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Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology$

Peter Dula

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780195395037

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195395037.001.0001

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The Claim of Reason's Apophatic Anthropology

The Claim of Reason's Apophatic Anthropology

(p.116) (p.117) 5 The Claim of Reason's Apophatic Anthropology
Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology

Peter Dula

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Some readers of Wittgenstein think that he provides a conclusive refutation of skepticism. Others, like the pragmatists, think he renders skepticism's questions irrelevant. Cavell takes up these issues in detail in his longest and greatest work, The Claim of Reason. There, he rejects both options and, instead, insists that philosophy must remain open to external world and other mind skepticism as a “standing threat to thought and communication.” This chapter provides a brief summary of some key themes of that complex text. It also asks, “What is it Cavell discovers about skepticism that necessitates the turn to companionship, and what is it about those discoveries that invites theological engagement?”

Keywords:   Cavell, The Claim of Reason, skepticism, other minds, Wittgenstein

The landscape through which the journey [for authority in one's speech] progresses will present itself as something distant, gone. The issue is one of inhabitation, placing yourself. But placing a lost self in a land that is gone is an exercise of mourning ….I would like to accept the idea that I have revealed a secret planet in revealing myself [in The Claim of Reason], a certain errant wholeness, with the proviso that no one's planet contains anything anyone else's may not contain, or does not have the equivalent of; and that their contents are commonplaces, including an aspiration toward the better possibility, which I might call the life of philosophy.1

Part I of this book was an argument for allowing Cavell's account of companionship to slow us down on our rush to community. But my account of Cavell thus far has left out a significant portion of the broader philosophical background to the ideas presented in part I. Therefore, in this chapter, I will step back and look more closely at the heart of Cavell's work, The Claim of Reason, one of the great achievements of twentieth-century philosophy. I do so with two questions in mind, one looking backward to part I and the other looking forward to chapter 6. First, what is it Cavell discovered about skepticism and about other minds that made the turn to companionship necessary? Second, what is it about those discoveries that invite a theological engagement?

(p.118) Almost everything Cavell has written has been in response to and in dialogue with the sort of skepticism that emerges with Shakespeare and Descartes. Cavell is not alone here. Skepticism has been the defining preoccupation of all epistemology since Descartes. But Cavell differs from what he once called traditional epistemology in his insistence that Wittgenstein created a space in which philosophy no longer has to take sides in the struggle between skeptic and anti-skeptic but is able to diagnose the frame of mind or condition which demands such debate. Cavell resists both a refutation of skepticism as well as an acquiescence to it. Wittgenstein, he argues, did neither, but he also never lost sight of the importance of skepticism, of what Cavell calls the “truth of skepticism.”

Wittgenstein's teaching is everywhere controlled by a response to skepticism ….the skeptic's denial of our criteria is a denial to which criteria must be open. If the fact that we share, or have established, criteria is the condition under which we can think and communicate in language, then skepticism is a natural possibility of that condition; it reveals most perfectly the standing threat to thought and communication ….One misses the drive of Wittgenstein if one is not … sufficiently open to the threat of skepticism (i.e., to the skeptic in oneself ); or if one takes Wittgenstein … to deny the truth of skepticism. (47)

So, Cavell's argument opens up two fronts. On one hand, there is skepticism, understood to include anyone who takes the existence of the world to be a problem of knowledge, both skeptics and those who think skepticism demands a refutation.2 The importance of Wittgenstein is not that he brilliantly refuted skepticism. He didn't. His importance comes from his refusal to take sides in the argument and instead to explore its roots. Cavell asks us to understand all of the multiple voices in Philosophical Investigations as Wittgenstein's voice(s), instead of as a bunch of more or less mistaken interlocutors and one voice of rectitude, Wittgenstein's. All the voices express positions (places, pictures) he finds himself in (or finds in himself ). “A philosophical problem has the form: I don't know my way about.” “One person can be a complete enigma to another.” The disorienting and the enigmatic are not things for which the Investigations is trying to provide a final solution. That would mean an end to the human as we know it. They are a “standing threat to thought and communication.” Wittgenstein, in Cavell's hands, is trying not to dissolve or remove the threat but to transform it into opportunity.

But it is important to not confuse Cavell with those who not only don't think skepticism needs a refutation but also don't think it needs a response. They want to change the subject and bring an end to philosophy. In other (p.119) words, they are not sufficiently open to the threat. Call this the pragmatist option and let Richard Rorty stand in for it.3 There are a number of points of contention between Cavell and Rorty. Here, I only pick out one, which Rorty shares with skepticism's refuters: the hurried dismissal of the sorts of questions Cavell is so preoccupied with.4 What Cavell wants to do is slow us down at precisely these points in order to “allow the question to gather depth.”5 He insists that we linger on these questions before answering them, to tarry with our disappointment and anxiety. The force of Wittgenstein's critique of traditional epistemology is something like this: “To say ‘We don't ordinarily ask, in such cases as the philosopher asks, whether we really know’ has this significance: it makes us, or should make us, want to know why the question has arisen, how it can arise” (135; Cavell's italics). It doesn't prompt a dismissive answer, whether a refutation or a refusal; it provokes another question.

