MLA Panel on Cavell


There will be a panel at the 2009 MLA Convention in Philadelphia marking the 30th anniversary of the publication of Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason. Below are the titles and abstracts of the papers and the names of the participants.

Session title: The Literary Cavell: The Claim of Reason at Thirty

Tuesday, December 29, Noon – 1:15pm, 202-A, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Organizer and Chair: Bernie Rhie (English, Williams College)

Paper #1: “Lost in Translation: Philosophy, Literature, and the Problem of Self-Knowledge” (Yi-Ping Ong, English, Harvard University)

Paper #2: “Proving the existence of the human” (Richard Eldridge, Philosophy, Swarthmore College)

Paper #3: “Cavellian Melodrama and Epistemic Affects” (Charles Altieri, English, U.C. Berkeley)

Respondent: R.M. Berry (English, Florida State University)


#1: “Lost in Translation: Philosophy, Literature, and the Problem of Self-Knowledge” (Ong)

Why does The Claim of Reason open with such a strange style? Like the first-person narrator of a novel, Cavell’s speaker expresses inner thoughts, sensibilities, and obsessions.  Yet unlike a novelistic narrator, the speaker rarely uses particularized spatial and temporal markers, detailed references to a concrete social situation, descriptions of bodily sensations and perceptions, or descriptions of the way thoughts and feelings arise from the mundane, everyday conditions of life.  The result is a slightly disembodied, disoriented speaking voice, one that seems to have lost sight of its own situation.

Through a close reading of the first section of The Claim of Reason, I will show how the speaker’s choice of a mode of self-introduction that partly suppresses literary conventions for portraying the philosophical obsessions of the “I” is intimately related to the larger issue of how philosophy’s self-estrangement from the literary is related to its failures of self-knowledge.  This partial suppression of literary conventions for self-presentation is, I shall argue, the background condition against which we understand the crisis of self-knowledge that occurs halfway through the first section of The Claim of Reason: “why do I not recognize the fact that I have been engaged in so extraordinary an enterprise?”

Indeed, what is at stake in the text’s ongoing investigation of the relation between the philosophical and the literary is the issue of how the self-estrangement of philosophy from its literary impulse is related to its losing sight of its own situation:  The Claim of Reason opens with the dilemma of how we are to approach a text if we restrain ourselves from turning to conventional literary or hermeneutic modes of understanding, and ends with the question, “But can philosophy become literature and still know itself?”  Cavell’s closeness to Heidegger is evident here, but setting aside the question of why Cavell chooses to address these issues through Wittgenstein and not through Heidegger in The Claim of Reason, we can see that Wittgenstein is in fact a surprising choice for the speaker of this text.  Whereas the fictional scenarios Wittgenstein chooses are generally public, social, practical, and recognizable (classroom, building site, store) the speaker of The Claim of Reason professes at the outset to be interested in texts, and therefore in the private, solitary activities of reading and writing.  Despite this avowed interest in texts, however, the literary conventions of novelistic texts are largely ignored in the speaker’s attempt to introduce him or herself to us.  Why does the speaker choose to suppress literary conventions for the presentation of the individual self, and what does this suppression of the literary have to do with the conditions for or failure of the knowledge of one’s own situation?

#2: “Proving the existence of the human” (Eldridge)

Late in Part IV of The Claim of Reason, Stanley Cavell turns explicitly, albeit briefly, to a consideration of romanticism and romantic literature, under the heading “proving the existence of the human” (counterposed to a threat of “the vanishing of the human”). Under this heading, the work of romanticism turns out to involve the animation of human life by opening up possibilities of distinctively human interest and satisfaction, without reversion to talk of God. (This is also a major theme in the work of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe  and Jean-Luc Nancy in The Literary Absolute.) Taking this idea to define a joint task of philosophy and literature, taken up by them in different ways, I show first how this task arises for philosophy as a result of the unavailability of metaphysical knowledge of ultimate realities (a major theme of Part I) and a consequent sense of having, in philosophy, and in the rest of life, to take responsibility for ourselves and our interests as a continuing task. Hence this picture of the work of philosophy that is forwarded most fully in Part IV turns out to provide a unifying theme of the entire book. Second, I turn to how acceptance of this task on the part of philosophy threatens to undo possibilities of systematicity and conclusiveness that have often been thought to be distinctive of philosophy as opposed to storytelling. This risk motivates the book’s famous concluding question, “Can philosophy become literature and still know itself?” Finally I will assess the possibilities of carrying on fruitfully with the task of proving the existence of the human, within both literature and philosophy, by engaging Cavell’s work briefly with the theories of poetic imagination put forward by Hegel and Wordsworth.

#3: “Cavellian Melodrama and Epistemic Affects” (Altieri)

It is common knowledge that Stanley Cavell, in The Claim of Reason and elsewhere, insists on accepting the sceptic’s claim but re-contextualizing that scepticism as a psychological phenomenon to be analyzed for why philosopher’s might be content to subsume psychology into epistemology. But philosophers are rarely sufficiently comfortable in psychology to pursue the role of affects that is established once Cavell shows that scepticism does not have the last word on the actual existence of the world. Cavell’s concern is for the importance of trust and hence for how one participates in community even in the core apparently private act of determining whether one can feel one’s subjectivity as actually inhabiting a manageable world. I want to treat trust as only one of a set of what I will call epistemic emotions that come to the foreground as we ask ourselves a range of questions about what knowledge entails as its substrate. How do writers show what this level of trust feels like.  How does trust sponsor or resist other affects basic to our sense of being in the world? And, most important, what problems can occur when affects connected with trust turn out to align with the sceptic. Do imaginative writers provide us resources for those conditions?

One thought on “MLA Panel on Cavell

  1. Stanley Cavell

    Thank you for marking this 30th anniversary. These texts are so promising, the participants so important to me, and I’m deeply grateful to you all. Nothing less than recovering from a fractured hip would keep me from joining you in Philadelphia.

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