Call for Abstracts: “What’s Wrong (and What’s Right) with Ordinary Language Philosophy?”

The 8th Nordic Wittgenstein Society Symposium

Åbo Akademi University (Turku, Finland) May 5-6, 2017

The  label “ordinary language philosophy” (OLP) was probably coined by its detractors. Common objections against OLP are that philosophers engaging in it gratuitously limit their attention to the most common ways of using words, that they give current or non-specialized usage normative ascendancy over more sophisticated uses, and that they neglect the need for empirical investigation in settling issues of usage.

In defence of OLP it has been suggested that much of the criticisms are due to misunderstandings of methodologies such as those adopted by Wittgenstein, Austin, and others. The ordinary language philosophers are the ones who intend to approach language without preconceptions, by attending to the way words actually occur in interaction – not so much the language of everyday as the everyday of language. Nor are ordinary languagephilosophers out to chart maps of current or correct usage: their aim is rather to dissolve worries that arise out of misconstruals of our own ways of speaking. They are not in the business of new discoveries but rather of reminding ourselves of how we speak.

The aim of this closing conference of our research project “The Philosophical Import of Ordinary Language Philosophy: Austin, Ryle, Wittgenstein, and their contemporary significance” (2013-17) is to explore the aspirations and procedures of ordinary language philosophy. Are they unified or diverse? Are they intelligible? Are they defensible? How do philosophical outlooks that have an apparent affinity with ordinary languagephilosophy, such as experimental philosophy or various contemporary forms of contextualism, relate to OLP?

Plenary speakers: Avner Baz, Jason Bridges, Robyn Carston, Niklas Forsberg, Marina Sbisà

We invite submissions from those wishing to present a paper on a topic related to the conference theme. Speakers will be given 20 minutes for presentation and 15 minutes for discussion.

Please send an abstract of up to 500 words to by February 1, 2017. Applicants will be notified of the selection result by March 1, 2017.

The conference is organized by the Nordic Wittgenstein Society and the research project “The Philosophical Import of Ordinary LanguagePhilosophy,”
 which is financed by the Academy of Finland and coordinated by Professor Martin Gustafsson, Åbo Akademi University. The organizers are doctoral candidate Kim-Erik Berts, Professor emeritus Lars Hertzberg, and Dr Yrsa Neuman.

Just published: Issue 4 of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies

Editors Amir Khan and Sérgio Dias Branco have released the fourth issue of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies. The issue is themed around “Cavell and Literature” and features contributions from Bernhard Stricker, Eric Lindstrom, David Kaufmann, Bruce Krajewski, Darko Štrajn, and Sam Cardoen.

The entire issue is available to view and download here.

New Book by Amir Khan: “Shakespeare in Hindsight”


Amir Khan, long time friend of the blog and managing editor of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies, has published his first book! The book leans heavily on Stanley’s readings of Shakespeare, and is itself a re-appraisal of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies from the particular vantage point of “continuous presentness” (93) noted by Stanley Cavell in his reading of Lear in Disowning Knowledge.

The book is available here and here.

Varieties of Self-Knowledge: Workshop at Harvard

Version 2

Painting by Byron Davies

On Friday March 11 and Saturday March 12 2016 the Harvard Philosophy Department will be hosting a workshop titled “Varieties of Self-Knowledge.” Please visit the workshop’s website here. Information about the workshop is below:


The Varieties of Self-Knowledge

Thompson Room, Barker Humanities Center

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Friday March 11 – Saturday March 12, 2016



Matthew Boyle (Harvard University)

Richard Moran (Harvard University)



Alex Byrne (MIT)

Dorit Bar-On (University of Connecticut)

Lucy O’Brien (University College London)

Sarah Paul (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

Christopher Peacocke (Columbia University)

Sebastian Rödl (Universität Leipzig)

Kieran Setiya (MIT)



The workshop aims to bring together philosophers who have worked on the topic of self-knowledge from diverse standpoints to discuss what varieties of self-knowledge are worth distinguishing and how they might matter to a characteristically human life.  Questions about the epistemic basis of self-knowledge, and the extent to which we humans possess it, will undoubtedly play a part in the discussion, but our primary goal is not so much to adjudicate these issues as to consider such questions as the following:

