Philosophy as Confession

Book review of Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory by Stanley Cavell

Philosophy is among the fastest-growing A-level subjects in Britain. This suggests that despite the pressure from governments to increase the teaching of technical, career-oriented subjects, a lot of sixth-formers have a stubborn interest in more traditional enquiries about the meaning of life. Also near the top of the list of fast-growing subjects is Religious Studies; and this again seems to confound the experts. Notwithstanding constant announcements that religion in educated Western Europe is “on the way out”, many intelligent young people seem to have a keen desire to learn about traditional spiritual frameworks of human understanding.

But frustration often ensues as the aspiring philosophy student climbs higher. The university study of philosophy in the anglophone world now offers little by way of a grand synoptic vision of human life and our place in the scheme of things. Instead, the subject has fragmented into a host of highly technical specialisms, whose practitioners increasingly model themselves on the methods of the natural sciences. By the time they reach graduate studies, most students will be resigned to working within intricate, introverted “research” programmes, whose wider significance they might be hard pressed to explain to anyone outside their special area.

Stanley Cavell, now in his eighties, has been among those whose work has challenged this prevailing paradigm. Though trained in the Anglo-American analytic tradition, he has also been strongly influenced by the so-called “continental” philosophical school, which has traditionally been less concerned with minute piecemeal analysis and more sympathetic to addressing grand existential questions about why we are here and how we are to make sense of our lives. Friedrich Nietzsche, who was preoccupied as much as any thinker with these momentous questions, remarked (in Beyond Good and Evil) that, “every great philosophy is a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir”. Cavell’s latest book also makes a link between philosophy and autobiography, offering a prolonged memoir of the complex tapestry of his life which also, both explicitly and implicitly, reflects his conception of philosophy. 

It is a conception that is deeply pervaded by psychoanalytic insights; the respect for Freud contrasting starkly with the way Freud and his successors are commonly dismissed or ignored by anglophone analytic philosophers. Cavell’s own account of his early life has an almost agonizingly Freudian colouring — the violent rages of the father he “feared and hated”, and who, apparently, hated him (“he wanted me dead, or rather wanted me not to exist”); his decision at the age of 17 to change his name (from his father’s family name, Goldstein); and the adored “talented and fascinating” mother whose outstanding musical gifts he aspired to emulate, to the point of aiming for a career in music until he switched to philosophy.

Part of the appeal of the psychoanalytic outlook is its alertness to multiple nuances and deeper layers of meaning beneath our surface utterances. It is this dimension that much analytic philosophy appears to miss, with its insistence on a rigorously transparent discourse that eliminates all possible ambiguity. Cavell comments illuminatingly and at length on how his writing has wrestled with the problems of finding the right voice, in order to meet “philosophy’s ancient challenge to consider one’s life”. Hence his influential readings of Ludwig Wittgenstein were compelled to “to demand literary as well as philosophical responses, and moreover philosophical responses for which analytical training in searching out arguments, while not dispensable, was not perfect training.” The resulting voice, though “refusing to choose” between analytic and continental philosophy, does nonetheless point us in a significantly more humane direction than today’s prevailing science-based model, moving “without embarrassment” into lines and images from poetry and novels, or into the arena of film, in order to articulate a philosophical vision.

The vision that emerges by the end of this lengthy autobiography is a sombre one, as is perhaps not unreasonable to expect given the fact that it was started to distract the author from an impending heart operation, with the stated aim of cataloguing “what Freud calls the detours on the human path to death”. The closing moral is that “telling one’s life, the more completely, say incorporating awkwardness, becomes one’s life, and becomes a way of leaving it […] The news is that this awkwardness, or say, self consciousness […] stops asserting itself nowhere short of dying.”

It would be misleading to close this review without warning the reader that the “self-consciousness” just referred to is often a very obtrusive feature of the author’s writing style. Cavell is strongly attracted to a self-reflexive mode of communication reminiscent of the work of Jacques Derrida, where long and convoluted sentences wind back on themselves, and every thought is expressed in multiple drafts, with no conclusion that is not provisional and subject to further possible revision. It is a style that is very much an acquired taste, and which can easily generate mental indigestion, particularly in a work of this length. Those of us who would agree with Cavell that anglophone philosophy needs to find a more humane voice will nevertheless be very wary of following him down this particular stylistic route. For all that, this is a revealing and often moving autobiography that also exemplifies a very distinctive way of doing philosophy. 

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