You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Philosophy of the Oddball

A review of Stanley Cavell's 'In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism'

Hulton Archive/Getty

Sometimes, in some moods, even the best professorial prose sounds phony. The typical academic’s presentation of self—as the humble servant of The Argument or of The Text, faithfully following wherever it may lead—seems defensive and self-deceptive. With growing impatience, one wishes that the author had told us why he or she bothered to write the book in tbe first place, why this seemed a project worth years out of a human life, why the book is more tban a move in a game learned in graduate school. “Lord, what would they say/Did their Catullus walk that way?”

Nobody can bring that sort of complaint against Stanley Cavell’s new book. Cavell is among professors of philosophy what Harold Bloom is among the professors of English: the least defended, the gutsiest, the most vulnerable. He sticks his neck out farther than any of the rest of us. Who touches this book touches a fleshly, ambitious, anxious, self-involved, self-doubting mortal. Even readers who eventually get annoyed witb the book’s quirkiness, its unashamedly personal tone, will have to concede its entire honesty and thorough self-awareness. They will have to admit that when Cavell becomes querulous or fey, he knows quite well what is happening. When he is allusive, he alludes to what moves him, not to what be thinks will impress us.

Speaking of allusion: at the beginning of one chapter, Cavell says that he “will attempt to fit together into some reasonable, or say convivial, circle a collection of the main beasts in my jungle or wilderness of interests.” This explanation of what he is doing is frank and accurate. His book is neither argument nor exegesis, but simply an attempt to have the new friends meet the old. What the allusions add is the hope that we will realize that Cavell realizes that some of these beasts may be as cruelly imaginary as the one in Henry James’s story. He may also hope that we realize that be realizes that his invocation, like Jacques’s in Arden, may have called some fools into his circle.

This is not to say that the writers Cavell mentions most—Shakespeare, Kant, Coleridge, Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Freud, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin—might turn out to be fools. The danger Cavell quite consciously runs is rather that, like anyone daring to call such people together, he may have unwittingly substituted foolish little silhouettes for the men themselves. Sometimes, when we think that we are rediscovering the mighty dead, we are just inventing imaginary playmates. This danger is extreme for us philosophers, for we are constantly tempted to trim all books down to the size of philosophy books. We are always making non-philosophers answer funny little philosophical questions. We even make people like Shakespeare and Emerson give answers to questions set by J. L. Austin.

Who? John Langshaw Austin was Cavell’s teacher. The hero and leader of a now almost forgotten school called “ordinary language philosophy,” Austin’s habitat was the common rooms and seminar rooms of Oxford. These rooms were, before Oxford went coed, much like boys’ locker rooms. There intellectual athletes snapped out counterexamples, a continuation of towel-snapping by other means. Austin succeeded in displacing the previous prefect, A . J. Ayer , by showing that Ayer’s (and thus some of Descartes’s and Kant’s) problems could only be stated in a particular jargon, in Philosopher’s Talk. They cannot arise if we speak Ordinary Language.

Descartes and Ayer had discussed, for example, whether the external world was real. Real? Austin asked. As opposed to what? A plywood stage set? A hallucination? A computer simulation? In the ordinary, human world these are the sorts of alternatives that give the word “real” its use and its force. In the philosophers’ world, there is nothing to do the same job. That is what Wittgenstein meant when he said that Philosopher’s Talk is language “on holiday.”

Austin hoped to reimpress us with the truth of the old saw that philosophers kick up dust and then complain that they cannot see. But Austin did not press the further questions that fascinate Cavell: What compels them to kick up all that dust? Why do they want to talk so funny? Why are they not content to be, and speak, Ordinary? Why do they refuse to acknowledge the ordinary, human world? These questions amount to: Why do philosophers go in for skepticism? Why do they ask whether the table is really there, whether you might turn out to be a robot, whether you see what I see when we simultaneously remark the deep vermilion in the rose?

If one is not satisfied with the answer “It’s all they know how to do: they were taught to ask these questions in graduate school,” one will have to find some deeper significance in philosophical, Descartes-like skepticism (as opposed to practical, Montaigne-like skepticism). Finding such significance has been Cavell’s lifework, the central project of all his books.

The books have gotten better and better, more persuasive and more moving, as Cavell has gone along. Ten years ago, in The Claim of Reason, he tried too hard to get us interested in Austin, and in the piquant examples over which Austin and Ayer haggled. His effort in that book to formulate a “problematic of skepticism and tragedy” never quite came off. This was because he spent too much time on topics that only a philosophy professor could love—straining to find tragic import in what persisted in seeming mere classroom exercises. In his recent books, notably In Quest of the Ordinary and This New But Unapproachable America, he tries the non-philosopher’s patience less. We hear less of Austin and more of Wittgenstein.

So we should. Cavell’s references to “Wittgenstein and Austin on the ordinary” yoke greatness with charm (as in “Proust and Beerbohm on dukes” or “George Eliot and Dorothy Sayers on the situation of women”). Unhitched from Austin, Wittgenstein is the sort of philosopher one would not be ashamed to introduce to Emerson. For Wittgenstein did not go to graduate school and did not hang around common rooms. He had little life apart from his philosophical obsessions. When Bertrand Russell asked him whether he was thinking about logic or about his sins, he replied “both.”

Wittgenstein was not an ordinary language philosopher, nor even a philosopher whose main interest was language. His early work was an attempt to justify his withdrawal from the ordinary patterns of human interchange by claiming that everything that can be said in language—all descriptions of what is the case—was “without value.” Wittgenstein wanted “to feel the world as a limited whole”—to rise above the petty, the banal, the kitschy, by seeing the merely communicable as irrelevant to “the problem of life.” The people the young Wittgenstein admired were those who had passed beyond language, those who, as he said, “have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them [but] have then been unable to say what constituted that sense.”

But the later Wittgenstein, in one of the great peripeties in the history of philosophy, renounced incommunicability and accepted ordinariness. He became content to think that be himself—all of him, through and through—might be susceptible lo linguistic description, intelligible to bis fellow humans. His later work mocked his earlier distinction between the sacredly ineffable and the banally sayable. Why, he comes to ask himself, did I think that logic—the outmost frontier of language, looming over the abyss beyond—was something sublime? Or even if it were, what is the sublime to me? Why did I hope that there was something like a “limited whole” to be felt? Why did I think that language bad limits, that there was a single problem called “the problem of life,” that to grasp that problem one must teeter over an abyss? Not, he concluded, because deep philosophical researches showed such limits to exist, but because an ascetic, obsessively self-purificatory attitude toward ordinary human life had demanded that there be such limits, such a problem, and such an abyss.

Wittgenstein’s renunciation of the quest for purity, his acceptance of the unimportance of sublimity, Is Cavell’s great example of the “recovery of the human.” But this example is obscured by Cavell’s insistence on drawing an analogy between what Wittgenstein called “forms of life”—ordinary social practices, ordinary contexts for the occurrence of words—and Kant’s “transcendental logic.” Cavell seems to think that this analogy underlines the importance of Wittgenstem’s achievement by placing it within the tradition of finding what Kant called “conditions of possibility” (the specifically philosophical project, as opposed to the natural scientist’s project of finding conditions of actuality). But that tradition is one of the things that the later Wittgenstein wanted to sidestep. Kant’s array of “categories of the pure understanding” is a good example of the sort of scientistic pseudo-rigor of which Wittgenstein rightly became suspicious.

Moreover, the distinctiveness of Wittgenstein’s early quest for purity (a quest that had a lot to do with Wittgenstein’s self-loathing, and with his inability to form lasting bonds with other human beings) is obscured by assimilating it to the textbook “problems of philosophy”—for example, to “the problem of the external world” set by Descartes and Kant. Such an assimilation suggests that the latter problem played the same role in the lives of these men as Wittgenstein’s philosophical obsessions played in his. But Wittgenstein’s was not a possible life until relatively recent times—until philosophy had detached itself from such matters of ordinary human concern as politics, religion, and science, and had become either a lonely academic ritual or a private spiritual exercise. This detachment, though foreshadowed and made possible by their work, was not realized in the lives of Kant (who was caught up in a utopian political vision) or Descartes (who was caught up in a scientific revolution).

Cavell has a much better chance of conviviality when be introduces Wittgenstein to Emerson than when be introduces him to Kant. He is on to something real and important when he says that “Emerson and Thoreau . . . underwrite Wittgenstein and Austin.” He thinks of this underwriting as “romanticism” helping us to recover from “skepticism.” On Cavell’s definition, the philosopher’s textbook problems about “the external world” and “other minds” are to be taken seriously because the frenzied dust- kicking that makes them seem urgent is a symptom of a “drive to the inhuman”—the drive that took Wittgenstein out toward his fancied abyss. The “recovery of the human” is his name for what the later Wittgenstein and Emerson achieved. It is a good name, and bringing the two men together helps.

Cavell’s choice of isms, however, confuses things. To most of the philosophers who still take traditional epistemological and metaphysical problems at face value (to Saul Kripke, for example), the later Wittgenstein’s willingness to say that when we reach a “form of life” we reach rock bottom seems just another version of Cartesian skepticism. So identifying Wittgenstein’s renunciation of his quest for purity as a return from skepticism seems a needlessly controversial complication. More important, to most fans of the Romantic poets (especially to Bloomians, who hope to learn from those poets how to give birth to themselves), a good half of what Cavell calls “romanticism” looks more like pastoralism.