  • What should be our attitude toward the famous Delphic injunction to “know thyself”?  Are there forms of self-knowledge that are crucial to a successful human life?  Are there ways in which self-knowledge might be an obstacle to our lives?
  • What connection is there, if any, between rationality and self-knowledge?  Does rationality entail some capacity for privileged self-knowledge?  Is some form of self-knowledge necessary for rationality?
  • What is the relationship between self-knowledge and self-consciousness?  Must a subject who is capable of thinking of herself first personally (or having “de se” representations of herself) be capable of certain forms of self-knowledge?  What forms of self-awareness should we distinguish, and what relations of dependency (if any) hold between them?
  • What difference of principle (if any) does our capacity for self-knowledge make to our cognitive capacities in general?  Is self-knowledge just more knowledge, potentially useful in the way that any knowledge might be, or does our capacity for some form of self-knowledge transform our very capacity to know in some important way?
  • What might it mean to speak of a “first person perspective” on mind, and how might a consideration of that perspective be important to the philosophy of mind?
  • How (if at all) are capacities for self-awareness drawn on in more specific forms of human activity such as: intentional action, contentful communication, understanding and interacting with other people, etc.?

This will be a read-in-advance workshop.  Papers will be pre-circulated, and will not be presented in full.  To register for the workshop and receive access to the papers, please email Olivia Bailey at


MLA Panel on Cavell and Close Reading


Photo Credit: Charles Bernstein

Amir Khan, co-editor of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies (and longtime friend of this blog) has let us know that he is organizing a panel at this year’s Modern Language Association Conference (in Austin, Texas) titled “Cavell and Close Reading.” Information about that panel is below, together with abstracts for the papers to be presented.

Modern Language Association Annual Convention
January 7-10, 2016
Austin, Texas

Panel # 652. Cavell and Close Reading
Saturday, 9 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 5B, ACC

A special session
Presiding: Amir Khan, LNU-MSU College of International Business


The so-called “crisis of the humanities” has had particular resonance in the field of English and literary studies and has had a deleterious effect on the practice of “close reading.” The formalist presuppositions the New Critics brought to the text at the outset via close reading, so the argument goes, led not necessarily to the same readings, but to a stance of disinterestedness that precluded more salient cultural critiques. The subsequent “cultural turn” in literary studies of the 1970s and 80s sought to address fundamental issues of power relations behind the cultural acts of meaning-making and identity-formation. Close readings that attempted to elucidate an aesthetic response without responding to the material conditions beyond the text that elicited said response were considered quaint. In many ways, the text receded from significance.

What has happened since to the critical practice of close reading? The cultural turn has since eaten its own children. It is increasingly obvious in literary studies that commenting from some ahistorical ur-position is a critical stance fraught with peril. Many literary critics recognize that whatever criticism is destined to look like moving forward, claims to objectivity are dubious. Professed, or performed, acts of critical subjectivity are perhaps more common nowadays; but these are still an extension of cultural critique, with more liberal use, say, of the first person pronoun. Critical acts of close reading centred on the text are still very much an anomaly in literary studies.

Strangely enough, the practice of close reading is gaining steam in philosophy. As Tzachi Zamir notes in his book, Double Vision (2012), philosophers are increasingly turning to the knowledge gleaned from literature or literary experience to articulate and express the limitations of traditional epistemic inquiry. Morality and ethics remain stable aesthetic categories to philosophers. But to acquire real moral or ethical knowledge, one must take steps beyond strict syllogistic reasoning and standard argumentative prose. Philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Stanley Cavell have long since turned their sights to literature and close reading.

In providing a close reading of some of Stanley Cavell’s close readings of literature, this proposed MLA seminar has two goals. The first is to comment not on what literary knowledge is per se (as distinct, say, from philosophical knowledge), but on what type of knowledge we are afforded via close reading that remains inaccessible to, say, cultural critique. The first goal leads to the second, which is to discuss how or what Cavell’s close readings are doing when they do whatever it is that they are doing.

The three papers to be presented here both discuss and demonstrate the value and risks associated with close reading, in particular, by focussing on the close reading proclivities of one very popular practitioner of a dying practice. It is hoped that the parameters of what its revival might look like can be tentatively expressed.


David Schur, Brooklyn Coll., City Univ. of New York
“Cavell and the Metapoetics of Walden

This paper addresses the role of self-referential and recursive structures in Stanley Cavell’s study of Thoreau (The Senses of Walden). Cavell’s book is, self-consciously, devoted to a book that is in turn self-consciously concerned with being a book. And this broad sequence of readings embedded within readings opens an especially revealing vista on an important aspect of close reading; namely, the crucial relationship between, on the one hand, paying careful attention to a writer’s language and, on the other, recognizing how the complications of written language often reveal themselves through distancing gestures of self-reference. In other words, close reading thrives on cascading moments of metapoetic insight, even though at these moments the text is—in a noteworthy sense—withdrawing into itself and away from the reader. Here I explore this dynamic by arguing that Cavell’s close reading of Walden is largely propelled by features of writing that create distance rather than closeness.

