“This is said on tiptoe”: Stanley Cavell and the Writing of Philosophy

Áine Kelly


So we are here, knowing they are “gone to burning hell”, she with a lie on her lips, protecting him, he with her blood on him. Perhaps Blake has what he calls songs to win them back, to make room for hell in a juster city. But can philosophy accept them back at the hands of poetry? 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? (Cavell, The Claim of Reason, 496).

Stanley Cavell writes like no-one else. His accomplished prose domineers yet effaces, intimidates yet invites; with a range of concern and allusion far exceeding the traditionally philosophical. Here is a thinking that is forever on the move, but it moves more by perplexity and questioning than by arriving at any conclusive claims. The Claim of Reason, which began as a revision of Cavell’s doctoral dissertation, develops from a technical discussion of epistemology to a wider moral space, but by means of poetic indirection rather than strict argument; its closing tableau of Othello and Desdemona has more the flavour of theatrical denouement than philosophical inference. Indeed, there is something of art to all of Cavell’s philosophy. It is a texture of writing that wrests attention from its reader; a movement of thought so subtle and attractive one cannot help being caught up in its figurations. Cavell’s is a mode of expression, “a decorum of prose”, we might suggest, that is decidedly unmatched by any contemporary figure in American philosophy.

There are readers for whom Cavell’s philosophical brilliance is undeniable - in everything from early essays to later monographs, from individual lectures to remarks made during the question periods following an address. For these readers of Cavell, what we can only call the “question of style” has become paramount. Cavell’s readers experience a tension between his philosophical insight and the forms in which that insight gets expressed. More generally, even those readers who are at some level sympathetic to Cavell’s work find themselves troubled and often irritated by the insistent gestures of his writing. But what precisely is at stake, we might ask, in this foregrounding of philosophical style? Why do Cavell’s readers care so much for the peculiarities of his expression? Why, indeed, should anyone care? Formulating in more precise terms, we might approach the issue from the opposite angle: What is it that the philosophers Cavell is rejecting actually do? And do these philosophical peers care about what Cavell, in turn, is doing?

What I aim to do in this article is to recast the apparently immovable question about “Cavell’s style” into a series of more tractable questions concerning procedure and method. Beginning with an analysis of the distinctively literary spirit of Cavell’s earlier work (and here I refer to its movement between parable and allegory, myth and metaphor), I move to a discussion of the scriptorial features that have marked and marked out his writing from the very beginning (his unique employment of key words and phrases, parenthetical remarks and questions, aphorisms and asides). My reading of Cavell is always guided by the conviction that the idiosyncrasies of his writing are inextricable from the achievement of its philosophy. Cavell’s style, I argue, is integral to its content.


The Claim of Reason is Cavell’s earliest and arguably most famous book. Its fourth part, “Skepticism and the Problem of Others”, is famous for its distinctively literary spirit; its movement between parable and allegory, myth and metaphor. By employing these standard literary modes, and illustrating an almost novelistic taste for detail and character, accident and narrative, Cavell shows his concern with the whole rhetoric of exemplification. Cavell ends The Claim of Reason with the hope of “having raised the question of whether, and of how, we know differences between the writing of literature and the writing of philosophy” (478). He does not, however, engage in direct or specific philosophical argumentation of this point. Rather, he concludes with an analysis of two Shakespeare plays, The Merchant of Venice and Othello. He concludes, in other words, with a literary discussion, thus inviting us to understand philosophy from a literary perspective. But why does Cavell choose to conclude his text in this way? How does a discussion of the fate of Othello and Desdemona, of Antonio and Shylock, shed light on the problem of Other-minds Scepticism? What exactly, we might ask, is the value of a literary context? Cavell’s resolve here to rely on a literary reading to further a philosophical analysis is precisely designed to court philosophical (and literary) outrage, and thus to bring into question our conviction that the boundaries or relations between these two domains are obvious and obviously fixed.

