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Stanley Cavell and Literary Skepticism (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 14, Number 1, April 1990
pp. 204-205 | 10.1353/phl.1990.0060

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204Philosophy and Literature The ideas throughout, and especially on Milton, are dignified and have succeeded in representing a new Sisyphus, who can rise to the knowledge of the good and the true without submerging the selfor having the knowledge gained tumble back down the hill. If theorists find this discourse heresy, it is salvific heresy. Whitman CollegeEdward E. Foster Stanley Cavell and Literary Skepticism, by Michael Fischer; xiii & 161 pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, $27.50 cloth, $10.95 paper. This is not primarily a book about Cavell. It is about deconstruction which is described and explained in terms of Cavell's views of skepticism. However, in exposing the latter, Fischer provides a comprehensive and clear account of Cavell's work which alone justifies the book. Although Fischer gives good examples of how comparison with skepticism sheds light on deconstruction, he is more interested in explaining the deconstructionist than in describing his method. Cavell's views about the motivations behind other-minds, skepticism are applied to the deconstructionist's skepticism about the possibility of knowing (reading) other people and literary texts. As far as epistemology goes, Fischer, following Cavell, admits that skepticism is irrefutable. Absolute, certain knowledge is beyond human faculties. Yet, he claims, both people and literary texts are intelligible enough for practical purposes . Communication with the external world is not objectively given in language , but neither is it objectively blocked. It is construed in acts of acknowledgment or blocked in acts of denial. Both are dependent on the disposition ofthe individual to accept or not the lack ofcomplete transparency oflanguage. Instead of an epistemological response to deconstruction, Fischer provides a normative one. "But while we cannot be absolutely certain about the meaning of a literary work (or a remark by a friend, a smile, and so on), we can be probably right, or sure enough. From this point of view, recent theorists . . . expect too much. Their commitment to certainty is admirable, but out of place in literary criticism and everyday life, where as finite, limited creatures, we have to be content with half-truths, probabilities, inferences, educated guesses, and so on" (p. 140). The explanation then proposed is psychological. The quest for certainty is an excuse for the deconstructionist's denial of acknowledgment. Fischer's correlation of deconstruction with modern skepticism is so stimulating diat it demands further inquiry and explanations other than the psy- Reviews205 etiological one proposed. Fischer says that his topic is not Cavell's view of skepticism (p. 8), but the skepticism present in deconstruction. So he should have brought in other views of skepticism. He notes that there may be "other forms of skepticism that do not mesh so well with contemporary theory" (p. 9), but I would instead say that other forms of skepticism do not mesh so well with his explanation of deconstruction. My own suggestion is that an historical perspective would be helpful. Fischer mentions Cavell's remark that different intellectual traditions separate him from Derrida (p. 125), but the connection he makes between deconstruction and skepticism "indicates spiritual affinity more than intellectual indebtedness" (p. 37). Skepticism in the Anglo-American tradition from which Cavell comes is usually not taken seriously. The utilitarian response to skepticism proposed by Cavell-Fischer—"we are sure enough" for practical purposes—is particular to the Anglo-American tradition in which, backed by a philosophy ofcommon sense, it is indeed regarded as the "natural" response. On the other hand, the continental tradition behind Derrida and de Man does take the skeptical challenge and the quest for certainty seriously. The claim that the Anglo-American rather than the European way of dealing with skepticism is the natural (p. 135) or human (p. 123) one needs further justification . To allege that it is the response consistent with our finitude does not solve the matter. Why do we have to be content with half-truths, probabilities, and educated guesses, in a word, with our finitude? French philosophers such as Descartes and Pascal who deal with skepticism have arguments which vindicate the quest for certainty as a genuine human aspiration. Finally, die appeal to psychological explanations in cases where epistemological reasons are lacking is to argue ad hominem...