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Sunday Cavell: criteria are ours (1)

Continued from here (quotes taken from “The Claim of Reason”, Stanley Cavell, reprinted 1999, Oxford University Press.

A measure of the quality of a new text is the quality of the texts it arouses. (p. 5)

I really don’t know where this is going. Nowhere, probably, but that’s not a bad thing. The really bad thing is this typically modern feeling that things need to go somewhere; where the somewhere is both sufficiently vague to gather a following, and sufficiently specific to trust a leader to go there. I’m sure the quality of this text is in itself not a measure of that of Cavell. This text is probably a dead end. Still, it was aroused – took as its starting point – the text of Cavell and a text is alive only insofar it invites to be interpreted rather than to be preached.

This is a Gadamerian point to make and that’s no coincidence.

The case is rather that, as I wish to put it, both statements of fact and judgments of value rest upon the same capacities of human nature; that, so to speak, only a creature that can judge of value can state a fact. (p. 15)

It’s not that science perverted us but that we have perverted science. We have imported, in these modern days, into science the certainties that, of old, came with the power of God. If we look at it this way, what we achieved is just a metamorphosis: one more effective at the expense of beauty. One of the great points Cavell makes, I think, is that the inspiration of ordinary language philosophy is to look at what we all say; to look at the inner logic – let us say, with Wittgenstein: grammar – of humanity as a talkative animal.

Let’s see how that, inherently, bridges not only philosophical traditions but, significantly, the two-faced nature of modern man (top down ‘reason’ and bottom-up ‘passion’).

The criteria Wittgenstein appeals to – those which are, for him, the data of philosophy – are always “ours”,  the “group” which forms his “authority” is always, apparently, the human group as such, the human being generally. When I voice them, I do so, or take myself to do so, as a member of that group, a representative human. (p. 18)

So, what language is, is a fusing of horizons. Language is “ours” and not more mine than yours; not even more the philosopher’s. In language we gain – a point Kant missed but the quality of his text was high so it aroused (and still arouses) new texts to get to this point – some level of autonomy from external authority. It’s not an absolute, individual autonomy though, an autonomy that can be claimed to be mine but one that is bound up with being a part of a group playing the (this?, see below) language game.

One of the remaining problems here is: “Which group?”. It is fairly easy to cordon off “this group of mine” as opposed to “that group of theirs”. This movement actually is maybe the typically Continental thing to do: proclaim that people of type (culture, ..) A simply are not intelligible to people of culture (type, …) B. And that that’s that. Only it isn’t. Obviously, it isn’t possible, within reason, to reserve the group to a specific set of human beings. That’s the Categorical-ness of the Kantian imperative. That’s the inherent grammar of language: to understand each other, to fuse horizons, to share authority. At one point, I’d like to link this to Davidon’s essay on there being no such thing as a conceptual scheme because that is where, I believe, Wittgenstein is wrong in admitting something like the language game and where Cavell is still muddled in not discarding the definite article there in an outright way.

Still, he says:

The wish and search for community are the wish and search for reason. (p. 20)

which sums up the grammar of language and the ungrammaticality of restricting – in facts or intention – understanding to specific groups.

But let’s come back to the previous quote for a moment. Another remaining problem is the abstract vantage point taken “generally”. It is the clearest sign that this thinking really is, in essence, still analytical. Somebody like Levinas will bring this point home by bringing it to our door step and embodying it in facing the Other. I think sometimes we can make this more acute by just talking about facing ourselves because we are the most acute Other that we deal with most of the times (if we’re honest). But how come in facing ourselves we are so acutely aware of facing the Other? Because of language! In language the Other and the I come together in the we via our criteria. That’s how first and third person accounts can get reconciled (and therefore philosophical traditions can get reconciled).

The direction, in any case, is all wrong for philosophy, which ought to point away from the self, not toward it. (p.20)

It’s not specifically all wrong for philosophy but all wrong for modernity. The good part of modernity is that it tries to achieve a higher, more integrated point of view. That’s needed because only in this way we can develop language incorporating progressively (that word is not a coincidence here either) more common ground. The bad part of modernity is that the best point of view is seen as essentially neutral and abstract, a God without sex if you will. I stressed the word “best” because that’s the word that embodies the bad part of modernity (the part to be overcome).

There you have the struggle on this road of philosophy: it tries to make explicit what is for all of us ordinarily taken as implicitly true but in doing so it does not live up to the ‘cut and dried’-ness that we expect of our sacred man-made institutions. It is open to ridicule as it does not provide the comfort of certainties that we need. It’s all fine and dandy to broaden and contemplate our horizons (and we go to such lengths to be able to do it) but we do not want to do that if we’re not on firm ground, for the simple reason we don’t like to drown (and so we establish our little rafts of certainties).

