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  • Six Scenes of Instruction in Stanley Cavell’s Little Did I Know

Stanley Cavell’s memoir, Little Did I Know, ends with an enigmatic conversation at his father’s hospital bedside entitled “To put away—perhaps not to discard—childish things.” Published responses to Little Did I Know have left the ending unexamined, which means we are still some distance from understanding the book as a whole. In this essay I read the ending alongside several other key episodes in the text as “scenes of instruction,” a term essential to Cavell’s account of Wittgenstein. Doing so helps make sense not just of the memoir but of its place in Cavell’s work.


Stanley Cavell ends his autobiography with a long stretch of dialogue at his elderly, ailing father’s hospital bedside. His father, we know from the memoir’s earliest and most powerful pages, could be a brutish man, prone to unaccountable rages, permanently scarring the child Cavell. Because of the central role the father plays in beginning the story, Cavell’s decision to return to his father at the end demands close attention. The reader arriving at the final pages, still haunted by the way the young Cavell was treated by his father and realizing that the book will end here, expects some kind of closure. Cavell encourages that expectation by giving the final two pages the subheading “To put away—perhaps not to discard—childish things.”

Cavell’s father has just had a pacemaker inserted in his heart and his mother is exhausted and worried, so Cavell takes an early-morning [End Page 465] flight from Boston to Atlanta. His father is sleeping when Cavell arrives. When he awakens, they have this conversation.

“Do you understand me?” [Cavell’s father asks.]

“You mean can I hear you? Yes.”

“No, I mean am I making sense to you right now? I know sometimes I get confused.”

“You are perfectly clear. Why do you ask?”

“I have to ask you something.”

“Ask me.”

“Why are these doctors and nurses and the family running in and out of my room as if there is an emergency?”

“You know they had to place a pacemaker for your heart.”

“That’s what I mean. How old am I?”

“About eighty-three.”

“It’s enough. It’s natural. What is the emergency? If a child is seriously ill, it is an emergency. To run in and out of the room because an eighty-three-year-old man may die is not an emergency. It is ugly to behave this way.”

“They are just doing their job. Placing a pacemaker has become a standard medical procedure.”

“You mean I don’t have a choice?”

“I don’t know.”

“Tell them to stop.”

“That’s not my job.”

Wondering whether my father would question the philosopher about what a son’s responsibility is, or what a wife’s is, or what a doctor’s is, I was about to say that I would tell the doctor about our talk, but my father had fallen asleep. His position appeared awkward to me. I walked out to find my mother.1

The reader expecting closure here is left baffled. Cavell seems to keep the reader at the same arm’s length he keeps his father. What are we to make of this? As far as I can tell, all of the published responses to Little Did I Know have left the ending unexamined.2 No one has yet taken up the question invited by the chapter heading: how is this a putting away, but not discarding, of childish things? An answer seems essential not just to understanding the memoir but to understanding the memoir’s place within Cavell’s entire oeuvre because Cavell had asked a version of this question very early in his work. Part 1 of The Claim of Reason closes with, “In the face of the questions posed in Augustine, Luther, Rousseau, Thoreau . . . , we are children; we do not know how to go on with them, what ground we may occupy. In this light, philosophy [End Page 466] becomes the education of grownups. . . . Why do we take it that because we then must put away childish things, we must put away the prospect of growth and the memory of childhood?”3 Though he has not yet named it, those pages in The Claim of Reason are also his first extended reflections on what he would later come to call a “scene of instruction.”


When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.4

Wittgenstein famously opens his Investigations with this obscure passage from the first book of Augustine’s Confessions. Wittgenstein’s text, concerned primarily with philosophy of language, is then taken to be a long critique of the particular view of self and language enshrined in these lines of Augustine. Augustine, it seems, conceives of meaning as deriving from a correspondence between words and objects and assumes a mind/body dualism, among other things.

These are all serious philosophical issues. And Wittgenstein’s Investigations, alongside a handful of other texts, is among our best accounts of them. So most readers, accounting for the appearance of Augustine in this text, take him as an example, perhaps an inaugural example, of everything that was wrong with Western philosophy until the arrival of postmodernism.

