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?
Cavell, Claim of Reason, 431.↩