Stanley Cavell

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Stanley Cavell
Born Stanley Louis Cavell
(1926-09-01) September 1, 1926 (age 88)
Atlanta, Georgia
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Ordinary language philosophy
Main interests
Tragedy, aesthetics, ethics, American transcendentalism, deconstruction, film theory, William Shakespeare

Stanley Louis Cavell (/ˈkævəl/; born September 1, 1926) is an American philosopher. He is the Walter M. Cabot Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University.


Born to a Jewish family in Atlanta, Georgia, Cavell first trained in music, graduating with a B.A. in music at the University of California, Berkeley in 1947. Shortly after being accepted at Juilliard School, he gave up studying music and changed to philosophy, studying at UCLA before finishing his Ph.D at Harvard University. As a student there he came under the influence of the visiting J. L. Austin, whose teaching and methods "knocked him off ... [his] horse."[1]

Cavell's first teaching position was at Berkeley, but he returned to Harvard, where he became the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value in 1963. For the academic year 1970–1971, he was a fellow on the faculty at the Center for the Humanities of Wesleyan University.[2] Cavell received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992. In 1997 he became professor emeritus at Harvard. On May 7, 2010, he was made Doctor Honoris Causa of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon.


Although trained in the Anglo-American analytic tradition, Cavell often interacts with the continental tradition. He is well known for his inclusion of film and literary study in philosophical inquiry.

Cavell has written extensively on Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, and Martin Heidegger, as well as on the American transcendentalists Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He has been associated with an approach toward interpreting Wittgenstein sometimes known as the New Wittgenstein.

Much of Cavell's writing incorporates autobiographical elements concerning how his movement between and within the ideas of these thinkers influenced and influences his own thinking.


Must We Mean What We Say?[edit]

Cavell first established his distinct philosophical identity with a collection of essays, entitled Must We Mean What We Say? (1969), a work which addresses topics such as language use, metaphor, skepticism, tragedy, and literary interpretation, from the point of view of ordinary language philosophy, of which he is a practitioner and ardent defender. One of the essays discusses Søren Kierkegaard's work on revelation and authority, The Book on Adler, in an effort to help re-introduce the book to modern philosophical readers.[3]

The World Viewed[edit]

In The World Viewed (1971) Cavell looks at photography and film. He also writes on modernism in art, and the nature of media, where he mentions the importance to his work of the writing of art critic Michael Fried.

The Claim of Reason[edit]

Cavell is perhaps best known for his book, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (1979), which forms the centerpiece of his work, and which has its origins in his doctoral dissertation.

Pursuits of Happiness[edit]

In Pursuits of Happiness (1981), Cavell describes his experience of seven prominent Hollywood comedies: The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Adam’s Rib, and The Awful Truth. Cavell argues that these films, from the years 1934–1949, form part of what he calls the genre of "remarriage," and he finds in them great philosophical, moral, and indeed political significance.

Specifically, Cavell argues that these Hollywood comedies show that "the achievement of happiness requires not the [...] satisfaction of our needs [...] but the examination and transformation of those needs."[4] According to Cavell, the emphasis that these movies place on "remarriage" draws attention to the fact that, within a relationship, happiness requires "growing up" together with one's partner.[5]

Cities of Words[edit]

In Cities of Words (2004) Cavell traces the history of moral perfectionism, a mode of moral thinking spanning the history of Western philosophy and literature. Having previously used Emerson to define the concept, this book suggests ways we might want to understand philosophy, literature, and film as preoccupied with features of perfectionism.

Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow[edit]

In his most recent collection of essays, Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow (2005), Cavell makes the case that J. L. Austin's concept of performative utterance requires the supplementary concept of "passionate utterance": "A performative utterance is an offer of participation in the order of law. And perhaps we can say: A passionate utterance is an invitation to improvisation in the disorders of desire."[6] The book also contains extended discussions of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Fred Astaire, as well as familiar Cavellian subjects such as Shakespeare, Emerson, Thoreau, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger.

Little Did I Know[edit]

Cavell's most recent book, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (2010), is an autobiography written in the form of a diary. In a series of consecutive, dated entries, Cavell inquires about the origins of his philosophy by telling the story of his life.



  1. ^ The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy, xv (New York: Oxford, 1979).
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ Journal of Religion, vol. 57, 1977
  4. ^ Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, pp. 4-5.
  5. ^ Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, p. 136.
  6. ^ Cavell, Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow (Cambridge, Massachusetts, & London: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 19.

Further reading[edit]

  • The Stanley Cavell Special Issue: Writings and Ideas on Film Studies, An Appreciation in Six Essays, Film International, Issue 22, Vol. 4, No. 4 (2006), Jeffrey Crouse, guest editor. The essays include those by Diane Stevenson, Charles Warren, Anke Brouwers and Tom Paulus, William Rothman, Morgan Bird, and George Toles.
  • "Why Not Realize Your World?" Philosopher/Film Scholar William Rothman Interviewed by Jeffrey Crouse" in Film International, Issue 54, Vol. 9, No. 6 (2011), pp. 59–73.
  • Special Section on Stanley Cavell. Film-Philosophy Vol. 18 (2014): 1-171.

External links[edit]