- Stanley Cavell: Philosophy’s Recounting of the Ordinary
Despite what his book’s title might suggest, Stephen Mulhall’s thorough explication of Stanley Cavell’s philosophy is anything but ordinary. At the outset Mulhall makes it clear that he intends to address Cavell’s exceptional formidability, and sets himself “not to attempt to do what can and must only be done by Cavell’s own prose, but to clear the space that is required for it to do so” (p. vii). He grapples with those peculiar factors that fortify Cavell’s work against many readers: a viscous style and the manifold directions in which that style has stretched. An extensive exegesis, Mulhall believes, will prepare the ground for thoughtful critiques long overdue.
In order to disarm Cavell’s “unfashionable tone” (p. viii), Mulhall opens with a discussion of Cavell’s earlier and more traditional work in aesthetics. He carefully attends to the ways in which Cavell appropriated and practiced ordinary language philosophy as established by Wittgenstein and Austin, and in so doing he displays Cavell’s struggle with this methodological inheritance. Conceiving it as the “paradigmatically modern philosophy” (p. 73), Cavell believes that ordinary language creates a tension between philosophy’s present and its past inflections—an urgency he finds ubiquitous in modern Western culture, echoed in contemporary painting and music. For Cavell, philosophy is invariably both subject and object.
The second part of the book informs and extends the first, addressing Cavell’s elemental motivation—skepticism. Mulhall shows that Cavell “sees the practices of ordinary language philosophy as everywhere set in opposition to [End Page 407] the skeptical impulse” (p. 186). In reply to each “specific outbreak of what seems to be a fundamental human desire to repudiate that which aligns speakers with one another and with the world they inhabit” (p. 186), Cavell argues that investigations into the criteria governing what we say when—this is the sense in which he “recounts the ordinary”—can reaffirm the alignments between speakers and their world.
Mulhall devotes most of his remaining pages to subjects in which Cavell observes the meeting of ordinary language philosophy and the skeptical impulse: film, literary theory, psychoanalysis, and the writings of Shakespeare, Emerson, and Thoreau—subjects traditionally located outside the philosophical pale of settlement. Mulhall demonstrates how these things have in turn shaped Cavell’s own method. Where Wittgenstein, for example, adopted a dense but laconic approach in his investigations, Cavell has come to exercise a species of Emersonian perfectionism. His abundant prose is intended to revise and to expand upon itself, offering itself up for criticism.
Mulhall himself, however, does not fully accept this invitation. Since he states in his introduction that he is interested primarily in opening up Cavell’s philosophy for genuine critical response, and since he presents the strongest possible case on its behalf, he is in an ideal position—indeed, no one is better positioned—to offer an exhaustive critique. And yet the criticism he eventually levels (Cavell’s reliance upon religious metaphor is undercut by a chronic distaste for Christianity) fails to persuade; it is inadequately developed. Mulhall wants to maintain the exegete’s distance even when Cavell’s writing beckons him into the more intimate role of critic.
Mulhall is right that Cavell’s philosophical aim is “to create a set of texts, to establish and maintain a texture of prose, that can earn the title of philosophy from its readers” (p. xiv). But he insufficiently explores the degree to which the skeptical impulse fundamentally infects this overarching ambition with doubt. And so he under-appreciates Cavell’s vexation. For if ordinary language philosophy—in working through the ineluctable tension between modernity and history—cannot produce work capable of being called philosophy or itself fails to find an audience, what can? Such questions ultimately lead back to Cavell’s own prose, and it is to Mulhall’s credit that he has cleared the space for such a return.