“This is said on tiptoe”:

Stanley Cavell and the Writing of Philosophy

Áine Mahon

University College Dublin


So we are here, knowing they are “gone to burning hell”, she with a lie on her lips, protecting him, he with her blood on him. Perhaps Blake has what he calls songs to win them back, to make room for hell in a juster city. But can philosophy accept them back at the hands of poetry? Certainly not so long as philosophy continues, as it has from the first, to demand the banishment of poetry from its republic. Perhaps it could if it could itself become literature. But can philosophy become literature and still know itself? (Cavell, The Claim of Reason, 496).

Stanley Cavell has a very distinctive style. His accomplished prose domineers yet effaces, intimidates yet invites, with a range of concern and allusion far exceeding the traditionally philosophical. This is a writing that develops more by exploration and interrogation than by the assertion of conclusive claims. The Claim of Reason, for example, which began as a revision of Cavell’s doctoral thesis, moves from a technical discussion of epistemology to a wider moral space, but by means “of poetic indirection rather than strict argument” (Hollander, 581); its closing tableau of Othello and Desdemona has more the flavour of theatrical denouement than philosophical inference. Indeed, to paraphrase William Desmond, there is something of art to all of Cavell’s philosophy (Desmond, 143). It is a texture of writing that wrests attention from its reader, a movement of thought so subtle and seductive one cannot help being caught up in its figurations.

Cavell’s procedures have inspired almost cultish devotion in philosophical and literary circles. Readers of his essays, monographs and autobiographical writings, not to mention those present at international conferences on his work (most recently, the 2008 “Stanley Cavell and Literary Criticism” conference at the University of Edinburgh), unite in their assessment of the philosopher’s idiosyncratic brilliance. For these and less sympathetic readers, the question of Cavell’s writing style has emerged as central. As Timothy Gould phrases the issue, “Cavell’s readers experience a tension between his philosophical insight […] and the forms in which that insight gets expressed. More generally, even those readers who are at some level sympathetic to Cavell’s work find themselves troubled and often irritated by the insistent gestures of his writing” (Gould, 22). A one-time student of Cavell, Gould’s reading is inclined to be favourable; his assessment of these “insistent gestures” emerges in the broader context of a sympathetic study of the Cavellian voice. But why exactly, we might ask, do Cavell’s readers care so much for the idiosyncrasies of his written expression? Is this concern mirrored in the writings of Cavell’s philosophical peers? How precisely are we to characterize the normative regime of stylistic discourse implicitly rejected in Cavell’s writings?   

This article aims to reformulate the broader question of “writing style” into a series of more focused questions concerning procedure and method. Beginning with an analysis of the distinctively literary spirit of Cavell’s earlier work (and here I refer to its movement between parable and allegory and between myth and metaphor), I move to a discussion of the scriptorial features that have marked and marked out his writing from the very beginning (his unique employment of key words and phrases, of parenthetical remarks and questions, of aphorisms and asides). In the second section, this discussion of stylistic features leads to a more general exploration, via his readings of Emerson and Thoreau, of the distinctiveness of Cavell’s meta-philosophy. Of particular interest here is the idea of Cavell’s writing as expressive of a quintessentially American philosophical style.


The Claim of Reason is Cavell’s earliest and arguably most famous book. Its fourth part, “Skepticism and the Problem of Others”, is notable for its distinctively literary spirit, for its incorporation of parable and allegory and its openness to myth and metaphor. By employing these standardly literary modes, Cavell illustrates his concern not only with the imaginative spirit of philosophy but with the central role of exemplification in philosophical writing. The Claim of Reason concludes with the hope of “having raised the question of whether, and of how, we know differences between the writing of literature and the writing of philosophy” (478). Cavell does not attempt to answer this question once raised. Rather, he concludes with an analysis of two Shakespeare plays, The Merchant of Venice and Othello. He concludes, in other words, with a literary discussion. But why does Cavell choose to conclude his text in this way? How does the Shakespearean literary context illuminate the philosophical themes in question? How does a discussion of Othello and Desdemona, of Antonio and Shylock, shed light on the problem of other-minds scepticism?

