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Reviewed by:
  • Stanley Cavell and the Education of Grownups edited by Naoko Saito and Paul Standish
  • Thomas Wallgren
Naoko Saito and Paul Standish. (eds) Stanley Cavell and the Education of Grownups. Fordham University Press, New York, 2012. 262 pp. including index.

The main strength of this volume is its clarity of focus. The focus is on what Hilary Putnam tells us is his “favorite definition of philosophy”, “Stanley Cavell’s ‘education for grownups’” (p. 37). I take it that the quote is Putnam’s favorite not only because of the truth of the definition but also because it may strike many professional philosophers as surprising. It serves to awaken us to the importance of something we know but have forgotten that we know, and that we have therefore lost hold of.

In this volume it is probably Cavell himself who provides the most memorable clue to how we may begin to unravel the truth of his definition. There are two claims. One is that “the learning of speech, the ordering and reordering of words” is “the most fundamental of the matters we can be said to learn”; the other is that such learning has an internal connection to the “practice of philosophizing” (p. 23).

If mainstream, analytical, representationalist theories of meaning are basically true the only internal connections between philosophizing and the learning of speech are that philosophy tells us what we have learnt when we have learnt to speak and how, thanks perhaps to compositionality, “ordering” of words has countless possibilities. In this volume there is no criticism of such philosophy. Instead it provides a set of elaborations of the notion that the language we have learnt when we have learnt to speak remains enigmatic to us in ways that representationalist theories fail to capture and that we need to understand if we are to understand ourselves.

The basic idea is most easily recognizable when we think of ethics. If we say that “it is always possible to improve one’s understanding of a concept like ‘bravery’ or ‘justice’“ (p. 45) many will agree. The element of surprise comes in when the claim is generalized. Not only the “grammar” of bravery and the grammar of key words in theoretical philosophy, such as knowledge and meaning have the said character. Also ordinary words, words like “chair”, “have a grammar” (p. 24) that implicates us as carrying responsibility for how we place them in our lives

The explication of this idea is an important theme in Wittgenstein’s later work. Cavell has probably done more than any other philosopher [End Page 257] in bringing attention to it. It is particularly helpful that Cavell has shown that the topic of skepticism in Wittgenstein’s later work is inseparable from his notion of philosophy as an activity in which we seek friendship, community, recognition and acknowledgement in the face of the threats of denial, exile, and isolation.

It is this positive vision of how a philosophy that does not work with arguments and theories that are supposed to serve the discovery and establishment of truths can be important for us that is central to Cavell’s definition of philosophy. The contributions by Goodman, Standish, Bearn, Colapietro, Arcilla, and Saito in the present volume all provide useful discussions of how nothing less than the “moral coherence” (p. 152) of how we live is at stake in such philosophy. It is an additional strength that many of the contributors also stress that because our struggle for clarity about grammar is a struggle for clarity about how we can share life with others, their educational philosophy is a political philosophy, a philosophy that creates “the appetite for democracy” (Putnam, p. 168).

The back-cover and the editorial introduction to the volume indicate a desire to make Cavell’s philosophy relevant in particular for educators. The contributions by Standish, Bearn, and Arcilla address the issue head-on (with Bearn using Whitehead to surpass limitations he claims to see in Cavell’s and Wittgenstein’s “flight from the sensual”, p. 108). When education is seen as involving “inculcation into the practices of community” and hence, achievement of membership in a polis (p. 84), this notion can be used...


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pp. 257-259
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