism that Cavell proposes that have yet to be developed in this context? At a very eagle’s-eye view of things, could it be the case, say, that Cavell’s philosophical engagement with the notion of a world (there already in Cavell’s earliest works) might require—in the present moment, where the very possibility of the world, any world, is under threat—the suspension of the very moral perfectionism that constitutes that world?

  1. Cavell, Claim of Reason, 431.



On Becoming Who We Are

What a joy to discover someone who cares about both dedicatees of The Claim of Reason: both Thompson Clarke and the memory of J. L. Austin.1 I suppose you need to have felt the very real power of Austin’s procedures in order to appreciate the breakthrough energy of Clarke’s philosophical analysis of the verb to nibble, but to those who have felt that power, to those who have thought that if only they possessed Austin’s courage, they too could have stared down the skeptic, to those people, the dense analytical poetry of Clarke’s few published pages opened a new field of philosophy, the problem of the plain.2

As Cavell put it in the foreword to The Claim of Reason, Clarke convinced him that “the dictates of ordinary language . . . were as supportive as they were destructive of the enterprise of traditional epistemology.”3 Clarke discovered that philosophy can be on no surer footing defending the possibility of knowledge than attacking it, and Cavell’s word for this, the fate of human knowledge, is disappointment. He can write specifically of our disappointment with criteria, and more generally of what he found displayed in the writings of Wittgenstein as “the human disappointment with human knowledge.”4 Simply put, this means that the human quest for knowledge is at sea, rocking between feeling secure and feeling insecure, no land in sight. It is a rocking Cavell refers to as the uncanniness of the ordinary.5 And it is precisely this rocking back and forth which, as Cavell sees it, measures the distance between his own work and that of Derrida, for whom, on this account, there are no, even moments, of security.6

Cavell’s discussion of democracy, like his discussion of human knowledge, is also faithful to a disappointment, here a disappointment with democracy.7 As he can speak of our human disappointment with human knowledge, so he very nearly speaks of our democratic disappointment with democracy.8 Government by and for the people sounds splendid, but there is always the issue of my relation to this people, the issue of consent: “whether the voice I lend in recognizing a society, as mine, as speaking for me, is my voice, my own.”9 If the voice I lend in recognition of society is not my own, but those of some crowd or other, then I will have succumbed to that virtue in most request: conformity.10 This can drop us suddenly into a numbing fear, the fear that our deepest, dearest thoughts might, after all, not be ours but only those of some societal voice ventriloquizing through us. It is a matter of losing one’s voice, and it is more serious than many kinds of disappointment, and so taking a word from Cavell’s interpretation of Walden, Norris insists that our democratic disappointment with democracy can deliver us to despair.11

Norris’s book is wonderful at tracing the parallel lives of Cavell’s epistemological and moral writings. If there is a way out of this despair it will be by acknowledging the partiality of voice. When it is a question of knowledge, Norris reminds us that we are tempted to try to give up our voice altogether, letting the words do all the work by themselves, as if we were only borrowing our language from God, or anyway their pure, independent propositional content. Acknowledging the human conditions of human speech, that is our partiality, will never answer the skeptic, Cavell learned that from Clarke, but it might rock us momentarily out of the sea troughs of skepticism. When it is a question of democracy’s disappointment, losing our voice to conformity, then once again a momentary way out depends on our acknowledging the partiality of our voice, that it is mine. We might perhaps put it this way: while in the epistemological case, our disappointment rises or falls as we refuse or acknowledge the partiality of the human, in the moral case, our disappointment rises or falls by the refusal or acknowledgment of our very own partiality.

Unfortunately that makes it sound too scientific, as if the study of the human or myself might be offered as an explanation of these two inflections of philosophy’s disappointment. Neither the human nor me myself are knowable otherwise than in our acknowledgment of them, and so they must remain, in their way, unknowable. I suspect this is why Norris suggests that Cavell’s perfectionism owes less to Aristotle than it does to what is called existentialism.12

Even in the wake of Norris’s impressive presentation of Cavell’s impact on politics and the practical, I find myself unable to keep from wondering about the force of those words politics and practical.

It seems a natural question; because on occasion Emerson was perfectly able to dismiss what he called “your virtuous projects,” insisting that “philanthropies and charities have a certain air of quackery.”13 And given these kinds of remarks, it is easy to receive Emerson, and therefore also Emersonian perfectionism, as concerned less with what passes for politics and more with that spiritual tradition in philosophy that Foucault called the care of the self.14 Less with politics than with what some still refer to as the meaning of life. Of course in an Emersonian frame of mind, this meaning of life, no less than Cavell’s Perfectionism itself, is never attained, remaining always to be attained. And so the natural question is about the lines linking the meaning of life with, for example, coming out on the losing side of an election.

The democratic disappointment of democracy is not only the discovery that my voice is not my own, a matter first of all about my taking the easy route of conformity—Who am I? Who have I let myself become?—but also the discovery that however corrupted I may in the evening admit to being, I am still unable to find my feet with the people I once felt one of—Who are they? Who have they let themselves become? This is still a question of the spirituality, of the meaning of life, but directed neither exclusively to myself nor to another, but directed to the others of whom I am one. Perhaps this is one of the inflections of Norris’s title: Becoming Who We Are. But I wonder about more specifically political questions, what Emerson can call Causes, including for example Abolitionism.15

What are the lines linking those political Causes with Emerson’s call to attend affectionately to the “meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of an eye; the form and gait of the body.”16 Well that is my question.

I suspect, or rather hope, that if we could all attend affectionately to the meal and the milk, the ballad and the news, the glancing eye and loping gait, there would be no voices opposed to abolitionism. And beyond this hope, I sometimes feel this as a challenge, an incitement to becoming exemplary in the work of achieving that togetherness, or attunement, of our voices. So one side of this question is what is the connection between attending affectionately to the familiar and the low, and Causes, Causes like Abolitionism. Yet while I hope or yearn for such a connection, there are places where Emerson seems to feel a difference between those two, between a spiritual concern and a political concern. In one place anyway, he can speak of a double consciousness, of our living two lives, one of the understanding and one of the soul.17 So another side of this question linking the spiritual and the political is whether we might do as well keeping those two separate as striving to bring them together. What are we to do with that other Emersonian voice, Nietzsche’s for example, who could write: “Any philosophy that believes that the problem of existence can be altered or solved by a political event is a sham and pseudophilosophy.”18

And so sometimes, I am tempted to separate the instrumental from the spiritual, yet the instrumental needs a direction, a goal, and what goal should we pick? In my naïveté, I am struck by the way, for example in the United States, political voices from different positions often characterize that goal in the same way, and then disagree, violently enough, over the instrumental means. Providing health care by the market or by the government is only one example of this. What makes for violent disagreement is partly due to endorsing different moral principles which differently constrain our different paths to what we could exaggerate as being identical goals. I wonder therefore, if there might be a role, within an Emersonian perfectionism, for an instrumental politics without principles. Although our lives would be spiritless and meaningless if we only approached life instrumentally, might a pure but partial instrumentalism be just what politics and the practical demand?

  1. Norris, Becoming Who We Are: Politics and Practical Philosophy in the Work of Stanley Cavell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 49–62.

  2. Clarke, “The Legacy of Skepticism,” Journal of Philosophy 69.20 (1972) 769.

  3. Cavell, The Claim of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), xii.

  4. Cavell, The Claim of Reason, 44, 79.

  5. Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 154.

  6. This remark gestures towards one of Cavell’s sentences, here merely decontextualized: “I should add that, since this opera [Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro] is notable as one in which marriages are manageable—which means, according to the relation I earlier proposed between marriage and skepticism, that the world is successfully, if momentarily, called back from its skeptical annihilation—Orpheus’s role must be extended.” Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 153.

  7. Derrida’s distant nearness to Cavell is perhaps audible in Derrida’s insisting, for example when talking about forgiveness, that we remain faithful not to a disappointment, but to an impossibility.

  8. Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 56, 124.

  9. Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, 27.

  10. Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841), in Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 261.

  11. Norris, Becoming Who We Are, 157, 219.

  12. Norris, Becoming Who We Are, 216.

  13. Emerson, “The Transcendentalist” (1842), in Essays and Lectures, 204, 203.

  14. Foucault characterized this spiritual tradition as having three characteristics, that (i) just as you stand there you are not yet able to, or have not the right yet to receive the truth, (ii) to become able to receive the truth will require a transformation of who you are, and finally (iii) that if you do become transformed so as to be able to receive the truth, that reception will return to the transformed subject a calm and peace that comes from strength. See Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures 1981–1982 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) 15–16.

  15. Emerson, “The Transcendentalist” (1842), in Essays and Lectures, 203.

  16. Emerson, “The American Scholar” (1837), in Essays and Lectures, 69. (An almost Whitmanian list.)

  17. Emerson, “The Transcendentalist” (1842), in Essays and Lectures, 205–6.

  18. Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator” (1874), in Unfashionable Observations, trans. R. T. Gray (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 197. (Does Cavell come close to sharing this Nietzschean point when he talks about writing for a situation enjoying “good enough justice”? [Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, 3.])

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    Andrew Norris


    Reply to Bearn

    I am very grateful for these learned and deeply thoughtful comments. It is immensely rewarding to have one’s work taken so seriously, and I thank the contributors and Martin Shuster in particular for making this discussion possible. In the interest of making it as productive as it can be, I have focused less on the many points of agreement between these comments and my own views, and more on the differences. I hope that will not be misunderstood.

    Gordon Bearn concludes his generous and insightful remarks with the worry that Cavell’s dedication to Emerson distances him more from politics than I propose. This is a real worry, one that I address in the third and fifth chapters of my book. Rather than rehearse those arguments here, let me respond to the details of Bearn’s. Bearn asks, “What are we to do with that other Emersonian voice, Nietzsche’s for example, who could write: ‘Any philosophy that believes that the problem of existence can be altered or solved by a political event is a sham and pseudo-philosophy’?” First, I think we need to ask what exactly this voice says about das Problem des Daseins. The political event to which Nietzsche refers here, at the start of the fourth section of “Schopenhauer as Educator,” is the 1871 “founding of the new German Reich,” which some believe “put the world to rights” and refuted those who harbor misgivings regarding “the nature of existence [Dasein]” (Nietzsche 1983, 147; Nietzsche 1999, 364). Nietzsche has just concluded the third section of his essay by stating the question he says is posed to genius: whether it can “justify life as such.” “‘Do you affirm this existence [Dasein] in the depths of your heart? Is it sufficient for you? Would you be its advocate, its redeemer [Erlöser]? For you have only to pronounce a single heartfelt Yes!—and life, though it faces heavy accusations, shall go free.’ What answer shall he give?—The answer of Empedocles” (Nietzsche 1983, 146; Nietzsche 1999, 363). The problem of existence under consideration is a quite extraordinary one: not just the ethical problem of how one should live or be, but that of whether existence and life überhaupt can be justified and set free. Only a fanatical nationalist would argue that any Reich or state could solve this problem. And it is one thing to note this, and to deny, as Nietzsche does, that “the state is the highest goal of mankind and that a man has no higher duty than to serve the state,” and quite another to deny the importance of politics altogether. Nietzsche avers of the philosophers and culture with which he contrasts state worship only that they are “fairly independent [ziemlich unabhängig] of the welfare of a state,” before going on to attack in the harshest terms the dominion of “the most evil forces, the egoism of the money-makers and the military despots” (Nietzsche 1983, 148, 150; Nietzsche 1999, 365, 368). If philosophical culture and free life are to contest such dominion, they must themselves have a political moment—as Nietzsche confirms in his identification of the best answer to the problem of existence as that of Empedocles, a “lawgiver” and “reformer” in politics as well as philosophy (Nietzsche 1983, 144, and Nietzsche 1995b, 113).1

    This is not to say that I am any more confident than Bearn that attending to Emerson’s “meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the news of the boat; the glance of an eye; the form and gait of the body” will in itself make many of us adopt political causes like Abolitionism.2 If Cavell resembles the existentialists more than the moralists he criticizes, it is in part because of his recognition of the deeply contingent, personal nature of our commitments, including that to the liberation of others. Bearn notes Emerson’s dismissal of “philanthropies and charities.” But politics is not limited to altruism, and Emerson, Nietzsche, and Cavell are one in their suspicion that we do not yet know the reach of our self-interest, or desire, or need, because we do not yet know ourselves. This is not to identify the spiritual and the political, and Bearn is surely right that any well-ordered polity will perform any number of tasks in an instrumental, relatively “unprincipled fashion.” This is a central feature of Max Weber’s insistence upon the need for a bureaucracy characterized by an ethic of responsibility as opposed to an ethic of conviction; and it is a measure of the crisis facing countries like the United States that this is no longer honored, and, as Jan-Werner Müller notes, plutocratic populists are attempting to “occupy the state” and politicize the bureaucracy by replacing impartial agents such as natural scientists with ideologically driven allies (Müller 1986, 44–45). Müller attacks such attempts in the name of democracy, which unlike populism, with its phony and unfalsifiable claims to speak for the people, requires mediating institutions such as an independent bureaucracy and a free press.3 While this is not the only attack one might imagine, it is one that Emerson and Cavell would endorse, insisting as they do upon both the necessity of the people’s commitment to a common political life, and the recognition that this commonality will not always make itself evident, and is not ubiquitous. If Rousseau’s idea of the general will is a helpful bridge between the we of ordinary language and that of the political community, Emerson’s emphasis upon partiality determines its limits or form.



    Brobjer, Thomas. 2008. Nietzsche’s Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1983. “The American Scholar.” In Essays and Lectures. New York: Library of America.

    Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1979. Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. Translated by Daniel Breazeale. London: Humanities.

    ———. 1983. “Schopenhauer as Educator.” In Untimely Mediations, translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    ———. 1995a. The Pre-Platonic Philosophers. Translated by Greg Whitlock. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

    ———. 1995b. Unpublished Writings from the Period of Unfashionable Observations. Translated by Richard Gray. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    ———. 1999. Die Geburt der Tragödie / Unzeitgemäße Betractungen. Kritische Studienausgabe, herausgegeben von Giorgio Colli und Mazzino Montinari. Munich: de Gruyer.

    1. In his posthumously published late ’60s, early ’70s lectures on the pre-Platonic philosophers, Nietzsche follows Schopenhauer in emphasizing Empedocles’ tragic pessimism and his verdict that in a fundamental way life is not worth living; but he places if anything even more weight upon Empedocles’ celebration of eros, equality, and, in politics, democracy and ultimately communism. Nietzsche 1995a, 106–19; cf. Nietzsche 1979, 134. In a note from the winter of 1872, Nietzsche echoes the “old fable” recounted in Emerson’s “American Scholar” essay, according to which “the state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.” Emerson 1983, 54. In Nietzsche’s account, the group of pre-Platonic philosophers have been pillaged and torn asunder by partial and occasional readings; “hence we find, sometimes here, sometimes there, . . . one of Parmenides’ arms, a piece of Heraclitus’ shoulder, one of Empedocles’ feet. In order to understand them as wholes, one must recognize in them the first outline and germ of the Greek reformer.” It is Empedocles who “came closest to filling the role of the reformer.” Nietzsche 1995b, 113. For Emerson’s influence on Nietzsche, see Brobjer 2008, 22–23.

    2. Though note that this is Emerson’s continuation of a slightly different and potentially more political series: “The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of the household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride.” Emerson 1983, 68.

    3. Populists like Trump share Cavell’s concern with political claims; but, as Müller rightly notes, “populists are always antipluralist: populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people . . . they will not recognize anything like a legitimate opposition.” “What distinguishes democratic politicians from populists is that the former make representative claims in the form of something like hypotheses that can be empirically disproven on the basis of the actual results of regular procedures and institutions like elections”—or, Cavell would add, the countering claims of their fellow citizens. Müller 1986, 20, 39.



On Hope and Conflict

I am convinced by Norris’s overall argument, and find him appealingly right and subtle in bringing out both the uncanniness in Cavell’s version of ordinary language philosophy and the way that skepticism is reframed there rather than dismissed or embraced. I also find the picture of political life that comes out of this account tempting and illuminating.

Coming from this position of sympathy, I want to push the questions of hope and conflict raised in the book a bit further, asking after what we may expect from this vision of shared forms of life and what kinds of conflict are imagined when avoidance and skepticism frame our conception of political disagreement. While I think these questions bear on our present political situation, I will pursue them more abstractly here, both because I want to think about them in terms of Cavell’s philosophical commitments and because they are—as Socrates said and Norris reminds us—the sort of questions that make us quarrel. While I do give examples, I mean them to stand as paradigms of disagreement rather than provocations to argument—though I confess them to be shadowed by thoughts of Black Lives Matter, #metoo, and other sites of ongoing questions as to the nature of our community and the extent to which it is shared.

This Cavellian politics, grounded in his commitments to ordinary language philosophy and skepticism, presents us with a vision of communal life as already present and yet to be achieved. It is present in our shared forms of life and the common shape they give to our commitments and desire; it is delayed because our enactment of these forms is imperfect, due to both the opacity of self-knowledge and the pervasive, deeply human avoidance of these commitments and the responsibility lodged within them. Regarding this picture I have two related doubts. First, are enough of our commitments shared and grammatical/transcendental in the way that the best case examples are? May we expect to discover implicit and pervasive agreement about the just and the unjust in the same way that we find agreement in distinguishing between knowledge and belief? Second—and I take this to be the same question from another angle—how far will a skeptical model get us in thinking about how disagreement works?

The first question I take to be basically unanswerable on Cavellian grounds: the uncanniness of our life in language, the way we are shaped by forms both intimate and unknown, means that while we may hope to find agreement we cannot expect it. The systematicity Cavell seeks is still just an empirical a priori born out of convention: the reach of its logic cannot be assumed but only tested, and what commitments I have may always turn out to be merely idiosyncratic, not revelatory or shared. This makes the second question about the skeptical framework also basically unanswerable, if I am right about their connection; I’ll spend a bit more time on this, though, to bring out how our hopes for the Cavellian approach extend just as far as the shared systematicity of our commitments does, and no further.

To open up this thought, I want to look at two instances of finding out what we mean, and what coming to agreement looks like in each of them. The first is Cavell’s; it is more a type than a specific instance. In it, what we are presented with is a mind that does not fully know itself, that takes on commitments that are in conflict with each other or that fail in some way to fully respond to what is known or believed. The skeptic and anti-skeptic of “Knowing and Acknowledging” give us a small example of what this could look like, expanded to a community of disagreement; Cavell memorably describes them as if they are two halves of one mind that must be gotten back together, reconciled through a work of description that shows their division to be temporary. We see conflict and reconciliation in one mind in Cavell’s example of the slaveholder, discussed here in chapter 3, “Community and Voice.” The slaveholder is susceptible to perfection because the inconsistency of his speech and behavior shows that he cannot fully mean what he says: his explicit claim that slaves are not people is incompatible with the various ways that his behavior continually recognizes and depends upon that disavowed personhood. Here, too, we have a mind that can be gotten back together through some work of reflection and humility, on the way to a better world more true to its own buried sense of things. Revelation, here, brings with it the possibility of change and agreement—perceiving what one means holds the seeds of amelioration.

My second instance comes from Cora Diamond, and puts more pressure on the possible analogy between the soul and the city. It comes from an old paper about an old debate: “Experimenting on Animals: A Problem in Ethics.” Like Cavell, Diamond operates in the mode of revelatory description: she is trying to see why arguments over vivisection go as they do, and what the true stakes of disagreement might be.

What we might hope for here is something like what happens with the skeptic and the slaveholder: the vivisectionist would not experiment on his dog, and believes in fairness, so we can show that his actions are inconsistent. What Diamond shows instead is that the divide comes from deeper commitments: the vivisectionist and anti-vivisectionist do not disagree over whether animals can feel pain or whether that pain has moral standing, but instead over the role of imagination, science, and practicality in human life. The central difference in this example is that there is nothing illogical or internally inconsistent on either side, no unacknowledged commitment to the other perspective, and thus no reason outside goodwill that they should be committed to taking on what the other one sees. Where Cavell presents the slaveholder as someone who has culpably abstracted from his own life, this is not so clearly the case here: it is not just consistent but sometimes valuable to devalue the sympathetic imagination and prioritize pragmatic concerns. Conversation between these two sides is not obviously open to conversion and amelioration as it is in the case of the slaveholder; each is in line with their own commitments and values. Whatever reconciliation may happen between the two seems more likely to look like uneasy cohabitation than getting two halves of one mind back together.

What Diamond’s example gives us is space to hold off from any expectation of reconciliation, from expecting that disunity is only temporary. Our political disagreement over the status of animals comes out of disagreements that exceed the political, and that are in disharmony that seems not to demand or expect reconciliation. Here, revelation comes apart from force and transformation—it reveals a rift without showing a path to conversion. Outside of political differences about how animals should be treated, I may even value this divide—I depend upon my vet’s ability to suspend her sympathetic imagination in favor of practical activity when she treats my dog, e.g.—but recognizing that does not move me towards a reconciled view of vivisection. Here our capacity to talk to each other gets us to a moment of recognition, but not further—it even suggests, perhaps, that I should not expect or desire reconciliation.

This is not a gotcha moment; Norris discusses the second type of example, and its existence does not undermine the hope of community, or of moments where deeper understanding brings reconciliation rather than a better sense of a divide. My own hope here was not to foreclose on such possibility but to invite meditation on it from within a different picture of disagreement and difference, and connect that difference to Cavell’s own picture of our life in language. What do we do when the city seems not to be one soul temporarily divided, when we are just a collection in the midst of the untidy mess of how things are? It is open to us to say that, after all, there was no community but only a gathering; here at the beginning of 2018 this seems at once true and urgently in need of rejection.

