Must We Mean What We Say?

by Stanley Cavell
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 321

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.

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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.

Ordinary Language Philosophy

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The title essay, “Must We Mean What We Say?,” is a defense of “ordinary language philosophy” as it was practiced at Oxford in the 1950’s by philosophers such as Cavell’s teacher, J. L. Austin. Austin, an instructor and working philosopher, is the subject of the fourth essay in the collection, “Austin at Criticism.” Cavell called Austin’s work and his classes and lectures at Harvard the most important influences in his philosophical life. Austin was very interested in the nuances of linguistic meaning and stressed that “ordinary language,” the language people actually use, is a result of evolutionary changes in meanings and use. For Austin, philosophers tend to make fundamental missteps when they oversimplify and mix words that, while similar, have real differences in meaning.

By the late 1950’s, when Cavell’s essay on Austin first appeared, ordinary language philosophy was a force on American university campuses, and Cavell’s goal was to defend not only the procedures of this approach but also Austin’s conclusions against critics such as Benson Mates. In this essay, Cavell concentrates on what people commonly say and mean in an attempt to address issues of philosophical obscurity and confusion. In particular, he is interested in highlighting the necessity of understanding not only the empirical and scientific meaning of speech but also the intentions of the speaker and the rules of language being used. This matter of the rules of discourse was especially important because although these rules are often informal and therefore cannot be systemized, they nonetheless underpin both usage and meaning. For Cavell, people must mean what their words mean, since the ways they live and use language in everyday life will not allow them to say one thing but mean another. Therefore, argues Cavell, people must be very careful about what they say. Austin’s (and by implication, Cavell’s) interest in the everyday and the ordinary as a sphere of philosophical inquiry is in part a call to philosophers to return to their natural habitats, to back away from a reliance on theories, and to embrace truths and logical ideas that people recognize and acknowledge for themselves, as individuals and members of specific communities of meaning.

Wittgenstein and Modernity

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Cavell expands and redirects the arguments of “Must We Mean What We Say?” in the second essay in the book, ”The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy,” a scathing attack on David Poole’s The Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein (1958). In this review, interest in “meaning what we say” leads Cavell to consideration of the differences between the modern and the traditional in philosophical practice. Perhaps because he finds Poole’s oversimplification of Wittgenstein’s writings offensive, he spends several pages discussing Wittgenstein’s style as a self-conscious philosophical strategy parallel to the therapeutic approach of Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis. Cavell also focuses on what he views as the inadequacies of Poole’s traditional approach to Wittgenstein’s radically original—and by extension—modern ideas. Cavell’s interest in, and treatment of, Wittgenstein’s literary style and the issue of modernity are both themes that resurface in other essays in the collection.

For example, in his third essay, “Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy,” Cavell demonstrates that changes in philosophical practice and focus are characteristic of shifts wrought by the advent of the modern era and that these changes are also reflected in endeavors such as literature. At the heart of these changes is a movement away from an overriding concentration on knowledge and its origin, nature, and limits. Instead, Cavell argues, a modern philosopher will be more comfortable with a model that includes concern for matters of sensibility. In this essay, Cavell applies Wittgenstein’s methods to issues in aesthetics. His goal is to point out the similarities in beliefs among aesthetic and ordinary language philosophers and Wittgenstein. Philosophy, like art criticism and aesthetics, often centers on questions of whether or not a person sees or experiences an artifact or an event in a certain way. He suggests then, that, given those similarities, it is not surprising that modern philosophers are becoming interested in questions of philosophical style and the application of aesthetic judgments to philosophical writing. As a result, Cavell suggests, a “new literary-philosophical criticism” is developing. It is a distinctly modern vision of philosophy and well suited to discussions of modern expressions in such arts as film, music, and literature.

Art and the Modernist Sensibility

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If the critical thinking of disciplines such as literary study can illuminate philosophy, philosophy can be fruitfully brought to bear as a critical tool in examining various works of art. Therefore, Must We Mean What We Say? includes studies of several artistic subjects, such as music (Cavell’s bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, was in music, where he studied with the composer Ernest Bloch) and plays by Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare. In “Music Discomposed” and its companion essay, “A Matter of Meaning It,” Cavell describes a number of modern threads in musical composition and criticism since Ludwig van Beethoven that he believes are rooted in a clear break with traditional values. This break with the past did not merely result in new musical forms but also led to a breakdown in the very structures that are used to judge artistic products and people’s responses to them. These essays develop the argument that contemporary composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, and Arnold Schoenberg found themselves in a modernist predicament. New systems of rhythm, duration, dynamics, and other musical elements appeared, and the ways in which composers understood themselves and their enterprise underwent fundamental changes. For Cavell, the loss of tradition as a measure of beauty and appropriateness left a vacuum of authority and led to what might best be described as the “modern” artistic vision of the world—one filled with ambiguities, unresolvable problems, and significant difficulties.