The continuing presence of the literary as an occasioning circumstance of both philosophy in general and Cavell’s writing in particular perhaps accounts for what is undoubtedly the defining feature of Cavell’s philosophy; the difficulty of his prose style. Cavell’s writing is frustratingly obscure. It is mannerly, idiosyncratic, intensely personal and endlessly reflexive. Discussing Wordsworth, for example, Cavell writes:

In this poem, about recovering from the loss of childhood by recovering something of, or in childhood (in particular, recovering its forms of recovery), we are to recover it, participate in it, by imitating it, as it imitated us (so imitating its endless readiness for imitation) (In Quest of the Ordinary, 73).

Cavell’s phrasing here is endlessly refined. It typifies a practice of writing which has a frustrating tendency to turn back on itself, and to do so just at the moment when the writing might have led to resolution. However, we might suggest that this process of revision has a cumulative rather than a simplifying function. For example, rather than privileging one phrase over another (“something of, or in”; “we are to recover it, participate in it”), Cavell allows both alternatives to stand. This curious practice of “listing” features in all his writings but achieves greatest prominence in his literary criticism. A prime example occurs in the opening paragraph of his essay “Emerson, Coleridge, Kant (Terms as Conditions)”. Discussing the “domestication of the fantastic” and the “transcendentalizing of the domestic” that takes place in literature (and here Cavell is alluding to his lifelong interest in the fantastic nature of ordinary life, what Heidegger calls “the enigma of the everyday”), Cavell writes: “[…] call these movements the internalization, or subjectivizing, or democratizing, of philosophy” (Quest, 27). By listing alternatives in this manner, Cavell’s suggestion is that neither alternative is conclusive; that every term has an equal claim to validity. Allowing alternatives to co-exist suggests that choosing between them isn’t necessary; that a plurality of interpretations might exist.

Cavell’s suspended alternatives are further refined and refracted by his use of the parenthesis. Parenthetic remarks litter Cavell’s prose. The function of the parenthetic remark is sometimes additional (supplementing the argument of the sentence), sometimes clarificatory (phrasing differently the same essential point) and sometimes demonstrative (offering an example). Given their prevalence in Cavell’s prose, it is not always easy to ascertain which is which. In this particular example, the first parenthetic remark “(in particular, recovering its forms of recovery)” has a demonstrative function while the second “(so imitating its endless readiness for imitation)” has a supplementary one. Notwithstanding their differing functions, however, parenthetical remarks are united by their grammatical positioning; by their curious ability to be simultaneously “inside and outside” their containing sentence.

Placing a remark in parenthesis suggests to the reader that this remark is not essential to but is independent of the sentence’s overall coherence. The reader can “take it or leave it”, as it were. Its visual appearance within the sentence, however (together with the slowed pace of reading and the resulting emphasis this brings about) belies this suggestion of autonomy. It suggests that the parenthetical remark is integral to the sentence structure. For Cavell’s purposes, this distinctive ability of the parenthetical remark, its ability to be at once integral and superfluous, “inside and outside”, allows for a more liberated expression. It allows him to say things “as asides”, sidestepping the commitment of simple assertion; saying several (sometimes contradictory) things at once, not having to privilege one meaning over another. 

One final stylistic feature worthy of attention is Cavell’s repetition of key words and phrases. In this particular example, there are two: “recovery” (which, along with its variant, “recovering”, appears five times) and “imitation” (with its variants, “imitating” and “imitated”, appearing four times). Cavell’s repetition of these words lends a mesmeric quality to his sentence. Indeed, we might suggest that these words also “imitate”; resounding and playing off one another, echoing and hinting and ricocheting, reinforcing their own importance. In this manner, their specificity is heightened. Their reader becomes attuned to their poetic nature, to their look and sound as well as their meaning. The material reality of the words, their tangibility, is thus emphasized.  We are reminded of Cavell’s discussion of Thoreau’s Walden: “My subject is nothing apart from sensing the specific weight of these words as they sink” (The Senses of Walden, 11). Drawing attention to the specificity of words allows Cavell to suggest that his sentence works on a linguistic as well as a topical level; that the etymology, atomic structure and mythological resonances of the words employed in the sentence are equally central to its philosophical work. For example, we might suggest that “echoing” is here invoked as a structure of memory and so connected to childhood. “Recovery”, in turn, might accord with the uncovering and repetition that children use in order to learn language, in order to project it into new circumstances.