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    Andrew Norris


    Reply to Kelley

    Kathleen Kelley’s gracious and thoughtful remarks are animated by a similar concern regarding the intractable nature of political conflict. Kelley rightly notes that many political disagreements do not allow for the sort of immanent critique I find in Cavell’s discussion of the slaveholder; and she proposes that Cora Diamond’s great essay, “Experimenting on Animals: A Problem in Ethics,” points to a rather different and more troubling picture of political and moral disagreement. As she puts it,

    What Diamond shows . . . is that the divide comes from deeper commitments: the vivisectionist and anti-vivisectionist do not disagree over whether animals can feel pain or whether that pain has moral standing, but instead over the role of imagination, science, and practicality in human life. The central difference in this example is that there is nothing illogical or internally inconsistent on either side, no unacknowledged commitment to the other perspective, and thus no reason outside goodwill that they should be committed to taking on what the other one sees.

    This is not quite how I read Diamond’s essay. As I read it, Diamond’s conclusion is that one party to the dispute is wrong, and the other right. The dispute is not whether animal experimentation should be allowed, but in what spirit it should be considered and, when necessary, conducted. Diamond compares the issue to that of abortion, where the question for her is not whether abortion should be legal, but whether the fetus and the mother both have moral status and weight (Diamond 2001a, 342). One might well agree that they do and nonetheless regretfully have an abortion, or support the right of all women to do so safely and legally. In the case of animal experimentation, the question is whether there is a (scientific, “practical”) space in which animals can be used as things with no such status, whose feelings and fortunes are of no moral importance whatsoever. For the party Diamond names the First View, to deny this is irresponsible sentimentality; for the Second View, to assert it is to promote a morally objectionable callousness. Diamond’s discussion of the dispute is characteristically sensitive and nuanced. Here I will only cite her concluding summary; the first two italics are mine.

    I tried to show that the accusation of sentimentality has two sources: ideas about scientific activity which indeed underlie the First View. One is a view of scientific activity as special and set apart from other activities in the inapplicability to it of certain kinds of moral criticism. The scientist is seen as engaged in an objective investigation of reality; and by a non sequitur this suggests that he is not called upon to bring moral imagination to bear on what he does—to animals or, indeed, to other people. The other source was a simplistic ideal of practicality; not the idea that doing what needs doing is important, but the idea that a practical person need not bother overmuch with the problematic character of the area in which he acts, indeed, need not try fully to see what he is doing, if that might slow him down.1

    The final words of this paragraph and of Diamond’s essay as a whole are even more unequivocal: “there is a great self-indulgent cop-out in treating what is done to animals in science as nothing worth thinking about” (Diamond 2001a, 364). Diamond argues strenuously against a view of science and of practical life that stifles and corrupts (makes callous) our moral sensitivity and our moral imaginations by encouraging the fantasy that we can somehow remove ourselves from what George Rolleston terms “the ordinary sphere of daily duty” and what Diamond calls “ordinary ethics,” a sphere in which “common human sense” is granted its rightful authority (Diamond 2001a, 361). This goes quite far in providing “reasons outside goodwill” that one party should be committed to taking on what the other sees; and it does so by emphasizing “unacknowledged commitments” to ordinary standards of moral evaluation and consideration.2 Diamond herself suggests that this argument has political purchase well outside the debate over animal experimentation, comparing the view she attacks not just to that of some thoughtless defenders of abortion, but also with the “balderdash . . . which identifies patriotism with the doctrine that ordinary moral considerations fail to apply to what is done for the sake of one’s country,” as if those conducting war or perhaps international relations or even domestic politics had some sort of “morally special status” (Diamond 2001a, 361). This is not an argument against war per se, but against the idea that its conduct does not entail the sort of moral considerations that the infliction of suffering and death do in “ordinary ethics” and ordinary life. In a period in which the United States is fighting interminable overlapping wars, about which the citizenry of the country is both misinformed and willfully uninformed, this points to a significant area of political application for the kind of arguments that Diamond advances. The same could be said of “technical” justifications of the injustice and violence visited upon racial minorities, women, the homeless, immigrants, the children of the poor, and many others.

    There are evident and important commonalities between Diamond’s approach to political dispute and that of Cavell. Diamond writes of our need to try to fully see what we are doing; Cavell writes of trying to mean every word one says. For both, the abstraction from the ordinary calls for much more careful thought than we ordinarily give it; and for both the danger of such abstraction is that we will (and all too commonly do) lose sight of our own practices and lives, where this includes both what we share and what we do not. It may be helpful in regard to the latter to recall how Cavell relates Emersonian perfectionism’s concern with language to Aristotle’s claim in the opening of the Politics that the human being is the most political of animals because it alone has been gifted with logos (Cavell 2004, 24). In contrast to mere voice, which expresses only desire and aversion and their satisfactions, pleasure and pain, speech allows for the articulation of arguments (claims and reasons) and hence for deliberation over justice—deliberation which is itself a moment of justice, as “the virtue or administration of justice consists in the determination of what is just,” and not that of simply being just (Aristotle 1995, 12). Cavell writes in connection to this claim, “I wish the title of what came to be called ‘ordinary language philosophy’ had been one that recognized that the justice of speech was its subject” (Cavell 2004, 356).3 I take the justice of speech here to correspond to Aristotle’s process of the determination of the just decision: to insist upon the justice of this determination in speech is to insist that justice is more than the decisions we might reach about the justice of this or that policy or act. It follows that our respect for justice should extend to our speech—that is, to what we say and how we say it, when we are speaking about matters that might be judged to be just or unjust, and hence as yet in some disagreement about what to do or conclude. (As Cavell like Arendt emphasizes, the precondition of seriously discussing a matter is that we do not see it the same way.) It is in the context of such plurality in unity or in commonality that I think we should consider Cavell’s discussion in part 3 of The Claim of Reason of “rational disagreement,” as what is at stake in both is a respect for the other and for the life and speech we share with the other in the absence (for now, perhaps forever) of common decision. In Diamond’s terms, we need to see the other with whom we disagree as nonetheless granting moral weight to things that have moral weight (which need to be addressed and seen as morally significant in argument), not hiding behind false and simplistic abstractions. Like Cavell, she does not argue that we are always able to agree on moral or political matters; and, in defending the importance of great literature to our ongoing moral education, she writes of its role in “making us think and not . . . giving us what to think”—that is, not giving us the answers, whatever those might be (Diamond 2001b, 371). It is to this thought that I refer when I write in my book of our political talk being not only concerned with, but in a sense the essence of our common good.


    Aristotle. Politics. Translated by E. Barker and R. F. Stalley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Cavell, Stanley. 2004. Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life. Cambridge: Belknap, of Harvard University Press.

    Diamond, Cora. 2001a. “Experimenting on Animals: A Problem in Ethics.” In The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Moral Life. London: MIT Press.

    ———. 2001b. “Having a Rough Story about What Moral Philosophy Is.” In The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Moral Life. London: MIT Press.

    Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1993. Philosophical Occasions. Edited by James Klagge and Alfred Nordmann. Indianapolis: Hackett.

    1. Note that what Diamond finds objectionable is not just, as Kelley puts it, the prioritizing of pragmatic concerns, but the fantasy that pragmatic or practical concerns require a technical evaluation that excludes ordinary moral considerations.

    2. That said, I would not want to downplay the importance of goodwill to any stable, functioning polity, an importance that is demonstrated by its complete absence in the behavior of the current US president.

    3. Compare Wittgenstein: “Our only task is to be just [gerecht]. That is, we must only point out and resolve the injustices of philosophy.” Wittgenstein 1993, 181.



The Space Between Philosophy and Politics

Stanley Cavell is not a political philosopher in any standard sense of the term. Direct and consecutive engagement with canonical texts in, and standard topics of, political philosophy occupy a rather small part of his extensive body of work and, indeed, he has argued that philosophy should be wary of the temptation to intervene directly in political affairs.1 Even so, broadly political themes and issues—even if sometimes in unfamiliar guises—emerge with sufficient regularity throughout Cavell’s work to indicate a deep and enduring concern with such matters. Further, and importantly, these engagements emerge naturally from within the main lines of Cavell’s considerations, as though they are invited by the character of those considerations; and this suggests that, beyond whatever explicit engagements with directly political matters we may identify, a weave of broadly political concepts and concerns runs just beneath the surface of a great deal of Cavell’s work.

In this meticulously researched, deeply thoughtful, and richly provocative book, Andrew Norris works to make elements of this underlying weave of broadly political concepts and concerns more explicit and available than Cavell himself has done in order to reveal what he sees as the coherence and systematic character of Cavell’s continuous, but also developing, thought about public life. One goal of this effort is to “alter our understanding of [Cavell’s] work as a whole” by “showing it to have more sides and greater depth than is sometimes thought” (3).2 This is an important goal, and Norris’s work should be enthusiastically engaged by students of Cavell and will, it is to be hoped, encourage further attention to his work among political philosophers and political theorists. However, Norris also harbors goals that are more directly practical. He aims to reveal what he sees as Cavell’s vitally important contribution not only to contemporary political theory but to the character of our political lives themselves. He hopes to show, that is, that and how Cavell speaks to contemporary political theory and contemporary political life “in ways that might help to transform that theory and that life” (3, emphasis added). Accordingly, while he doesn’t say so explicitly, Norris is clearly—and in my view rightly—urging us to read Cavell in the way that, and with the seriousness with which, Cavell himself reads Wittgenstein, Emerson, and Thoreau; as a kind of philosophical prophet of the ordinary calling us to join him in the always unending work of becoming who we are and achieving the eventual ordinary. In a sense, then, Norris is playing the role of Aaron to Cavell’s Moses; reformulating Cavell’s thought so that it can be better “heard by the wider community of political theorists and philosophers” (3). But only in a sense. For, on the one hand, we might say that Cavell is already playing Aaron to Wittgenstein’s, Emerson’s, and Thoreau’s Moses. And, on the other hand, Norris’s work, in being pitched much more heavily toward an academic audience than is Cavell’s (as its sometimes distracting 62 pages of notes attest), may be less effective in reaching a nonacademic readership.

Much of the power of Norris’s work lies in the detailed and subtle readings that he offers of the texts of Cavell’s with which he engages as well as in the ways in which he brings those texts into contact with figures Cavell does not himself consider. Although I cannot trace any of these readings here, students of Cavell, and others, will benefit from doing so. What I want to do instead is sketch the general character of the contribution to political philosophy and political life that Norris sees Cavell making as the background against which to raise some questions that I hope will advance our engagement with this material and these issues.

Norris sees the fundamental character of Cavell’s concern with the political as beginning from, and centered in, a concern with individual lives rather than with social structures and institutions, material and economic conditions, or concrete cultural and historical circumstances. Seeing this as a point of deep connection between Cavell and Socrates, Norris remarks that “for both Socrates and Cavell, politics, devoted as it is to the good life of individuals who make up the polis, is found first and foremost in individual lives” (6). Further, since, as he goes on to say, those “lives are too often characterized by the ‘silent melancholy’ and ‘quiet desperation’ Emerson and Thoreau discern in their fellow citizens” (6), Norris sees Cavell’s broadly political focus on individual lives as, again like Socrates’, directed toward individual awakening and transformation. However, as Norris’s book as a whole is meant to show, the project of individual awakening and transformation quickly moves toward, or reveals itself to be, also broadly political.

To give a sense of the main lines along which Norris traces this connection between individual awakening and the political, consider that individual awakening is, in the first instance, an awakening to the reality and the potentiality of our lives; to the reality that they are mostly lives of self-alienation and conformity (otherwise there would be no need for awakening) but also that they hold forth the promise of autonomy and authenticity (otherwise there would be no possibility of awakening). Further, part of the reality of our lives to which we awaken is our essential and necessary embeddedness in community (or communities); so that my discovery, or working out, of who I am is at the same time a discovery, or working out, of the community (or communities) of which I am a member—a point Norris expresses by saying that one of “Cavell’s central political claims is the roughly Hegelian one that our individual autonomy and our membership in a community with others are constitutive of one another” (6). This constitutive embeddedness in turn implies, or registers, that the character of the communities within which we are constituted deeply informs the possibilities for, and the character of, our individual lives but also that the ways in which we inhabit and express our individual lives contribute to the constitution of those communities and to their character, quality, and vitality. Therefore, in working to overcome our self-alienation and to come to ourselves, we are at the same time contributing to the transformation of the community or communities of which we are a part. However, because we are essentially creatures of becoming and are also endemically driven to self-alienation, Norris emphasizes that overcoming our self-alienation and coming to ourselves are always partial and so necessarily ongoing. Partly due to this necessity for continuous engagement in the work of becoming who we are, and in line with Cavell’s emphasis on the role of attraction to exemplary figures in his elaboration of Emersonian Perfectionism, Norris argues that an essential part of the way in which we each contribute to the transformation of our community/communities is through giving expression to a vision of an eventual community in which we can more completely realize ourselves and attracting others to join us in contributing to its constitution and to its continued vitality.

If this sketch traces a central path along which Norris sees Cavell linking individual awakening to the political, it is important to emphasize that, as it stands, it is not simply incomplete and devoid of the details that give the picture depth and force, but it fails to capture what is distinctive about whatever contribution Cavell might make to our thinking about politics and public life. For much, at least, of what is distinctive about Cavell’s contribution to these matters is a function of the ways in which they emerge out of, and are structured by, his elaboration of the vision of language he finds first in Austin and then more richly developed in Wittgenstein and by his investigations of skepticism.3 This is a point that Norris emphasizes. In explaining why the connections he makes between Cavell’s work and politics and political philosophy may be “looser than many readers would expect or desire,” Norris points to the fact that “Cavell approaches almost everything he discusses from the perspective of one trained in ordinary language philosophy” and that “his master topic of skepticism provides the terms in which he discusses almost everything, including, if not especially, political matters” (8).

To provide some substance to these claims, consider simply the following four especially salient points.

First, Cavell’s initial and most fundamental instance of our being in community is our community in our shared language. That is, it is ordinary language that provides him with his primary image of our embeddedness in a shared, normatively controlled but open-ended structure that is constituted and maintained through our own ongoing activity and that both frames the ground of our mutual intelligibility and provides the terms within which we shape our individual identities. Indeed, it is Cavell’s effort to elaborate the endlessly astonishing depth and specificity of our agreement in language—a depth of agreement that we cannot have reached through explicit agreements and the intimacy and extent of which we mostly do not recognize—that leads him into his most extensive (but still quite brief) engagement with the political idea of a social contract as the foundation of society. Cavell suggests that the question “how could I have been party to the establishing of criteria if I do not know that I have and do not know what they are” is analogous to, and so may be illuminated by considering, questions of how I can be party to a social contract if I am not aware of granting my consent and do not recognize my responsibility.4

Second, Cavell’s account of each individual’s representativeness and representative authority is initially framed within his vision of our inhabitation of our shared language. That is, it is specifically in the context of defending the procedures of ordinary language philosophers—their claims to say what “we” do (and do not) say and what “we” must mean by what we say without providing empirical data to support those claims—that Cavell argues that to be a native speaker of a language is to be representative of the speakers of the language—able to say what “we” say—and that all native speakers are “fully authoritative” in doing so.5 This representative capacity and authority are crucial marks of the character of our embeddedness and constitutive participation in the community of our common language—of the ways in which our common language exists through its ongoing inheritance and transmission enacted in our speaking. As Cavell memorably puts the point in responding to Benson Mates’ charge that ordinary language philosophers are entering claims about usage without providing sufficient empirical evidence: “To answer some kinds of specific questions, we will have to engage in that ‘laborious questioning’ Mates insists upon and count noses; but in general, to tell what is and isn’t English, and to tell whether what is said is properly used, the native speaker can rely on his own nose; if not, there would be nothing to count.”6

Third, this account of the representative authority that we each possess as native speakers of our language and of how it undergirds the claims of ordinary language philosophers to speak “for us,” becomes a model for Cavell’s account of the structure of both aesthetic judgment and, most importantly for present purposes, claims to (political) community. As Cavell elaborates them, that is, ordinary language claims, aesthetic judgments, and claims to political community share a similar, but not identical, grammar or transcendental logic.7 In each, a universal claim to speak “for us” or “for all” is grounded in the (purported) representativeness of the speaker (as a native speaker, as human, as a member of the political community) rather than in any appeal to empirical evidence. Consequently, differences or (apparent) disagreements among individual claims are not accounted for in terms of infidelity to the empirical data and are not resolved by marshalling such data. Differences or disagreements are resolved through conversation (e.g., clarifying how we are each imagining a situation) and if a disagreement cannot be resolved, neither speaker must be wrong about the facts. Rather, their authority as representative—the “us” for whom they speak—has been restricted.8

Fourth, much as Cavell’s vision of ordinary language forms his central image of community and of our embeddedness in and constitution through community, skepticism represents his central instance of, and his central account of, the self-alienation that he sees as fundamental to the condition of individual lives and that calls for their (political) awakening and transformation. It’s true, of course, that Cavell discerns and traces skepticism in many forms and guises, but it is skepticism understood as the repudiation of the shared criteria undergirding the meaning and applicability of the concepts of our ordinary language that provides Cavell’s clearest and most developed account of what Norris calls self-alienation or self-estrangement. As Norris puts it, “skepticism is Cavell’s term of criticism (of critique) for that process of self-alienation” or is “the name for a mode of denying our life” (51). In particular, the skeptical repudiation of our shared criteria provides Cavell’s deepest account of how we cast ourselves into a condition of (unrecognized) unintelligibility and isolation from others. Severed from the criteria that structure the meaning of our words, we continue to utter them but cannot mean them. And having torn, or torn ourselves from, the fabric of shared criteria that knits us together with others, we lose our capacity to recognize and respond to the (inner) lives of others along with our capacity to speak with and for others—for it is the attunement expressed in shared criteria that enables us to find ourselves in others and to speak representatively. In the wake of this skeptical repudiation, then, authenticity and community become impossible and our relations to ourselves and others can only be conforming and instrumental.

*          *          *

In sketching these points, I’ve meant to endorse Norris’s claim that Cavell approaches everything through his work on ordinary language philosophy and skepticism, but also to give a sense of why, and how, these points are essential to any account of Cavell’s contribution to political thought and political life. Each of these points is rich in broadly political salience and, as such, it is easy to understand how they might both prompt and support the kinds of naturally emerging forays into the political that punctuate so much of Cavell’s writing.9 Indeed, we might even go so far as to maintain that an account of Cavell’s contribution to political thought that failed to make his work in these areas central—by, for example, focusing solely on his relatively late elaboration of Emersonian Perfectionism—would not simply be incomplete; in an important sense, it would not be Cavellian at all.

I am, then, in deep sympathy with Norris’s efforts to show that, and how, Cavell’s work on ordinary language philosophy and skepticism provides an especially rich and illuminating perspective from which to approach vital questions of political theory and political life. And, indeed, adopting this perspective has made possible much of the extraordinary strength and interest of Norris’s entire book. At the same time, I find some of the ways in which Norris brings this work of Cavell’s to bear on concrete political issues of our alienation (from ourselves and others) and the work of creating a more authentic political community problematic. I might, at least initially, frame my sense of what I find problematic by saying that Norris sees Cavell’s work in these areas as too politically self-sufficient, as though it, itself, directly satisfies the political needs that it identifies or as though its application to politics could be direct and immediate.

Part, but only part, of what I mean by saying that Norris sees Cavell’s work in these areas as too politically self-sufficient and too immediately and directly applicable to politics is that, while arguing that Cavell’s work shows that and how the loss and recovery of meaningful speech are critical political (as well as philosophical) problems, he gives essentially no attention to the broadly material—historical, social, cultural, economic, etc.—conditions of this loss and recovery. As a result, the political vision that he articulates seems not simply to center “first and foremost in individual lives” (6), but to rest both the cause and the remedy of the political lifelessness, conformity, instrumentality, and inauthenticity it discerns (solely) in individuals and their individual relation to language.10 Cavell himself, of course, often gives only quite minimal attention to the material conditions of speech.11 Indeed, an obvious mark of his relative neglect of such matters is the fact that, in elaborating a vision of the repudiation and recovery of voice and meaningful speech, he feels free to draw upon and bring into conversation with one another a range of figures including Socrates/Plato, Rousseau, Emerson and Thoreau, Austin, Wittgenstein and, to go no further, Heidegger when, clearly, the broadly material conditions bearing on the loss and recovery of voice (even for a white male) in fourth-century BCE Athens, eighteenth-century France, nineteenth-century America, and twentieth-century England/America and Germany/Europe are dramatically different. To the extent that we allow this lack of attention to material conditions, it is because we understand Cavell to be operating primarily at the conceptual and philosophical level and not at the level of concrete political realities.12 However, Norris’s wish to press Cavell’s work into explicitly political service makes it even more urgent and essential that he attend to the broadly material conditions of situated and embodied speech. However, I suspect that in part because he sees Cavell’s work on ordinary language philosophy and skepticism as politically self-sufficient and immediately and directly applicable to politics, he does not (recognize the need to) do so.

Let me add, however, that this way of framing my overarching concern is, to some extent, a secondary and meta-level, reflection. That is, it is a way in which I can understand what might link, and at least partially account for, more local and specific hesitations, resistances, and objections that have arisen for me at moments throughout Norris’s text. Accordingly, by way of grounding and supporting this overarching concern, I want to consider a couple of these specific moments. I will focus on ideas that are at the heart of Norris’s account of Cavell’s contribution to politics—the idea of our alienation from our language (and hence from ourselves and others) and the idea of our capacity to speak representatively for ourselves and others.

