Stanley Cavell

By: Karinne Keithley Syers
September 1, 2014


Having first studied music before coming to philosophy during the era of logical positivism’s effort to remove the senses of words from the sound of philosophy in favor of logic’s symbols, STANLEY CAVELL (born 1926) offered the field his ear for overtones and undertones, the senses of words, and became a critical defender of “ordinary language philosophy.” For Cavell, this means recovering and reconstructing the everyday world, not within formal conditions of truth or falsity, but within the language with which we try to mean what we say. Asking what an American, skeptical, democratic philosophical tradition — one that would repress its own authority in favor of the reader’s self-reliance — might sound like, he introduced us to an Emerson we hardly knew. He reads like a poet, turning sentences over for the resonant combinations of the many senses of their words, and in so doing he’s teased out of Thoreau’s Walden an account of neighboring, for example, and out of Emerson’s promise that we will “win at the last” the onward persistence of lasting. He writes like a poet, too: in curving and proliferating sentences, sentences that never obscure the autobiographical exercise of writing philosophy as the discovery within oneself (while reading, listening, writing, making) of philosophical commitments that allow a writer, through what Cavell calls the “arrogation of the voice of philosophy,” to read and speak on behalf of the human from the ground of one’s own ongoing limited and uncertain experience.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Blaise Cendrars, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Nelson George.

READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).


HiLo Heroes, Philosophy