Such questions lead Cavell to the discovery of the lengths to which skepticism reaches. The seemingly bizarre parlor games of the philosopher are now understood as covers for, interpretations of, rather common, everyday experiences. The usual examples come to mind: How do you know you are not dreaming or hallucinating? How do you know that your spouse is not an automaton? How do you know we are not just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl? etc.

My major claim about the philosopher's originating question—e.g., “(How) do (can) we know anything about the world?” or “What is knowledge; what does my knowledge of the world consist in?”—is that it (in one or another of its versions) is a response to, or expression of, a real experience which takes hold of human beings ….It is, as I might put it, a response which expresses a natural experience of a creature complicated or burdened enough to possess language at all. (140)

Cavell wants us to understand these Philosophy 101 thought experiments as other ways of talking about more easily recognizable experiences. For example: “Where do we find ourselves? … We wake and find ourselves on a stair” (Emerson); “Midway on our life's journey, I found myself. / In dark woods, the right road lost” (Dante); “Last night I dreamed that I was a child / Out where the pines grow wild and tall” (Springsteen). What looks like Descartes' silliness (and Descartes knew that, knew he might be taken as mad) becomes a matter of utmost gravity when Descartes' doubt begins to fade into Emerson's grief, Dante's disorientation, Othello's jealousy, Lear's shame. Philosophical mistakes have less of a chance of withering away with a wave of the Rortian hand when they are seen as interpretations of grief, disorientation, and jealousy. They will be constant reminders of the “standing threat to thought and (p.120) communication.” And, as Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, Being John Malkovich, The Truman Show, and The Matrix demonstrate, will be readily translated into the categories more often associated with eighteenth-century epistemology.6

So what does a response, as opposed to a refutation, to skepticism sound like? In order to show that, in this chapter I will offer a reading of parts I and IV of The Claim of Reason.7 I will read it as carefully as I can, but also try to remain as brief as possible. Part IV is as exhilarating (and enigmatic) a stretch of prose as I know. It is difficult to determine if it is what he is saying or how he says it that is so compelling. The blurring of such distinctions is, of course, the point.8

Criteria and Skepticism

part I of The Claim of Reason is an investigation of Wittgenstein's notion of criteria. It aims to set out what Wittgenstein means by criteria and what role they play in the Investigations. More specifically, Cavell is concerned to show that criteria in Wittgenstein do not and are not meant to refute the skeptic. That means setting out the limits of criteria, showing how they can be disappointing, especially, but not only, if they are expected to provide the kind of certainty that will silence the skeptic once and for all. Furthermore, his reading of Wittgenstein on criteria is meant to show “why we wish to, and how we can, repudiate the knowledge our criteria provide, that is to say, how we can be tempted to skepticism, what its possibility is.”9 Cavell identifies three ways that criteria are disappointing. The first two are what he calls retaining the concept and withholding the concept, both of which are cases in which the criteria are met. The third is the cases in which I have not yet settled the criteria for myself. Together, they demonstrate that Wittgenstein

does not negate the concluding thesis of skepticism, that we do not know with certainty the existence of the external world (or of other minds). On the contrary, Wittgenstein, as I read him, rather affirms that thesis, or rather takes it as undeniable, and so shifts its weight. What the thesis now means is something like: Our relation to the world as a whole, or to others in general, is not one of knowing, where knowing construes itself as being certain. (45)

That is the truth of skepticism. Criteria do not go all the way. They cannot provide certainty. The point is not to turn us all into skeptics but to get at skepticism's self-understanding. The point is not to affirm the skeptical thesis and then provide a way to negotiate that, but to problematize the skeptic's picture of (p.121) our condition. “Our relation to the world and others is not one of knowing” does not mean it is one of not knowing, a failure of knowledge.10

Retaining the Concept

We can get at what Cavell means by “retaining the concept” by comparing criteria with symptoms. What is the difference between the two? What is the difference in the kinds of evidence they provide? Say that a red patch on your cheek is a symptom of a toothache and your wincing or groaning when my hand approaches your face is a criterion. How do they function differently? What happens when each fails? Which is to say, what happens when I discover that, despite the red patch on your cheek, you do not in fact have a toothache, as compared to when I discover that, despite all your wincing and groaning, you do not have a toothache?