Norris argues that alienation is the central danger faced by democracy since it demands the active engagement of the people and alienation undermines that engagement. In beginning his discussion of Cavell’s reading of Walden, Norris remarks that “if the citizenry are alienated from their lives, and find them unfulfilling and empty, their active involvement in the wider life of their polity will suffer and decline” (143). Furthermore, although there is no reason to believe that Cavell regards alienation from our language as the sole source of the alienation from our lives that Norris is addressing, it is arguably the source of alienation with which his work is most directly concerned. In particular, as Norris masterfully details, Cavell’s work on Wittgenstein, Thoreau, and Emerson traces ways in which, to put the point very generally, our alienation from our ordinary language leaves us bereft, powerless, disinvested from our lives, and unable to recognize or sustain anything but instrumental relations to others. In so doing, he convincingly demonstrates that Cavell’s work in diagnosing and treating this alienation from our ordinary language is politically vital. My concern, however, is that by too directly and immediately applying conclusions that Cavell reaches regarding the skeptical impulse to repudiate the criteria undergirding ordinary language, Norris has not provided a politically sufficient account of the bases of that alienation.

That is, in his investigations of skepticism as informed by his reading of Wittgenstein, Cavell concludes that skepticism reveals a fundamental, natural, human drive to escape conditionedness—as though conditions were, always and necessarily, limits—which fuels, and is fueled by, fantasies about our language and our relation to it that alienate us from our language. Norris helpfully expresses central forms of these fantasies as “the twinned illusions that our words do not require our meaning them—that they mean themselves—and that the meaning of our words is wholly malleable, entirely up to the individual speaker” (160–61). Norris adopts this lesson from Cavell’s work and applies it directly to (Cavell’s reading of) Thoreau’s account of the source of the quiet desperation of our lives. “Succumbing to such fantasies,” he remarks, leaves us unable to properly do any of the things Thoreau’s neighbors, in their initial questioning of him, rightfully take to be essential parts of a ‘mode of life’ worth living” (161). Indeed, beyond his discussion of Cavell’s work on Thoreau, it seems that Norris, more generally, accounts for (and sees Cavell as accounting for) our alienation from our language and our lives in terms of individual, skeptically/metaphysically motivated, fantasies. I think it is unclear, however, that this Cavellian lesson from skepticism can be, or should be, directly applied to either Cavell’s reading of Thoreau or, more generally, to a Cavellian politics of our alienation from our language and our lives.13 Without entering into a reading of Cavell’s book on Walden, I will mention here three connected reasons why, I think, we should not rest with Norris’s account of the source of our alienation from our language.

First, as I mentioned above, in neglecting to address the material conditions of the loss and recovery of meaningful speech, Norris’s account can seem to risk providing a Cavellian politics that doesn’t simply begin with a focus on the individual but that begins with the individual considered as the subject of “natural” human drives, wishes, fantasies and the like that are unconditioned by her/his material, historical, cultural, economic circumstances. I take it that Norris does not embrace such a view—any more than Cavell does. However, neglecting to consider material conditions gives his account this kind of cast. This can be seen in Norris’s discussion of John Field—surely one of the most maligned figures in the history of political thought—in which he uses Field as an example of the way in which “succumbing to fantasies” about language leaves us unable to properly carry out functions essential to living a worthwhile life—in this case, feeding himself and his family. Norris seems to accept Thoreau’s diagnosis of Field as “utterly clueless about how to live a decent and free life” and, because he lacks the “knowledge of ‘arithmetic’ and economy Thoreau outlines in Walden’s first chapter, . . . [feeling] forced to live beyond his means.” Norris continues, “In order to buy the luxuries he equates with the promise of America—‘tea and coffee, and meat everyday’—Field works for others and impoverishes himself” (161). But is Field’s understanding of the promise of America and so his cluelessness about how to live a decent and free life a function of his succumbing to fantasies about language and the meaning of words? Is it even something for which he, as an individual, is (primarily) responsible? As Thoreau well knows, Field lives within a pervasive system of material—economic, cultural, social, etc., structures—conditions that support this understanding of the promise of America, that make it, indeed, part of the language that he speaks. Field may, then, be clueless, but that seems to be more properly regarded as an indictment of his society than as a result of his (individually arrived at and sustained) relation to language.

Second, and expanding on this first thought about John Field, consider Wittgenstein’s remark that “to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.”14 Cavell has emphasized the bi-directionality of this relationship between language and form of life.15 That is, our language contributes to the forming and informing of our biological and our social/ethological form of life and our forms of life contribute to the forming and informing of our language. From this bi-directionality Cavell has argued not only that a primitive language (such as that envisioned in Philosophical Investigations §2) will only support a primitive form of social life, but also that a primitive, or impoverished, or fractured form of social life will give rise to and perpetuate a primitive, or impoverished, or fractured, language.16 I want to extend this idea to suggest that some features of our forms of social life might encourage, or even drive us toward, an alienated relationship to our language. To offer just one well-known example, in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf contends that the (written) English language given to her to inherit and in which she is to discover and express herself, is so pervasively and insidiously structured by a history and culture of male domination that it is not naturally conducive to the expression of a woman’s subjectivity.17 Here, it seems to me, we have a form of alienation from our language and, indeed, a form of alienation from language that impedes the ability to authentically relate to oneself and others. However, this alienation is not a function of fantasies about language. Rather, it arises from the material—social, cultural, economic, etc.—conditions of our lives and the ability to more fully come into language will require changes to these conditions.

Third, Woolf’s discussion of a woman writer’s struggle with and against a language infused with a history of male domination, suggests a more general point. The thought that chafing against language, or a relation to language that is in some ways alienated, is simply a product of fantasies of transcendence may be connected to a supposition that our language is a politically neutral medium that only contains resources for freedom—a view of language that is aided and abetted by ignoring the historically conditioned character of our language and the ways in which it enshrines structures of oppression. Although Emerson and Thoreau share forms of Wittgenstein’s idea that our language can contain pictures that hold us captive, they can also invite us to view our language as politically neutral and, as in Emerson’s image of language as a “lap of immense intelligence,” suggest that, if we simply allow ourselves to sink into this welcoming lap, we will discover nothing but power and expressive freedom.18 This helps to support their rebuking us for our restlessness in language as though we are simply fleeing the resources that can provide the freedom we seek or as though, to use an image of Norris’s, it simply “expresses our hurried capacities for sensing, our reluctance to speak and live, as Thoreau puts it, deliberately” (160). I join both Cavell and Norris in largely endorsing the depth of this rebuke and the conviction that access to (expressive) power and freedom is to be gained through deeper, less hurried, and more deliberate engagement with language—in part because our language itself contains the resources for identifying and redressing the very structures of oppression that it also enshrines. However, recognizing that the gift of language also contains a web of domination, allows us to acknowledge a motive for a certain alienated relation to language that goes beyond skeptical fantasies and misguided ideas of the nature and source of freedom. We may not, like Caliban, prefer the immediacy and primitive freedom of a bestial cry to subjection to a language in which he is interpolated as a slave. But we may find good reason to hold ourselves a bit apart from the language we are offered, to keep it at arm’s length.

If individual alienation from our language is the central political threat to the life and vitality of a democratic order, Norris argues that Cavell’s work shows that and how the remedy lies in a transformed relation to our language that (re-)opens us to the meaning and possibility of our individual lives and attracts us to (re-)engage in the ongoing work of giving voice to—and hence constituting—who we are as individuals and as a community. This transformed relation to our language will enable, and will in important part consist in, our coming to speak for ourselves but also representatively for a possible or transformed political community. One way Norris expresses the connection between speaking for ourselves and others and their political importance is this:

If my membership in a community allows me to speak for others, it requires that I do so when speaking with them. I achieve publicity [i.e., authentically speak for myself] and realize my citizenship by speaking in the public voice [i.e., in such a way as to claim to speak for others] and hearing my fellow citizens do so. In the end, our common identity or public community is realized in its representation by us, in conversations in which we ask who we are, and how we might know ourselves. Such talk is, in an important sense, our common good. (100)19

Norris’s accounts of Cavell’s readings of Rousseau, Thoreau, and Emerson (which constitute chapters 3–5 of his book) specify, elaborate, and support this general claim. These accounts are tremendously rich and powerful and although there are, to be sure, specific points that might be taken up and contested, I have no desire to do so here. Rather, the questions that I wish to raise operate at a more general level. In particular, as I found in his discussion of our alienation from our language, it seems to me that, here too, Norris applies conclusions that Cavell has reached in his considerations of ordinary language philosophy too directly and too immediately to the political context, and, as a result he neglects to consider the material conditions of our speaking for ourselves and others in ways that both depart from Cavell and are politically problematic.

By way of briefly elaborating and grounding this general concern, I want to look at a set of claims that Norris enters in close connection with those regarding the political danger of alienation from our language that I discussed earlier. In response to the idea that citizens who are alienated from their lives will be unable and unwilling to take up the tasks of democratic citizenship, Norris remarks that “if the polity is guided by and dedicated to the power or rule of the people, the people need to be able to articulate who they are, how they see the world and one another, and their sense of their tasks in this world and community” (143). And, as Norris goes on to makes clear, this means that “ordinary citizens” must be able to “speak in the public voice and, in their claims to community, express the general will as authoritatively as the most prominent philosopher or Founding Father” (143–44). This is clearly a very strenuous demand. However, it is intensified by Norris’s further, and important, addition that “if we as individuals are to speak in the public voice, each of us must first speak in our own voice. I cannot speak for us, if I cannot speak for myself (144).

I want to offer three sets of comments prompted by these remarks.

First, in saying that each ordinary citizen must be able to express the general will as authoritatively as the most prominent philosopher or Founding Father, Norris should not be read as claiming that each citizen will, in fact, be recognized as equally authoritative or granted equal authority in the constitution of any actual political community. This is, too obviously, not the case. However, Norris does not address this fact. He does not consider the kinds of broadly material conditions that bear on the differential authority granted to different (groups of) voices (e.g., based on gender, race, class, manner of speech, etc.), nor does he address the ways in which the fact of this differential authority, and the citizens’ knowledge of this fact, affects their willingness and their capacity to form and enter their voices. Given the evident importance of these kinds of issues within a democracy, it is surprising that Norris does not discuss them. Cavell’s own most direct and extensive discussions of these matters occur in work that Norris does not engage—Pursuits of Happiness and Contesting Tears; Cavell’s studies of Hollywood comedies and melodramas of the 1930s and ’40s, respectively.20

Second, in claiming that each citizen can speak authoritatively in her/his own voice, he is not claiming that everyone, in fact, does so. Norris recognizes—and it is one of the central topics of much of Cavell’s work—that discovering and claiming one’s own voice, is an enormously complex process. Indeed, Norris’s discussion of Cavell’s work on Emerson and Emersonian Perfectionism in chapter 5 represents a nuanced consideration of the issue of how the individual voice is related to and distinct from the voice of the exemplary genius who awakens it / reminds one of it and calls it out. However, thinking again of Virginia Woolf’s richly detailed description of the ways in which a woman’s ability to discover and claim her own voice requires not simply a room of her own and a modest level of financial security but the psychological freedom these support, I am struck by the fact that neither here, nor elsewhere, does Norris address the broadly material conditions underlying the discovery and expression of one’s own voice. Here, in fact, when Norris emphasizes how “demanding this task [of speaking for myself] is,” what he presents as demanding is avoiding the kind of emptiness of speech that results from a skeptical repudiation of the conditions of meaningful speech as such. “To say what I mean,” he remarks, “will require that I mean it, and I cannot mean anything I want at any given time” (144). However, important as the grammatical conditions for meaningful speech as such are, the conditions for speaking meaningfully are not yet conditions for speaking in one’s own voice. I may, after all avoid literal nonsense and yet speak in conformity. But it is speaking in my own voice, as Norris emphasizes, that a vital democracy requires. Invoking the Socratic image of our “speaking in our sleep,” Norris remarks that “to the extent that this is a failure to give voice to ourselves, it leaves the demos voiceless as well” (144).