This sort of examination of the modernist sensibility is an important theme in Cavell’s reading of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, described in the chapter entitled “Ending the Waiting Game.” Underpinning Cavell’s interpretation of Beckett’s play is his sense that when most literary interpreters review Beckett’s work, they neglect to consider the central problem of modern artists—that they must create in the absence of any of the recognized, traditional conventions that had previously shaped and ordered their enterprise—and therefore misunderstand his vision. Cavell’s treatment of the play emphasizes the ways in which Endgame’s effectiveness depends on a contrast between the seeming ordinariness of its action and the extraordinary ways in which Beckett infuses the language of the play with meaning. Cavell pays special attention to the play’s grammar and the ways in which conceptual issues are reinforced or undercut by the words Beckett chooses to put into the mouths of his characters. What he admires in Beckett is the skill with which the playwright delivers his message. Cavell’s meditation on the meaning of the play leads him to consider such diverse sources as the film Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke in a discussion of ideas about the end of the world revealed in works of modern art.

Shakespeare and Skepticism

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Cavell’s long reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “The Avoidance of Love,” which takes up a quarter of the book, is the final, most ambitious essay in Must We Mean What We Say? and brings together a number of Cavell’s themes. The essay, a major contribution to Shakespeare criticism, is divided into two major parts: a critical reading and an examination of dramatic criticism using the play as a case study. Cavell’s interpretation of this difficult play suggests that its major theme is how people avoid love and what results from such avoidances. Running through this analysis is an interest in the philosophical concept of skepticism, which is also the focus of the essay on “Knowing and Acknowledging,” in this volume, and which continues to periodically draw his attention.

These essays not only are concerned with interpreting the play in terms of avoidance of love and skeptical consciousness but also are infused with the philosophical preoccupations of the whole book, such as the perils of saying more (or less) than one means and the self-deception that can result from not acknowledging the meaning of what one says. For example, Cavell interprets King Lear from the perspective of the modern predicament, which leads him to discuss the possibility of writing tragedies in the modern world. Cavell uses the play to consider how disagreements in dramatic criticism are in many ways parallel to those in philosophy, particularly in terms of the difficulties critics have in seeing the obvious (perhaps because they, too, are caught up in avoidance behaviors). This essay on King Lear draws together a careful reading of the text, an interest in performance and the audience’s responses, and analytical approaches in the sort of literary philosophy for which Cavell has become known.

An Interdisciplinary Influence

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Must We Mean What We Say? is a personal, individual work that is embedded in the singular sensibility of its author. Cavell’s earliest work, Must We Mean What We Say?, is best known for its sympathetic treatment of ordinary language philosophy and the later works of Wittgenstein. First published in 1969, it received very little notice at first but gradually aroused enough interest to be reprinted in 1976. Its chronological organization allows the reader to follow Cavell’s intellectual development and to appreciate his ability to expand the world of philosophical discourse beyond its traditional boundaries. Throughout his career, Cavell continued to write about both traditional and nontraditional philosophical topics in a highly literate style.

The nature of Cavell’s future contributions to the discipline of philosophy were also first demonstrated in the essays collected in Must We Mean What We Say? His interdisciplinary interests and his innovative combinations of art and cultural criticism are always supported by his fundamental belief that philosophy and other sorts of knowledge, such as literature, can be mutually illuminating and should be explored in relationship to one another.


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Additional Reading

Bates, Stanley. “Self and the World in Walden.” The Thoreau Quarterly 14 (Summer/Fall, 1982). This entire issue is devoted to Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden.

Borradori, Giovanna. The American Philosopher: Conversations with Quine, Davidson, Putnam, Nozick, Danto, Rorty, Cavell, MacIntyre, and Kuhn. Translated by Rosanna Crocitto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. This work contains a nineteen-page interview with Cavell that focuses on his interests in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and J. L. Austin and his work on skepticism. The introduction provides a good contextualization of Cavell within trends and issues of modern American philosophy.

Fischer, Michael. Stanley Cavell and Literary Skepticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. An evaluation of Cavell’s often difficult to understand but significant contributions to literary criticism and theory. Focuses on Cavell’s investigations of tragedy, Romanticism, skepticism, and Wittgenstein. Contextualizes Cavell in current critical literary theory.

Fleming, Richard, and Michael Payne, eds. The Senses of Stanley Cavell. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1989. A collection of essays “inspired by” various aspects of Cavell’s work in literary, film, and philosophical studies. A very dense interview with Cavell begins the volume, and a short conversation acts as a coda. Excellent bibliography.

Gould, Timothy. Hearing Things: Voice and Method in the Writing of Stanley Cavell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. A significant analysis of Cavell’s work that highlights his evolution as a philosopher and makes the connection between his various interests.

Meyerowitz, Rael. Transferring to America: Jewish Interpretations of American Dreams. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. This book provides an analysis of the work of Stanley Cavell and others from a psychoanalytic point of view.

Smith, Joseph H., and William Kerrigan, eds. Images in Our Souls: Cavell, Psychoanalysis, and Cinema. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. In addition to an essay by Cavell on the “unknown woman” melodrama, the volume includes essays that draw on Cavell’s writings about film in their discussion of a number of psychological themes in films.

Wheeler, Richard P. “Acknowledging Shakespeare: Cavell and the Claim of the Human.” Bucknell Review 32, no. 1 (1989): 132-160. A readable treatment of Cavell’s uses of William Shakespeare’s plays to illuminate important philosophical issues, especially the relationship between philosophical skepticism and literary tragedy.

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