Sunday Cavell: The Claim of Reason (0)
“But I have made no effort to sophisticate my early, tentative, amateur efforts to link the English and the Continental traditions, because I want them to show that to realign these traditions, after their long mutual shunning, at any rate to write witnessing the loss in that separation, has been a formative aspiration of mine from the earliest of the work I refer to here. It remains an aspiration to define and to date a place of its overcoming.” Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason, Oxford University Press 1979, p. xvii.
The least remarkable element of this quote, and why I started reading this book, is that it refers to the classical traditions. The most remarkable element of the quote, and why I will finish this book and write about it, is the emphasis on a charitable reading of other texts. I personally believe that it is that charity (of reading, of listening rather than the shortcut to charity which consists in giving money, time etc.) which has the potential to overcome all the man-made divisions which are the source of the need for the second, material, kind of charity.
A charitable reception of the other’s point of view is the basis of constructing a better – hence more shared – understanding. It simultaneously provides the motivation to share – hence improve – material stuff on beforehand instead of patching the inequality divide in a post-factum way. There will be less heroes this way but the amount of heroes a society generates is inversely proportional to the inherent charity in that society. That alone is the clearest of signs that our present society isn’t doing well. It needs heroes and it makes any other person feel average.
Feeling average is inhuman. In reading Cavell (and writing about it) it’s that very feeling of insignificance that is, in my humble opinion, deconstructed via scrutinizing the tyranny of points of view which are deemed (more, sufficiently, absolutely ) significant.
In this series of posts I will read Cavell’s “The Claim of Reason” and report on my reading. I invite you to read (with) me and contribute, as I will, your own peculiar points of view. I’ll start with some tentative, amateur observations of my own
For many feeling average is the sickness unto death. Philosophy is a means to cure it, and, specifically, cure it without the fireworks of heroism or other ways of establishing the type of certainty which we crave but also know we cannot have. It’s an irony many have pointed out that the empirical tradition culminates in rational analysis whereas the rationalist way has culminated in historical commentary. Maybe that’s where the Eastern tradition of the balance between such forces can add value. In any case it is where it attracts the attention of many in the West sick and tired of knowing it all and getting nothing in return for such knowledge except an empty sense of (analytic, historic) superiority.
The non-firework cure is that of charity. The principle of charity is crucial to the thinking of Davidson on language. Grice’s core maxim of understanding is that of co-operation. The two are obviously connected to taking the other at face value as Levinas has it. There is no further fireworks, no scheme from without the interaction of humans, no depth, nothing external to this fact of charity which is, in itself, enough. Not because it has to be but – and that’s why Cavell (I think) takes Wittgenstein as the navel of his thought – because there s nothing external to the language game.
Many will be discontent with this because they will feel like we just have to settle for this – whilst we dreamt to have our fireworks and shoot it too. Their discontent isn’t justified. In reality every historic utopia has been outperformed by reality. Maybe the bliss was in some way less intense but at least it turned out not to be as exclusive as the best case invariably was imagined to be. Every utopia has had its corresponding dystopia, sacrifices needed to be made. The truth in this is that wherever and whenever people worked together nothing happened as expected, according to a game plan, but what did happen was for the best.
Why? When people talk together and try to figure things out language develops and reason locks in that progress. So we are not stuck in a situation which is “just the situation we are born into”. We do have a choice to be charitable and if we take it shit improves. That is the claim of reason: it works uni-directionally like, and with, time (which reminds of having to read Bergson again). There’s no coincidence in what I take Cavell’s basic aspiration is: if he takes philosophers to genuinely try to advance the truth then he will find commonality to be kept and where he finds failure he will find a common problem still to be solved.
And he and I and you are in a better position to solve the remaining common problems just and only because others have tried (and failed) before. Their failure is not a scar on a status of hero they don’t have but it is a stepping stone for our success. History then is not some eternal recurring procession of Nietzschean heroes fighting for some absolutely deep and external truth but a decidedly unheroic matter of small little steps of progress made by the people (all of the people) who make an effort to charitably understand each other. There is in this sense something deeply poetic in the Rawlsian original position (even if it does not rationally work to argue based on such a deus ex machina element), its veil of ignorance is, essentially, forcing charity of understanding on all citizens.
The thing is that we don’t have to force this charity. It comes naturally through language. As long as, that is, we have patience and don’t give in to the irrational (and therefore: unnatural) tendency to ‘be done with it already’.
I will go through the book chapter by chapter. In principle with a frequency of one post per week. We’ll see when and how that ends. Comments unlikely but still welcome ;-).
The follow-up post is here.
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