Third, and most globally, perhaps Norris is helped to neglect consideration of the material conditions of speaking in our own voice for ourselves and others because he understands Cavell to have demonstrated that we can each do so—even if, in fact, we do not. Immediately following the remark quoted above that, in a democracy, “the people need to be able to articulate who they are, how they see the world and one another, and their sense of their tasks in this world and community,” Norris claims that “we have seen that Cavell defends in the strongest possible terms their ability to do so” (143). While it isn’t entirely clear how this claim should be understood, given the overall structure of Norris’s argument here—and in the book as a whole—I take the claim to be that Cavell has defended the ability of the people collectively to articulate who we are, how we see the world and one another, etc., because he has defended the ability of each individual to (undertake to) do so. In a sense, this seems correct. It’s not clear, though, where Norris sees Cavell arguing that each individual has the ability to articulate who we are, how we see the world, etc. This may be a point at which Norris is taking a claim that Cavell has reached regarding ordinary language to directly yield a political conclusion. For Cavell has argued, of course, that each native speaker of a language is equally authoritative and able to speak for “us” about the meaning and implications of what we say. Further, it is also true that Cavell believes in the human capacity for representativeness—a capacity inseparable from the inheritance, possession, and transmission of language—and sees conversation among individuals speaking representatively as the basis of a democratic polity. However, neither of these points represents a defense of our individual ability to make the kinds of claims that Norris outlines. In particular, neither the ability to speak authoritatively regarding our language nor the representativeness that is inherent in speaking a language entails that each is equally authoritative to articulate who we are, how we see the world and one another, etc.

On the one hand, rather than confidently defending our capacity to speak authoritatively for any community, Cavell’s writing continuously recalls—and, indeed, might be seen as pervasively shaped by—the fragility of community and of our conviction that we make sense to ourselves or others. This conviction is supported by nothing deeper than a sense of attunement, a sense that you are able to recognize yourself in the others around you and that they are able to recognize themselves in you. However, as was clear even before the publication of his autobiography, Cavell’s writing is haunted by the fact that this attunement can break—leaving us baffled by others and, partly in consequence, a mystery to ourselves.21 However, even granting a floor of sufficiently stable attunement to support a sense of oneself as part of a community, the capacity to even tentatively and partially grasp the nature of that community and of oneself as a part of it—constituted by it and contributing to it—depends upon information, perspective, opportunities, and, again, broadly material conditions that are not equally available to all. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the ability to speak for oneself and the others with whom one regards oneself to be in community depends upon any specific information, perspective, etc., that some individuals, groups, or experts might possess (or come to possess through anthropological, psychological, or sociological study). Rather, I am recalling that the realities of any actual society and the structures of differential privilege and opportunity they support mean that not all will be able to articulate who “we” are—even to the limited extent of articulating their experience of deprivation of voice. This inequality in the capacity to speak for oneself and others is clearly of vital importance to a democracy. A sense of this inequality, of having been denied the requisites for understanding themselves and others, is what drives the central women in both the comedies and melodramas Cavell studies to seek what he calls “an education.” And Cavell’s readings of these films illustrate both individual and social steps to redress this inequality.

*          *          *

I would like to bring these preliminary and provisional thoughts about Norris’s book to a close by returning briefly to a more general level of consideration. I have emphasized my agreement with Norris’s claim that whatever contribution Cavell makes to political thought and political life must be seen as rooted in his work on ordinary language philosophy and skepticism. At the same time, I have also tried to bring out some of the ways in which, and places at which, what I see as Norris’s moves to apply this work too directly and immediately to the political strike me as problematic—in part because, as I see it, he is led to neglect the broadly material conditions bearing on the central issues he addresses; the loss and recovery of our capacity to speak representatively for ourselves and others.

It’s important to recognize, however, that Norris is well aware that his efforts to present Cavell’s work as political philosophy, and especially to do so through emphasizing its roots in ordinary language philosophy and skepticism and its unfolding through a series of readings (as opposed to more traditional arguments), will not persuade all. In terms borrowed from Cavell’s account of Wittgenstein’s vision of language, we might think of Norris’s efforts as an attempt to project Cavell’s work into the context of political philosophy.22 He acknowledges that this projection, like any projection into a new context, will involve an alteration to the contours of our concept of political philosophy. “I am not . . . under the illusion,” he remarks, “that Cavell can easily or comfortably find a place within [the wider community of political theorists and philosophers] as it stands.” However, he goes on, “this does not mean that Cavell does not speak to contemporary political theory and contemporary political life, but rather that he does so in ways that might help to transform that theory and that life” (3). And he equally recognizes that some will contest this projection. They will not, that is, accept it as an extension or transformation of our concept of political philosophy that can be seen as natural and followed. He notes that, even though he has sought to approach Cavell’s work through a “focus on questions of politics and political philosophy,” given “the kind of philosopher Cavell is, . . . that focus may still be looser than many readers would expect or desire” (8). And, after noting that some have “the impression that [Cavell’s] concern with politics is either superficial or simply too intermittent to be of any real importance,” he mentions that “a prominent political theorist who works on a number of Cavell’s favorite texts once assured me, ‘Cavell has no real interest in politics’” (4).

In this book, Norris does not engage these resistances or objections to his projection of Cavell’s work. He does not undertake to imagine and elaborate the perspectives or positions from which these resistances emerge, he does not consider their specific bases and explore their grounds, nor does he consider how the resistances, and efforts to address them, might alter and enrich our understanding of the issues. Indeed, in response the remark by the prominent political theorist, Norris simply offers a blunt rebuttal: “Cavell, however, insists throughout his work that he does [have a real interest in politics], and his writing is filled with political terms . . .” (4). But of course, unless the prominent political theorist was simply unaware of Cavell’s insistence and of the (frequent) appearance of (many/central) political terms in his writing, this response will do nothing to alter her/his view.

My interest here isn’t in criticizing Norris for not, in this book, engaging these challenges to his projection. This can be not only sensible, but necessary; he has a position that he wants to offer for consideration and taking up challenges might impede that work. I do want to emphasize, however, that unless we are convinced that one side or another in this conflict is simply wrong, the situation confronting us is of precisely the sort that Norris argues Cavell shows to be at the heart of political life understood as a quest to understand ourselves and our being as a community. It is a situation, that is, in which competent speakers enter claims about what “we” as political theorists and actors do and about the nature of political theory/philosophy and how it engages with political life, and there is—at least apparent—disagreement among these claims. In such a situation we can, of course, declare our allegiances and choose sides. That is, we can decide that, at least as regards the matter of Cavell’s work, there is currently no community among us and we are not interested in seeking to constitute such a community. However, I take Norris’s work itself to suggest that this situation of conflict invites further consideration of the respective positions and continued conversation—of the sort begun in these pages—about who we political theorist are and what are our constitutive forms and modes of political reflection and engagement.

With these thoughts in mind, and considering both my agreement with Norris’s judgment that Cavell’s work on and from ordinary language philosophy and skepticism has evident and rich broadly political saliences that must be central to any contribution he makes to political theory and political life and my recurrent sense in studying Norris’s book that this work of Cavell’s cannot be directly political in the way Norris suggests (that making it directly political leaves too much of what I see as essential to engagement with the realities of political life out of account), perhaps the largest question raised for me by Norris’s work, is how we ought to understand, approach, and/or go on from these dimensions of Cavell’s work and their broadly political saliences. Should we, for example, regard them as providing an especially illuminating perspective from which to approach questions of political theory and political life? Should we regard them as, in themselves, constituting responses to questions of political theory and political life? Or should we, perhaps, regard them as exemplifying some other way, or ways, of engaging these matters that is, as yet, undescribed?

That is, because of the richness and specificity of the ways in which Norris’s book unfolds what he sees as Cavell’s contributions to political thought and life, he has put us in a position to ask, at a different level, about the relationship between philosophy, as understood and practiced by Cavell, and politics. I have put this question, for myself, as a question of the space between philosophy and politics (or, as I have also conceived it, between the city of words and the city.)23 As I mean it, the question includes consideration of the distance between their respective questions, modes of argument and analysis, forms of evidence, etc.—consideration, that is, of how, and in what ways, these are shared, similar, congruent, different, antagonistic, etc. But it also includes consideration of the contours of the space and of what might occupy the space—consideration, that is, of the modes of engagement, exchange, and translation between philosophy and politics that will allow them to helpfully inform and illumine one another rather than shun one another or, oppositely, completely overtake or swamp one another.

Cavell’s work, notorious for resisting disciplinary classification, is an especially rich site for exploring and charting this space. And Norris’s book is a remarkably bright lamp by which, and with which, to work.

  1. See “Emerson’s Constitutional Amending,” in Philosophical Passages.

  2. Parenthetical citations within the text are to Norris’s Becoming Who We Are.

  3. This is not to deny the contributions made by Cavell’s work on Thoreau, Emerson/Emersonian Perfectionism, or his work on Hollywood films. It is to suggest, however, that much of the power of the moral and political dimensions of that work is inherited—even if sometimes retrospectively—through its connections with his work on (Wittgenstein’s vision of) ordinary language and skepticism.

  4. The Claim of Reason, 22.

  5. The Claim of Reason, 19.

  6. “Must We Mean What We Say?,” 4, in Must We Mean What We Say?

  7. Norris’s own discussion of these types of claims ends to treat them as possessing an identical grammatical structure but differing in content. However, while I cannot develop the point here, a central grammatical difference among these claims consists in the stakes of the failure of the claim to speak universally, for us; in what that failure means/implies and how we go on from it.