Literature as productive circumstance for philosophy relates undoubtedly to the defining feature of Cavell’s work: the difficulty of his prose style. Cavell’s writing is frustratingly obscure. It is mannerly, idiosyncratic, intensely personal and endlessly reflexive. Discussing Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality”, for example, Cavell writes:

In this poem, about recovering from the loss of childhood by recovering something of, or in childhood (in particular, recovering its forms of recovery), we are to recover it, participate in it, by imitating it, as it imitated us (so imitating its endless readiness for imitation) (In Quest of the Ordinary, 73).

This sentence typifies a practice of writing having a frustrating tendency to qualify, to complicate, to turn back on itself. I would suggest that this process of revision has a cumulative rather than a simplifying function. For example, rather than privileging one phrase over another (“something of, or in”; “we are to recover it, participate in it”), Cavell allows both alternatives to stand. This curious practice of “listing” features in all his writings but achieves greatest prominence in In Quest of the Ordinary.. A prime example occurs in the opening paragraph of his essay “Emerson, Coleridge, Kant (Terms as Conditions)”. Discussing the “domestication of the fantastic” and the “transcendentalizing of the domestic” that takes place in literature – and here Cavell is alluding to his lifelong interest in the fantastic nature of ordinary life, what Heidegger calls “the enigma of the everyday”) – Cavell writes: “[…] call these movements the internalization, or subjectivizing, or democratizing, of philosophy” (Quest, 27). By listing alternatives in this manner, Cavell’s suggestion is that neither alternative is conclusive, that every term has an equal claim to validity. Allowing alternatives to co-exist suggests that choosing between them isn’t necessary; it suggests that a plurality of interpretations might exist.

Cavell’s suspended alternatives are further refined and refracted by his use of the parenthesis. Parenthetic remarks litter Cavell’s prose. The function of the parenthetic remark is sometimes additional (supplementing the argument of the sentence), sometimes clarificatory (phrasing differently the same essential point) and sometimes demonstrative (offering an example). Given their prevalence in Cavell’s prose, it is not always easy to ascertain which function is in play. In this particular example, the first parenthetic remark “(in particular, recovering its forms of recovery)” has a demonstrative function while the second “(so imitating its endless readiness for imitation)” has a supplementary one. Notwithstanding their differing functions, however, parenthetical remarks are united by their grammatical positioning – by their curious ability to be simultaneously “inside and outside” their containing sentence.

Placing a remark in parenthesis suggests to the reader that this remark is not essential to, but is independent of, the sentence’s overall coherence. The reader can “take it or leave it”, as it were. Its visual appearance within the sentence, however,  together with the slowed pace of reading and the resulting emphasis this brings about, belies this suggestion of autonomy. It suggests that the parenthetical remark is integral to the sentence structure. For Cavell’s purposes, this distinctive ability of the parenthetical remark, its ability to be at once integral and superfluous, “inside and outside”, allows for a very particular mode of expression. It allows him to say things “as asides”, sidestepping the commitment of simple assertion, saying several (sometimes contradictory) things at once, not having to privilege one meaning over another. 

Another stylistic feature worthy of attention is Cavell’s repetition of key words and phrases. In this particular example, there are two: “recovery” (which, along with its variant, “recovering”, appears five times) and “imitation” (with its variants, “imitating” and “imitated”, appearing four times). Cavell’s repetition of these words lends a mesmeric quality to his sentence. These words also “imitate”; resounding and playing off one another, echoing and hinting and ricocheting, they reinforce their own importance. In this manner, their specificity is heightened. Their reader becomes attuned to their poetic nature, to their look and sound as well as their meaning. The material reality of the words, their tangibility, is thus emphasized.  We are reminded of Cavell’s discussion of Thoreau’s Walden: “My subject is nothing apart from sensing the specific weight of these words as they sink” (The Senses of Walden, 11). As Stephen Mulhall writes, “(d)rawing attention to the specificity of words allows Cavell to suggest that his sentences works on a linguistic as well as a topical level; that the etymology, atomic structure and mythological resonances of the words employed in the sentence are equally central to its philosophical work” (63). Building on Mulhall’s theory, we might suggest the term “echoing” to invoke childhood memory; “recovery”, in turn, might fit with the uncovering and repetition that children use in order to learn language. By allowing alternative remarks to exist in suspension, by clarifying yet extending these alternatives via parenthetical remarks and by drawing attention to key words and phrases, the texture of Cavell’s writing manages to save him from the mechanized methodology of analytic philosophy. Rather than the construction of a linear argument, his writing liberates a plurality of suggestion and meaning.

