Stanley Cavell

Stanley Cavell  taught philosophy at Harvard for many years. His books include Must We Mean What We Say? (1969), The Claims of Reason (1979), Pursuits of Happiness (1981) and an autobiography, Little Did I Know (2010). He died in 2018 at the age of 91.

Finding Words

Stanley Cavell, 20 February 1997

Early in his lovely and useful book on D.W. Winnicott, published in 1988, Adam Phillips gives a sketch of certain aims and fates of that increasingly treasured figure of British psychoanalysis which maps certain of his own directions in his recent collection of psychoanalytic essays, Terrors and Experts.

Time after Time

Stanley Cavell, 12 January 1995

Keep in mind that I come from that part of the world for which the question of old and new – call it the question of a human future – is, or was, logically speaking, a matter of life and death: if the new world is not new then America does not exist, it is merely one more outpost of old oppressions. Americans like Thoreau (and if Thoreau then Emerson and Walt Whitman, to say no more) seem to have lived so intensely or intently within the thought of a possible, and possibly closed, future that a passage like the following would be bound to have struck them as setting an old mood: ‘Everything is worn out: revolutions, profits, miracles. The planet itself shows signs of fatigue and breakdown, from the ozone layer to the temperature of the oceans.’ Compare a sentence from the opening chapter of Thoreau’s Walden: ‘Undoubtedly the very tedium and ennui which presume to have exhausted the variety and the joys of life are [themselves] as old as Adam.’ This is, I think we might say, a compounding or transcendentalising of the sense of the worn out, showing that concept of our relation to the past to be itself nearly worn out. And this recognition provides Thoreau not with compounded tedium and ennui but with an outburst of indignant energy. He continues: ‘But man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried.’ This is why he can say, when he appeals to sacred writings and defends them against the sense that they are passé: ‘We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.’ As if to say: Beware of the idea of The Future Today – that is, of Today’s Future; it may be a function of Yesterday’s Today, and you will discover that Today was always already Tomorrow, that there is no time for origination. Yet Thoreau’s idea is that time has not touched the thoughts and texts he deals in. What chance is there for us to share his faith today, now? When is now?’’

Nothing goes without saying

Stanley Cavell, 6 January 1994

Movies magnify, so when pictures began talking they magnified words. Somehow, as in the case of opera’s magnification of words, this made their words mostly ignorable, like the ground, as if the industrialised human species had been looking for a good excuse to get away from its words, or looking for an explanation of the fact that we do get away, even must. The attractive publication, briefly and informatively introduced, of the scripts of several Marx Brothers films – Monkey Business (1931), Duck Soup (1933) and A Day at the Races (1937) – is a sublime invitation to stop and think about our swings of convulsiveness and weariness in the face of these films; to sense that it is essential to the Brothers’ sublimity that they are thinking about words, to the end of words, in every word – or, in Harpo’s emphatic case, in every absence of words.’

Stanley Cavell doesn’t say we’re just misusing the word ‘know’ when we use it of the world or of other minds; rather, he tries to work out a way of describing our engagement with these unknowables...

Read more reviews

Why praise Astaire? Stanley Cavell

Michael Wood, 20 October 2005

The ordinary slips away from us. If we ignore it, we lose it. If we look at it closely, it becomes extraordinary, the way words or names become strange if we keep staring at them. The very notion...

Read more reviews

How philosophers live

James Miller, 8 September 1994

Despite obvious exceptions – memoirs by John Stuart Mill and R.G. Collingwood, confessions by St Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau – autobiography is not a genre that comes...

Read more reviews

Return to the Totem

Frank Kermode, 21 April 1988

This Textual Companion is described by the publisher as ‘an indispensable companion to The Complete Oxford Shakespeare’, which indeed it is, and it was reasonable to complain, when

Read more reviews

The spirit in which things are said

Arnold Davidson, 20 December 1984

Since the publication of Must we mean what we say? in 1969, it has been said that Stanley Cavell’s books are unreviewable, a remark that will no doubt again be applied to his latest work....

Read more reviews

Green Films

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 1 April 1982

Cary Grant sits down at a table with Ralph Bellamy and Irene Dunne in 1937 and says: ‘So you two are going to get married.’ It is The Awful Truth. Grant sits down at a table with...

Read more reviews

The concerns of academic philosophy are to some degree the concerns of everybody. At the same time, they often appear to plain pre-philosophical men and women – including those perhaps not...

Read more reviews

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences