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The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy, by Stanley Cavell; xxii & 511 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, $19.50. Discussed by Stanley Bates IN this always brilliant, sometimes baffling book, Stanley Cavell challenges our conception ofwhat philosophy is (or ofwhat philosophy in its American academic tradition has come to be), our understanding of skepticism in the history of philosophy, the significance of Wittgenstein 's Philosophical Investigations, and the meaning of the relationship between literature and philosophy. This is a difficult work—difficult to read—because Cavell is dealing with philosophical topics that lie at the limits of what is expressible (including the topic of the limit of the expressible) and because Cavell's own standards of reading are daunting enough to give any potential commentator pause. When he says, "A measure of the quality of a new text is the quality of the texts it arouses" (p. 5), he both challenges his own meditations on Wittgenstein's text and sets a very high standard for those who would wish to honor his book. The Claim of Reason is a book for which there have been high expectations. It includes some revised portions of Cavell's doctoral dissertation, a work which has been a touchstone for several generations of Harvard graduate students and whose existence has been known to a wider audience through references in Hannah Pitkin's Wittgenstein andJustice and Cavell's Must We Mean What We Say? The latter work, published in 1969, announced the publication of the revised dissertation as imminent. The ten-year gap between announcement and publication of this work is discussed and explained in a brief history of the writing of The Claim of Reason which Cavell includes in the Foreword of the book. There is an obvious danger of a lack of unity—indeed, of incoherence—in a book the various parts of which were written over a span of 18 years. It is true that there are stylistic distinctions recognizable among the various parts of the book, and that, at one or two points, this causes problems. Nonetheless, this is a book, a unified work, and the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the work are not merely the adventitious product of a long period of writing, but are, instead, integral to what is being said. Again, this makes reviewing the work difficult, for a bare listing of theses which are put forward by Cavell will inevitably 266 Stanley Bates267 falsify the way in which they are put forward, qualified, partially withdrawn, and so on, by the author. It is my belief that this is an extremely important book. I know that my view will not be shared by all professional philosophers—after all, part of the book is an investigation of the professionalization of philosophy. I think that there is a danger that the philosophers will leave this book to the "theorists" in the literature departments where it might become a kind of a cult object. (This wouldn't be all bad; Cavell might replace some of the less-worthy cult objects currently in places of favor.) Therefore, let me stress that this is a work of philosophy. Many of the central mainstream topics of the last 30 or 40 years of analytical philosophy in philosophy of language, epistemology , and moral theory are treated. There are detailed and illuminating discussions of Wittgenstein, Austin, Price, Stevenson, and Hare, as well as an ostinato of references to the great figures of modern philosophy, especially Descartes, Hume, and Kant. Of course, the frequent appearances of Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Heidegger would have been unusual 15 or 20 years ago in the work of an analytic philosopher, and even now, the continual references to painting, film and, especially in this work, literature—above all Shakespeare—may be a cause of suspicion about the seriousness of this work to some philosophers (though, presumably, not to the readers of this journal). Cavell is known as someone who has written brilliantly on Beckett and on Shakespeare, on music and on film, and on Thoreau and American culture. However, it must be understood that for him these topics are not distractions from, or alternatives to, philosophy. Part of the meaning of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 266-273
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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