Explaining the ambiguities of Cavell’s expression in terms of philosophical plurality might suffice, to a point, but given the philosopher’s continual responsiveness to the analytic tradition (and the fact that “philosophical plurality” is a notoriously unsatisfactory concept), we suspect that this explanation is not exhaustive. We suspect that there is more to Cavell’s philosophical work than a recognition of multiplicity. Returning to the sentence in question, specifically, to Cavell’s device of listing, we are tempted to ask: of these widely disparate and endlessly suggestive practices (“internalization”, “subjectivizing”, “democratizing”), which exactly does Cavell affirm? Which has priority? Surely it matters (i.e. has an effect on the substantive meaning of the sentence) which practice we finally “go with”, which we read as conclusive? 

Controversially, Cavell suggests that it does not matter, or, at the very least, that such questions of “mattering” or “meaning” are misconceived, too crudely drawn to track the movements of thought and writing. On this point, we might turn to his discussion of “meaning” in his prose. On discussing Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Cavell writes:

Such words mean nothing whatever, or I have no interest in their meaning anything, apart from their accuracy in wording an intuition – […] (Quest, 53)

Cavell’s prioritizing of “intuition” over “meaning” here is crucial. It suggests that his writing does not strive for coherence or unity or closure (or even for a philosophical plurality) but strives instead to stay faithful to – to establish an “accuracy” for – the continual movement of ideas and instincts, to preserve even the incomplete and the underdeveloped. As he writes in The Senses of Walden,

You can no more tell beforehand whether a line of wording will cleave you than you can tell whether a line of argument will convince you, or an answer raise your laughter. But when it happens, it will feel like a discovery of the a priori, a necessity of language, and of the world, coming to light (44).

Seeking the “necessity of language” that can never be predicted, Cavell involves his reader in the very movement of his thought. This movement secures a novel intimacy of address, lending to Cavell’s writing its very particular seduction.

Another contributory factor to this idiosyncrasy is the fact that Cavell’s writing doesn’t develop analytically – from premise to inference to conclusion – but in a more exploratory spirit. His arguments move between indefinite claims; we might think here of the recurrence of the “as if” in his writing. Indeed, as Gerald Bruns writes, Cavell’s distinctive brand of philosophizing is not made of arguments, as such; “instead it is composed of descriptions, readings, musings, obsessive returns to sentences from Emerson and Thoreau, and endless interpretations or reinterpretations of passages from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which Cavell consults as if it were a scriptural text” (Bruns, 200). To write philosophy, for Cavell, is to read the philosophical texts of others.

Traditionally, philosophical language has aimed for transparency but it is simply impossible to paraphrase Cavell. It is impossible to translate his writing into plain prose. As Mulhall phrases it, “any attempt to prise the core of [Cavell’s] conceptual or grammatical analysis can at best be partially successful” (144). The most famous example of Cavell’s unparaphrasability is the opening sentence of The Claim of Reason. Cavell writes: 

If not at the beginning of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, since what starts philosophy is no more to be known at the outset than how to make an end of it; and if not at the opening of Philosophical Investigations, since its opening is not to be confused with the starting of the philosophy it expresses and since the terms in which that opening might be understood can hardly be given along with the opening itself; and if we acknowledge from the commencement, anyway leave open at the opening, that the way this work is written is internal to what it teaches, which means that we cannot understand the manner (call it the method) before we understand its work; and if we do not look to our history, since placing this book historically can hardly happen earlier than placing it philosophically; nor look to Wittgenstein’s past, since then we are likely to suppose that the Investigations is written in criticism of the Tractatus, which is not so much wrong as empty, both because to know what constitutes its criticism would be to know what constitutes its philosophy, and because it is more to the present point to see how the Investigations is written in criticism of itself; then where and how are we to approach this text? (3)

How, indeed, are we to approach this? How to stay on track of such meandering? Breaking down Cavell’s sentence, we are given: “If not […], since […] ; and if not […] , since […] and since […] ; and if […] , […] , that […] , which means that […] ; and if […], since […]; nor […], since […] , which […] because […] , and because […] ; then where and how […]? Such clauses do not allow for satisfactory development but postpone development altogether. They culminate not in a single conclusion, not even in multiple conclusions, but in multiple questions that unsettle more than they illuminate. 