Stanley Cavell agrees that Augustine’s short description of his childhood language use has significant issues and that Wittgenstein’s text corrects them. But precisely for that reason, it is all the more interesting that Cavell reads Wittgenstein’s choice of this opening much differently, more expansively, than any other Wittgenstein scholar. He wants to know, why does Wittgenstein start with this? He could have chosen any number of descriptions of language learning from a vast range of [End Page 467] classic texts. Why pick this one? Cavell notes a number of reasons. I will mention just two that are of direct relevance to Little Did I Know.

First, Wittgenstein chooses to begin with a child—more precisely, with someone recalling a memory of childhood. Most striking to Cavell is both how lonely this child is and how perceptive he is. He is not observing his elders’ interactions with him, but their interactions with each other. A few pages later the Confessions contains a lovely passage of the infant interacting with his nurses which more nearly captures the play of a baby and caregiver, but that is absent here. As Cavell puts it in Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, “The scene portrays language as an inheritance but also as one that has, as it were, to be stolen, anyway in which the capacity and perhaps the motivation to take it is altogether greater than the capacity and perhaps the motivation to give it.”5 In that light, Cavell wants us to see that the next several hundred pages, like Little Did I Know, are not (only) about correcting Augustine’s intellectual mistakes in philosophy of language but about educating ourselves in how to be better parents and teachers, such that our lives with our children and students do not leave them as lonely as this image of Augustine.

Second, Wittgenstein chooses to begin not just with any kind of text but with a confession. The Investigations is stylistically unlike anything else in philosophy. It doesn’t sound like any other writer before or since. According to Cavell, one way to account for this uniqueness is to suggest that Wittgenstein has abandoned the usual genres of philosophy and theology—dogmatics and dialogue—in favor of a confession that transforms the shape of dialogue. The thought experiments it contains are voices of temptations and resistance, of doubt and repentance. And all those voices are Wittgenstein’s, not just the philosophically “correct” ones. Therefore this text, unlike others, is not so much to be believed but tested alongside one’s own experience, and then accepted or rejected.6


Two hundred seventeen sections later, we find another scene of instruction in the Investigations:

“How am I able to obey a rule?”—if this is not a question about causes, then it is about the justification for my following the rule in the way I do.

If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.”7 [End Page 468]

Saul Kripke made much of this passage in his little book, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cavell is critical of Kripke’s reading because he thinks Kripke’s reading slightly alters the last two sentences to

If I have exhausted the justifications . . . (etc). Then I am licensed to say, “This is simply what I am inclined to do.”

(CHU, p. 70)

Both Kripke and Cavell explicitly envision this scene as a pedagogical one. “Bedrock,” for both, is the moment when the teacher or parent runs out of reasons and argument, finds him or herself exhausted by the “why” questions. At some point you just have to say, “This is what we do.” Though §217 is part of a specific discussion of rules for following a series (i.e., counting), if you have children, or nieces and nephews, or students, you know what he means. But, as in the previous scene of instruction between Augustine and his elders, we can also detect a disturbingly dark undercurrent here. Both, in different ways, are cases of the child’s isolation. At some point difference must be silenced, argument must end, and the responsibility for ending that conversation must be displaced from the teacher onto some bedrock. Cavell calls it “an air of power or violence” (CHU, p. 76) and finds it intensified and underlined in Kripke’s account.

In other words, Cavell hears in Kripke the response to Bruce Hornsby’s much more famous scene of instruction: “That’s just the way it is.” According to Cavell this response amounts to denying the note of hesitation, or questioning, implied by “inclined.” And that hesitation is precisely what Cavell wants to get us to pause with. “What I am inclined to say is precisely not something I necessarily go on to say” (CHU, p. 71). To say I am inclined is a confession and a hesitation that, with patience, creates a space both for self-questioning—why am I so inclined? Am I the bedrock?—and for the discovery of the other before me, to learn from their challenge to my inclination. If I am “inclined to say” something, further, means that if I do indeed say it, I may wish to take it back, may discover, precisely in the voicing, that it was wrong, and might not discover it was wrong without the voicing.