If I discover that the red patch is not accompanied by a toothache, that means that the red patch is not accompanied by the criteria of a toothache. (The red patch is obvious, but you are eating hard candy with evident pleasure.) But if I discover that your wincing or groaning is not accompanied by a toothache, then what happens? What if all the criteria for pain are obviously present, but the person is not in pain, is feigning, or rehearsing?

When Norman Malcolm and Rogers Albritton talk about criteria, they make a distinction between a criterion's presence and satisfaction. They speak of a criterion's being satisfied or not satisfied. This enables them to say that if, in the presence of the criteria of a toothache, it still turns out not to have been a toothache (you were faking it), then “[t]he criteria were only seemingly satisfied.” This is because “[g]roaning, etc., is a criteria [sic] of pain (i.e., is pain behavior) only in certain circumstances” (43). For Malcolm, that means that groaning is not a criterion of pain, it is not expressive of pain, when it is mock pain behavior or feigned pain behavior or whenever it is not accompanied by pain. In some cases, this may be true. That groaning sound you are making may just be the way you clear your throat, in which case it is not a criterion of pain but a criterion of having something stuck in the throat. But if you are feigning pain or practicing the last scene of your role as Desdemona, that groaning is a criterion of pain. We will want to say that it is fake pain behavior or rehearsed pain behavior, but the important point is that the concept pain, the application of which criteria govern, is retained. It is still pain that you are feigning. In the case of the failed symptom, pain drops out. It is no longer at issue. In the case of failed criteria, it doesn't. But then, it is not clear what it means to say that criteria have failed. Or, it is clear only if we expect criteria to establish the existence of a thing, if we expect them to show us the difference (p.122) between actual and fake, real and imaginary. So, criteria cannot refute the skeptic. They do not do what he wants. They cannot establish a thing's existence with certainty. As Cavell puts it, criteria cannot determine a thing's being so, but rather its being so. Or, as Cavell will sometimes, more hesitantly, say, criteria determine identity, not existence.

Here, we come across a difference between Austin and Wittgenstein. While both agree that criteria establish what a thing is, not that a thing is, they invariably choose different examples. Austin's examples are objects which require some expertise to identify, a kind of bird, for example. The problem is one of correct description, of knowing the difference between a finch and a bittern. Wittgenstein's object, like the skeptic's, however, is always one whose recognition requires little or no expertise (a chair, a ball of wax, a cherry, an envelope). Cavell calls these generic objects and Austin's, specific objects. The question of what a generic object is cannot arise. It is something that any competent speaker can obviously recognize. But with a specific object, questions of identification arise quite naturally. If I fail to properly recognize that bird as a finch and not a bittern, my competence as a birder is called into question. But I cannot just fail to recognize that that is a chair (if it is a clear day, and the chair is in full view, and I am relatively sober and mentally whole). That is why generic objects are useful to the skeptic. The skeptic needs a “best case,” one which, if it fails, everything must fall out in its wake. With a specific object, the failure is mine; it points to a specific inadequacy in me, my lack of expertise. With a generic object, we might be tempted to say, the failure is with knowledge. There is nothing I can do, no piece of information I lack, no position I can take which will provide certainty.

If you do not know the (non-grammatical) criteria of an Austinian object (can't identify it, name it) then you lack a piece of information, a bit of knowledge, and you can be told its name, told what it is, told what it is (officially) called. But if you do not know the grammatical criteria of Wittgensteinian objects, then you lack, as it were, not only a piece of information or knowledge, but the possibility of acquiring any information about such objects überhaupt; you cannot be told the name of that object, because there is as yet no object of that kind for you to attach a forthcoming name to: the possibility of finding out what it is officially called is not yet open to you. (77)

Now, Austin knows this and thinks that the skeptic picks objects which allow his incessant and annoying questions. Austin's point is to combat the skeptic's “silly” and “outrageous” impulse to insist that I must consider every possibility, raise the sorts of questions guiding Descartes' first few Meditations, in pursuit of (p.123) “certainty.” While we may be sympathetic with Austin here, he is evading the skeptic, dismissing his anxiety. But, for Cavell, that means Austin does not understand the ordinary, does not understand the way skepticism “is a shadow that the ordinary cannot avoid casting.”11 All the criteria are met by a hologram chair or a dreamed ball of wax or a hallucinated table. All the criteria are met by someone's feigning pain. If I doubt that that is really a chair or that that is pain, I do not doubt criteria. Criteria govern the application of a concept and, in the case of the chair, I retain the concept. Criteria make pretense possible.