The greatest challenge of this serpentine expression is not the difficulty of its content but knowing where and when to place one’s emphasis. It is possible to pick out, from this sentence, at least nine affirmative points. However, because these points are phrased as clauses (hence as hypotheses), their reader does not have the comfort of accepting them as affirmations. We are quite sure, but not completely certain, that Cavell is asserting (for example) that “what starts philosophy is no more to be known at the outset than how to make an end of it” and that “the way this work is internal to what it teaches”. These ideas are endlessly provocative in their own right. However, given their position within Cavell’s sentence – and the fact that clauses are usually read in a questioning, higher pitched, slightly breathless manner – we cannot be sure of their status. Cavell’s writing provides no stable ground for its reader.

Coming to terms with groundless expression, accepting question without answer and provocation without instruction, are processes as challenging for the reader as they are risky for the writer. As Richard Eldridge writes, “Cavell’s use of elaborate parentheses, finely-grained distinctions/qualifications and ornate rhetorical strategies suggests an obsession with style and self that leads many intelligent philosophers to stop reading” (Eldridge, “Aversive”, 411). At key points of his discussion, Cavell modulates into questioning and provocation, a modulation seriously troubling for rhetorical force. There is a definite danger of distancing here. While followers of Cavell applaud his refusal to assert, his more sceptical readers find evidence of philosophical irresponsibility. Indeed, praising Cavell for his writing’s “refusal to assert” or its “avoidance of closure” is somewhat empty; how many philosophers, after all, would claim finality or assertion as the ultimate goal of their work? Richard Rorty, perhaps Cavell’s closest philosophical peer in his interest in the literature/philosophy relation, certainly has no trouble distancing himself from argument yet still managing to retain declarative force.

Cavell has been accused, as Eldridge notes, “of alternating between triteness and sentimentality, on the one hand, and wilful obscurity, on the other” (Eldridge, “Aversive”, 413). Arthur Danto has written that Cavell writes “at times like Woody Woodpecker and at times like an angel” (Danto, 5). While the broader context for Danto’s comments is largely positive, Cavell is not always so lucky in his acceptance by the philosophical community. Nowhere is this more evident than in Anthony Kenny’s review of The Claim of Reason. Kenny writes:

Despite Cavell’s philosophical and literary gifts [The Claim of Reason] as it stands is a misshapen, undisciplined amalgam of ill-assorted parts… [It] is a worthwhile book, but it could have been much better had it been pruned of dead wood and over-exuberant foliage. The need for trimming can be illustrated by the very first sentence. ..The exasperated reader might well put the book down and go no further (15).

Given Kenny’s injunction that a certain “pruning” or “trimming” is required before we can appreciate Cavell’s prose, given the charges of indulgence and excessiveness that dog his work and given, finally, the multiple frustrations of trying to piece together this fragmentary prose, trying to come to grips with “this strange, wondrous, often excruciatingly difficult writer”, as Cavell describes Wallace Stevens (Benfey and Remmler, 78-79), a number of questions present themselves. Firstly and most directly: why is Cavell’s writing so difficult? Why do his modes of writing so  directly and so continuously contravene the normal discourse of academic philosophy? Why take all this trouble about writing philosophy? What exactly does this contribute to the philosophical issues at hand? As Gould puts it, “Why, when a philosopher is raising the question of the limits of philosophy and its modes of expression, does it seem necessary to enact the transgression of those limits?” (Gould, 3).


The relation between philosophical style and content has always been central to Cavell. The intricacies of this relationship are first developed in his seminal essay collection, Must We Mean What We Say?, where a life-long concern with philosophy’s self-questioning is introduced. Were Cavell not so opposed to the term, one might propose these passages as the beginnings of his “meta-philosophy”. Cavell writes:

The topics of the modern, of the philosophy of philosophy, and of the form of philosophical writing come together in the question: What is the audience of philosophy? For the answer to this question will contribute to the answer to the question: What is philosophy? How is it to be written? (5)

In concern and expression, this excerpt is typically Cavell. His elucidation of its central idea hinges not on this idea’s discussion but on its precise formulation in the interrogative mode: an idea leads to a question which leads to further questions. For whom exactly, Cavell wonders, is philosophy written? How is philosophy to be written? And what does its written form tell us about philosophy as a discipline/ intellectual endeavour/way of life? These questions are equally central to The Senses of Walden. Beginning with his puzzlement “as to why [Thoreau’s] words about writing in Walden are not…systematically used in making out what kind of book he had undertaken to write” (3), Cavell’s recurring obsession here is with Thoreau as a writer, with Thoreau as a philosopher and with philosophy as a written discipline.