Cavell says that

romanticism’s work here interprets itself, so I have suggested, as the task of bringing the world back, as to life. This may, in turn, present itself as the quest for a return to the ordinary, or of it, a new creation of our habitat; or as the quest, away from that, for the creation of a new habitation: Wordsworth and Coleridge would represent the former alternative; Blake and [Mary] Shelley, I believe, the latter.

In order to pursue his theme of “the return to the human” Cavell sticks mainly to the former, pastoralist, as opposed to the latter, Promethean, alternative. But that shows the limitations of that theme. What is left of romanticism after we set aside the Bloomian quest for the creation of a new, self-made habitation (and thus a new, self-born self) seems insufficiently romantic. When Cavell pitches his theme of “the return to the ordinary” to Austin’s remark that the skeptical philosopher “thrusts himself out of the garden of the world we live in,” the Promethean side of romanticism gets lost. So Cavell is sometimes tempted to teleport Emerson back into the 18th century (when, as Nabokov remarks, “the lambs were fleecier, the brooks purlier”) rather than forward to Nietzsche, his self-proclaimed disciple.

But sometimes—much more often in this book than in his earlier books, but perhaps still not often enough—Cavell puts isms and textbook philosophical problems to one side. Then he lets the members of his circle talk to one another without trying to pin labels (“philosopher” or “literary artist”) on them, and without arranging conversational groupings (“the skeptics,” “the romantics”). At these times he is much more persuasive. He ties himself and his prose up into fewer knots.

The clearest and best chapter of In Quest of the Ordinary is the meditation on egoism called “Being Odd, Getting Even.” There he heads straight into the center of Harold Bloom’s territory, describing

Emerson’s progress as his having posed Descartes’s question for himself and provided a fresh line of answer, one you might call a grammatical answer: I am a being who to exist must say I exist, or must acknowledge my existence—claim it, stake it, enact it.

This Promethean need to enact one’s own existence, to invent a self rather than to play out a role embedded in ordinary forms of life, is what makes odd people stop speaking Ordinary. It is what is odd about them, why the ordinary isn’t good enough for them. So these people will eventually share Wittgenstein’s need to return to the ordinary and recover the human: recover all those ways of being human that set their oddness off, make up the stage set against which they enacted their uniqueness. Their problem will then be to acknowledge this stage set as more than just a stage set, their fellow humans as more than trampolines to bounce off. Insofar as they fail to do this, they run the danger of winding up where Nietzsche and Heidegger wound up, of seeing the ordinary life of the ordinary person as a failure to be fully human, rather than merely a failure to be sufficiently odd.

Surely Cavell is right in suggesting that, if there is anything behind the philosopher’s dust-kicking except childish showing off (encouraged by graduate school training)—if there is anything to Cartesian skepticism except adolescent one-upmanship—it must have some connection with the Promethean urge to enact and to re-create oneself. Goodwill requires us to posit such an urge behind Ayer’s “logical construction of the external world,” behind Kant’s funny-looking “transcendental logic,” as well as behind Descartes’s willingness to invoke demons. By positing this urge, we can make sense of the fact that philosophy continued to exist even after purifying itself of human interest, of how it managed to go private without (quite) going crazy.

The examples of Nietzsche and Heidegger help one see the point of Cavell’s claim that the danger of self-enactment is the inability to acknowledge others. The price Heidegger paid for being odd was to become as cruel as Lear, and Nietzsche eventually went as mad. The conflict that Cavell splendidly dramatizes at his best, and fuzzes up with philosophical isms at his worst, is between the fact that life is hardly worth living without oddity and egoism, yet also hardly worth living without love and communion.

This conflict has hardly gone unnoticed, but Cavell gives us a new way of understanding it by using philosophers as illustrations. For we philosophers are perhaps the most vivid examples of the oddball’s ability to get even by making everybody else seem, at least for a moment, out of it. By inventing a new vocabulary of praise and blame, by assuming a new (preferably “transcendental”) standpoint, we can sometimes make it appear that everybody except ourselves simply doesn’t understand what is going on. We can make them feel that they are stuck on a lower plane of being, living down in a cave. By wrapping ourselves in this new vocabulary, and refusing to speak Ordinary, we can sometimes make ourselves look and sound like gods.

Cruelty and madness are likely to ensue when we start looking like gods to ourselves, when we start thinking that our new standpoint puts us above and beyond the ordinary, that we are able to look down on it, to see it as the “limited whole” of the young Wittgenstein’s fantasies, to look back on it as Heidegger tried to look back on “the West” or Foucault on “man.” Cruelty and madness will be avoided just insofar as we remember that our new vocabulary is entirely parasitic on the one we learned as children, that our brief divinity is a dramatic role that presupposes a lot of communal stage-building and ticket-buying.

Cavell never forgets these banal facts, yet he never fails in sympathy for the oddball. His prose and his career both live out the conflict of which he writes. In the course of that career he has developed an increasingly distinctive and powerful mode of self-enactment. Emerson would have found Cavell as convivial as he would have found Wittgenstein.