Stanley Cavell Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Cavell’s unusual areas of interest and interdisciplinary treatments of traditional and nontraditional topics expanded the boundaries of modern American philosophical discourse, provided a bridge to European philosophical thinking, and tied the concerns of philosophy to everyday life.

Early Life

Stanley Louis Cavell was born in 1926 in Atlanta, Georgia, to Irving and Fannie Goldstein, central European Jewish immigrants. His mother was a professional pianist who provided musical interludes during film screenings. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a student of Ernest Bloch and earned his A.B. in music in 1947. He did graduate work at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1948 through 1951 and attended the Juilliard School of Music. While in New York, rather than focusing on music, he spent his time reading the works of Sigmund Freud and writing, and he finally decided to study philosophy. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1961. He held a number of appointments, including election as a junior member to the Harvard Society of Fellows (1953-1956), an assistant professorship in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley (1956-1962), and a year at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1963, he became the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Values at Harvard University.

Life’s Work

Cavell’s early philosophical interests and his professional direction were profoundly affected by his reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953, bilingual German and English edition) and by British philosopher J. L. Austin’s arrival at Harvard in 1955. Both of these philosophers were interested in language and linguistics and the ways in which philosophical problems and linguistic issues and concerns are connected. Their influence on Cavell is emblematic of his interest in reconciling continental and analytic philosophical perspectives, drawing on the best of both, and following his own personal interests in the philosophical arena.

Although language had been a significant concern of philosophers since Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century, Wittgenstein was a central figure in the development of linguistic philosophy. The central principle of linguistic philosophy is that traditional philosophical problems are not truly problems but misunderstandings or confusions based on imprecise or misused language. Wittgenstein was fundamentally concerned with language as a component of philosophical activity and preoccupied with the significance of meaning in the context of actual use and real life.

In Austin’s hands, interest in meaning and its nuances evolved into concern with the application or use of language as an act. The result was the development of “speech act” theory, which was based on the premise that speech is a form of action, and “ordinary language” philosophy, which focuses on the ways in which different contexts influence and illuminate meanings. In postwar European and English-speaking nations, philosophers and cultural critics began to be interested in analyzing how philosophically central terms such as “knowledge” and “truth” were used in common, everyday speech. They also created and investigated artificially logical languages, which were not burdened by the messiness and spontaneity of ordinary language.

Austin came to Harvard from Oxford to give the 1955 William James Lectures, eventually published as How to Do Things with Words, the seminal monograph on the theory of speech acts and ordinary language published in book form in 1962 after his death. Cavell attended one of the seminars given by Austin, and there he began to feel he had at last found the direction he wanted to take. He had been reading and writing and doing what he thought might be understood as “philosophy” but had not really identified with the discipline as it was taught at universities. Austin’s emphasis on the ordinary and natural was the key that allowed Cavell to focus on the philosophical threads of his myriad interests. He was hired as an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956, and completed his dissertation, “The Claim to Rationality: Knowledge and the Basis of Morality,” in 1961. In 1962, he returned to Harvard after accepting a tenured Harvard junior fellowship and in 1963 accepted the Walter M. Cabot professorship.

Under the dual influences of Wittgenstein and Austin, Cavell began to focus his energy and intellect on finding his own voice as a philosopher. He had understood himself as a somewhat bifurcated intellect, studying toward a professional degree, on one hand, while reading and writing outside the bounds of his nominally chosen profession, on the other. Cavell discovered that he, Wittgenstein, and Austin shared an interest in the ordinary and everyday that was not part of the mainstream of professional philosophy of their times. In addition, he was drawn to Austin’s radical vision of the philosopher’s relationship to language, which, for Cavell, had a literary flavor that he found most congenial. He began to think of the tasks of professional philosophy as a series of texts to be read and understood rather than as a series of problems to be solved.

This view no doubt influenced both the form and the content of his first book, Must We Mean What We Say?, a series of philosophical essays published in 1969. It is an eclectic collection, demonstrating Cavell’s wide-ranging...

(The entire section is 2300 words.)