The preoccupation with style is rehearsed again in the foreword to The Claim of Reason. Cavell writes that his attraction to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations “had to do with my response to it as a feat of writing” (xiii). Similarly, Cavell’s engagement with Emerson continually turns on the transcendentalist’s prose style, claimed by Bloom and Lowell to be “indirect and devious” (Quest, 34), “a kind of mist or fog” (34) or (like Heidegger’s prose), exhibiting “the wild variation and excesses of linguistic form that have always interfered with rationality” (Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, 38). Again and again, Cavell returns to these question of philosophical style and philosophical form, questions equally central to the establishment of his own position within American philosophy as they are to his ongoing re-habilitation of Emerson and Thoreau. Cavell wishes to establish not only the credibility of Emerson and Thoreau as American philosophers but as the founding (or rather, “finding”) philosophical voices of America. This counters standard intellectual histories that take American philosophy as rooted not in transcendentalism but pragmatism. Not only is Cavell concerned to explore the claims made for and by America, then, but to insist upon the place of American philosophy – specifically, a romanticized American philosophy – in articulating those claims. “How can philosophy…look like Emerson’s writing?” (116), as he asks in This New Yet Unapproachable America.

Cavell is as concerned with the expression as with the content of philosophy; this concern, moreover, has a specifically American inflection. It is interesting that a writer so intellectually cosmopolitan, so averse to disciplinary boundary, still privileges in this manner the native over the foreign. The nationality of philosophy, particularly in the American case, is for Cavell a continuous and pressing concern.  Returning again and again to issues of philosophical form and style, to philosophy’s sound and look, its audience (hence rhetorical character) and status as discipline, the writing of American philosophy is delineated in his work as a central and pressing question. Typical of Cavell, however, no straightforward answer is offered. Indeed, by leaving these related and increasingly nuanced questions unanswered, Cavell suggests that the questions themselves, if not exactly rhetorical, do not ask for a reply. Their primary philosophical work is inspirational rather than instructive.

The closest Cavell comes to a formulated response comes in a purely negative guise. In In Quest of the Ordinary, he writes that “philosophy is not exhausted in argumentation” (109), elaborating on this point in his discussion of Descartes’s Mediations. Here Cavell points out that, at least in certain of Descartes’s passages, “there is nothing in these considerations to call argument or inference; indeed, the most obvious description of these passages is to say that they constitute an autobiographical narrative of some kind” (108). Earlier in the same book, Cavell had written: “We are possessed of no standing discourse within which to fit anything and everything philosophers have said” (19). For Cavell, it seems, there is no finally agreed-upon form for philosophical writing. The assortment of writing modes that fall broadly under its disciplinary domain (and here we may think of the philosophical poem, fragment, dialogue, confession, essay and treatise as well as the most widely accepted contemporary formats of the journal article or monograph) are not definitively united by characteristics of style or procedure, by logical or even literary form.

In drawing attention to the irreducibility yet continuing importance of philosophical form, Cavell follows the later Wittgenstein. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein had famously asserted that philosophy “ought really to be written as a poetic composition.” Cavell, as Bruns argues, takes his cue from Wittgenstein and approaches philosophy somewhat in the spirit of poetics. By “the spirit of poetics”, Bruns means to argue that Cavell is concerned with the manifold ways in which philosophy might be aligned with poetry. On this model, as Bruns writes, “there is no bottom line as to what philosophy is (just as there is no bottom line as to what exactly poetry is) as philosophy is, whatever else it is, a form of writing; in which the sound and look of its words matter just as much as its content” (Bruns, 200). Cavell invokes Emerson, particularly, to complicate any easy distinctions between style and substance:

Our philosophical habits will prompt us to interpret the surface of writing as its manner, its style, its rhetoric, an ornament of what is said rather than substance, but Emerson’s implied claim is that this is as much a philosophical prejudice as the other conformities his essay decries, that, so to speak, words are no more ornaments of thought than tears are ornaments of sadness or joy (Quest, 23).