Sections §1 and §217 are images that Cavell returns to repeatedly, almost obsessively: ones that turn up in his earliest writing, and in his latest. In one of his last writings, Cities of Words, Cavell described them as “images of children as beneficiaries and victims of an unclear world we have to leave to them. The rest of the Investigations is then a record of our discovering the capacity to come specifically, concretely, patiently, [End Page 469] to their aid in clarifying it, something not perfectly distinguishable from coming to ourselves.”8 In other words, these images of learning language and continuing a series become metaphors for the passing on and inheritance of culture itself. The images of elders and children, teachers and students, become for Cavell metaphors for writers and readers.

To announce at the beginning of Little Did I Know that this is a philosophical autobiography is to say that Cavell aspires to the same status he ascribed to Augustine, Luther, Rousseau, Thoreau in The Claim of Reason. This memoir is a record of his discovery of the capacity to come to our aid in clarifying the world. This text aspires to parent and teach us, to make us children and to model a way for us to go on. But, necessarily, at the same time, if Cavell is to succeed in doing that for us, the effort will be “something not perfectly distinguishable from coming” to himself. So we must understand that this text also takes up the position of child, beseeching us to recognize ourselves in what he says, to accept and encourage his attempts to speak for himself in a way that Augustine’s elders neglected. This is the light in which I want to attempt to understand the conclusion of Cavell’s memoir.

So let’s start on our way back to the final page of Little Did I Know. For a long time I had not noticed the title, “To put away—perhaps not to discard—childish things,” half-hidden in the lengthy, detailed, table of contents. When I did, well after my second time through the book, I also realized that the previous section is entitled “Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings; Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not; Saint Paul’s Corinthians I” (sic). The title of the penultimate section directs us to pause, not rush over, Cavell’s brief reading of I Corinthians 13:2 (LDIK, p. 542), not to let it get lost in the lengthier accounts of Hawks and Hemingway. The title of the last section directs us to the end of I Corinthians 13:11, hence to the chapter as a whole. Thinking about the title of the novel and film To Have and Have Not, Cavell writes:

I had hitherto always passed by the title phrase “to have and have not” with a momentary qualm that I allowed to fade. . . . But this time I sat still long enough to attract the original sound of the phrase (especially of the slight archness of “and have not”), bearing in mind that Hemingway early liked the titles of his novels to refer to fragments or moments of imperishable writing—For Whom the Bell Tolls to John Donne, The Sun Also Rises to Ecclesiastes. The fragment for To Have and Have Not, come to think of it steadily enough, is right here, in I Corinthians 13:2, where Saint Paul declares: “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”

(LDIK, p. 542) [End Page 470]

A number of things interest me in the way this paragraph introduces I Corinthians 13. First, when Cavell writes that he had to sit “still long enough to attract the original sound,” he is quoting one of his favorite lines from Walden: “You only need to sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods and all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.”9 Second, he refers to his own allusion, back on page 19, to the John Donne devotion from which Hemingway took For Whom the Bell Tolls. Finally, and perhaps most important, when Cavell describes passing by the phrase “with a momentary qualm,” he is describing what Emerson called “a rejected thought”: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his own thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”10 Cavell’s phrasing both affirms Emerson’s and extends it. He affirms it by explicitly noting that I Corinthians 13 is a work of genius in which Cavell recognizes his own thought, thought he had previously rejected.

When Cavell brings two of his heroes, Thoreau and Emerson, alongside the biblical writer who fascinates him most, we should recognize that something very important is going on, but what? Most readers are likely to pass over Paul’s “nothing” as a metaphor for insignificance. But I take it that Cavell is suggesting that St. Paul’s “nothing” is literal. Cavell chooses to read it as follows: “For how can balancing having and not having bear upon . . . human existence—bear so strongly that not having something reveals you as nothing, not to be counted among humankind” (LDIK, p. 542). “Counted” is a term of art for Cavell. Criteria are the means by which we count something under a concept. He finds in Paul the declaration that love is an essential criterion of the human, which is to say, without love one cannot be counted as human. Once this sinks in, the reading is stunning in its simplicity and originality. Paul, in Cavell’s view, is connecting the absence of love with other-mind skepticism, with nonexistence, connecting it with the central drama of his life’s work. In other words, making love so central to human existence that for the lack of it you may as well be a zombie or automaton, to pick a few favorite fantasies of the other-mind skeptic.

