Stanley Cavell

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Stanley Cavell
Born Stanley Louis Goldstein (Legally changed name to Stanley Louis Cavell in 1942)
(1926-09-01) September 1, 1926 (age 89)
Atlanta, Georgia
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
Main interests
Skepticism, tragedy, aesthetics, ethics, Ordinary Language Philosophy, American transcendentalism, film theory, William Shakespeare, opera, religion

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


Stanley Cavell was born to a Jewish family in Atlanta, Georgia; his mother, a locally renowned pianist, trained him in music from his earliest days. [1] During the Depression, Cavell’s parents moved several times between Atlanta and Sacramento, California. [2]

As a teenager, Cavell played lead alto saxophone as the youngest and sole white member of a black jazz band in Sacramento. [3] At 16, he entered the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in music, studying with, among others, Roger Sessions and Ernest Bloch. [4] After graduation, he began studies in composition at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, only to discover that music was no longer his aspiration. [5] He eventually began to study philosophy at UCLA, and then transferred as a graduate student to Harvard University. [6] As a student there he came under the influence of the visiting J. L. Austin, whose teaching and methods "knocked him off ... [his] horse."[7] In 1954 he was awarded a Junior Fellowship at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Before completing his PhD, he became an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956. [8] From 1962-1963 Cavell was a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he became a lifelong friend of the British philosopher Bernard Williams. [9] In 1963 he returned to the Harvard Philosophy Department, where he became the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value. [10]

In the summer of 1964, Cavell joined a group of Harvard faculty and graduate students, who taught at Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Mississippi, as part of what became known as the Freedom Summer. [11] In April 1969, during the time of student protests arising from, among other things, the Vietnam War, Cavell, together with his colleague John Rawls, worked with a group of African-American students to draft language for a vote by the faculty that established the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard. [12]

In 1979, along with the documentary filmmaker Robert Gardner, Cavell helped establish the Harvard Film Archive, to preserve and present the history of film. [13] Cavell received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992. [14] From 1996-1997 Cavell was President of the American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division).[15] He remained on the Harvard faculty until his retirement in 1997. After retiring, he taught courses at Yale University and the University of Chicago. He also held the Spinoza Chair of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam in 1998.[16]

Cavell’s first marriage, to Marcia (Schmid) Cavell, ended in divorce in 1961; their daughter, Rachel Lee Cavell, was born in 1957. He and Cathleen (Cohen) Cavell were married in 1967 and live in Brookline, Massachusetts; they have two sons, Benjamin (born 1976) and David (born 1984).


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.

Selected works[edit]

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.[17]

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 "The Comedy 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."[18] 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.[19]

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."[20] 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.

Selected works on Cavell[edit]

  • Michael Fischer, Stanley Cavell and Literary Criticism, Chicago U.P., 1989
  • Richard Fleming and Michael Payne (eds), The Senses of Stanley Cavell, Bucknell U.P., 1989
  • Ted Cohen, Paul Guyer, and Hilary Putnam, eds., Pursuits of Reason: Essays in Honor of Stanley Cavell, Texas Tech U.P., 1993
  • Stephen Mulhall, Stanley Cavell: Philosophy’s Recounting of the Ordinary, Clarendon Press, 1994
  • Timothy Gould, Hearing Things: Voice and Method in the Writing of Stanley Cavell, Chicago U.P., 1998
  • Espen Hammer, Stanley Cavell: Skepticism, Subjectivity, and the Ordinary, Polity Press/Blackwell’s, 2002
  • Richard Eldridge (ed.), Stanley Cavell, Cambridge U.P., 2003
  • Sandra Laugier, Une autre pensée politique américaine: La démocratie radicale d’Emerson á Stanley Cavell, Michel Houdiard Ēditeur, 2004
  • Russell Goodman (ed.), Contending with Stanley Cavell, Oxford U.P., 2005.

Honorary degrees[edit]

Selected honors[edit]

Selected special lectureships[edit]



  1. ^ Little Did I Know, 21 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  2. ^ Little Did I Know, 24 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  3. ^ Little Did I Know, 169 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  4. ^ Little Did I Know, 85, 183 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  5. ^ Little Did I Know, 220-225 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  6. ^ Little Did I Know, 247 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  7. ^ The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy, xv (New York: Oxford, 1979).
  8. ^ Little Did I Know, 326 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  9. ^ Little Did I Know, 149 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  10. ^ Little Did I Know, 435 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  11. ^ Little Did I Know, 373 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  12. ^ Little Did I Know, 508-512 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  13. ^ [1]
  14. ^ [2]
  15. ^ [3]
  16. ^
  17. ^ Journal of Religion, vol. 57, 1977
  18. ^ Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, pp. 4-5.
  19. ^ Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, p. 136.
  20. ^ 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]