Considering, for the moment, Rorty’s evocative idea of philosophy as “a kind of writing”, how exactly might we distinguish between a work of philosophy and, for example, a work of poetry? How might we distinguish between a work of philosophy and a work of cultural criticism? If philosophy is a kind of writing, if it is only a kind of writing, what preserves its identity from methodological or disciplinary free-fall? A philosophical posture that abandons the traditional strictures of inference and argument is liberating, indeed, but it is only edifying if alternative measures or criteria – alternative markers of precision and lucidity – are somehow proposed. Cavell’s alternative comes most explicitly in the opening pages of In Quest of the Ordinary. He writes: “No-one should rest east at the idea of philosophy abandoning the business of argument” (14). Cavell’s argument is complex; he urges both that philosophy is in need of argument and that argument without imaginative investment is empty. This explains to some extent why his writing is not precisely contained by disciplinary philosophy in either its analytic or its continental modes.

Cavell’s response to the question of what philosophy is – and given the esotericism of his own writing, he is often called upon to give this response – is that genuine philosophy, in Mulhall’s terms, “must establish and maintain a texture of prose that earns the title of philosophy from its readers” (Mulhall, xiv). “Each claim to speak for philosophy”, Cavell writes, “has to earn that authority for itself” (Must We Mean What We Say?, xxiii). This echoes an earlier claim made in A Pitch of Philosophy where Cavell refers to “the tone of philosophy” and, more tellingly, “my right to take that tone” (viii). Similarly, in arguing for Thoreau as philosopher, Cavell draws attention not to Thoreau’s argumentative rigour but to his capacity to “affirm his own discourse” (Quest, 14). It is worth stepping carefully through this point. Affirming one’s own discourse is not, on Cavell’s conception, something opposed to argumentative rigour. Rather, Cavell reinterprets argumentative rigour as a responsibility towards one’s employment of language. On this reading, Thoreau is not abandoning rigour but showing a different form for rigour to take.

Cavell’s idea of philosophy as affirmation is intimately linked to the procedures of ordinary language philosophy, a philosophical school usually associated with a number of mid-century Oxford philosophers, among them J.L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle. Philosophers of ordinary language traditionally consider philosophical problems to be rooted in our distortive use of everyday language. In his idiosyncratic interpretation, Cavell conceives of ordinary language philosophy as an attempt to regain intimacy with our words and life. Correspondingly, he conceives of the ordinary as a return to where we have never been, a “nextness” to the world. The way we use language, Cavell argues, is immediate and intimate. It is not a matter of knowing – of being assured of the logical essences of words – but a matter of attunement, of using criteria that we know are open to refutation. One of Cavell’s earliest claims, in Must We Mean What We Say?, is that we simply do not know what we think or what we mean, and that the task of philosophy is to bring us back to ourselves. In Wittgensteinian terms, the task is to bring our words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.

In a late essay on Emerson, Cavell claims “an inheritance of philosophy that gives back life to the words it has thought to own – a language in which the traditional vocabulary of philosophy is variously brought to earth” (“What’s the Use in Calling Emerson a Pragmatist?”, 75). Here again we see Cavell’s emphasis on returning language to forms of life. And here again, the emphasis rests on philosophy as the reclamation of philosophical language. Emerson, Cavell argues, retains the vocabulary of philosophy but divests it of its claim to mastery. His writing is thus difficult in a way no other American philosophers has been, certainly different from the difficulty posed by James or by Dewey. Emerson thus seeks (and we can certainly extend this to Cavell) not a style of writing but “a justness of it, its happy enquiries, ecstasies of exactness” (Walden, 44).

The key point here is that Emerson’s philosophical writing, at least for Cavell, shoulders a linguistic responsibility where every word bears a commitment to total and transparent meaning. Every word must affirm its own existence. To this extent, Emerson’s philosophical writing shares the same responsibility as poetry. Like the prose of Thoreau, it enacts a continual struggle to approach, yet ultimately preserve itself from, the literary or the poetic. As Cavell writes, “Writing at its best will come to finish in each mark of meaning, in each portion and sentence and word” (Walden, 27). Thoreau’s prose, he argues, “must admit this pressure and at every moment resolutely withstand it” (27). Only by such re-discovery of language can philosophy return to and celebrate our human condition. At the heart of Cavell’s readings of Thoreau and Emerson, and at the heart of his wish for philosophical writing, lie the questions:

How is writing to declare its faithfulness to itself? How is it to rescue language? (Walden, 33).