  8. In sketching the logic of Wittgenstein’s claims to say what we say, Cavell puts this matter this way:

    When Wittgenstein . . . “says what we say”, what he produces is not a generalization . . . but a (supposed) instance of what we say. We may think of it as a sample. . . . One sample does not refute or disconfirm another; if two are in disagreement they vie with one another for the same confirmation. The only source of confirmation here is ourselves. And each of us is fully authoritative in this struggle. An initial disagreement may be overcome. . . . But if the disagreement persists, there is no appeal beyond us, or if beyond us two, then beyond some eventual us. [In some cases] we have to conclude that on this point we are simply different; that is, that we cannot speak for one another. But no claim has been made which has been disconfirmed; my authority has been restricted. (Claim of Reason, 19)

  9. Norris’s emphasis on the pervasive role of Cavell’s work on ordinary language philosophy and skepticism also suggests a path of response to an obvious question about his work that he does not address: namely, why he has considered only the rather small selection of Cavell’s texts that he has and not also engaged others. However, this suggestion can, at best, be only marginally helpful. It may, for example, help to account for Norris’s neglect of Cavell’s limited but critical work on opera, in which his notion of “passionate utterance” suggests a way of thinking about the constitution of community that moves beyond the path opened by ordinary language philosophy. However, it does not help to explain his puzzling neglect of part 3 and (most of) part 4 of The Claim of Reason, or his not addressing Cavell’s work on Shakespeare or Romanticism (in which issues of skepticism and individual awakening/transformation are pervasive), or the omission of any focused discussion of Cavell’s work on Hollywood comedies and melodrama (which certainly provide his most detailed considerations of the vital political themes of the conditions of community, finding one’s voice, and pursuing happiness).

  10. This impression can be felt in Norris’s speaking, for example, of our achieving an “integrity and authenticity we otherwise shun” (99), or of people having “forgotten themselves and removed themselves from the world,” or of their “succumbing to fantasies” (161), or, to offer only one further example, of people refusing to allow themselves to develop into their human potential (202).

  11. He does not, however, ignore them. They are, I think, treated most fully in his studies of Hollywood comedies and melodramas and, more recently, in his autobiographical text Little Did I Know.

  12. Even so, we should not regard Cavell’s neglect of these conditions as inconsequential. The concrete material conditions in which an author lives and works have an obvious bearing on what will seem to call for theorization as well as on how it will be theorized.

  13. An immediate reason to resist a direct application of Cavell’s account of the skeptical repudiation of the conditions of sense is that, in the skeptical case, the result of this repudiation is literal (if sometimes disguised) nonsense. However, Norris does not mean to suggest—any more than do Thoreau or Emerson—that the kind of alienation from our language that they are discussing produce literal nonsense. In addition to this most obvious point, there are two further points to consider here: First, the fantasies about language that Norris notes are not simply natural human fantasies that are continuously present and might express themselves at any moment. They are fantasies that arise in the context of skeptical reflections which, to be sure, Cavell does regard as endemic to the human (in modernity?). Second, it is certainly true that Cavell sees Thoreau’s account of our condition as essentially tied to our weakness as readers (in a very broad sense) and sees his efforts to awaken and change us as resting in instructing us in reading—teaching us to read, as he put it, astronomically rather than astrologically (Walden, “Reading”). What is questionable is whether Cavell or Thoreau attribute our weakness as readers to our succumbing to these fantasies.

  14. Philosophical Investigations §19.

  15. This emphasis is perhaps most explicit in his essay “Declining Decline: Wittgenstein as a Philosopher of Culture,” in This New Yet Unapproachable America.

  16. This is, of course, part of the general fabric of Cavell’s understanding of Wittgenstein’s vision of language and the way criteria and grammar constitute the essence of things. However, Cavell’s most focused elaborations of social/political implications of this idea occur in “Declining Decline” and “Notes and Afterthoughts on the Opening of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations” (published in Philosophical Passages).

  17. A happy accident of Woolf’s text being assigned as the Common Reading for all freshman entering the college at which I teach, means that this text is especially on my mind. However, the kinds of points that Woolf makes are, in part thanks to her work, widely advanced by writers seeking to give authentic expression to the (inner) experience of minoritized individuals and groups.

  18. See Philosophical Investigations §115 and Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.”

  19. Comments in brackets are my interpolations.

  20. These issues also form a recurring motif running throughout Cavell’s autobiographical investigations in Little Did I Know. In one form, this motif is expressed as the question of “standing” and what Cavell calls an examination of the “justice of standing” (184).

  21. As I’ve noted, this fragility of sense and meaning and the ways in which our intelligibility to ourselves is bound up with, and vulnerable to, our being acknowledged as intelligible by others is explored throughout Cavell’s writing: it is, for example, a central lesson he draws from the collapse of understanding in Wittgenstein’s considerations of rule-following, it is a structuring concern of part 4 of The Claim of Reason, and it describes the mechanism through which Gregory Anton destroys Paula’s conviction in her capacity to make sense in Gaslight. To cite one especially powerful evocation of this fragility, in discussing the ways in which our ability to know ourselves is tied to conviction in our knowledge of others, Cavell remarks:

    What happens if this conviction slackens? As in Kafka and Beckett; as thematically in Thoreau and Marx and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; as sometimes in Rousseau; as in Descartes when he recognizes that voicing his doubts may place him with lunatics and fools. In such straights, perhaps you write for everybody and nobody; for an all but unimaginable future; in pseudonyms, for the anonymous; in an album, which is haunted by pictures and peopled with voices. But what happens if you are not a writer; if you lack that way of embodying, accounting for, a slackened conviction in community, and of staking your own (in imagination, in a world of works)? What happens if all you want to do is talk, and words fail you? (Claim of Reason, 109–10)

    With the publication of Little Did I Know, it is now clear how specifically this tableau records Cavell’s own anxieties and torments from childhood on.

  22. Cavell develops the idea of “projecting a word” into new contexts in his celebrated “Excursus on Wittgenstein’s Vision of Language” which constitutes chapter 7 of The Claim of Reason.

  23. I am echoing Jay Cantor’s still extraordinary The Space Between: Literature and Politics (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982). Cantor’s explorations of what he means by the space between literature and politics provides one model for the kind of exploration that I mean to invite of the space between philosophy and politics.

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    Andrew Norris


    Reply to Affeldt

    If Bearn and Kelley worry that Cavell as I present him is not political enough, Stephen Affeldt in his extraordinarily lengthy and flattering response worries that I have made Cavell too political, or too directly political, and thereby lost much of what makes him attractive in the first place. Affeldt worries further that I have not discussed enough of Cavell’s writings to give an adequate picture of the indirect ways his work might actually relate to politics in a helpful manner. I have already said something in the introduction to my book about why it does not aspire to being an exhaustive account of Cavell’s work or its relation to politics and practical philosophy.1 Even if I am wrong there that Cavell’s work asks from us a personal response, in which we as readers go on from his texts in our own way—and does not demand, as I take Affeldt to insist, a complete account of that work—the fact is that adequately addressing all of the important and worthwhile material that Affeldt wishes I had addressed would take me at least another hundred pages—an undertaking my editor at Oxford, with the best will in the world, could never have supported. (I am reminded of Affledt’s review of another book on Cavell some years ago, where he wrote, “Cavell’s work relies upon, and demands, such scrupulous attention to the specificity of words and the contexts of their employment that any attempt to address it at a level that prescinds from the fine-grained structure of its details is likely to be either quite misleading or very nearly empty” [Affledt 2003]. This is certainly my own experience.) Of course, those new pages might well be a vast improvement upon any similar number of pages in the book as it stands. But this kind of question is, I think, best approached by first gauging how helpful or unhelpful one finds the book as it stands.

    This returns us to Affeldt’s initial objection, to which he himself returns eight or nine times. I confess that, for all that, I am still not exactly sure what he has in mind when he says that I err by trying to “apply [Cavell’s philosophy] too directly and immediately to the political.” This is in part because, as I say from my first chapter on, I understand Cavell’s work to be political in and of itself; and in part because I am unclear as to what application Affeldt thinks I am attempting. Locke, in his second Treatise, moves directly from philosophy to its political application: he makes a philosophical claim that there is a law of nature written in all our hearts, and that one of the implications or features of this law is that everyone has a right to be lawfully governed by an executive which is itself governed by law (save in cases where prerogative is necessarily and reasonably exercised); and he moves directly to the political claim that any supposedly political power that claims authority under any other conditions is acting tyrannically, and that those who are in the power of such tyrants have the right and indeed the obligation to forcibly resist them. What does Affeldt think is the corresponding “direct move” in my text? It cannot be the move from the idea of the claim of the ordinary language philosopher to the claim of the citizen, as that is not my move, but Cavell’s. It seems that is instead the move from the idea that the claim of the ordinary language philosopher is, at least sometimes, itself sufficient or persuasive, to the idea that the claim of the citizen is in itself always sufficient and conclusive. But who would think such a thing? Who would be mad enough to suppose that politics is not in large part a matter of power and demagoguery and money and structural inequality? If political philosophy is instruction in such elementary matters, it is hardly worth the candle.

    Affeldt writes, “Norris sees Cavell’s work in these areas as too politically self-sufficient, as though it, itself, directly satisfies the political needs that it identifies.” How does he know that I see things this way? On page 4 of my book I write, “This is not to say that [Cavell’s] work addresses all or even most of the major political issues of our time,” and I go on to include among the issues that Cavell’s work does not address distributive justice, campaign finance reform, and the Weberian state as the holder of a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence. Affeldt must think that I believe that one’s ability to speak for oneself and one’s community is completely distinct from these matters, as if a person subject to systematic injustice in the distribution of social goods, including education and (the material conditions of) a sense of social standing and worth, and subject to the violent repression of the state, and unable to fairly influence the election of those who hold office in that state, can, if only she tries hard enough, speak in a truly expressive fashion and with as much social effect as the Koch brothers and their minions. Why he thinks that, though, I have no idea.2 While I am happy to be reminded of the obvious fact that not everyone has the ability and the freedom to speak for herself and her community enjoyed by a privileged white person of power, I doubt that any account of Cavell, no matter how carefully done, will address such systematic injustice—that is a matter of unions, education, resistance, solidarity, and hard, patient political struggle against very long odds. Cavell, of course, recognizes this, and notes that he writes for a society in which “good enough justice” prevails, and that perfectionism as he understands it is a supplement to consequentialist and deontological ethics (Cavell 1990, 2, 3; Cavell 2004, 24–25). This means, among other things, that one cannot reasonably expect a person to consistently speak for herself or her fellows in a society in which moral duties and the needs and wants of the greatest number are consistently ignored. If I did not belabor this point, it is because my focus in this book is to try to understand and help others to appreciate Cavell’s contribution to politics and practical philosophy. As Affeldt notes in passing, “Cavell himself, of course, often gives quite minimal attention to the material conditions of speech.” This is not because there are none, but because his distinctive mode of thought does not in general do much to illuminate them.

    Affeldt suggests repeatedly that a closer study of Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness and Contesting Tears would have helped me to engage with the “material” aspects of many women’s lives that keep them from adequately giving (full) voice to their experience or to the community in ways that others might properly acknowledge. Surprisingly, his own discussion of these matters does not draw upon the details of those texts, but rather Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which Affeldt says addresses as I do not how “a primitive, or impoverished, or fractured form of social life will give rise to and perpetuate a primitive, or impoverished, or fractured, language.” I had thought that I did address this—though surely without Woolf’s eloquence and the weight of her personal suffering—in my fifth chapter, in an account of Mill’s Subjection of Women and its seminal contribution to the politics of individuality to which Cavell also (among other things) contributes. There I write:

    Mill’s political concern with individuality extends to both political culture and “private life.” His impassioned defense of feminism in The Subjection of Women, for example, is wholly of a piece with his earlier defense of individuality in On Liberty, based as it is upon his conception of a free society of rational, discursive, and expressive agents exploring themselves in “experiments of living”—including the experiment of equality and respect across gender lines. In the absence of such experimentation, the social subordination of women, resting as it does upon no more than “the law of the strongest,” renders their nature “an eminently artificial thing,” and leaves their character and capabilities unexplored and unknown. They are in effect forced conformists. The possibility of individuality is thus systematically blocked for half of the population—a gross injustice that Mill sets out to combat. Given the suspicion and vitriol that feminism like Mill’s elicits even today in many parts of the world—including America—it is hard to deny the vitality and importance of a politics of the individual that gives pride of place to moral considerations.

