Justin Evans's Reviews > Contending with Stanley Cavell

Contending with Stanley Cavell by Stanley Cavell
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's review
Dec 01, 10

bookshelves: philosophy
Read in December, 2010

This book is a series of essays and as with all such books, some are good and some are not. Rorty's review of 'The Claim of Reason' is good, and makes the argument - what is the status and importance of skepticism for life? - seem important.
Conant's 'Cavell and the Concept of America' is bizarre. I want to be clear with my American friends who care a lot about being American, and that involves many people I respect intellectually, including my wife: it's not that we foreigners are *offended* by Americans' obsession with Americanness. It's that we find it unutterably bizarre. The oddity of Conant's argument (that 'America' is a really important ideal) is brought home by his historical illiteracy: actually, 'America' was not founded by people thinking to themselves, 'what kind of nation do we want? and how should we set up democracy?' in a little bubble. And America was not "not killing another country" in the days after 9/11; America has been killing people in other countries for the last fifty years. Not 'at war,' of course. Just dropping a lot of bombs. A more important investigation than 'is Cavell's use of 'America' like Kierkegaard's use of 'Christian'' might be 'why are Americans who consider themselves liberal [since for 'conservatives' the answer is a more straightforward nationalism that at least has the benefit of honesty] so obsessed with defining the American Novelist, the American Poet, the American Philosopher and so on? And how can we stop them doing this all the time so that they can get on with more important issues, like writing a decent novel/poem/philosophical text?'

Mulhall's 'On Refusing to Begin' is a close reading of the first paragraphs of CR, and is, to be honest, a little tiresome. Critchley's 'Cavell's 'Romanticism,' taken from his book 'Very Little... Almost Nothing,' which I would now like even more to read, is interesting, particularly on the question of Cavell's focus on America. Critchley's key claim is that Cavell is at his best when he's 'wriggling' between criteria (i.e., the fact that our actions are generally in accordance with some sort of rule) and skepticism (i.e., the knowledge that those rules/criteria can't be justified by any solid ground outside themselves). This ignores, though, the most important alternative: that the criteria we have are the only ones we can have, that they are historically grounded, and that 'criteria' is a worse term for this than, say, Hegel's use of the term 'concept,' which allows for historical development. That's a large disagreement with post-Wittgensteinian philosophy, though. Critchley's essay is great.
Laugier's essay is good, but almost as torturous to read as Cavell. She's after big game, which is nice, although her 'naturalism,' honestly, strikes me as a little foolish.
Goodman's essay is dull. Unless you care about how Dewey influenced Wittgenstein. Then you might like it.
I skipped the essay on film. Not enough time. Stewart's essay isn't particularly exciting, a shame since it was the one I really wanted to read. Turns out that Cavell's work isn't quoted by literary critics because... drum-roll... he's not a structuralist, post-structuralist or New Historicist. Yawn.

First book of philosophy I've read in a while. Feels good to get back in the saddle.

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