- Cavell’s Meaning 1968
For those of us who have followed Stanley Cavell’s career with an intensity of interest that the word “interest” probably belies, the publication, nearly thirty-five years after its original, of an “updated” Must We Mean What We Say? seems doubly significant. Its significance is singular in acknowledging thus monumentally what institutional philosophy and literary criticism still do not generally acknowledge, the seismic change in thought and action harbingered by Cavell’s 1969 book. To remark that unfelt earthshaking now is to retrace the topoi Cavell ineffaceably marked out then: the first person plural, ordinariness, Wittgenstein’s Kantianism, the rationality of aesthetic judgment, modernism’s limited communicability, psychoanalysis and solipsism, Beckett’s hidden literalness, skepticism’s voicing, acknowledgment, the fictionality of audience, being present. That already in the late sixties this topography localized threats, could be denied only by all of us who felt them. Our trepidation could be expressed this way: either we dismissed Must We Mean What We Say? as the extravagance of an idiosyncratic but ultimately predictable humanism, or we dismissed nearly everything else we’d learned and went back to school here. No existing theoretical paradigm would accommodate this book. What seemed inconceivable, then as now, was how to use just a piece of it.
Which makes the significance of an “updated” Must We Mean What We Say? verge on duplicity, since “updating” promises repair of anachrony and belatedness, while Cavell’s new addition to the new edition merely renders them perpetual. Cambridge’s “updating” consists solely of a fourteen page “Preface” Cavell wrote for the book in 2001. As in Cavell’s re-use of his earlier publications in Disowning Knowledge or In Quest of the Ordinary, the original text of the ten essays in [End Page 237] Must We Mean What We Say? remains unaltered, appearing with layout, pagination, and notes identical to the 1969 edition. Or perhaps “unaltered” needs qualifying, since some will feel the manner and preoccupations of Cavell’s later writing, unforeseeable at his book’s appearance in 1969, certainly have altered his text, a possibility anticipated on page 184 of the original:
And a new style not merely replaces an older one, it may change the significance of any earlier style . . . . [O]ne may even want to say, it can change what the past is, however against the grain that sounds. A generation or so ago “Debussy” referred to music of a certain ethereal mood, satisfying a taste for refined sweetness or poignance; today it refers to solutions for avoiding tonality: I find I waver between thinking of that as a word altering its meaning and thinking of it as referring to an altered object.
As the “Acknowledgments” and “Permissions,” if not the essays themselves, have always indicated, the untimeliness of Must We Mean What We Say? is endemic. The book brought together essays written over a period of a dozen years, beginning with a controversial essay published in 1957 and still debated by philosophers at the book’s appearance, although not now, and hardly known by literary criticism ever. Moreover, it made this historical dislocation of enunciation and reception, of words and their meaningfulness, its obsessive topic. When in his 1968 “Foreword” Cavell glossed the later Wittgenstein and early Heidegger as saying that “history will not go away, except through our perfect acknowledgment of it” (xix /xxvii ), he aligned his book’s fate with Vietnam-era America’s, conceiving both under a topos of repression and its return. Being contemporary with one’s acts became almost a heroic achievement. Having discovered in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations that humans compulsively absented them-selves from their own speaking, did so with passion and intelligence and consistency, could not be reasoned out of this practice, and were as liable to compound it with education as without, Cavell began to conceive writing as allowing his meaning to take its time. As he explains in the 2001 “Preface,” “I never get things right, or let’s rather say, see them through, the first time, causing my efforts...