    When I go on to contrast Mill and Emerson (who, as I note, though not a feminist of Mill’s rank, was close to Margaret Fuller), I do so because Emerson goes further than Mill towards the Cavellian ideal that I think Affeldt and I share.

    None of this is to deny the complicated nature of the relation between philosophy and politics, in Cavell’s view and in fact. At the start of his piece, Affeldt writes of Cavell, “indeed, he has argued that philosophy should be wary of the temptation to intervene directly in political affairs,” and cites in support of this Cavell’s essay “Emerson’s Constitutional Amending: Reading ‘Fate.’” When I read and reread that essay I do not find Cavell to warn or argue anything quite like this. It is, as its title suggests, on Emerson’s 1850 “Fate,” and its initial question regarding politics concerns the esotericism of that essay: the lack of direct engagement with and response to the crisis regarding slavery in a piece of work that is, Cavell writes, “perhaps Emerson’s principal statement about the human condition of freedom, even about something Emerson calls the paradox that freedom is necessary” (Cavell 1995, 14). If freedom is necessary, then slavery, it would seem, is accidental, and as such the fault not of fate but, perhaps, of he who at first appears to be fate’s victim. “What,” Cavell worries, “would prevent this announcement from constituting the obscene act of blaming the slave for his slavery?” (Cavell 1995, 19). Cavell’s response is to propose a distinction between the kind of philosophical writing in which Emerson is engaging in “Fate” and more prosaic and direct political writing. Cavell attributes the esotericism he invokes to Wittgenstein and Hegel as well, and he writes of one engaging in it that “his thoughts are not clear, and not obviously to be made clear. They must be found to be clear.”3 This is not obviously ideal, particularly for a democratic people. “But,” asks Cavell, “what is the alternative? At the close of ‘Experience’ Emerson suggests that the alternative to speaking esoterically is speaking polemically (taking sides in an argument), which for him, as for Wittgenstein, gives up philosophy” (Cavell 1995, 28–29). This does not solve the problem, if it ever could be solved, as Emerson’s most philosophical writing reappears, Cavell demonstrates, in Heidegger’s account of his engagement with National Socialism—a fact that openly torments Cavell.4

    It is not clear which of these Affeldt has in mind when he criticizes me for hurriedly applying philosophy to politics: the decent into polemics and argumentation, or the Heideggerian application or realization by way of national socialism.5 I would guess (and hope!) it is the former. But there are a number of questions this glosses over. To begin with, the closing pages of “Experience” to which Cavell refers here are ones that I discuss at length in my book (191ff.) in my account of receptivity in Emerson and Cavell. As I demonstrate, receptivity is not polemical, but it is nonetheless political in its implications. Moreover, the contrast that Cavell draws here is plainly intended to serve a quite particular, limited use. Cavell did not suffer from the illusion that a writer as such chooses between two and only two options, prophetic esotericism or argumentative polemics. He too wrote love letters, minutes to faculty meetings, letters of advice to nephews and nieces, exasperated e-mails, and all the rest of it. Such multifarious prose will include the vast majority of academic philosophical writing, such as the many instances of it that Cavell was gracious enough to praise and support, as in, e.g., the preface and acknowledgments to Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome. (This is a lucky strike for those of us who would like to write something of some use to other students of philosophy but know full well that we will never write anything remotely resembling “Fate,” Philosophical Investigations, Being and Time, or The Claim of Reason.) Most importantly, some of these other alternatives may well contain elements from both of the options Cavell highlights in his account of esotericism. Cavell writes, “Is philosophy, as Emerson calls for it—we must keep reposing the question, without stopping it—an evasion of actual justice? It hasn’t kept Emerson from sometimes writing polemically, as his West Indies and his Fugitive Slave Law address attest” (Cavell 1995, 31). This might sound like an admission, like, “even the most righteous Christian sins.” And, indeed, Cavell goes on immediately to write, “His direct idea, to repeat, is that polemic is an evasion, or renunciation, of philosophy.” But, what then of the indirect idea? The Fugitive Slave Law address is not a regrettable, un- or anti-philosophical address, polemical though it may sometimes be. Cavell himself makes this plain enough by devoting three of the final six pages of the very essay of his under discussion here to Emerson’s claim in the address, “Language must be raked, the secrets of the slaughter-houses and infamous holes that cannot front the day, must be ransacked, to tell what negro-slavery has been” (Cavell 1995, 36ff.). These are words that Cavell here and elsewhere reads as philosophy in the highest sense, and they are followed nine pages later in Emerson’s address by a deeply polemical account of the sick satisfaction the slave-owner’s life has taught him to take in the subjection and misery of another, “the voluptuousness of holding a human being in his absolute control” (Emerson 2004, 103). In this address, and in the way Cavell receives it, philosophy does not maintain its integrity by refraining from “intervening” in politics, but by demanding its place in our lives, including our political lives.6


    Affeldt, Steven. 2003. Review of Stanley Cavell, edited by Richard Eldridge. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

    ———. 1990. Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    ———. 1995. “Emerson’s Constitutional Amending: Reading ‘Fate.’” In Philosophical Passages: Wittgenstein, Emerson, Austin, Derrida. Cambridge: Blackwell.

    ———. 2004. Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life. Cambridge: Belknap, of Harvard University Press.

    ———. 2006. “The Incessance and the Absence of the Political.” In The Claim to Community: Stanley Cavell and Political Philosophy, edited by Andrew Norris. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 2004. “Emancipation in the British West Indies.” In The Political Emerson: Essential Writings on Politics and Social Reform. Edited by David Robinson. Boston: Beacon.

    Hegel, Georg William Friedrich. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Heidegger, Martin. 2000. Introduction to Metaphysics. Translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Norris, Andrew. 2009. “Das Politische als das Metaphysische und das Alltägliche.” In Wittgenstein Philosophie als “Arbeit an Einem selbst.Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag.

    ———. 2012–13. “The Disappearance of the French Revolution in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.” Owl of Minerva: Journal of the Hegel Society of America 44.1–2: 37–66.

    ———. 2017. “Michael Oakeshott and the Postulates of Individuality.” Political Theory 45.6: 824–52.

    1. That said, Affeldt rather exaggerates the selectivity of my reading, as for instance when he suggests I do not discuss parts 3 and 4 of The Claim of Reason.

    2. Libertarians sometimes come close to asserting something like this, and they regularly wildly exaggerate the ability of determination and grit to outweigh the social and economic forces arranged against (what I but not they would describe as) the victims of social injustice. In the third chapter of my book I make a point of situating Cavell’s turn to Rousseau in the context of the rise of libertarian or neoliberal accounts of freedom such as Friedrich Hayek’s, and I indicate there my sense of their inadequacy, and of why I think Cavell shares that sense. I discuss the preconditions of individuality and self-realization in terms that Affeldt might find more congenial in an immanent critique of the best philosopher I know who has embraced a version of such libertarian views, Michael Oakeshott, in Norris 2017.

    3. I assume Cavell refers to Hegel’s claim in the Phenomenology and elsewhere that philosophy overturns natural consciousness or sound understanding and can never be appreciated by it; hence the book’s path to science is, for it, “the pathway of doubt, or more precisely . . . the way of despair.” Hegel 1977, 15, 49. On the political engagement that Hegel goes on to make in this same text, see Norris 2012–13; on Wittgenstein’s comment to Norman Malcolm on the relation of his work to politics, see Norris 2009.

    4. It is important to note that this already points to Cavell’s sense that philosophy at its best cannot disentangle or distance itself from politics. The choice is not, politics or wisdom, but, among other things, national socialism or democracy. The problem is to make this choice philosophically, as the Emersonian ground Cavell occupies seems to uphold both.

    5. I contrast these two because of Cavell’s association of polemics with argumentation. Heidegger, of course, emphasizes polemos in a non-argumentative, phenomenological sense in his Nazi-era Introduction to Metaphysics; e.g., Heidegger 2000, 64–65.

    6. In this context, it is worth recalling that Cavell entitled his response to the essays on his work collected in my The Claim to Community: Stanley Cavell and Political Philosophy, “The Incessance and the Absence of the Political.” Cavell, 2006.




The Pertinence of Cavell’s Perfectionism

I would like to conclude by responding to Martin Shuster’s introduction, in part because his was the only response I received after learning of Cavell’s death. Shuster is surely right that Cavell has left a rich philosophical legacy which we have yet to appreciate in full, and that in this sense he is hardly gone. But it is still terribly sad to lose someone who so exemplified in his conduct and life the virtues and responsiveness of which he wrote. I am sure I am not alone in remaining deeply grateful for the kindness he showed me.

The question with which Shuster concludes evokes something much worse than sorrow. I am not confident that I know the answer to it. I would hesitate to contrast love of the world in Cavell with love of the other or of oneself, as the three are at the very least deeply entangled with one another, if not aspects of a single love. But it is plain that the former has a special place in Cavell’s thought as an object of skepticism: “What skepticism suggests,” he writes, “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 presentness of other minds is not to be known, but acknowledged” (Cavell 1969, 324, emphases mine). And there is plainly a sense in which the world is diminished or impoverished when an entire species is lost. But is it less of a world, or less the world? I do not know if Cavell’s work provides an answer here. That said, “the world” does not name some sort of super-thing above and other than the “things” in it, many of which are being destroyed under the direct or indirect pressure of human activity. Following Cavell’s work in the epistemology of moods that he takes up from Heidegger and Emerson, we may observe that these changes are reflected in the mooded way the world is for us—that those ways are more likely to be shot through with anxiety, sorrow, grief, and despair. Moreover, many of the activities and dispositions that wipe out species and coastlines and forests and access to clean water are precisely the sort of violent, “unhandsome” grasping that Cavell identifies as one of the principal practical expressions of skepticism, and to which he opposes acknowledgment, acceptance, and reception (Cavell 1990, 38–39). There is, then, a sense in which the mass extinctions and environmental crises we have wrought in pursuit of short-term profit and convenience do not merely chip away at the world, but attack it as such. Does it follow that “the very possibility of the world, any world, is under threat,” or that we should or must suspend “the very moral perfectionism that constitutes that world”? If anything, I should think the opposite: that the crises of our time reveal the special pertinence of Cavell’s perfectionism. But this is as much a question of hope as it is of argument. And hope is not easy to come by.



Cavell, Stanley. 1969. “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear.” In Must We Mean What We Say? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1990. Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.