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  • Stanley Cavell and the Claim to Community
  • Andrew Norris (bio)

The philosophical appeal to what we say, and the search for our criteria on the basis of which we say what we say, are claims to community. And the claim to community is always a search for the basis upon which it can or has been established. I have nothing more to go on than my conviction, my sense that I make sense. It may prove to be the case that I am wrong, that my conviction isolates me, from all others, from myself. That will not be the same as a discovery that I am dogmatic or egomaniacal. The wish and the search for community are the wish and search for reason.

- Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason

To many, the very idea that Stanley Cavell’s work contributes anything significant to political theory might seem odd.1 The Walter M. Cabot Emeritus Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University and a philosopher centrally concerned with the significance of modern philosophical skepticism, Cavell is more easily and commonly seen as being engaged with aesthetic, ethical, and epistemological questions than he is with political ones. In Richard Eldridge’s fine recent collection of essays on Cavell, for instance, there are essays on Cavell’s contributions to ethics, aesthetics, the theory of action, the philosophy of language, film, Shakespeare, the reception of German Romanticism, and American philosophy — but not one directly devoted to politics or political philosophy.2 And of the 214 records under his name in The Philosopher’s Index , only nine center on political features or implications of his work.3 This is, however, somewhat peculiar. As the quotation above reminds us, the claim of reason that is Cavell’s central theme and the title of his magnum opus is itself a claim to community. What counts as reasonable for us, as a fitting explanation or motivation, shows who and where we are, which community we are a part of, and how we stand with that community. Conversely, our claims to community—specifically, our uses of the first person plural — make that community present in the world. Who we are and what beliefs and actions we are committed to is something only you and I and others joining us can say. Our common identity is articulated in conversations in which we as individuals give and weigh our reasons, our sense of what should count for us, and why. The public community exists in its representation by us — a representation that is always vulnerable to your or my repudiation. Such repudiation and the alienation that it bespeaks is not a simple matter, as a claim to what is common is an appeal to both a sharing that attracts us and an ordinary that uncannily resists or even repels us.

These are eminently political themes: as Sheldon Wolin observes, “the words ‘public,’ ‘common,’ and ‘general’ have a long tradition of usage which has made them synonyms for what is political.”4 Leo Strauss goes further, and writes in connection with the question of the style of Plato’s dialogues, “Communication may be a means for living together; in its highest form, communication is living together.”5 No doubt, the claims canvassed above come under regular attack in the history of political thought, and have most recently been vehemently dismissed by an administration apparently influenced by some strains of Strauss’ own thought.6 From this perspective, community is only a fancy name for unity. The unified identity of the group is one that might be definitively identified and enunciated by a founding father or a chief executive, and it is one that citizens and members question or reinterpret only at the risk its fracturing. Hence Attorney General John Ashcroft’s claim that any criticism of the administration’s decisions or its handling of “the war on terror” only serves to “aid terrorists [and] erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”7 Mr. Bush put the same point yet more bluntly when he announced, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”8 Such claims hearken back to Hobbes’ Leviathan , the frontispiece to which...

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