Sara Saylor, Univ. of Texas, Austin
“Cavell’s Intuitions: ‘I See It Feelingly’”

Stanley Cavell’s foundational essay “The Avoidance of Love” (1969) exemplifies close reading in the traditional sense of careful attention to textual detail. But I argue that this essay also illuminates a second sense of “closeness”—intimacy—as vital to criticism. For Cavell, to read closely is not to scrutinize a text as through a microscope, but to become vulnerable in its presence, submitting oneself to painful self-revelation. To chart the emergence of this dual sense of close reading in Cavell’s discussion of King Lear, I consider moments when Cavell weighs critical accounts against his “experience of the play” and describes the feelings that animate his readings, including the “terror” at Gloucester’s confrontation with Lear that forms the heart of his meditations on shame and avoidance.

Cavell anticipates the recent rise of openly personal criticism that foregrounds emotional experience rather than pretending to objectivity. Yet he also perceives the risks of solipsism and sentimentality inherent in such approaches, and he questions the explanatory value of emotions: “the validity of… feelings as touchstones of the accuracy of a reading of a play, and which feelings one is to trust… ought to be discussed problems of criticism.” The touchstone image evokes contact and friction, implying that compelling criticism emerges when experience and interpretation (in Emersonian terms, intuition and tuition) confront each other up close. Cavell admirably refuses to solve these “problems of criticism,” but his essay remains a model and a provocative touchstone for our own efforts to fuse careful reading with emotional engagement.

Bruce Krajewski, Univ. of Texas, Arlington
“Little Did He Know: Cavell Absorbed by Nietzschean Esotericism”

My aim is to show, using Cavell’s own trope in his section on Nietzsche in Cities of Words (2004), that Cavell is a victim of Nietzschean vampirism (etymologically, absorption is being “sucked in”). That is, that Cavell fails to read Nietzsche as well as Heidegger as esotericists, and thus falls victim to their pernicious ideology. Nietzsche in his Nachlass had proclaimed: “My writings should be so obscure and incomprehensible!” In Cities of Words, Cavell portrays Nietzsche as a champion of a kind of independence, a methodology for “becoming who you are,” à la Charlotte in Now, Voyager. It is a crucial hermeneutical problem that Cavell takes Nietzsche at face value, despite ample evidence (e.g., Geoff Waite’s Nietzsche’s Corps/e – Duke 1996) that Nietzsche, like Heidegger, kept the real agenda at work off the main stage. Cavell also admits in his autobiography Little Did I Know that Cavell thinks Heidegger’s dalliance with National Socialism was “impermanent,” and does not seem to link it to Heidegger’s extended interest in Nietzsche nor Heidegger’s propagation of Nietzsche’s work. As early as 1921, Heidegger had written to Karl Jaspers about forming a “invisible community” of those interested in the philosophical topics occupying Heidegger. In Being and Time, Heidegger has written that “the ultimate business of philosophy is to preserve the force of the most elemental in which Dasein expresses itself, and to keep it from common understanding.” This is of a piece with Nietzsche’s comments in his Nachlass that his works are not meant for common, ignorant people.

In a recent brief and elliptical discussion the poet Charles Bernstein has with Cavell about Heidegger and National Socialism, Cavell is at pains to suggest that he would think differently about Heidegger, had Heidegger “actually laid hands on people.” This misses the point of esoteric politics bent on war. One has others put hands on people, while one’s own hands remain seemingly unstained. It’s a version of drone wars at which philosophers excel. Cavell seems to have no idea of what it means for Nietzsche to have described himself as “dynamite,” and to have predicted his own rise from the dead: “To be ignited in 300 years – that is my desire for fame.”

New Contributions to Ordinary Language Philosophy and Experimental Philosophy


Philosopher Nat Hansen (University of Reading), a longtime friend of this blog, has let us know of some recent contributions to the intersection of “Ordinary Language Philosophy,” particularly the work of J.L. Austin, and “Experimental Philosophy”:

1. Taylor Murphy, “Experimental Philosophy: 1935-1965”, in Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy, 2014.

Hansen: “This includes discussions of Arne Naess’s interactions with Austin.”

Pdf here.

2. Nat Hansen and Emmanuel Chemla, “Linguistic Experiments and Ordinary Language Philosophy”, Ratio 28(4), 422-445. (2015)

Hansen: “We test some of Austin’s classic examples, like his donkey stories from ‘A Plea for Excuses’ to see how people do in fact react to them. Our results are mixed.”

Pdf here.

Thanks to Nat Hansen for letting us know about these papers!

New Book by Kyle Stevens: “Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism”


We’re pleased to announce the appearance of a new book by Kyle Stevens (Cinema Studies and English, Colby College), titled Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism (Oxford University Press). Below is some information Stevens provided us about the book, and in particular its relationship to Ordinary Language Philosophy.

