Journal of Philosophy of Education: “Stanley Cavell in Conversation with Paul Standish”

We’re delighted to announce that the new issue of the Journal of Philosophy of Education contains an interview with Stanley Cavell, conducted by Paul Standish (Institute of Education, University of London). Thanks to Prof. Standish for letting us know of its publication. Access to the interview is free for now, but it’s not clear if (or for how long) it will remain free, so we encourage our readers to access the piece now.

To access the interview online, please click here.

Here is an abstract of the interview, as well as a preview of its opening:

Abstract  Having acknowledged the recurrent theme of education in Stanley Cavell’s work, the discussion addresses the topic of scepticism, especially as this emerges in the interpretation of Wittgenstein. Questions concerning rule-following, language and society are then turned towards political philosophy, specifically with regard to John Rawls. The discussion examines the idea of the social contract, the nature of moral reasoning and the possibility of our lives’ being above reproach, as well as Rawls’s criticisms of Nietzschean perfectionism. This lays the way for the broaching of questions of race and America. The theme of the ordinary, which emerges variously in Cavell’s reflections on Emerson, Wittgenstein and Austin, is taken up and extended into a consideration of Thoreau’s ‘experiment in living’. The conversation closes with brief remarks about happiness.

Paul Standish  Perhaps our starting point could be your 2004 title Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life, because that title brings together several of the main themes you have been concerned with over the years: ‘cities of words’, with its inheritance of Plato and Augustine, simultaneously places the political in relation to language, and language in relation to the political, and it combines with the rest of the title to evoke moral perfectionism and education, and the nature of (philosophical) writing and teaching. I would like to come back more specifically to matters of education later on but perhaps bear in mind throughout our discussions that this is the recurrent, sustained theme in what you say and write. Can we begin though with something seemingly more circumscribed: the abiding preoccupation in your writing, so it seems to me, with scepticism? Now, scepticism surfaces most clearly with what you say about Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and with your rejection of the idea that the Investigations is to be taken as a refutation of scepticism. It is not exactly that you deny that there is any refutation. It is rather that you take this to miss the point, which is that Wittgenstein’s writing attests to the existential truth in scepticism. The problem seems to be solved, but the itch returns. Peace is found, but only for the problem to start up again. Could you, as a starting point, just expand a little on why scepticism has been so important in your work?

Stanley Cavell  Well, you’ve put your finger on the place intellectually where it started from, and you yourself have already said that there’s an existential dimension to it. But intellectually it didn’t start with my feeling first of all absolutely knocked out, or simply stopped in my tracks, by the Philosophical Investigations, really feeling that I had to start work all over again. Not at first. At first the Investigations just struck me as a kind of unsystematic pragmatism, so I’m not surprised that people just regard it that way, but I wish they would have a second thought. That it transformed everything for me in philosophy—that was also true. And almost simultaneously with that—but not really, not simultaneously, but a second inheritance of the Investigations—was the discovery that the economical way, the virtually received way, to take the book was as a refutation of scepticism. And that seemed to me wrong in a way that was completely essential to what seemed to me inescapable in the text: that there is a dimension of anxiety, of threat, in human conversation and confrontation that theInvestigations seems to me responsive to; that this couldn’t be so if the possibility of scepticism were not incessantly on its mind. Why ideas of risk, threat, anxiety all seemed to me to be catered for within the concept of scepticism I didn’t know when this came out. It’s what philosophy calls scepticism but what in Wittgenstein turns out to be something different: thirty years later I will say that Wittgenstein gives a portrait of the modern subject that contains issues of diversity and anxiety and sickness and torment. Those are the things that I found in the Investigations at the beginning that disassociated my responses from those of virtually all of my friends who were reading the work. They took away the pain and solace from the book, which for me was exactly to miss its dark side—its treatment, its recognition of the possibility, even sometimes I say the necessity, of scepticism. I felt this to be, for example, fundamental to meaning, to speech, to the inherent risk in speech.

P.S.  If I take you outside the Investigations, and we move to scepticism in epistemology, is it right then to say that scepticism in this intellectualised form—its philosophical form in epistemology—is a symptom of the repression of an anxiety at a more existential level?

S.C.  Your understanding is that scepticism itself was an intellectualisation of this problem?

P.S.  What I tried to say was that if we consider scepticism in its epistemological formulations, then even in its most dry, theoretical arguments it’s actually a symptom of a repressed anxiety.

S.C.  That’s exactly what I think, but I didn’t see it that way. I had to come to it. I saw scepticism as really so many philosophers do. Rorty is famous for thinking it’s just simply a made-up philosophical problem: it’s just something you teach freshmen to titillate them. And I could see why it was often taught as nothing more than an intellectual problem.

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