By allowing alternative remarks to exist in suspension, by clarifying yet extending these alternatives via parenthetical remarks and by drawing attention to key words and phrases, the texture of Cavell’s writing manages to save him from the mechanized, positivistic and sparsely logical methodology of analytic philosophy. Rather than the construction of a barebones, linear argument, his writing aims at a texture and a mood. And it is this texture and mood, we might suggest, that allows Cavell’s writing to liberate a plurality of suggestion and meaning.

Explaining the ambiguities of Cavell’s expression in terms of philosophical plurality might suffice to a point, but given Cavell’s continual responsiveness to the analytic tradition (and the fact that “philosophical plurality” is a notoriously unsatisfactory concept), we suspect that this explanation is not exhaustive. We suspect - and hope - that there is more to Cavell’s philosophical work than a recognition of multiplicity. Returning to the sentence in question; specifically, to Cavell’s device of listing, we are tempted to ask: of these widely disparate and endlessly suggestive practices (“internalization”, “subjectivizing”, “democratizing”), which exactly does Cavell affirm? Which has priority? Surely it matters (i.e. has an effect on the substantive meaning of the sentence) which practice we finally “go with”, which we “read” as conclusive?

Controversially, Cavell suggests that it does not matter (or, at the very least, that such questions of “mattering” or “meaning” are misconceived, too crudely drawn to track the movements of thought and writing). On this point, indeed, we might turn to Cavell’s own discussion of “meaning” in his prose. On discussing Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Cavell writes: "Such words mean nothing whatever, or I have no interest in their meaning anything, apart from their accuracy in wording an intuition." (Quest, 53) Cavell’s prioritizing of “intuition” over “meaning” here is crucial. For it suggests that his writing does not strive for coherence or unity or closure (or even for a philosophical plurality) but strives instead to stay faithful to (to establish an “accuracy” for) the volatility of his own feeling and instinct; to authorize and maintain even the most incomplete figurations of his thought and perception. As he phrases it in The Senses of Walden:

You can no more tell beforehand whether a line of wording will cleave you than you can tell whether a line of argument will convince you, or an answer raise your laughter. But when it happens, it will feel like a discovery of the a priori, a necessity of language, and of the world, coming to light (44).

Seeking the “necessity of language” that can never be predicted, Cavell involves his reader in the very movement of his thought. His writing gives thought itself its due, as an ongoing process of momentary involvement. This involvement secures an intimacy of address and tone; a tone which gifts to Cavell’s writing its idiosyncratic subtlety and seduction.

Another contributory factor to this idiosyncrasy is the fact that this writing doesn’t move from premise to inference to conclusion but resists, almost obsessively, the logic of integration. Cavell’s arguments don’t proceed by simple inference but move between and among indefinite claims, shifting us from thinking in a straightforward discursive manner to one which is more observant and questioning. Indeed, Cavell’s distinctive brand of philosophizing is not made of arguments, as such: rather, it is made of descriptions; of readings, musings, fantasies and word puzzles; of imaginary conversations and improvisatory flights; of obsessive returns to sentences from Austin and Wittgenstein, Emerson and Thoreau. Traditionally, philosophical language has aimed for transparency but it is simply impossible to paraphrase Cavell. It is impossible to translate his writing into plain prose. As his foremost critic, Stephen Mulhall, phrases it, “any attempt to prise the core of [Cavell’s] conceptual or grammatical analysis can at best be partially successful” (144).  The most famous example, of course, is the opening sentence of The Claim of Reason. Cavell writes:

