Reading Cavell


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For me, then, the question of literature and philosophy really is a question of reading, or, more broadly, of criticism. How can we read philosophically without reducing the text to a witting or unwitting illustration of a pre-existing theory? How can we read literature with philosophy in ways that suggest that the writer may actually have something to tell the philosopher?

Moreover, more radically: Is there a way to read philosophically without having recourse to a given philosophy at all? Can criticism itself be philosophy? As I formulate these questions, I realise that I probably would not have expressed them in just this way if I had never read anything by Stanley Cavell. Even the most deeply felt ideas are inspired by others. To deepen my sense of what it might mean to read philosophically, therefore, I shall turn to Cavell's own reflections on literature and philosophy. How does he conceive of the question? What can someone interested in reading literature learn from the way he connects the two fields?

Certainly not so long as philosophy continues, as it has from the first, to demand the banishment of poetry from its republic. Perhaps it could if it could itself become literature. But can philosophy become literature and still know itself? One way to take this question is to say that Cavell wonders whether Shakespeare, and Othello and Desdemona, could ever be recognised as philosophers by other philosophers. For someone who believes that a work of art can have philosophical insights this is a natural question.

After all, if philosophy is taking place in works of art, philosophers ought to be able to recognise it as philosophy. This raises the question of what Cavell thinks philosophy is: [P]hilosophy, as I understand it, is indeed outrageous, inherently so. It seeks to disquiet the foundations of our lives and to offer us in recompense nothing better than itself — and this on the basis of no expert knowledge, of nothing closed to the ordinary human being, once, that is to say, that being lets himself or herself be informed by the process and the ambition of philosophy.

The question, therefore, is not just whether philosophy can acknowledge literature, but whether it can acknowledge that criticism —the work of reading, thinking and writing about literature and other art forms—can be a part of philosophy. Thinking about Othello , Cavell pushes his own understanding of scepticism further than he could have done otherwise.

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In a dense passage from , written in a moment when he looked back on his work, Cavell connects self-expression and self-exploration to the question of literature and film and philosophy: Only in stages have I come to see that each of my ventures in and from philosophy bears on ways of understanding the extent to which my relation to myself is figured in my relation to my words. This establishes from the beginning my sense that in appealing from philosophy to, for example, literature, I am not seeking illustrations for truths philosophy already knows, but illumination of philosophical pertinence that philosophy alone has not surely grasped — as though an essential part of its task must work behind its back.

What I say or write will reveal my blindness and my callousness, my insights and my generosity, my failures and my achievements. Cavell wants to make a place for literature within philosophy, both because he thinks literature contains illuminations of value to philosophy, and because he thinks that the question of expression and experience lie at the very heart of philosophy.

Good criticism requires a wide range of skills and knowledge. It exposes our judgment to the potential ridicule of the world. Surely this is another reason why we are so quick to hide behind the authority of acknowledged master thinkers in our readings and viewings. There are four tasks here: to be willing to have the experience in the sense of paying attention to it , to judge it important enough to be expressed, to find words for it and to claim authority for it. I am struck by the parallels between this view and the work going on in feminist consciousness-raising groups in the s and s.

The purpose of these groups was to encourage women to take an interest in their own experience, to be willing to voice them and to claim authority for them. The result was revolutionary. For Cavell, aesthetic experience is not divorced from ordinary experience: to find out what it means entails the same difficulties and joys as the investigations of ordinary experiences. In the s, many feminists made the mistake of considering experience to be infallible. The moral of this practice is to educate your experience sufficiently so that it is worthy of trust. PoH Sometimes a book will completely transform our understanding of a phenomenon or a problem.

Films and plays and books can help us overcome, or undo, our existing beliefs. Just like other experiences, the experience of film, theatre, literature has the power to change us. My original question was how to read philosophically in a way that avoids imposing my pre-existing theory on the work of art. Cavell is not interested in laying down requirements for how to read.

But how are we to do that? The only hint Cavell provides is to say that we usually have no trouble letting a work of theory or philosophy teach us how to read it.

Reading Cavell's The World Viewed: A Philosophical Perspective on Film

I think this means that the right sort of reading would emerge if we simply read literature or watch films in much the same way as we read philosophy. What does this sort of reading look like? Well, we often begin by trying to get at least a general idea of what the work is about, what its major concerns and concepts are. At first, we may only form a hazy idea of the whole. To get a clearer view, we zoom in on key concepts, study the examples, circle back to passages that illuminate them, look for the arguments, the contradictions and the exceptions. In the end, we come out with a workable understanding of the book's concerns.

If it really fascinates us, we may engage with it again, maybe revise some of our initial impressions, try to get clear on why it strikes us as important and reflect on what we can use it for in our own work. Why do we imagine that it is always much harder to let a novel or a play teach us how to read it than it is for a theoretical essay to do so? Why do we so quickly reach for the philosophy or theory and try to make the work fit its concepts, rather than trying to figure out what the work's own concepts and preoccupations might be?

Maybe because we lack practice. In addition, we may fear that a reading emerging from such a process might not look all that impressive.