The claim that an absence of love “reveals you as nothing, not to be counted among humankind” recalls two other notable moments from the opening section of the memoir, both about Cavell’s father. The first is this chilling sentence from the fourteenth page: “I believe I can [End Page 471] date the moment at which I realized my father hated me, or perhaps I can more accurately say, wished I did not exist” (LDIK, pp. 14–15). (A few pages later he describes it as “my father wanted me dead, or rather wanted me not to exist” [LDIK, p. 18].) The second moment is when, after a fit of helpless rage in his Sacramento pawnshop, the father shits himself. Emerging from his shower and changing clothes after the teenage Cavell drives him home, he says, in Yiddish, “‘Mensh iz gornisht’ (Mankind is nothing)” (LDIK, p. 25). In its own perverse way, that is a Pauline claim. Cavell himself is not immune from the capacity for hatred. “Whatever else I felt for him or wanted from him—I feared and hated my father” (LDIK, p. 19).

The stories of Cavell’s father’s rage and hatred cast a cold shadow over the entire book. At the same time they give the book much of its drama. “It is as if I knew then that I would one day find a way out of the devastation he could make of his island, and knew that such a day would never come for him. (Don’t tell me no man is an island.) Not of course that I escaped it entirely” (LDIK, p. 19). Little Did I Know is the story of Cavell’s (partial) escape, the story of his finding his way out of the devastation, of declaring his existence by showing us that love has survived the fear and hate.


In between the brief turn to I Corinthians 13 and the scene at his father’s hospital bed, Cavell recounts another scene of instruction—the deathbed conversation between Cary Grant and Thomas Mitchell at the end of Only Angels Have Wings. The film comes to mind upon reading Maurice Blanchot’s remarks about the “inexperience of dying: ‘This also means: awkwardness in dying, dying as someone would who has not learned how, or who has missed his classes’” (LDIK, p. 545). The line invokes (and mocks?) Cicero’s famous claim that philosophy is about learning how to die, “as if dying were an event to be prepared for.” Mitchell (who plays the Kid) has broken his neck in a plane crash and lies dying, surrounded by the other pilots. “Get that bunch out of here,” he tells Grant’s character, Geoff. “It’s just that I don’t want anyone to watch. . . . I’ve never done this before. It’s like the first time I flew solo.” He then asks Grant to leave also.

What are we to make of this scene, of Cavell’s choice to recount it here, immediately before his conversation with his father? The placement must be meant to illuminate that conversation, yet how to read [End Page 472] the scene itself is far from clear, let alone how it may illuminate the later conversation scene. Our sympathy for the Kid encourages us to set him up as an exemplar. This is how to die, stoically, courageous enough to face down death alone.11 While a plausible reading, I think it is misleading. A closer reading suggests that our sympathy for the Kid should make us regret that he dies alone and questions the reasons for his isolation in the flimsy shed, rain pelting the roof as all his companions raise a glass to him in the bar across the street. His dying alone may not be as much an act of courage as of fear. He is afraid to be exposed in his awkwardness. He displays not courage in the face of death but cowardice in the face of his friends and colleagues. He fails to understand that death is nothing at all like the first time he flew solo. First, because while (as Blanchot suggests) there are no classes for dying, there are for flying. Second, because the first time he flew solo was not the first time he flew. The Kid comes to Cavell’s mind because he exemplifies Blanchot’s remark, but Cavell also seems intent to point out that Blanchot is mocking the idea that “dying were an event to be prepared for, like an exam, or a long trip, or a blind date” (LDIK, p. 545) or, presumably, flying solo.

