Acknowledging Cavell / Johanna Winant

Photo ©2014 Charles Bernstein

Following Stanley Cavell’s death last month at the age of 91, we invited some of his students, friends, and admirers to write about his life and work. We were particularly interested in soliciting personal essays that acknowledged how Cavell’s thinking or character as a scholar and teacher had influenced the contributor’s own thinking or teaching, or helped to point them in new directions in their work. We ultimately received eight such pieces, with essays by Charles Bernstein, R.M. Berry, Beci Carver, J.D. Connor, Andrew Epstein, Walt Hunter, Imani Perry, and Johanna Winant. We will publish one per hour on July 26, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT. To read them all, please follow along or click on the “Stanley Cavell” tag at the bottom of this post at the end of the day.

—Andrew Epstein and Abram Foley

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I didn’t know Stanley Cavell, though I met him briefly eight years ago at a conference organized on the occasion of the near-simultaneous publication of a book of essays about his work, Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies, and his memoir, Little Did I Know. I was struck by how adored Cavell was by his former students, many of whom, now eminent philosophers nearing retirement themselves, came to that conference and were visibly moved as they spoke of Cavell’s influence. I was reminded of Cavell’s stated debt to his own professor, J. L Austin, which he reckons as “whatever is owed the teacher who shows one a way to do relevantly and fruitfully the thing one had almost given up hope of doing.”1

Eight years ago, I was partway through my Ph.D. in English and just beginning to read Cavell. I had the sense that despite not having been the right age or in the right place to have been his student, he could still show me how to do the thing that I was just about giving up hope of doing. I had spent my first years in graduate school trying to be always rigorous in my thinking and writing, in the questions I asked and in the notes I took, and that rigor was starting to feel like rigor mortis. Cavell showed me that my humanity could fuel thought; it didn’t need to be purged from it. He was one of the people who showed me a way.

That way is still open. Particularly important to it is his early philosophical breakthrough about skepticism: that while we can never be certain of other people, requiring certainty is a dead-end. As he put it, skepticism is “the attempt to convert the human condition, the condition of humanity, into an intellectual riddle.”2 Must We Mean What We Say? and The Claim of Reason take up skepticism, find it unsolvable, but also, escapable. Rather than knowledge, he argues, we should ask for and offer acknowledgement. As he writes, “We think skepticism must mean that we cannot know the world exists, and hence that perhaps there isn’t one (a conclusion some profess to admire and others to fear). Whereas what skepticism suggests is that since we cannot know the world exists, its presentness to us cannot be a function of knowing. The world is to be accepted; as the presentness of other minds is not to be known, but acknowledged.”3

Knowing the pain of another is impossible, but we can acknowledge it and maintain our own humanity. Cavell writes, “Your suffering makes a claim upon me. It is not enough that I know (am certain) that you suffer—I must do or reveal something (whatever can be done). In a word, I must acknowledge it, otherwise I do not know what “(your or his) being in pain means. Is.”4 Skepticism confuses the epistemological with the ethical, to the detriment of everything and everyone.

Cavell shows again and again that “skepticism concerning other minds is not skepticism but tragedy.”5 Some examples in this early work and in Disowning Knowledge are Shakespeare plays in which characters demand certainty that they are loved by their daughters or wives, and failing to know for sure, descend into skepticism and its resulting tragedy of murder and madness. Pursuits of Happiness discusses seven Hollywood comedies from the 1930s and 1940s. The couples in these movies—older, wiser, in plain view of the power of skepticism—step away from demands for knowledge and towards acknowledgement. Cavell finds similar moves in both Thoreau’s Walden and Emerson’s essays. The title of his memoir, Little Did I Know, is, of course, a joke, both self-deprecatory and self-congratulatory.

I returned to Cavell this past week for the first time in years. He died the same week that many Americans learned of family separation at the border, when each morning’s news brought new photos, videos, and audio recordings. What is this if not tragedy? And what is this tragedy caused by other than our refusal to acknowledge the pain of others? In the magisterial essay “The Avoidance of Love,” Cavell spins out from a close-reading of images of blindness in King Lear to an indictment of the United States’ actions in Vietnam. In Cavell’s telling, Lear shades into America—old, mad, and hungry for evidence of love, but not for love itself, not for what Cordelia offers, which would require Lear to acknowledge her and be acknowledged. Instead, Lear tries to cover up his own human condition, to tragic results: “Tragedy is the place we are not allowed to escape the consequences, or price, of this cover: that the failure to acknowledge a best case of the other is a denial of that other, presaging the death of the other…and the death of our capacity to acknowledge as such, the turning of our hearts to stone, or their bursting.”6 The work of tragedy, in our era, “is not to purge us of pity and terror, but to make us capable of feeling them again, and this means showing us that there is a place to act upon them.”7 Cavell insists there is a place to act, even after we doubt each other’s pain, even after the havoc of skepticism, even after tragedy. That’s the promise of the comedy of remarriage, and why he borrowed from the Declaration of Independence for the title of his book about those movies. We can always try again and do better next time.

After I returned to Cavell, I realized that I had never really left him, or he had never left me. Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the philosophers who most influenced Cavell, describes the goal of his philosophy as showing a fly the way out of a fly-bottle, and also leading words home from exile; when I write that Cavell showed me a way, and when he writes that Austin showed him one, I understand that way as the way out of a trap, a way for my thinking to come home, back to my own life, with and among other people. And over the past few years, I learned to write for other readers rather than for myself alone. I learned to be more honest with myself about how my dissertation, and then book, grew out of my emotional concerns and not just my intellectual investments, or rather, that these could be one and the same: my intellectual investments were essentially just offshore accounts that should be brought back from their own exile. I learned to teach based on the conviction that argumentative rigor could be a living rigor, one connected to the lives of my students, as they become adults capable of feeling and acting. And, living in America at this moment in history, I am trying to both feel the tragedy and our continued ability to pursue happiness.

Acknowledging the pain of others is more difficult than having a heart of stone, but Cavell shows that it can also be a joy because it can enable the work that needs to be done ultimately to be done. It just takes the right teacher. I didn’t know Cavell, but I am grateful to have the opportunity to acknowledge him as one of mine.


  1. Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?, Updated Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), xv.
  2. Cavell, The Claim of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 493.
  3. MWMWWS, 298.
  4. MWMWWS, 263.
  5. TCR, xix.
  6. TCR, 494.
  7. Cavell, Disowning Knowledge: In Seven Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 118.
Johanna Winant
Johanna Winant is Assistant Professor of English at West Virginia University, where she teaches American literature, transatlantic modernism, and poetry and poetics. Her research focuses on the relationship between modern literature and philosophy; her current book project, Lyric Logic: American Modernism and the Problem of Induction, argues that modern American poetry transforms an epistemological problem—the difficulty of predicting future experiences based on past ones—into an ambitious poetic strategy. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Journal of Modern Literature, Paideuma, James Joyce Quarterly, Modernism/modernity, and Slate.