Stanley Cavell on the vanity of worldliness

Stanley Cavell on the vanity of worldliness

Despite Mendel’s* authority and talent, and his capacity to paint the day with fun, I felt about him an air, or skin, of privacy, a perpetual reticence even in his grand laughter, registering a perception that the world held less of value than it promised. I adored him.

*Mendel was an uncle of Cavell’s.

from Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory, (Stanford, 2010)

Book Notice: Taylor & Waller

There is taking place within a niche of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy something of a turn to literature. Now I don’t mean by this to draw attention to the resurgence of interest in the philosophy of literature per se, into philosophical accounts of literature’s powers, devices, aims, etc., though this is also taking place. I mean instead to bring to view philosophical projects that attend to literature as an aid for treating properly philosophical vexations. Of course philosophy and literature are old sparring partners, making attempts at their cross-fertilization nothing new, but it seems that Stanley Cavell and more than a few of his interlocutors (it’s not a coincidence) have been producing a steady stream of work marked by its bi-disciplinary imagination and agenda. Consider, for a small sampling, works like

  • Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (OUP, 1992)
  • Walter Jost, Ed., Ordinary Language Criticism: Literary Thinking after Cavell after Wittgenstein (Northwestern, 2003)
  • Stephen Mulhall, The Wounded Animal: J.M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy, (Princeton, 2008)
  • —, The Self and its Shadows: Essays on Individuality as Negation in Philosophy and the Arts, (OUP, 2013)
  • Richard Eldridge, Ed., Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies (Bloomsbury, 2011)
  • —, Ed., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature (OUP, 2013)

These philosophers at least are finding in literature a rich and ready resource that the currently reigning conventions of philosophy would otherwise train its students to overlook.

Because this is a set of philosophers whose work I regard highly, I can’t help but ask whether theology has contributions to make to this pocket of inquiry (or lessons to learn from it). This is why I was pleased to learn of this 2011 Ashgate title: Christian Theology and Tragedy: Theologians, Tragic Literature and Tragic Theory edited by Kevin Taylor (Pfeiffer University) and Giles Waller (Cambridge). The collection is divided into three sections: the first on tragic narratives in biblical and theological literature; the second on theologians who deployed tragedy as a theological category (namely, Balthasar, MacKinnon, Simone Weil, and C.S. Lewis); and a final section on theological assessments of tragic theory. Contributors include, among others, Ben Quash, Michael Ward, David S. Cunningham, and David F. Ford.

Now you might be asking, why tragedy? Is tragedy really a category in pressing need of theological attention? Should we put much stock in its promise to increase theology’s imaginative reach, explanatory power, and patience with the harder-to-assimilate stories of the human lot? These are fair questions. But, so as not to lose your interest too soon, perhaps this bread crumb will entice you to stay tuned — theologians of no less stature than Hans Urs von Balthasar and Donald MacKinnon, the volume points out, both reflected on how theology’s original preference for Greek philosophy, to the neglect of the Greek corpus of tragedies, had a mis-shaping influence on theology’s ability to articulate its own gospel. Maybe a storyline like that piques your interest as much as it does mine? Or maybe the editors’ own articulation of their aims will do the trick:

“The chapters in this volume show that, far from there being an inherent antagonism between Christian theology and tragedy, they share at the very least areas of profound mutual concern: the experience of suffering, death and loss, questions over fate, freedom and agency, sacrifice, guilt, innocence, the limits of human understanding, redemption, catharsis. We might even press this further, and maintain with MacKinnon that an attentiveness to tragedy is vital to a properly disciplined Christian theology and that, by the same token, Christian theology can be a way of vouchsafing the true significance of tragedy.”

I for one would care to see what inquiry along these lines will turn up.

Stanley Cavell on external world skepticism

Stanley Cavell on external world skepticism

“How do we learn that what we need is not more knowledge but the willingness to forgo knowing? For this sounds to us as though we are being asked to abandon reason for irrationality (for we know what these are and we know these are alternatives), or to trade knowledge for superstition (for we know when conviction is the one and when it is the other— the thing the superstitious always take for granted). This is why we think skepticism must mean that we cannot know the world exists, and hence that perhaps there isn’t one (a conclusion some profess to admire and others to fear). Whereas what skepticism suggests is that since we cannot know the world exists, its presentness to us cannot be a function of knowing. The world is to be accepted; as the presentness of other minds is not known, but acknowledged. But what is this “acceptance,” which caves in at a doubt? And where do we get the idea that there is something we cannot do (e.g., prove that the world exists)? For this is why we take Kant to have said that there are things we cannot know; whereas what he said is that something cannot be known — and cannot coherently be doubted either, for example, that there is a world and that we are free. When Luther said we cannot know God but must have faith, it is clear enough that the inability he speaks of is a logical one: there is not some comprehensible activity we cannot perform, and equally not some incomprehensible activity we cannot perform. Our relation to God is that of parties to a testament (or refusers of it); and Luther’s logical point is that you do not accept a promise by knowing something about the promiser. How, if this is the case, we become confused about it clearly requires explanation, and the cure will be sufficiently drastic — crucifying the intellect. But perhaps no less explanation is required to understand why we have the idea that knowing the world exists is to be understood as an instance of knowing that a particular object exists (only, so to speak, an enormously large one, the largest). Yet this idea is shared by all traditional epistemologists. (Its methodological expression is the investigation of our knowledge of the external world by an investigation of a claim that a particular object exists.) Nor is it surprising that it is the intellect which, still bloody from its victories, remains to be humbled if the truth is here to emerge. Reason seems able to overthrow the deification of everything but itself. To imagine that what is therefore required of us is a new rage of irrationality would be about as intelligent as to imagine that because heaven rejects the prideful man what it craves is a monkey. For the point of forgoing knowledge is, of course, to know.”

Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” in Must We Mean What We Say?, 2nd Ed., (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 324-5.