So our sympathy with the Kid can misfire. It distracts us from the real exemplar here: Cary Grant. Cavell writes that what impresses him about this scene is “not exactly . . . how to achieve the loss of companionability, to take farewell; I am being impressed by the effort, however awkward, to conceive words that can be said in the face of the dying” (LDIK, pp. 545–46). This suggests that what impresses him is not the Kid but Geoff, to whom he turns in the next paragraph. On this reading, the Kid’s wish to die alone is a failure of self-reliance only insofar as self-reliance is the capacity for exposure, to be watched.

Much turns here on the word “watch.” Cavell adds, “‘Watch,’ in English, has all the weight philosophy can hope to give to ‘exposure,’ as in ‘Watch with me.’” (In a 2009 public reading of this section at Duke University, Cavell attributed “watch with me” to Jesus in Gethsemane.) A page later Cavell wonders at Grant’s ability “to deliver a line with the flatness of a line in Beckett, and elicit full conviction in the viewer, or watcher.” Grant, we recall from the frontispiece of Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness, is described with a quotation from Emerson’s essay “Manners,” as “fit to stand the gaze of millions.”12 “Stand” here means, explicitly, standing, bearing up under, exposure, especially when making a fool of himself. [End Page 473]

Insofar as Cavell understands the writing of Emerson and Thoreau (and himself, through the very form of his memoir) to “bring death into their prose” (LDIK, p. 529) he is, in a manner quite unlike that of the Kid, accepting the exposure of dying. He opens the final section by referring to Little Did I Know as “my awkward self-revelations” (LDIK, p. 518). But how is Cavell exposed, and what is so awkward about this ending?


Cavell inserts at least one other scene of instruction in the memoir, this one at his beloved mother’s funeral. Cavell’s five-year-old son, Ben, refuses to leave her graveside along with the rest of the mourners. Instead he insists, “The coffin is still here.” Cavell replies that “since Rabbi Epstein had dismissed us he must have his reasons” (LDIK, p. 467). The rabbi intervenes, saying, “The child is right. The service is not over, but we have fallen into the custom of dispersing those in attendance as we lower the coffin and cover it with earth.” When the rabbi invites Ben “to put his small hands on the shovel’s handle between the rabbi’s large hands” (LDIK, p. 468), we are being told, as clearly as possible, to recall another shovel scene, Investigations §217. In Cavell’s graveside retelling, he places himself in the role of Kripke. “Rabbi Epstein . . . must have his reasons” is Kripke’s resort to rules. The rabbi himself, on the other hand, exemplifies Cavell’s argument against Kripke. He allows Ben’s unwillingness to leave to become, as he puts it in The Claim of Reason, an “occasion to go over the ground I had hitherto thought foregone” (p. 125).

The difference in tone and feeling between this scene and the one at the father’s hospital bed are striking. Cavell describes himself afterwards as “undisguisedly pent with complicated yet mysterious elation.” The softly falling showers of earth in time with the rabbi’s chanting and the entwinement of Ben’s hands with the rabbi’s make for a profoundly moving image. The feel of the final scene is much different. While it is by far the longest stretch of dialogue in the book, the language is clunky even as it is rather ordinary; awkward in its very ordinariness. Where one is about a request from a son to a father, this is about a request from a father to a son. And where Ben wants his grandmother to be accompanied all the way to the end and beyond, Cavell’s father wants to be left alone. “It is ugly” to act as if the death of an eighty-three-year-old man, as opposed to a child, is an emergency. [End Page 474]

A reading of the hospital passage is far from clear to me, but I can think of at least two obvious interpretations. The first is that the father is still consumed by self-loathing and wants to die for the wrong reasons. Because “mensh iz gornisht.” Second, the concern here professed for the lives of children is sheer hypocrisy coming from someone who “wished [the child Cavell] dead” (LDIK, p. 105). So “That’s not my job” is a way—the only way Cavell can come to on the spot—of saying “I don’t want you to die.” It answers the questions of “Can I have escaped it?” (LDIK, p. 105), and of how this scene puts away childish things, by showing that Cavell here foregoes the perfect opportunity for a kind of poetic justice—call it vengeance. Or maybe the father’s request is not so much self-loathing as self-pity. He is not looking to die, he is looking for reassurance in his insecurity. Cavell the adult is refusing his childhood role of being a prop for his father’s constantly faltering ego.