If not at the beginning of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, since what starts philosophy is no more to be known at the outset than how to make an end of it; and if not at the opening of Philosophical Investigations, since its opening is not to be confused with the starting of the philosophy it expresses and since the terms in which that opening might be understood can hardly be given along with the opening itself; and if we acknowledge from the commencement, anyway leave open at the opening, that the way this work is written is internal to what it teaches, which means that we cannot understand the manner (call it the method) before we understand its work; and if we do not look to our history, since placing this book historically can hardly happen earlier than placing it philosophically; nor look to Wittgenstein’s past, since then we are likely to suppose that the Investigations is written in criticism of the Tractatus, which is not so much wrong as empty, both because to know what constitutes its criticism would be to know what constitutes its philosophy, and because it is more to the present point to see how the Investigations is written in criticism of itself; then where and how are we to approach this text? (3)

How, indeed, are we to approach this? How to stay on track of such meandering? Breaking down Cavell’s sentence, we are given: “If not […], since […] ; and if not […] , since […] and since […] ; and if […] , […] , that […] , which means that […] ; and if […], since […]; nor […], since […] , which […] because […] , and because […] ; then where and how […]?" Cavell’s seemingly endless clauses do not admit of straightforward development but defer completion in favour of reiterated beginnings, in favour of qualification and complication and alternative; culminating not in a single conclusion but in multiple questions. 

We might suggest that the greatest challenge of this serpentine expression is not the difficulty of its content but knowing where and when to place one’s emphasis. It is possible to pick out, from this sentence, at least nine affirmative points. However, because these points are phrased as clauses (hence as hypotheses), their reader does not have the comfort of accepting them as such. We are quite sure, but not completely certain, that Cavell is asserting (for example) that “what starts philosophy is no more to be known at the outset than how to make an end of it” and that “the way this work is internal to what it teaches”. These ideas are endlessly provocative in their own right. However, given their placement within Cavell’s sentence (and the fact that clauses are usually read in a questioning, higher pitched, slightly breathless manner), we cannot be sure of their status. Cavell’s writing, it seems, provides no ground for us to stand on.

Passing into an acceptance of the endlessly deferred, into detachment from totality and hope of provocation without instruction; that is, following Cavell in his labyrinthine and difficult prose, has obvious stylistic risks. Cavell’s use of elaborate parentheses, finely-grained distinctions/qualifications and ornate rhetorical strategies suggests an obsession with style and self that leads many intelligent philosophers to stop reading. At crucial points, he will move into the interrogative or suppositional modes, thus distancing himself from his text and destroying the declarative force of what he is saying. While admirers of his work might applaud this avoidance of closure, more sceptical readers might interpret it as philosophical sloppiness, hiding behind questions through fear of staking a claim. Praising Cavell for his writing’s “avoidance of closure” sets us something of a straw man, indeed, for how many philosophers would claim finality as the goal of their work? For a reader in the grip of these objections, to address the question of Cavell’s philosophical method is to beg the question of whether his writing should be regarded as philosophy at all.

Cavell has been accused of alternating between triteness and sentimentality, on the one hand, and wilful obscurity, on the other. Arthur Danto has written that Cavell writes “at times like Woody Woodpecker and at times like an angel” (5). While the broader context for Danto’s comments is largely positive, Cavell is not always so lucky in his acceptance by the philosophical community. Nowhere is this more evident than in Anthony Kenny’s review of The Claim of Reason. Kenny writes:

Despite Cavell’s philosophical and literary gifts [The Claim of Reason] as it stands is a misshapen, undisciplined amalgam of ill-assorted parts… [It] is a worthwhile book, but it could have been much better had it been pruned of dead wood and over-exuberant foliage. The need for trimming can be illustrated by the very first sentence. ..The exasperated reader might well put the book down and go no further.