August 24, 2006

After all, it would have to be built on concepts supplied by the work itself, rather than concepts supplied by a specific philosophy. This may or may not give rise to philosophically interesting readings. To be willing to learn from the work requires a critic capable of a certain degree of humility. Cavell raises the question of literature and philosophy from the point of view of the philosopher, in the sense that he begins by wondering whether a philosopher can find philosophy in literature and other arts. I have shown that his answer makes criticism a potential place for philosophy, and also addresses the literary critic's question about how to read philosophically.

Missing so far is the writer's perspective. At this point, Simone de Beauvoir's reflections on philosophy and literature strike me as particularly relevant. All her life, Beauvoir was passionately engaged in both philosophy and literature. In the mids, Beauvoir's interests were strikingly similar to Cavell's.

She was obsessed with the question of the other and, like Cavell, thought of writing as an act implicating the other. Nevertheless, in her first attempt to investigate the problem of the other, Beauvoir did not hesitate to write a novel rather than a philosophical essay. However, this is not the place to do this.

Why did Beauvoir prefer to write a novel rather than a philosophical essay about otherness?


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Here, as everywhere else in her writings on literature, Beauvoir writes as the passionate and voracious reader she was. Her memoirs and diaries are full of examples of her passion for reading. Readers of fiction have a larger world than non-readers of fiction. She has to be willing to take up the writer's invitation to join her on an adventure. If the experience of reading disappoints, the responsibility for the result does not rest with the writer alone. A reader who willingly participates in the adventure of the novel lets herself be absorbed by it.

All her life, Beauvoir praised novels that allowed her to feel immersed, absorbed, spellbound.

For Beauvoir, then, a good novel had to have the power to absorb, to hold and bewitch, to transport the reader into its world, to make him or her not so much take the fiction for reality, as to be able to experience the fiction as deeply as reality, while full well knowing that it is fiction. The power to absorb and transport distinguishes literature from philosophy, according to Beauvoir. This is surely why Beauvoir quotes fiction and autobiographical writing so copiously in The Second Sex : such works provide windows on to the world from the perspective of another person and thus give access to insights and experiences we would never otherwise have: Kafka, Balzac, Robbe-Grillet seek me out, convince me to move, at least for a moment, to the heart of another world.

And this is the miracle of literature, which distinguishes it from information: that an other truth becomes mine without ceasing to be other. It is an intermingling ceaselessly begun and ceaselessly undone, and it is the only kind of communication capable of giving me that which cannot be communicated, capable of giving me the taste of another life.

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Reading Cavell / Edition 1

Here Beauvoir has reached Cavell's neighbourhood: writing and the other are intrinsically connected. However passionately we may feel about it, philosophy does not offer the reader the same degree of absorption, loss of self, as literature, nor the same possibilities for identification. Beauvoir's emphasis on the experience of reading fiction, on the reader's willingness to respond to the author's invitation to set out on an adventure, and Cavell's conviction that literature can offer illumination to philosophy are not incompatible.

Both Beauvoir and Cavell agree that writing and the question of the other are intertwined, that literature offers the reader new and potentially transformative experiences, and that these experiences can be relevant to philosophy as well as life.


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What kind of philosophical reading emerges from these considerations? However, there are significant drawbacks. As far as I know, Cavell never uses the term. It would also flatly contradict Cavell's own advice to let the work teach us how to read it. Cavell neither proposes a specific method for literary criticism, nor lays down requirements for what a criticism inspired by his work, or by ordinary language philosophy more generally, must be about.

Similarly, ordinary language criticism, if the word is to be used, would have to be about whatever works of literature or films or plays are about. A critic inspired by ordinary language philosophy claims her identity not by invoking a set of pre-existing philosophical themes, and certainly not by making a show of her knowledge of Wittgenstein or Cavell, but by approaching the work, and the task of the critic, in a certain way, and in a certain spirit, a spirit that may be exemplified and defined by, but certainly not limited to ordinary language philosophers.

To describe that spirit is no easy task. It does value a certain kind of attention, one that understands itself as being a response to a work.

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Sign in Create an account. Syntax Advanced Search. About us. Editorial team. William Day. Manchester, UK: pp. William Day Le Moyne College. If, as Cavell suggests, 'the underlying subject' of both criticism and philosophy is 'the subject of examples', in which our interest lies in their emblematic aptness or richness as exemplars, exemplarity becomes central to the aim of our reading.

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Day considers how autobiography as a genre is preoccupied with the question of the author's exemplarity Augustine or Rousseau , and in Cavell's retelling in 'Excerpts from Memory' he discusses how an event that Cavell would have us read allegorically - his move at the age of seven to a new apartment, his coming upon a familiar bowl containing nonpareils, his remark upon this to his father and his father's violent reaction - recasts a scene of paternal hatred as the child's offer of communion.

Day suggests that this retelling proves to be redemptive: first, of the incident itself, and second, of the reader's own experience. Seeing how to read this autobiographical life as exemplary helps us to transfigure our own moments of deprivation into so many possibilities for freedom. Stanley Cavell in 20th Century Philosophy. Edit this record. Mark as duplicate. Find it on Scholar. Request removal from index. Revision history. This entry has no external links. Add one. Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server Configure custom proxy use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy.

Configure custom resolver. Kidd Erika - - Philosophy and Literature 40 2 Present Tense: Working with Cavell. Cavell on Film Edited by Rothman, William. Peter Dula - - Philosophy and Literature 40 2

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