- Paperback: 544 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (July 1, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 019513107X
- ISBN-13: 978-0195131079
- Product Dimensions: 9 x 1.5 x 6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #777,501 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy 1st Edition
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"An altogether remarkable work of American philosophy...that occupies the buffer zone between poetry and philosophy in a unique--and perhaps uniquely American way."--Critical Inquiry
"An intensely personal and uniquely provocative book. Stanley Cavell is a philosophical original."--Review of Metaphysics
About the Author
Stanley Cavell is Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, Emeritus.
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I'm not going to summarize it here. Its basic burden ("burden" is a word Cavell likes to use--think of it in both senses, as both "weight" & "refrain") is an effort to grapple with the Western epistemological tradition, & to suggest that it contains a major blind spot. Post-Cartesian philosophy has been preoccupied with skepticism about the possibility of proving the accuracy of our knowledge about or, or even the existence of, the material world. Cavell is interested in this skepticism for two reasons: (1) its ultimate unanswerability; (2) the curious evanescence of its conclusions: as Hume notes, once one leaves the study & goes out into the real world of social interaction & daily concerns, the skeptical conclusion evaporates, looks "cold & strained". Cavell then traces out another kind of skepticism: the problem of the existence of other minds, or more generally the question of our knowledge of others. In Cavell's view, other-minds skepticism "makes sense" in a way that material-world skepticism does not: or rather, it is "live" in our everyday interactions (it's not news to anyone that we have only glimpses of the inner being of others). In other words, with the problem of other minds, "we live our skepticism" (the four-word formula which the entire book builds up to).
This is a neat opposition which Cavell admits is itself somewhat unstable. But it leads him to suggest that the history of Western & in particular post-Cartesian philosophy has been a history of ignoring the problem of the other; for Cavell it is a concern that has been instead most deeply grappled with in literature. The book concludes with a sketch of four of what he takes to be the most fruitful ways philosophy could develop a history of the problem of the other; & with readings of _The Merchant of Venice_, _The Winter's Tale_ & (in particular) _Othello_ as dramas of other-minds skepticism.
As you'll see I've approached the book, so to speak, from the back-end: it takes quite some time before these larger themes are fully set forth. The opening sections take on several different thinkers (Rawls, Austin) but are largely an exposition of Cavell's reading of Wittgenstein's _Philosophical Investigations_. The key move here is his case that Wittgenstein's notion of "criteria" has been misunderstood by most of Wittgenstein's readers: Cavell (to my mind persuasively) argues that Wittgenstein did not conceive of criteria as criteria for (proof of) something's _existence_; but that instead they are criteria of _meaning_: of what makes something "count as", identifiable as something.
This is the kind of book which is, simply, too full for any single reading: it's as much a sourcebook as it is a sustained argument, & I can see why Cavell continues to use it as such. There are elements I wish he had extended further. For instance, I find myself desiring that Cavell had taken time to spell out, not just the distinction/interrelation between material-world skepticism & other-minds skepticism, but also between material-world skepticism & scientific knowledge & practice, as forms of thinking that both contradict what we "know" about the world in everyday life. (What I'm getting at is: in the "skeptical recital", as Cavell puts it, the exchange runs something like: "How do you know this envelope on this table exists?" "By means of my senses." Then: "But could you not be deceived by a clever trickster? "Couldn't you be hallucinating or dreaming?" or "But you can't see the _other_ side of the envelope." &c. But what if instead the speaker pointed out the disparity between the data give by the senses, & the way that the world is conceived of in the modern atomic theory for instance? What distinguishes this kind of cognitive dissonance from skepticism?) This is not a criticism, exactly--obvious Cavell has different fish to fry--but it seems an odd omission given the book's interest in Romanticism, which on my understanding is in part a response to science's disenchantment of the world (Keats complaining about optical science's ruining the charm of the rainbow, &c). Cavell's discussion of our disappointment with knowledge would have been richer, I think, if it had touched on this other area.
A last word on the style of the book, which I might describe as "companionable". The book is not without its miry spots, but on the whole it's an enjoyable, rather friendly read, with a lot of interesting eddies of internal dialogue (like Wittgenstein, Cavell likes to introduce imaginary interlocutors). The more tortuous (Henry) Jamesian style of later Cavell is only rarely in evidence, perhaps because so much of the book derives from his early dissertation (though obviously extensively reworked). For all the sheer unruliness of the book's structure, it's the kind of book that stays with you, a touchstone & resource.