The title piece in Must We Mean What We Say?, which consists of a series of chronologically arranged essays, was written as a symposium paper in 1957. The essays in the book range from relatively short reviews to more developed meditations and fall into one of three categories: examinations of topics in epistemology, aesthetics, and the philosophy of language; focused, critical studies of individual philosophers such as J. L. Austin, Søren Kierkegaard, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; and interpretations of specific literary texts such as William Shakespeare’s King Lear (produced c. 1605-1606) and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1958). One of Stanley Cavell’s areas of special interest is the philosophy of aesthetics, and five of the ten essays in this volume are directly concerned with aesthetic matters.
In his preface to Must We Mean What We Say?, Cavell warns his readers not to try to categorize his essays as either literary criticism or what he calls “straight philosophy,” in part because he feels these two approaches are so intertwined in his work that they would be difficult to separate. He engages in a kind of criticism that allows him to treat a number of issues and concerns from a consistent, fundamentally philosophical perspective. Although one of the themes that runs through many of the volume’s essays is an exploration of the relationships between philosophy and literature and the philosopher and the author, Cavell is also very interested in the concept of the “modern” as it is understood in both philosophical circles and in larger arenas of experience. A third overarching concern that surfaces in several of the essays is an attempt to replace philosophy’s emphasis on knowledge as an ideal with a primary goal of something more like sensitivity or sensibility. Must We Mean What We Say? is not simply a collection of essays, it is a book that integrates several themes by presenting them in a number of different contexts.