The Irrepressible Human Voice of Stanley Cavell, 1926-2018

Jonathan Tran on Stanley Cavell

As a Harvard graduate student Stanley Cavell was, in his words, “on the road toward a proper dissertation” when an encounter with the great Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin “knocked me off my horse.” Discovering Austin and reading Wittgenstein’s later thought led Cavell, who would be at Harvard for most of his career, to reimagine the work of philosophy, to discover “that moral discourse is not singly an order of public debate on issues known and taken to be of moment, but is a form of intimate examination, you might say private, by one soul of another. It teaches us to ask not alone, What is to be done?, but as well, What am I to do? And not just, Is what the other does acceptable?, but as well, How am I prepared to confront that other?”

Cavell, who died Tuesday in Boston at the age of 91, went on to revolutionize not only important segments of professional philosophy, but also literary studies, political science, comparative literature, film theory, cultural anthropology, and religious studies. In fact, his impact in those other fields would come quicker than in philosophy, where the Julliard dropout’s rather musical manner of thinking and writing did not easily lend itself to philosophy’s penchant for precision and parsimony.

The major themes of Cavell’s work were beauty and companionship and estrangement, and he carefully examined both how our deepest intimacies distance us from one another and what moral growth looks like between acknowledging and avoiding the conditions of humanness. He marveled at how our modern obsessions with certainty threatened to rob us of our humanity; he wanted most to return to the fore what he called the human voice. His interlocutors included not only philosophical luminaries such as Jacques Derrida and John Rawls but also those human voices he discovered in Shakespeare’s plays and in early Hollywood comedies.

Inasmuch as he had a specialization, Cavell’s was our human life in words and he, along with Cora Diamond and James Conant, is credited with giving second life to a hitherto expiring mode of thought known as ordinary language philosophy. Cavell was fascinated by how language proves constitutive of what it means to be human, and was further fascinated by how much we humans want to deny that—probably, he thought, because of what the implications would demand of us. In a characteristically exquisite passage from the legendary fourth part of The Claim of Reason, Cavell wrote, “There is no assignable end to the depth of us to which language reaches; that nevertheless there is no end to our separateness. We are endlessly separate, for no reason. But then we are answerable for everything that comes between us; if not for causing it then for continuing it; if not for denying it then for affirming it; if not for it then to it.”

There is an emancipatory tone to Cavell’s writing, licensing in his readers intellectual possibilities they did not know existed. The somewhat religious devotion of his academic followers, including the many religious ones, can in part be explained by how his work reconciles them to the impulses that drove them to take up teaching and writing in the first place.

In his autobiography Little Did I Know, itself a stirring piece of philosophy, Cavell wrote that Austin changed the course of his life by helping him see that his “proper” academic plans left little room for surprise. While it is hard to imagine that there will be another like Stanley Cavell, such surprises are precisely what his life and work help us to imagine.

Jonathan Tran is Associate Professor of Religion (Theology and Ethics) at Baylor University, where he also serves as Faculty Steward of the Honors Residential College. His research focuses primarily on political theology, linguistic philosophy and contemporary ethics. This summer he is writing the forthcoming book Yellow Christianity: An Intervention on White and Black.