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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2300

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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 interests and education. There are prototypical philosophical treatments of Wittgenstein, Austin, and Søren Kierkegaard. Several other essays consider fundamental philosophical questions of knowledge, meaning, and aesthetics. Many of the essays introduced concerns and themes and areas of interest, such as music and literature, to which Cavell would return again and again in later works. For example, in the essay, “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” Cavell linked his interest in philosophical skepticism to an exploration of literary tragedies, a use of playwright William Shakespeare’s works that resurfaced a number of times in his writing over the next thirty years.

Cavell focused a great deal of his energy on skepticism and the ways in which this perspective affects both people’s views of the world around them and the traditions that shape the meanings of skepticism. For example, the first half of The Claim of Reason included a reinterpretation of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and focused on what Cavell saw as the work’s two main ideas—the notions of criteria and grammar—and how these two concepts underpin Wittgenstein’s response to both philosophical skepticism and his definition of the relationship of philosophical thinking and everyday experiences. This does not express a concern with a philosophical “problem” in the historical sense of the term but rather is an effort to discover and understand fundamental ways of thinking and being. For Cavell, skepticism is the expression of what philosophers René Descartes and David Hume described as a radical doubt about people’s ability to know, with any certainty, that the world and their experience of it actually exist. Cavell’s version of skepticism is not a modern position of existential indifference but a position of constant reevaluation and frailty. It is another way of describing people’s sense of distance from the world in which they live and those who live there with them.

Skepticism has been a central theme of Cavell’s treatments of various works of literature, including Shakespeare’s plays and American Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. Influenced by the work of French poststructuralists such as Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, Cavell’s “critical” readings of these authors are informed by a reconceptualization of philosophy as a kind of literary act. In this context, Emerson holds a special place of importance in Cavell’s pantheon of philosophical heroes; he is the fountain of the best and most important concepts in American thinking. In Cavell’s readings of the Transcendentalists, especially Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, published as The Senses of Walden, the philosopher unearths the kind of active skepticism that was a major component of his arguments in The Claim of Reason. For Cavell, Emerson’s call for self-reliance on the part of American “scholars” is a call to think, write, and act in ways that are centered in individual perceptions and ways of self-expression. Cavell’s perspective on Emerson supports his understanding of the role of the philosopher as something of a rebel against society’s rules and customs—one who takes “endless responsibility for one’s own discourse, for not resting with words you do not happily mean.”

Underpinning all of Cavell’s thinking and writing, from the very start of his career, was an interest in expanding the boundaries of the philosopher’s sphere of activity and influence. As a result, he turned his attention to nontraditional areas of investigation, especially in the field of aesthetics. In his studies of popular film, Cavell found rich resources and rewards for his philosophical imagination. For instance, in The World Viewed, Cavell considers the significance of the reality portrayed in films and the audience’s response to that world. For Cavell, film is an art form worthy of a discussion informed by readings of philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Thomas S. Kuhn. In Pursuits of Happiness, Cavell’s viewing of Hollywood comedies of the 1930’s and 1940’s leads him to meditate on the fundamental philosophical questions of “knowing” and “unknowingness” and how this genre of film reveals the workings of modern skeptical consciousness and gender awareness. Cavell even turns his philosophical eye to television, and in “The Fact of Television,” one of the essays in Themes out of School, reworks these themes as they play out on the small screen.

What is perhaps most striking about Cavell’s work is the consistency of his interest in the ways in which philosophy can contribute to people’s understanding of the world around them, on both rarefied occasions and as they lead their everyday lives. Cavell returns again and again, refining and redefining, to questions of experience and meaning in a variety of settings and under a variety of conditions. His interest in experiences and ideas that are unequivocally American and his sympathetic understanding of English and continental philosophical traditions and trends allow him to play a unique role in contemporary philosophy. He tests the boundaries of the philosophical enterprise and expands them by opening dialogues between philosophy and other disciplines such as psychoanalysis. Cavell’s work is simultaneously traditional philosophy, art review, literary scholarship, and cultural criticism.


Cavell’s work is best known for its grounding in and elevation of Wittgenstein, its exploration of the centrality of skepticism, and its central preoccupation with issues that arise from everyday experience. Cavell is one of the most socially engaged contemporary American postanalytic philosophers; he contextualizes and reevaluates philosophical skepticism as a modern attempt at self-definition, self-examination, and self-awareness.

He is also one of the most consistently “American” of philosophers, retrieving and recasting the Romantic philosophical heritage of American philosophy articulated by Emerson and Thoreau. His long-term interest in Wittgenstein and his belief in the centrality of Wittgenstein’s work to any understanding of the world of everydayexperience led Cavell to question the professionalization and narrowing of philosophy as a discipline, course of study, and a way of understanding the world.

Arguably, however, Cavell’s most significant contributions to the discipline have come in the ways in which he placed philosophical inquiry at the center of cultural and artistic criticism. He has written widely on diverse subjects such as ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics. He has demonstrated that philosophy belongs at the center of all the humanities as an intersection that reveals the relationships among these disciplines and the questions they ask about experience and as a lens through which important thinking and significant writing is shaped.

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.