Alternatively, the last page is a reversal of the positions one might expect. On this page, the father finally demonstrates the dignity that was so rare in his life. He is managing to achieve the same stoicism as the Kid. But is Cavell managing to be Cary Grant? Is it not a philosopher’s job to intervene in medical decisions, or not a son’s job to get in the way of the best possible care of a father? Isn’t the posing of such unanswerable and unending questions just one way a philosopher avoids responsibility? Once again, the passage sounds uncomfortably like Kripke. “That’s not my job” is Kripke’s “this is simply what we do.”

Little Did I Know’s portrait of Cavell’s childhood relationship with his father helps us understand the source of Cavell’s reading of the opening of the Investigations as a scene of isolation. He identifies with that child and his loneliness, hence is driven to situate the philosophical issues raised by Augustine’s self-portrait within the context of his own childhood isolation. But it is also a reading he is driven to by the course of his own career. Richard Rorty called Cavell “the least defended, the gutsiest, the most vulnerable” of American philosophers.13 His first book was declared to be “deleterious to the future of philosophy” (LDIK, p. 442). Throughout the memoir Cavell clearly feels acutely the sting of being misunderstood and therefore isolated within the profession. Too many essays, too early, on Beckett, Shakespeare, film, music, to really count as philosophy. Yet this misunderstood philosopher opens the final scene of his book with an account of his own misunderstanding of his father.

But what about Investigations §217 and the quarrel with Kripke? At his mother’s funeral, Cavell clearly portrays himself as Kripke. At his father’s bedside, I don’t think that is exactly the case, but he leaves [End Page 475] himself open, vulnerable to the criticism that he is failing to live up to something that lies at the heart of his philosophical achievement. In his discussion of Kripke, he describes Kripke’s position as a failure to show “readiness—(unconditional) willingness—to continue presenting himself as an example, as the representative of the community into which the child is being, let me say, invited and initiated” (CHU, p. 72). The task of representation becomes quite specific at his father’s bedside. His father is asking him to represent him to the doctors.

In the language that comes to dominate the final section of the memoir, the father is asking his son to stand for him. A few pages before the end, we read this: “I take Emerson in ‘Self-Reliance’ to be characterizing human understanding when he says ‘I stand here for humanity.’ . . . To stand for something is to represent it, and I do not doubt that Emerson is simultaneously invoking the idea of standing for something, bearing it. Then the implication is that for me to understand humanity is to bear up under . . . the weight of my representation of humanity, under the measure of it, under the way, for example, I am whatever I may be said to be, the way I am a father, a grandfather, a son” (LDIK, p. 538). But at the same time that Cavell begins pondering the meanings of standing and understanding, he begins to repeatedly describe himself and this book as “awkward.” To pick just one example: “I have, I find, now closing this writing from memory, been drawn to exemplify, still with some surprise, the condition that telling one’s life the more completely, say incorporating awkwardness, becomes one’s life, and becomes a way of leaving it” (LDIK, p. 547).


The memoir takes the form of a diary. It is made up of entries, each usually short—two to five pages—written almost daily between July 2003 and September 2004. Usually Cavell picks up each day from where he left off the day before, but the form also allows him to jump back and forth in time and to interject news of current events both in his life and the wider world.

He opens the book with the anticipation of one specific, current event in his life. The first line is: “The catheterization of my heart will no longer be postponed. My cardiologist announces that he has lost confidence in his understanding of my condition. . . . We must actually look at what is going on inside the heart” (LDIK, p. 1). This seems at first to be no more than a transparently obvious metaphor for writing a [End Page 476] memoir. But because the book is in diary form, the reader is anxiously waiting each day with Cavell to find out what is wrong with his heart. You start to worry he could die any day, that the book could end any day. Late in the book he claims that the writings of Emerson and Thoreau seem “always to be at, or come to, an end (these writers bring death into their prose, the acceptance of finitude, in each sentence)” (LDIK, p. 529). The diary form of Little Did I Know is a deliberate instantiation of this.

