Stanley Cavell, the American philosopher and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Harvard University, died recently at the age of 91. Coming to philosophy by way of music and film, he authored a diverse assortment of philosophical texts including The Claim of Reason, Must We Mean What We Say?, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, and The Senses of Walden.
Three of his former students, Nancy Bauer, Alice Crary, and Sandra Laugier, all now professors of philosophy themselves, wrote a memorial opinion piece for the New York Times on the implications of Cavell’s philosophy for American democracy. As it happens, I have a small contribution to make on that subject myself. In 1986, when on sabbatical as a scholar at the Philosophy of Education Research Center (PERC) at Harvard, I audited his course on Ralph Waldo Emerson. I got to watch Cavell lecture for an hour two times a week for a semester. Something struck me right away and persistently thereafter. Here was a person who appeared to be thinking as he spoke. He seemed to do this effortlessly. While “man thinking” had been, I knew from his American Scholar essay, a preoccupation of Emerson’s, and I knew that Cavell had known and spoken of Emerson’s preoccupation too, thinking really came alive for me in these effortless weekly displays of Cavell. He made thinking obvious and apparent.
I mean by this assertion something specific and precise. When Cavell began a sentence, he seemed not to know the course it would take and the words it would require to complete it. He didn’t know exactly how his sentences would start, the flourish of words that would be invoked, how the words would comport themselves into clauses and phrases, and consummate in a period, an ending. Obviously, his sentences were not constructed, preformed, and then spoken. He rather seemed to start a theme sentence, hear invitations to digress as he reflected upon the words just spoken, continue with a responsive or corrective sidebar embellishment, or a series of these, return to the main line, and complete the sentence. He heeded regular inclinations to interrupt himself, and in melodious response added textual richness and depth of meaning to the focal idea. The resulting sentences were lovely, clear, rich, and meaningful.
To my delight, I discovered that my mind worked a bit like that too. Cavell had the effect of revealing my thinking to me! I concluded several things about thinking from watching Cavell’s demonstrations. First, that thinking must exist primordially as word chatter streaming though one’s head during the wakeful, dreamy hours. Second, that thinking must be already occurring before one recognizes it, and before one clarifies and bundles thoughts, and claims them as one’s own. Third, one must listen to, hear, and receive this aimless thinking before one can capture and harness the flow in purposive thoughts. Hearing oneself thinking precedes and prompts speaking, and speaking, in turn, reinforces and prompts thinking. Fourth, one hears oneself speaking (thinking) under the superintendence of something like impulse or urge or intuition, not intention, willpower, or choice. When speech, thus prompted, is underway, further prompts invite correction, embellishment, and refinement, allowing the speaker flexibility of response and freedom of association within the confines of the ongoing sentence. This adds context, depth, and meaning to thought, perhaps even justification to a claim to wisdom.
Here’s a simpler way of describing Cavell, the lecturer, thinking out loud. Cavell, perhaps inspired by his mother, the pianist, is a musician and composer of musical scores in his undergraduate years at Berkeley. He is a student of composition at Juilliard when he starts going to movies twice a day, and writing about them all night, and before discovering that what he was writing would eventually take on, by reputation and acclamation, the imprimatur of philosophy. Cavell wrote and spoke by improvisation, like a jazz musician. Speaking was a composition writing process. He seemed to be riffing his way through a talk by intuition, working off a tight thematic line.
Most people get through life not knowing that thinking works this way. Instead of listening for, allowing, improvising, and crafting thoughts as they flow, they power-point steely edicts, state beliefs firmly, and assert truth with finality and conviction. They kid themselves into believing they know what they think. They misuse reason to condone unreasonable conclusions. Thoughts so neglected can ossify into gobbledygook.
Here’s where a return to a concern for democracy comes in, as represented in the NYT opinion essay. Cavell embedded his philosophical claims in what is known as “ordinary language philosophy.” The core idea is simple. A language, any language, exists most fully and completely in the speech of ordinary speakers of that language. This is an inherently democratic view. How people use words and converse in community is foundational to personal thinking, and to collective knowledge, wisdom, and philosophy. Ordinary language underpins dictionaries and encyclopedias, more often than the other way around
Every speaker of language thinks, and is a thinker. A community of conversationalists is required to generate thoughtful dialogue. The fate of the community depends upon the quality of the thinking. How well is thinking done? That’s the important consideration. One could through stubborn determination and prideful certainty grind thoughts into stupefying slogans. Conversely, one could aspire to think so well as to allow thinking to become apparent, robust, rich, and generative. This happened for Stanley Cavell. When I praise his thinking, I am only reporting that he uses language extraordinarily well, all the way to flights of wisdom. But you could too. You could become an amazing thinker by hearing yourself think, and attending to what your words mean and say. We have inherited rich language. By playing with language thoughtfully, we carry forth the promise of democracy. We can by example encourage thoughtful conversation among others, but only by first valuing the insightful, native thinker within ourselves.
As I audited Professor Cavell’s course on Emerson at Harvard, it turns out that my colleague at the University of Southern Maine, Professor of Philosophy and Honors program head, Jeremiah Conway, was working on the topic of thinking too, building upon the work of Martin Heidegger and his text “What is Called Thinking?” I found it thrilling to learn that Heidegger and Emerson, and Cavell and Conway, were explorering a common path, arriving serendipitously at similar conclusions: that what usually went on under the name of thinking wasn’t fully thinking, that what is called thinking isn’t, that a difference exists between calculative and meditative thinking, that there is an aural call to thinking, that thinking in a sense calls itself forth, that thinking can be considered a vocation—call it philosophy if you dare—and that anyone who sits down and listens may receive the call. Beyond and behind the call for critical thinking in modern culture dwells a deeper tradition still, the call of the quiet voice to think itself and a better world into existence.
Here’s an even simpler way to observe and understand Stanley Cavell the thinker. Read him. I recommend particularly The Senses of Walden, because everyone knows of Thoreau’s masterpiece; it’s a national treasure and nature revealed. The citizen might find Cavell’s critique instructive. Cavell seems to have lectured as he wrote, and, he seems to have written by trailing his voice. That’s a great way to write, for anyone! I wish I’d learned the method as a schoolchild. Try it for yourself.
Sobering Note on the Times
It is ironic to find oneself reintroducing the voice and thinking of one of the nation’s finest and wisest thinkers at a time like this, when national leadership and millions of citizens have turned thoughtless and cruel. Emerson and Cavell’s type of thinking, so foundational to the nation, seems to have been replaced by general stupidity. This has happened over a period of time, and right before our eyes. Its sources are legion. Some of its names are ‘misogyny;’ ‘unrelenting racism;’ ‘white nationalism;’ ‘the defeat of Darwin and evolution by biblical creationism;’ ‘the movement to douse government in theology;’ ’the replacement of secular-humanism and enlightenment values by religious belief;’ ’the betrayal of reason in faith;’ ‘the reduction of science in technology,’ ‘a tilt toward the powerpoint presentation;’ ‘the replacement of minds by machines;’ ‘the advance of artificial intelligence;’ ’the victory of the white plantation owner’s concept of personal liberty over equality and alternative concepts of freedom;’ ’the granting of first amendment rights and privileges to corporations;’ ‘the despise of intellectuals, nerds, and professors;’ ‘the assault on tenure;’ ‘the despise of the liberal;’ ‘the abandonment of teachers and the public school;’ ‘the movement to reduce universities and colleges to job training centers and trade schools;’ ‘the traitorous betrayal and selling off of Planet Earth;’ and, ‘the domination of thinking by party, fun, entertainment, and fan culture.”
These causes of non-thinking practically ripple off the lips. Could it be this easy? Could all this be true? I doubt it. I hope not! And to think, I’m probably missing some big ticket causes! Yet, there it is for whatever it’s worth.
But, chin up, Bunky—wherever did that random thought pop up from?—It doesn’t have to end this way! We are in luck. We can meet and listen to Cavell directly in an excellent, inspiring hour long interview conducted by Harry Kreisler in 2002, part of the invaluable “Conversations with History” series, produced by Cavell’s alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley. The interview is available on YouTube. Here it is!
In watching the interview for the umpteenth time, a further marker of Cavell as a thinker “struck” me—”struck”me in the way Paul was struck by a flash of divine insight on the road to Damascus, “struck” as was our infant grandson, Lance, then a neophyte to words, when he responded delightedly to the discovery of a shiny new word, “‘suggestion,’ Grammie, you have a ‘suggestion’ for me?” The prominence, centrality, and frequency of the concept of ‘question’ in Cavell’s discourse in this interview “struck” me. Questions beget thinking, and mark the concurrence of thinking. That’s obvious. Less obvious, Cavell seems besot with questions; they force themselves on him uninvited and so frequently as to require repeated answering, because, as he notes, answers are always conditioned by context. He doesn’t claim to be able even to provide a lasting definition of philosophy. Philosophers have questions and tentative, conditional answers. He has his own concerns and questions on movies and film that haunted him and thereby engendered his writings. So must we all have our special questions; its our life. What concerns and questions haunt you? Therein lies a roadmap to personal thinking, your calling, and a potential range of vocations. Questions mark the way for us into the future.
There is another Youtube video to which I invite your attention. In this one Professor Cavell participates in a question and answer session at Duke University following a lecture he gave the previous day. The year was 2009. In it we observe him thinking his way through a host of interesting questions and possibilities, regarding politics, democracy, conversation, friendship, ordinary language, writing and philosophy. The conversation is mostly among professional philosophers, but the voice of this remarkable man and exceptional thinker shines through. Thank you Stanley Cavell.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
July 16, 2018
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