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  • Matter and Mind: Cavell's (Concept of) Importance
  • Sandra Laugier

I am extremely grateful to the Humanities Center for organizing this wonderful event. Since the first day I ever set foot in Baltimore, and at Johns Hopkins University, I have had the feeling, and knowledge, that this is the place where Stanley Cavell's work, and thinking, is really, and definitely, at home. My friends and colleagues here, and the wonderful graduate students whom I have come to know over the course of these years, have, together, built for me a Cavell-bond, a sort of strange extended family circle for me, within which I feel I can say just about anything (on Wittgenstein, Austin, but also film, feminism, The Wire . . . and Cavell) and still be heard, and understood, as long as it has to do with Stanley Cavell's writing and teaching. Stanley's teaching, or lessons, or letters, have been on my mind every day, especially lately, with the publication of Little Did I Know, and the recent publication of the French translation of Cities of Words (translated not, as you would expect, under the title Cités de paroles, but Philosophie des salles obscures). Cities of Words is a work by a professor, and it retraces his teaching. It reminds us of the pedagogical task assigned to philosophy by Cavell, hence of its moral importance: it teaches you how to think for yourself, how to find your voice, and get to know what matters to you. Which leads me to my question: what can you learn from an autobiography? What hope is there in memories, even in Stanley Cavell's memories? (“What hope is there in a book about a book?” Cavell asked at the opening of The Senses of Walden [xiii]. Well, obviously there was a hope. Senses of Walden is – as Cavell says in passing in Little Did I Know [282] – the most perfect book, in [End Page 994] the sense of well-rounded, well-constructed, entirely meant, he ever wrote.) Little Did I Know is not perfect, nor is it obviously pedagogical. It doesn't introduce us to anything (such as skepticism, The Ordinary, Shakespearean tragedy, American moral perfectionism – all paths opened to us by Cavell). What is its teaching? How does it produce this powerful effect on us, like a further revelation of what has been for years, Cavell's importance to us? To me.

We have all noticed how Cavell's autobiography elicits the autobiographical drive (Wittgenstein calls it “craving,” in the Blue Book [3]) in all of us, and makes you perceive the turning points, or the unexpected turns, in your life. Little Did I Know, as the title registers, is about this unseen importance of moments in a life. So let me say a few words about some of those moments.

Little did I know, when I arrived as Visiting Student (Special Student, as they called it then, which made it sound as though you were special in this universe of very special people) from the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris at the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University in 1984, in order to study what was becoming known as “analytic philosophy,” that I would end up translating most of Stanley's work into French, and dedicating (as I realize now, with a mix of perplexity and pleasure) most of my work to understanding, presenting, and commenting on his work. I just happened to walk into one of his classes, to hear his voice, and that was it. I had never read Cavell's work before, and in order to make the moment last, I went to the library and began to read The Claim of Reason and Pursuits of Happiness.

It was a turning point: and at this important moment of my life, Cavell's work became the most important thing in my intellectual life, giving it its continuity and strength. Coming from analytical philosophy of language–Wittgenstein and Austin were already my favorites, but also Quine, on whom I was writing my dissertation–it was easy, and almost natural, to pursue these interests with the help of Cavell's work. I realize now, especially after translating Must...