In The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell writes: “It is an incontestable fact that in a motion picture no live human being is up there. But a human something is, and something unlike anything else we know.” In his new book, Kyle Stevens explores the category of these human somethings, which, as Cavell suggests, inform and gird our own ideas of the category of the human. He does so through the study of performer and director Mike Nichols. With iconic movies like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, and Carnal Knowledge, Nichols was the most prominent American director during the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. It was also during the late 1960s and 1970s, as Film Studies crystallized into an academic discipline, that psychological realism became linked to both classical Hollywood and continuity editing. The style was derided as theatrical, or worse, bourgeois, a product of a capitalism that valorized individual personality. This view persists, though often tacitly. Yet, we must attribute some degree of mindedness to any figure that we might call a character. Stevens clarifies that at stake is an idea of action: how a film expresses a character’s orientation toward and effect upon objects, and how audiences construe that relation. He contends that Nichols creates a mode of character rooted in doubt about actions, doubt that is politically savvy and which, by accommodating quotidian anxiety about knowing other minds, offers a new register of realism.

Themes and methods from Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell are central throughout the book, from thinking about the nature of improvisational utterances to linguistic self-presentation. For example, by asking when, or whether, The Graduate’s taciturn hero means his silences, Stevens shows that the film exhibits an interest in rethinking the nature, force, and relationality of utterances. In doing so, he illuminates its appeal to an aesthetic context fascinated by silence, and to a political context of youth galvanized by the Free Speech Movement and Vietnam. The Graduate thus becomes a means of asking what it means to speak representatively. And what, in that context, does it mean to remain silent, to choose to speak only for oneself? Hence, readers will learn not only about an important filmmaker and his influence on the last five decades of Hollywood, but about film’s participation in a US history of ideas and, more broadly, the relation of film and philosophy.

You can find out more about the book by accessing its page on the Oxford University Press website. We had previously posted on Kyle Stevens’s work some time back here.

Call for Papers: Issue 4 of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies

Amir Khan, the managing editor (together with Sérgio Dias Branco) of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies has shared with us this Call for Papers for the journal’s fourth issue. Please see it below:

Call For Paper NO. 4: Literary Cavell

In what sense is Cavell’s work indebted to literature, or literary precursors? While much is made of his writings on Shakespeare, Cavell has other literary interests manifested in writings on the Romantic poets (In Quest for the Ordinary, particularly his reading of Kant and Coleridge), 19th/20th century playwrights (Ibsen, Shaw, Beckett), and a sparse scattering of prose on a select cadre of novelists (Austen, Dickens, James, for example). For the fourth issue of Conversations, we seek submissions that engage with Cavell’s literary influences and influence, and pose the question of whether Cavell is reading literature philosophically or whether he is reading philosophy like literature, or whether, indeed, it is profitable to pose such questions at all. Where do Emerson and Thoreau fit into this discussion? Possible topics include:

– Philosophical versus literary romanticism

– Cavell and Austen and Austin

– Ordinary language and the theatre

– Wittgenstein as literature

– Philosophy and close reading

– Freudian close reading

– Literary transcendentalism

– Style and literary expression

– Cavellian Shakespeare

We also welcome shorter essays and responses that directly address Cavell’s concluding question to The Claim of Reason.

Papers should be approximately 6000 words, including footnotes, and must follow the notes and bibliography citation system described in The Chicago Manual of Style. Shorter, more intimate pieces of around 1200 words are also acceptable. Please email complete articles to Amir Khan at akhan134 at If submitting via the online user interface, please notify one of the managing editors in a separate email. All submissions due September 15th, 2015.

Panel on Vincent Descombes: Harvard University, April 16


Professor Richard Moran (Harvard Philosophy Department) is organizing a panel at Harvard on the recent English translation of the book The Institutions of Meaning by the French philosopher Vincent Descombes. (An earlier post about this translation appeared here.) The panel will take place on Thursday April 16 from 1-4 PM at the Center for European Studies Lower Level Conference Room. The panelists include:

Vincent Descombes (L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociale, Paris)

Richard Moran (Philosophy, Harvard University)

Frederick Neuhouser (Philosophy, Barnard College/Columbia University)

Webb Keane (Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

Charles Larmore (Philosophy, Brown University)

The event will take place with the support of the Harvard Provostial Funds for the Humanities and the Harvard Department of Philosophy.

Vincent Descombes is also the author of, among his books translated into English, The Mind’s Provisions (Princeton, 2001), Modern French Philosophy (Cambridge, 1980), and Proust: Philosophy of the Novel (Stanford, 1992).