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EDW ARD DUFFY Stanley Cavell's Redemptive Reading: A Philosophical Labour in Progress Although Stanley Cavell opens The Senses ofWalden with the self-deprecating shrug, 'what hope is there in a book about a book,' it soon becomes clear that, far from undervaluing the pages he has readied for the hands of his reader, he is claiming their worthiness to do spiritualbattle with our alltoo -average and depressed estimate of what reading counts for in the economy of what we do and in the substance of things we let ourselves hope for.1 Finding himself in receipt of the burden of Thoreau's song that those he addresses are dead to the world, Cavell labours towards an account of the writing of Walden, which would resubmit that book's claim that the reading ofthe 'bulk ofthese pages' is gathering towards the advent of a Scripture, now (ifanytime) at hand, and big with either (as Walden puts it) the dumps or a budding ecstasy. Like William Blake, Cavell says to his reader, 'Mark well my words! they are of your eternal salvation.' As ifthis were not offence enough for one professor ofphilosophy, Cavell persistently claims that what he is doing is not literature or religion. It is philosophy, and Walden 'the major philosophical text in my life- other than [Wittgenstein's] Philosophical Investigations.,2 If Cavell's career in professional philosophy finds itself drawn to aggressively therapeutic and redemptive claims, that career commences in (and never completely abandons) the very different offence Cavell notes as so often taken at 'the ferocious knowledge the ordinary language philosophers will claim to divine by going over stupidly familiar words that we are every bit as much the master of as they' (IQ, 161). With the likelihood of offence its only apparent constant, the progress of this professional philosopher is from John Austin's crisp precisions to these impassioned claims of his later work: that Wittgenstein is a prophet for our dark time; that every [Cavell's repeated emphasis] word of Thoreau and Emerson is calling for redemption; that, in turn and as a continuing inheritance ofthese writers who (he repeatedly testifies) found thinking for America, everyone of Cavell's own words must be about this same redeeming business. Given the stark difference of (at least) stylebetween Cavell's professional beginnings and his present voice in our culture, the first necessarybusiness of this essay is to track how this self-styled 'philosopher in American life' (IQ, 3) has found himself taking steps along a little explored and idiosyncratically posted route, which is somehow'a path beyond, or through, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 65, NUMBER 4, FALL 1996 562 EDWARD DUFFY the ordinary languagephilosophyofthe later LudwigWittgensteinandJ.L. Austin.,3 My working intuition in tracking this 'hobo of thought'4 is that, first and last, he has set his heart on what our human form of life has found to say to and for itself. Cavell's unhedged investment in how we have worded the world will subsequently turn towards the'grammar' and criteria ofWittgenstein and towards the complex and encompassing forms of literary art, but by Cavell's own testimony this commitment commenced when, as a listener and reader of Austin on 'what we would say when,' he found himself 'being read' in a way that left him struck and even stricken with how little he knew of the terms of his own existence. A CLAIM AND FERVOUR OF REASON John Austin is a writer very different from either Thoreau or the later Cavell, but for every word on which each trains his close philosophical .attention, the task is, as Cavell says of Thoreau, to raise it 'up to the light' (SW, 28) so as 'to let it speak for itself; and in a way that holds out its experience to us, allows us to experience it, and allows it to tell us all it knows' (SW, 16). If Austin's practice of 'linguistic phenomenology' serves to remind us of the way we use such familiar words as believe and know, and if a recurrent outcome of this activity of recollection is that we are surprised that we have justlearned something about our world bylearning...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 561-583
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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