Even though the ground of Cavell’s prose is constantly shifting, it does afford its reader a particular, if momentary, orientation. There is something oddly memorable about a Cavellian sentence. This is especially evident in The Senses of Walden, a work of American philosophy unmatched in its redolence and majesty of expression. Reading The Senses of Walden, one is struck by the book’s recurring sense of quotability, its profundity and grandeur:

The work of humanization is still to be done. While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless. So long as we will not take our beliefs all the way to genuine knowledge, to conviction, but keep letting ourselves be driven to more or less hasty conclusions, we will keep misplacing the infinite, and so grasp neither heaven nor earth. There is a solid bottom everywhere (76).

Allowing that this passage comes towards the end of Cavell’s book, and the movement towards conclusion is consequently heightened in rhetoric, I would still propose this passage as a prime example of Cavell’s prose, of its weight and characteristic sense of magnitude. In an interview with James Conant, Cavell stated: “The sense that nothing here than this prose just here, as it’s passing before our eyes, can carry conviction, is one of the thoughts that drives the shape of what I do” (Conant, “An Interview with Stanley Cavell”, 59). Cavell’s sentences, by his own admission, cannot be paraphrased. To do so would be to travesty the subtlety and sensitivity of their expression, to lose the achievement of their philosophical work. We are back to Bruns’s idea of philosophy “in the spirit of poetics”, where exact wording underlines the writtenness of every philosophical sentence. It is this exactness of expression that finally unites the variety of discontinuous forms employed in Cavell’s philosophical presentation: the aphorism, aside and entry; the reading, remark and parenthesis; the digression, introduction and sentence.

Reading Emerson’s words, Cavell writes, is a matter of “obeying and hence following them, subjecting yourself to them as the writer has by undertaking to enact his existence in saying them” (Quest, 120). Philosophy, in this sense, becomes a form of autobiography. It becomes a matter of mastering one’s subjectivity by making it exemplary. This mastering can only occur by a reclamation of philosophical language and by a precision of expression. Again, this is not a style but “a justness” of writing. As Cavell writes of Walden:

Words come to us from a distance; they were there before we were; we are born into them. Meaning them is accepting that fact of their condition. To discover what is being said to us, as to discover what we are saying, is to discover the precise location from which it is said; to understand why it is said just there, and at that time (Walden, 64).

Cavell’s ambition is to create an exactness of prose in which a reader converges with a writer in the sharing of a precise thought, just here and just now. This is his attempted recovery, his romantic recovery, of philosophical America.


In the philosophical writing inspired by ordinary language, Cavell gives the impression that his words and ours are in the process of retrieval. His wish for philosophy is to denounce complacency and inexpressiveness and to embrace the precise and the idiosyncratic. Philosophy, on this model, is not defined by form or style but by an expressiveness and an individuality, by a very personal striving towards genuine and genuinely meaningful philosophical voice. This ambition is grounded in Cavell’s lifelong attention to Austin and Wittgenstein and in his continuing championing of Emerson and Thoreau. Such attention is given in the hope of a singularly human achievement. By re-vivifying the traditional vocabulary of philosophy, the hope is that we might express ourselves with responsiveness and with care.

With his continued emphasis on expressiveness and philosophical voice, on reanimating the traditional philosophical vocabulary, Cavell broadens and reforms philosophy, in Bernstein’s words, “as aesthetical in its claiming, modernist in its condition; almost literature in its particularity, intimacy and need for self-dramatization ”(Bernstein, 109). His writing is rambling, obscure, contradictory, refractory and notoriously difficult to comprehend; it is endlessly preoccupied with style and self and its own reflexive status. Its compensatory strength, however, is an unrivalled attentiveness and intensity, an engaged and engaging prose that, for all its extravagances, could never be accused of vagrancy. Reading Cavell, indeed, we are reminded of Thoreau’s conclusion of Walden:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you…I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagrant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. Extra vagrance! It depends on how you are yarded (Thoreau, Walden, 171).

Reading Cavell’s work, one gets the impression of a distinctive philosophical voice, a voice that is robustly personal yet quietly rebellious. Concluding his brilliant essay on Descartes, Emerson and Poe – a trio, incidentally, that only Cavell would bring into dialogue – Cavell writes, “This is said on tiptoe” (Quest 129) and this line, typical of Cavell’s playfulness, functions both as disclaimer (of straightforward understanding) and as encouragement (to read again). I would suggest that Cavell’s philosophical writing dances as a prose “on tiptoe”. It is a delicate, alert and ever fragile expression, a straining forward in order to hear and to respond – an encouragement, finally, to always mean what we say.


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