It is nevertheless something we have to continue to do in the spirit of real knowledge, take the hard road not because it will get us final truths but because it will get us to a realization of something like this:

What I consent to, in consenting to the contract, is not mere obedience, but membership in a polis, which implies two things. First, that I recognize others to have consented with me, and hence that I consent to political equality. Second, that I recognize the society and its government, so constituted, as mine; which means that I am answerable not merely to it, but for it. So far, then, as I recognize myself to be exercising my responsibility for it, my obedience to it is obedience to my own laws; citizenship in that case is the same as my autonomy; the polis is the field within which I work out my personal identity and it is the creation of (political) freedom. (p. 23)

Where the word contract is out of place (as Cavell will criticize later in the book) as there is no explicit consent. This in the way that the Rawlsian institutions are fair but need not be derived (except for explanatory purposes) deductively. The whole consent is implicit in the way we are what we are. It is an inescapable truth whose convenience we yet have to really fathom (thé synthetic a priori?). What is also, again, out of place is the word “the” in front of polis as it allows to be interpreted as if there were more than one and each one giving its version of “freedom”. This isn’t true because ultimately “There’s no such thing as a polis” and this is where societies may fall back to primitive ways in splintering understanding to be exclusive to some. Language on the other hand will never fall back as long as we speak.

The problem is that from a specific point of view we want to legislate reality through our societies. This can’t be done and language doesn’t try to do it because:

A fortunate community is one in which the issue is least costly to raise: and only necessary to raise on brief, widely spaced, and agreed upon occasions, and, when raised, offers a state of affairs you can speak for, i.e., allows you to reaffirm the polis. (p.27)

This view of politics is the right one and not the view that politics is a continuous battle in which opposing points of view are actively put forward by as many people in the society as possible. A fortunate community is indeed one in which agreement arises naturally by the common commitment to be charitable and work things out for the community. Maybe the best sign of a fortunate community is that there’s no news, nothing to fight for or against, nothing to report about and nobody to report to.

I don’t mean this in an Utopian way at all. I mean this in the way that we effectively reach agreements all the time and where, even politically, we establish consensus and move on. If there’s a political debate it is always about a problem without a solution and never about what both sides think it’s about: the best solution as they see it.

Whereas in Wittgenstein’s cases it is not clear what it would mean to alter our criteria. The “agreement” we act upon he calls “agreement in judgments” (para 242), and he speaks of our ability to use language as depending upon agreement in “forms of life” (para 241). (p. 30)

So, the point is not that we need to convince each other; the point is that we continuously convince each other and therefore put the singular into “forms of life”, for instance not to note anymore that being gay is somehow another form of life.

That (settle judgments politically) is a practice worth having; human decisions cannot wait upon certainty. But it is therefore one which can be abused. (..) an authority stakes the virtue of its community (..). (p.31)

And, no, the problem is not with our political system of discussion in public opinion itself. The issue is that we confuse the value of having the discussion with the value of reaching an agreement. If we do we’re easily tempted to forego the process of agreeing and just take a (if straits or dire enough: any) decision for the comfort of immediate clarity.

The idea of agreement here is not that of coming to or arriving at an agreement on a given occasion, but of being in agreement throughout, being in harmony, like pitches or tones, or clocks, or weighing scales, or columns of figures. (p.32)

Which is where I think we are really reaching the boundary of what can be understood at the present time, with the present development of language and therefore thought. So do forgive me in becoming progressively less precise; it is – in my view – really unavoidable if you try to make progress that you need to create some words and let them resonate in the thought of others (or not) so you can help establishing (co-operate to establish) a new and better harmony. A harmony that is more inclusive. Let me close with this:

What interests Wittgenstein about philosophizing is that it tends to put the one philosophizing out of agreement with ordinary words (i.e., with his own words when he is not philosophizing), and the fact that what he then says is not meaningless, and, moreover that what he then says, the words he then uses, seems to him compulsively true. So what interests him about criteria is both that there should be such things on the basis of which we lay down our words, and that they can be forgone. (p. 34)

Follow-up posted here.


February 28, 2016 - Posted by | boredom, Tuesday Quought | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. […] The follow-up post is here. […]

    Pingback by Sunday Cavell: The Claim of Reason (0) « The Weblog | February 28, 2016

  2. […] from here (quotes taken from “The Claim of Reason”, Stanley Cavell, reprinted 1999, Oxford University […]

    Pingback by Sunday Cavell: some things are false, nothing is true (3) « The Weblog | March 6, 2016

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