Brandon Fiedor — host of the website New Books in Critical Theory (which features “discussions with critical theorists about their new books”) — has just posted an audio recording of an interview he recently conducted with Avner Baz (Philosophy, Tufts University), about Prof. Baz’s book When Words Are Called For: A Defense of Ordinary Language Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 2012). To listen to this interview online, please click here (and look for the audio player near the bottom of the page). Our thanks go to Brandon for letting us know of this!
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.
The weekly BBC podcast In Our Time recently broadcast a conversation titled The Continental-Analytic Split with Stephen Mulhall (New College, University of Oxford), Beatrice Han-Pile (University of Essex), and Hans-Johann Glock (University of Zurich). The program’s website also features a full archive — well worth browsing through — of podcasts on philosophical (Beauty, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein) and literary (Psychoanalysis and Literature, Proust) topics we thought might interest many of our readers. To access the full archive, please click here.
Via the PHILOS-L listserv, here is a note from Constantinos Athanasopoulos that we thought some of you would find of interest:
Fans of Wittgenstein and scholars on Wittgenstein Studies might find interesting the video presentation [embedded above] of the Wittgenstein and Photography Exhibition at the University of Cambridge- July and August 2011 (PandIS) at the BWS website:
There is also an interesting account in a pdf file of a previous Exhibition at Clare Hall (Cambridge) by Michael Nedo below the video at the same site.
Dr. C. Athanasopoulos, FHEA
The November 28, 2010 episode of the weekly radio show Philosophy Talk — hosted by Stanford philosophers Ken Taylor and John Perry — featured Joshua Landy (French, Stanford University) speaking about “Reading, Narrative, and the Self.” To access streaming audio of the show, please click here. Before each new episode airs, Taylor and Perry advertise the upcoming show with a brief write-up on their show’s blog. The following is the write-up for the Nov. 28 show on:
This week’s topic is Reading, Narrative, and the Self. I suppose everybody has a pretty good idea of what each of those things, taken individually, means. Reading is something that most people do. A good narrative — or story, to use a less fancy term — is something most people enjoy. And a self is something everybody has. But I think I need to explain what reading, narrative, and the self have to do with each other. I’ll take them in reverse order, starting with the self.
Everybody has a self. Or maybe it would be better to say that everybody is a self. But what exactly is a self, anyway? The answer to that question depends on who you talk to. Psychologists, for example, tend to think of the self in terms of the particular set of attributes a person most strongly identifies with – those attributes that define who and what he or she is in the world. But we philosophers tend to think of the self less in terms of particular attributes, and more as the underlying agent or thinker who possesses the kinds of attributes that define the self in the psychologist’s sense.
We’re going to be concerned with both senses of the self at various stages of this week’s episode. Let’s start with the self in the psychologist’s sense. The self in that sense is not just given to us in advance as something fixed and determinate. The self in that sense has somehow to be “constructed” out of materials that our society and culture make available.
It may sound absurd — or at the very least so very post modern — to call the self a social construct. The self, it would seem, could exist even without society and culture. But whether that’s absurd or not really depends on what notion of self you are talking about. When I say that the self is a social construct, I really have in mind only the psychologist’s notion of self. But the self in the philosopher’s sense – the thing that underlies the psychologist’s self – that definitely isn’t a social construction. In fact, I think the self in the philosopher’s sense is the thing that does the constructing, not the thing that gets constructed.
Now here’s where narrative begins to come in. Narrative helps us to make sense of our selves. One way we understand ourselves is by narrating ourselves, telling ourselves stories in which we figure as prominent characters. Think of a son who inherits the family business. In trying to make sense of his life, his choices, his situation, he narrates his life as an episode in a great drama, stretching backwards in time over multiple generations. But the stories that we tell ourselves aren’t just about relating the present to the past. They also look to the future. They help shape our choices and decisions. We try to make our narratives true, by trying to become what we’ve told ourselves we are.
I don’t mean to make it sound like we’re prisoners of the stories we tell ourselves, or the ones we inherit from our family, or our culture. We have the freedom to reject the narratives that our society or culture or family offer up. But we can’t make sense of ourselves or even plan for the future without some background narrative in place. We don’t really have a choice about that. It’s part of the human predicament.
And now it should be easier to appreciate what the third topic on our list of three – namely, reading — has to do with the other two. Great works of literature are rich storehouses of narrative possibilities. In real life, we only get one time through. We get one chance to narratively construct a self. But the great works of literature can expose us to thousands of experiments in narrative self-construction. So who better to help us with this trio of topics – reading, narrative, and the self — than someone steeped in the theory of literary narratives. That’s Josh Landy from Stanford University, where he co-directs the Literature and Philosophy Initiative.
Today’s episode of the Australian Broadcasting Company radio show, The Philosopher’s Zone, features the philosopher Denis Dutton (University of Canterbury, New Zealand) discussing evolution and aesthetics. Here is a brief description of the episode:
Peacocks have tails; we have art. Dennis Dutton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, argues that art is a form of costly display designed to attract members of the opposite sex. But there’s more to it than that: the arts take us into the minds of the people that made them and so they’re an aspect of social life that is beneficial to human beings. This week, we explore a subtle, Darwinian approach to the painting of paintings and the telling of tales.
Here is how the article begins:
So long as people read Wittgenstein, people will read Peter Hacker. It’s hard to imagine how his work on the monumental Analytical Commentary on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigationscould possibly be superseded. He spent nearly twenty years on that project (ten of them in cooperation with his friend and colleague Gordon Baker), following in Wittgenstein’s footsteps, and producing a large number of important articles and books on topics in the philosophy of mind and language along the way. Nearer the end than the beginning of a distinguished career as an Oxford don, at a time of life when most academics would be happy to leave the lectern behind and collapse somewhere with a nice glass of wine, Hacker is in the middle of another huge project, this time on human nature. He also seems keen to pick a fight with almost anyone doing the philosophy of mind.
This has a much to do with his view of philosophy as a contribution to human understanding, not knowledge. One might think that philosophy has the same general aim as science – securing knowledge of ourselves and the world we live in – even if its subject matter is more abstract and its methods more armchair. What is philosophy if not an attempt to secure new knowledge about the mind or events or beauty or right conduct or what have you? According to Hacker, philosophy is not a cognitive discipline. It’s something else entirely.
“Philosophy does not contribute to our knowledge of the world we live in after the manner of any of the natural sciences. You can ask any scientist to show you the achievements of science over the past millennium, and they have much to show: libraries full of well-established facts and well-confirmed theories. If you ask a philosopher to produce a handbook of well-established and unchallengeable philosophical truths, there’s nothing to show. I think that is because philosophy is not a quest for knowledge about the world, but rather a quest for understanding the conceptual scheme in terms of which we conceive of the knowledge we achieve about the world. One of the rewards of doing philosophy is a clearer understanding of the way we think about ourselves and about the world we live in, not fresh facts about reality.”
We wanted to let you know that the May 2010 episode of the philosophy podcast Elucidations features a conversation with Martin Gustafsson (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Stockholm) about Wittgenstein and “philosophical pictures.” It’s a fascinating discussion, which begins with remarks about the quotation from Augustine’s Confessions that opens the Investigations, and ends with some questions about Wittgenstein’s metaphilosophy (and whether Wittgenstein’s philosophical project might be akin to what Pierre Hadot meant by “spiritual exercises”). To listen to the episode, click here.
(For more on Hadot and his understanding of “spiritual exercises,” we recommend Arnold Davidson’s 1990 Critical Inquiry essay “Spiritual Exercises and Ancient Philosophy: An Introduction to Pierre Hadot”.)