Given Kenny’s injunction that a certain “pruning” or “trimming” is required before we can appreciate Cavell’s prose; given the charges of indulgence and excessiveness that dog his work and given, finally, the multiple frustrations of trying to piece together this fragmentary prose, trying to come to grips with “this strange, wondrous, often excruciatingly difficult writer”, as Cavell describes Wallace Stevens (Benfry and Remmler, 78-79), a number of questions present themselves. Firstly and most directly: why is Cavell’s writing so difficult? Why does he keep writing in ways that flout the normal tone and mode of addressing an audience in academic philosophy? Why, when a philosopher is raising the question of the limits of philosophy and its modes of expression, does it seem necessary to enact the transgression of those limits? Finally, why take all this trouble about writing philosophy, or about something called “achieving a voice” in philosophy? What does this have to do with the methods and the sense of possible progress that brought you to such issues in the first place?


The writing of philosophy or, more specifically, the relation between philosophical style and content, has always been central to Cavell. The intricacies of this relationship are first developed in his seminal essay collection, Must We Mean What We Say? Raising the question of the limits of philosophy and its motley of writing modes, and introducing a life-long concern with philosophy’s self-questioning, Cavell writes:

The topics of the modern, of the philosophy of philosophy, and of the form of philosophical writing come together in the question: What is the audience of philosophy? For the answer to this question will contribute to the answer to the question: What is philosophy? How is it to be written? (5)

In concern and expression, this excerpt is typical of Cavell. His elucidation of its central idea hinges not on this idea’s discussion but on its precise formulation in the interrogative mode: an idea leads to a question which leads to further questions. For whom exactly, Cavell wonders, is philosophy written? How is philosophy to be written? And what does its written form tell us about philosophy as a discipline/ intellectual endeavour/way of life? These questions are equally central to The Senses of Walden. Beginning with his puzzlement “as to why [Thoreau’s] words about writing in Walden are not [...] systematically used in making out what kind of book he had undertaken to write” (3), Cavell’s recurring obsession here is with Thoreau as a writer, with Thoreau as a philosopher and with philosophy as a written discipline.

Concerns over philosophy’s form are echoed also in the foreword to The Claim of Reason. Here Cavell writes that his fascination with Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations “had to do with my response to it as a feat of writing” (xiii). Similarly, Cavell’s difficulty with counting Emerson as a philosopher lies first of all in Emerson’s writing, which is claimed by Bloom and Lowell to be “indirect and devious” (Quest, 34), “a kind of mist or fog” (34) or (like Heidegger’s prose), exhibiting “the wild variation and excesses of linguistic form that have always interfered with rationality” (Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, 38). Again and again, Cavell returns to this question of philosophical form, a question which is central not only to establishing his own position within American philosophy but to his ongoing project of re-habilitating Emerson and Thoreau. It reaches its highest pitch in This New Yet Unapproachable America where Cavell asks: “How can philosophy [...] look like Emerson’s writing?” (116)

Cavell, it seems, is as concerned with the rhetoric of philosophy as with its ends and means. Returning again and again to issues of philosophical form and style, to philosophy’s sound and look, its audience (hence rhetorical character) and status as discipline, the writing of philosophy is delineated in Cavell’s work as a central and pressing question. Typical of Cavell, however, no straightforward answer is offered, or even hinted at. Indeed, by leaving these related and increasingly nuanced questions unanswered, Cavell suggests that the questions themselves, if not exactly rhetorical, do not ask for a reply. Their primary philosophical work, he suggests, is inspirational rather than instructive.

The closest Cavell comes to a formulated response comes in a purely negative guise. In In Quest of the Ordinary, he writes: “philosophy is not exhausted in argumentation” (109). Cavell elaborates on this point in his discussion of Descartes’s Mediations. Cavell points out that, at least in certain of Descartes’s passages, “there is nothing in these considerations to call argument or inference; indeed, the most obvious description of these passages is to say that they constitute an autobiographical narrative of some kind” (108). Earlier in the same book, Cavell had written: “We are possessed of no standing discourse within which to fit anything and everything philosophers have said” (19). For Cavell, it seems, there is no methodological preserve or “final form” of philosophical writing. There is no bottom line as to what philosophy is. The motley of writing modes that fall under its domain (and here we may think of the philosophical poem, fragment, dialogue, confession, essay and treatise as well as the most widely accepted contemporary formats, the journal article or monograph) are not definitively united by characteristics of style or procedure, by logical or even literary form.

