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  • What Philosophy Can't Say About Literature:Stanley Cavell and Endgame
  • Benjamin H. Ogden

In "Ending the Waiting Game," the philosopher of ordinary language Stanley Cavell attempts to say what Samuel Beckett's Endgame means by explaining what the characters in the play mean by what they say. Cavell attempts to do the very thing that the work says cannot be done, or mocks as foolish and misguided, or resists giving clues to how it could ever be done: he tries to say just "how Beckett's objects mean at all, the original source of their conviction."1 This is not simply a reading tactic that Cavell thinks is well-suited to the difficult task of making sense of a difficult play. It is a demonstration of the theory of language (ordinary language philosophy) that Cavell defends and applies in his collection of essays Must We Mean What We Say?, of which "Ending the Waiting Game" is a chapter. Cavell's literary criticism is in the service of his philosophy. His work of criticism is in search of something that it must find (that is, something that it claims to have found even when it may not have); what it must find is a work of literature that demonstrates the utility and validity of ordinary language philosophy.

If we are to take issue with Cavell for too strenuously transposing philosophy onto literature, then we must also know something of the philosophy he draws upon. Ordinary language philosophy traces its origins to Wittgenstein, and was popularized by J. L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle at Oxford in the 1940's. It is a branch of analytic philosophy that foregoes any attempt to create an "ideal philosophical language" of the sort Wittgenstein developed in his early Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Instead of seeing the abstractions and ambiguities of ordinary usage as something to be supplanted by a more logically rigorous system, ordinary language philosophers argue that debates over the meaning [End Page 126] of abstract terms come about precisely because words are removed from their ordinary context. For Cavell, the whole idea of an "ideal language" is absurd because, as anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language knows, every language has its own unique set of usages and idioms and unspoken rules. In order to speak a language properly, then, one cannot just know the dictionary or formal definitions of words (its "ideal" generative grammar), but must understand the "natural environment" in which phrases and words are logical or appropriate. Often these contexts (which determine the rules for "what we should say when" [p. 20]) invest words with meanings that you won't find in any dictionary, and cannot be catalogued in a grammatical or syntactical system.

So, if one asks, "Did you dress that way voluntarily?" (p. 9), the word "voluntarily" takes on a meaning that is not included among its dictionary definitions (according to Cavell). Clearly, in asking whether you dress voluntarily one is not asking whether you have free-will to dress as you please, but is calling attention to the funny way you dress. In this case, successful communication is only possible if the one who is being questioned understands from context and the ordinary use of language precisely what is being asked. If he answers, "Of course I dressed voluntarily, I believe in free will," he will have misspoken, been incorrect. Clearly, he doesn't understand what the question must mean because the statement "MUST MEAN that my clothes are peculiar" (p. 9). For it to mean anything else would be a mistake and a misuse of language by the speaker, or a misunderstanding of language by the listener. To learn a language (which for Cavell means to become like a native speaker) is to learn the nature of the contingency between the explicit meaning of an expression and the occasion on which an expression is appropriate, and to be aware of what you must mean when you speak (what you cannot help but mean or imply by the language you use).

What this means is that for Cavell reading literature becomes a process of readers "naturalizing ourselves to a new form of life, a new...


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pp. 126-138
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