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  • Acknowledging Unknowing:Stanley Cavell and the Philosophical Criticism of Literature

Stanley Cavell, in Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare, proposes “an epistemological reading of Shakespearean tragedy.”1 In fact, the essays gathered together in this volume hail from other works by Cavell revolving around epistemological questions. The book’s introduction insists on the embeddedness of Cavell’s Shakespeare interpretations in his philosophical projects: they originate as organic parts—in key positions, often as the conclusion—of his books dealing broadly with themes of philosophical skepticism. An essay on King Lear concludes his Must We Mean What We Say? (1969), and one on Othello closes The Claim of Reason (1979). Cavell’s overarching idea is that the existential predicament of skepticism, which is in question in these philosophical investigations, finds, in crucial ways, its subtlest exposition in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare compellingly reveals the emotions and motivations for skepticism that are often masked by intellectual rationalization in the conscious, explicit arguments of the philosophical skeptics. His characters give “vivid portraits” of the experience of “living one’s skepticism” (DK, pp. 13, 26).

Generally, the skepticism Cavell is concerned with entails putting to the test the unmediated presence of the world and others, as given in [End Page 248] our experience, by seeking some kind of rational deduction of their existence. Such skepticism searches for a rationally grounded knowledge of the existence of the world, whereas for Cavell the existence of the world—including our own existence and especially that of others—is something that must simply be accepted. In particular, the skepticism regarding other minds ignores the fact that simply acknowledging others in their existence and presence must precede anything that can be known rationally and reflectively about them. Shakespearean tragedy dramatizes the consequences of such failure to acknowledge and accept what no knowledge can positively prove or guarantee in advance of our experience in the world and in conjunction with our involvement with others.

In general, Cavell exposes skepticism as based on the assumption that what cannot be rationally proved, or at least justified, cannot be given at all, and thus cannot be a basis for living. But this skeptical assumption is erroneous: skepticism, like all reasoning, begins from certain premises, and for Cavell the presence of the world and of others is among the givens from which any reasoned reflection must begin. We delude ourselves if we think otherwise. The psychological stakes of these different attitudes toward the world and our relation to it can in some ways be probed best by literature. Based on this conviction, Cavell’s approach to understanding skepticism furnishes a prime example of combining the resources of philosophy and literary criticism.

The question of how philosophy interacts with literature comes up repeatedly in Disowning Knowledge—and, indeed, presides over the entire book. Cavell insists that his philosophical criticism of Shakespeare is not a matter of applying a paradigm or a battery of ideas already thought out in advance and then found to be illustrated in the plays. In his introduction he cautions:

The misunderstanding of my attitude that most concerned me was to take my project as the application of some philosophically independent problematic of skepticism to a fragmentary parade of Shakespearean texts, impressing those texts into the service of illustrating philosophical conclusions known in advance. Sympathy with my project depends, on the contrary, on unsettling the matter of priority (as between philosophy and literature, say) implied in the concepts of illustration and application. The plays I take up form respective interpretations of skepticism as they yield to interpretation by skepticism.

(DK, p. 1) [End Page 249]

In part 1 of the Lear essay, the interpretations are, accordingly, largely immanent. They provide answers to questions in the play’s own words, questions that arise inevitably from the play, if it is to make any sense at all. Often, therefore, these are already well-known cruxes. To this extent, Cavell opposes symbolic or allegorical readings that stray from the literal sense, which in these cases is usually taken as already evident in the text. Instead, he scrupulously examines this literal sense and claims to adhere to it, as well...


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pp. 248-258
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