In drawing attention to the irreducibility yet continuing importance of philosophical form, Cavell is here following the lead of the later Wittgenstein. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein had famously asserted: “philosophy ought really to be written as a poetic composition”. Cavell, we might say, takes his cue from Wittgenstein, and approaches philosophy somewhat in the spirit of poetics. By “the spirit of poetics”, I mean to argue that Cavell comprehends the deep ways in which philosophy is like a poetic text. On this model, there is no bottom line as to what philosophy is (just as there is no bottom line as to what exactly poetry is) as philosophy is, whatever else it is, a form of writing; in which the sound and look of its words matter just as much as its content. On this model, form is essential to content. As Cavell phrases it, writing of Emerson:

Our philosophical habits will prompt us to interpret the surface of writing as its manner, its style, its rhetoric, an ornament of what is said rather than substance, but Emerson’s implied claim is that this is as much a philosophical prejudice as the other conformities his essay decries, that, so to speak, words are no more ornaments of thought than tears are ornaments of sadness or joy (Quest, 23).


So how might a work of writing gain for itself the title “work of philosophy”? How might one recognize a work of philosophy from a work, say, of poetry, or of history, or of psychoanalysis? If philosophy is a kind of writing, what prevents it from becoming merely a form of writing, unanswerable to criteria of discipline or procedure or method? Is Cavell really content with this “anything goes” conception, with a philosophy that abandons the traditional strictures of inference and argument, of logic and rigour?

Cavell’s reply comes most explicitly in the opening pages of In Quest of the Ordinary. He writes: “No-one should rest east at the idea of philosophy abandoning the business of argument” (14). For Cavell, it is a matter of course that philosophy needs arguments (this is why it is impossible to assimilate his work to “continental philosophy” in the current French mode); but it is also a matter of course that argument without cultural vision is empty (which is why it is impossible to assimilate his to present-day “analytic philosophy”). On this model, the fact that literature and argument have come to be seen as opposed is seen by Cavell as a cultural tragedy.

Cavell’s response to the question of what philosophy is (and given the esotericism of his own writing, he is often called upon to give this response) is that genuine philosophy must establish and maintain a texture of prose that earns the title of philosophy from its readers. “Each claim to speak for philosophy”, Cavell writes, “has to earn that authority for itself” (Must We Mean What We Say?, xxiii). This echoes an earlier claim made in A Pitch of Philosophy where Cavell refers to “the tone of philosophy” and, more tellingly, “my right to take that tone” (viii). It is comparable also to the case Cavell makes for Thoreau as philosopher, where he speaks not of Thoreau’s argumentative rigour but of his capacity to “affirm his own discourse” (Quest, 14). It is worth stepping carefully through this point. Affirming one’s own discourse is not, on Cavell’s conception, something opposed to argumentative rigour. Rather, Cavell reinterprets argumentative rigour as a responsibility towards one’s employment of language. On this model, therefore, Thoreau is not abandoning rigour but showing a different form it can take.

Cavell’s idea of philosophy as affirmation is intimately linked with (or, at least, it is so linked by Cavell) to the procedures of Ordinary Language Philosophy. Cavell conceives of ordinary language philosophy as an attempt to regain intimacy with our words and life. Correspondingly, he conceives of the ordinary as a return to where we have never been; a “nextness” that is near to the world. The way we use language, Cavell argues, is immediate and intimate. It is not a matter of knowing – of being assured of the logical essences of words – but a matter of attunement, of using criteria that we know are open to refutation. One of Cavell’s earliest claims, in his collection of essays, Must We Mean What We Say? (whose title sums up the whole difficulty), is that we simply do not know what we think or what we mean, and that the task of philosophy is to bring us back to ourselves; in Wittgensteinian terms, to bring our words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.