And so another scene of instruction is apparent here, undertaken in the face of death. The book as a whole becomes a scene of instruction and the context in which the others must be placed. But now the reader is no longer observing scenes between Augustine and his elders, Cary Grant and Thomas Mitchell, Cavell and his parents. Now the scene of instruction is between Cavell and his reader. “So it comes to the question, what gives us the right to single ourselves out and open our mouths in all seriousness?” (LDIK, p. 540). What gives him the right to single himself out for a memoir? I am inclined to say that such standing could only come from his successes, not his failures; could come only from consistently living up to the demands of his philosophical vision.

That notion creates the expectation of a clear, even dramatic, closing forgiveness scene. I take it that Cavell refuses to provide such a scene and instead ends this book by emphasizing his awkwardness, even failure, precisely in order to disabuse me of that notion. “He must have his reasons” at his mother’s graveside and “That’s not my job” at his father’s bedside are, in their original settings, inclinations—and as such are deeply problematic. Here in this memoir, however, they are not inclinations, they are confessions. Hence, the interpretive task is not to spin these lines in ways that make them less problematic but to hear the confession, to understand. “In confessing you do not explain or justify, but describe how it is with you.”14 Cavell achieves standing in his confession of his failures of standing, in his capacity for exposure in all his awkwardness.

Just as we face a choice about how to read “That’s not my job,” so Cavell, “seeking a way to take my leave” (LDIK, p. 518), faced a choice of how to end this book. At the close Cavell has placed us in the same relationship to this text as he has with his father in the hospital: two old men recovering from heart surgery, trying awkwardly to find words with which to bid farewell. I keep neglecting to note that Cavell does, in the end, go back over his ground and reconsider his refusal to represent his father to the doctors, to, perhaps we can say, put away—if not discard—childish things. “If not discard” teaches us how to read St. Paul. [End Page 477] Most of us think that Paul meant that we should discard childhood, as if the only place to put it away is in the trash bin. Cavell instead has put it away in a memoir, in plain view. And I can’t help but think that he knew his readers, at least this one, would take even longer to go back over their ground and see how this text does not illustrate Cavellian claims. It enacts them.

Analytical philosophers do not preoccupy themselves professionally with, for example, my relation to my power of speech, with speech as confrontation, hence with the ineluctable moral fact of assertion, with my declaring my standing in disturbing the world with each of my words. . . . This cannot be a matter merely of style, any more than it is a matter of style that analytical philosophy does not habitually veer toward an interest in theology. Carnap would not have to insist, as Heidegger does, that what he is writing is not theology. But the sense remains in everything I write, that philosophy as I care about it most is always discovering its lack of authority, one could even say, its irreducible resistance to establishing itself.

(LDIK, p. 537)
Peter Dula
Eastern Mennonite University

The writing of an early draft of this paper was enabled by a generous sabbatical grant from the Louisville Institute. It was presented at “Confessional Improvisation: Cavell and Wittgenstein after Augustine,” a faculty workshop at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey, June 9–13, 2014. Revisions of that draft are greatly indebted to the questions, comments, and criticisms of the workshop’s facilitators, Jim Wetzel and John Bowlin, as well as the participants, especially Paul Gleason and Josh Nunziato.


1. Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), pp. 547–48; hereafter abbreviated LDIK.

2. See, for example, the splendid essays gathered in Modern Language Notes 126 (2011): 937–1013.

3. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 125.

4. Quoted in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1953), §1.

5. Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) p. 99; hereafter abbreviated CHU. [End Page 478]

6. Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 70–71.

7. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §217.

8. Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 443.

9. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Library of America, 1991), p. 185.

10. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), p. 259.

11. The Kid, it bears mentioning, though Cavell does not, looks older than Grant’s Geoff and occasionally calls Grant “Papa.” This suggests a role reversal like that of the scene of instruction. The older figure becomes the child and the younger becomes the father.

12. Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).

13. Rorty’s claim appears on the back cover of Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

14. Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? p. 71. [End Page 479]

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