In a late essay on Emerson, Cavell claims “an inheritance of philosophy that gives back life to the words it has thought to own – a language in which the traditional vocabulary of philosophy is variously brought to earth” (“What’s the Use in Calling Emerson a Pragmatist?”, 75). Here again we see Cavell’s emphasis on returning language to forms of life. And here again, the emphasis rests on philosophy as the reclamation of philosophical language. Emerson, Cavell argues, retains the vocabulary of philosophy but divests it of its claim to mastery. His writing is thus difficult in a way no other American philosophers has been, certainly different from the difficulty posed by James or by Dewey. Emerson thus seeks (and we can certainly extend this to Cavell) not a style of writing but “a justness of it, its happy enquiries, ecstasies of exactness” (Walden, 44).

The key point here is that Emerson’s philosophical writing, for Cavell, shoulders a linguistic responsibility, where every word bears a commitment to total and transparent meaning. Every word must affirm its own existence. To this extent, Emerson’s philosophical writing shares the same responsibility as poetry. Like the prose of Thoreau, it enacts a continual struggle to approach, yet preserve itself from, the poetic. As Cavell writes, “Writing at it best will come to finish in each mark of meaning, in each portion and sentence and word” (Walden, 27). Thoreau’s prose, he argues, “must admit this pressure and at every moment resolutely withstand it” (27). Only by such re-discovery of language, Cavell suggests, can philosophy return to and celebrate our human condition. At the heart of Cavell’s readings of Thoreau and Emerson, and at the heart of his wish for philosophical writing, lie the questions: "How is writing to declare its faithfulness to itself? How is it to rescue language?" (Walden, 33).


Even though the ground of Cavell’s prose is constantly shifting, it does afford its reader a particular, if momentary, orientation. There is something oddly memorable about a Cavellian sentence. This is particularly evident in The Senses of Walden, a work of American philosophy that is quite unmatched in its redolence and majesty of expression. Reading through The Senses of Walden, one is struck by the book’s recurring sense of quotability, the profundity and grandeur of its expression:

The work of humanization is still to be done. While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless. So long as we will not take our beliefs all the way to genuine knowledge, to conviction, but keep letting ourselves be driven to more or less hasty conclusions, we will keep misplacing the infinite, and so grasp neither heaven nor earth. There is a solid bottom everywhere (76).

Allowing that its context is towards the end of Cavell’s book, and the movement towards conclusion consequently heightened in rhetoric, we may take this passage as a prime example of Cavell’s prose; of its weight and characteristic sense of magnitude. We might say, indeed, that Cavell’s writing commands a unique authority. This authority, however, is maintained in spite of – indeed, perhaps because of – its avoidance of traditional modes of authoritative expression (assertion, conviction, conclusion and so on). This authority relies instead, I propose, on the sense of autonomy or independence that characterise Cavell’s sentences; a sense of free-standing conviction where isolated claims are assuredly complete, unto and by themselves. Cavell’s sentences gain this independence by having their meaning dependent on their exact wording. In an interview with James Conant, indeed, Cavell himself stated: “The sense that nothing here than this prose just here, as it’s passing before our eyes, can carry conviction, is one of the thoughts that drives the shape of what I do” (59). Cavell’s sentences, by his own admission, cannot be paraphrased, for to do so would be to travesty the subtlety and sensitivity of their expression; to lose the achievement of their philosophical work. Exact wording of this kind underlines the writtenness of the Cavellian sentence which leads, in turn, to its charismatic authority. And it is this autonomy or independence, we might suggest, that finally unites the variety of discontinuous forms employed in Cavell’s philosophical presentation: the aphorism, aside and entry; the reading, remark and parenthesis; the digression, introduction and sentence.

Reading Emerson’s words, Cavell continues, is a matter of “obeying and hence following them, subjecting yourself to them as the writer has by undertaking to enact his existence in saying them” (Quest, 120). Philosophy, in this sense, becomes a form of autobiography. It becomes a matter of mastering one’s subjectivity by making it exemplary. This mastering can only occur by a reclamation of philosophical language; a precision of expression; again, not a style of writing but “a justness” of it. As Cavell writes of Walden:

Words come to us from a distance; they were there before we were; we are born into them. Meaning them is accepting that fact of their condition. To discover what is being said to us, as to discover what we are saying, is to discover the precise location from which it is said; to understand why it is said just there, and at that time (Walden, 64).

Cavell’s ambition, we might suggest, is to create a decorum of prose (in the sense of “correctness” or “propriety”) in which a reader might find himself or herself on the verge of thinking a certain thought, in certain specific words, just at the moment when the words appeared on the page; “just there, and at that time”.

In the philosophical writing that proceeds from ordinary language, Cavell gives the impression that words are returning from a kind of lifelessness. His wish for philosophy is to denounce complacency and inexpressiveness and to embrace the precise and the idiosyncratic. Philosophy, in this sense, is not unified by method or procedure but by an expressiveness and an individuality, by the achievement of a genuine and meaningful philosophical voice. This ambition is grounded in Cavell’s lifelong attention to Austin and Wittgenstein and his continuing championing of Emerson and Thoreau. This achievement of voice is in turn an achievement of the human; re-animating the traditional vocabulary of philosophy, allowing us “to live humanly and to live well”. Reading and writing in this manner allows us to express our individuality, our humanity, and so to redeem ourselves.

With his continued emphasis on expressiveness and philosophical voice, on reanimating the traditional philosophical vocabulary, Cavell broadens and reforms philosophy as aesthetical in its claiming, modernist in its condition; almost literature in its particularity, intimacy and need for self-dramatization. His writing is rambling, obscure, contradictory, refractory and notoriously difficult to comprehend; it is endlessly preoccupied with style and self and its own reflexive status. Its countervailing strength, however, is an unrivalled attentiveness and intensity, an engaged and engaging prose that, for all its extravagances, could never be accused of vagrancy. Reading Cavell, indeed, we are reminded of Thoreau’s conclusion of Walden:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you…I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagrant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. Extra vagrance! It depends on how you are yarded (Thoreau, Walden, 171).

Reading Cavell’s work, one gets the impression of a distinctive philosophical voice, a voice that is robustly personal yet quietly rebellious. Concluding his brilliant essay on Descartes, Emerson and Poe (a trio, incidentally, that only Cavell would bring into dialogue), Cavell writes, “This is said on tiptoe” (Quest 129) and this line, typical of Cavell’s playfulness, functions both as disclaimer (of straightforward understanding) and as encouragement (to read again). Cavell’s philosophical writing, we might finally suggest, dances as a prose “on tiptoe”. It is a delicate, alert and ever fragile expression, a straining forward in order to hear and to respond; an encouragement, finally, to always mean what we say.

Works Cited

Benfey, Christopher and Karen Remmler, eds., Artists, Intellectuals and World War II: The Pontigny Encounters at Mount Holyoke College, 1942-1944 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006).

Cavell, Stanley. A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1994.

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

----. In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

----. Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969.

----. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.

----. The Senses of Walden. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972.

----. This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988.

----. “What’s the Use of Calling Emerson a Pragmatist?” in The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture, ed. Morris Dickstein (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), pp. 72-83.

Conant, James. “An Interview with Stanley Cavell” in The Senses of Stanley Cavell (Bucknell Review), ed. Richard Fleming and Michael Payne (pp. 21-72). Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1989.

Danto, Arthur, “Philosophy and/as Film and/as if Philosophy” October 23 (Winter 1982), 4-14. 

Kenny, Anthony. Review of The Claim of Reason, Times Literary Supplement (18 April, 1980).

Mulhall, Stephen. Stanley Cavell: Philosophy’s Recounting of the Ordinary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; Or, Life in the Woods. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1995.