Withholding the Concept

There is a second way that criteria are disappointing. Imagine a case in which all the criteria for pain are present, and it is clear that the person is not feigning pain or clearing his throat. Even here, “the still, small voice: Is it one? Is he having one?” (69) can insert itself. Even here, the skeptic's doubt emerges. How? Alternatively, if you think that here the skeptic is silly—you and he are both watching the patient in the chair and the dentist is out of painkillers but is still yanking on his tooth and the patient is sweating and screaming—the question is, why? What is the difference between you and the skeptic? The skeptic will concede that it is exceedingly likely that the patient has a toothache, but it is not certain. It is not certain because all that wincing and groaning don't get us to the pain itself. The pain itself is in there, somewhere, but the criteria cannot reach that far. They stop at the body. We are stopped by the body.

But we left something inexplicit ….I left out my responses to the criteria as they emerge ….—We left inexplicit the call such knowledge imposes upon me for comforting, succoring, healing; to make the fabric whole again which the pain tore through, or to know that this is impossible. That is knowing what pain is. (81–82)

All this makes it seem that the philosophical problem of knowledge is something I impose on these matters; that I am the philosophical problem. I am. It is in me that the circuit of communication is cut; I am the stone on which the wheel breaks. What is disappointing about criteria?

There is something they do not do; it can seem the essential. I have to know what they are for; I have to accept them, use them. (83)

In the previous section, we saw how criteria are disappointing when they cannot distinguish between real and imaginary, when the concept is retained. (p.124) Here, we see that criteria can also be disappointing because it is in our power to refuse the call they make upon us. We can withhold from others or hedge our concepts of psychological states, refuse to accept and use criteria to apply concepts on the grounds that the criteria are not the pain itself, do not reach all the way in. This is a withholding of the concept, “specifically to withhold the source of my idea that living beings are things that feel” (83).12 But it is also a withholding of myself, a withdrawal from my responsibility for reaching out to the one in pain.

To describe this condition as one in which I do not know (am not certain) of the existence of other minds, is empty. There is now nothing there, of the right kind, to be known. There is nothing to be read from that body, nothing the body is of ; it does not go beyond itself, it expresses nothing; it does not so much as behave ….It is not dead, but inanimate; it hides nothing, but is absolutely at my disposal. (83–84)

Once again, the skeptic is right. There are things criteria cannot do. While criteria can govern the applicability of concepts of psychological states or of the inner, there are no criteria to tell me which creatures I should so treat. The skeptic is right but not vindicated. She knows the truth of skepticism but does not know what to do with it, does not know what that truth means. The philosopher's knowledge, wedded as it is to certainty, is a knowledge without acknowledgment and so, on Cavell's view, a truncated understanding of what it means to know. It is a reduction of knowledge to intellectual awareness. Both the skeptic and Cavell give a “skeptical” reading of criteria. The skeptic discovers that knowledge is not enough and so despairs. Cavell discovers that the skeptic relies on an impoverished account of knowledge and then argues that knowledge includes my responsiveness.

Unsettled Criteria

There is a third way in which criteria are disappointing. There are situations in which “either I haven't settled the criteria for myself … or in which the instance is not a clear one” (87). We can call these questions of foreignness and questions of assessment. The latter is a sort of borderline case: is that mist in the air, fog, or light drizzle? The criteria for fog or drizzle are clear, we just don't know how they apply in this case. But in the case of foreignness—“I don't see how they can be meaning what I would mean if I called it a chair”; “It certainly is not what I would call a chair, but then I don't know why I call the things I call chairs chairs” (87)—it is not even clear that we should call it a borderline case. It is (p.125) clear to me that it isn't a chair and clear to them that it is. It might become a borderline case, but as yet, it is just confusion.

Imagine, Cavell suggests, the following scenario:

He is in the dentist chair, wringing his hands, perspiring, screaming. The dentist stops for a moment and begins to prepare another syringe of Novocain[e]. The patient stops him and says, “It wasn't hurting, I was just calling my hamsters.” The dentist looks as if he had swallowed Novocain[e] and the patient says, “Open the door for them.” And when the door is opened two hamsters trot into the room and climb onto the patient's lap. So we have more than his word for it. And when later, in the middle of a walk in the country, we see this man wring his hands, perspire and scream and then look around for his hamsters, whom, trotting up, he greets affectionately, then we had better acknowledge that this is the way he calls his hamsters. (88–89)

This is not a case of feigning or rehearsing. The concept is not retained. We won't call this simulated pain behavior or any kind of pain behavior. But the skeptic has raised the stakes of the argument because we will also not likely give up or modify our notion of pain behavior in light of it. We will most likely agree that “we may rule this man out of our world of pain. In this respect he will not exist for us” (89). Our concept of pain and our criteria for it remain intact but at the price of excluding such persons.

It is possible to imagine that there are or could be such persons. They express anguish by giggling, feel the lash of a whip as a caress. And with some effort, we can come up with contexts for them (i.e., some may joke about their pain, like Kent joking with Gloucester about his bastard son in the opening scene of King Lear, or some may enjoy sadomasochistic sexual practices). But Cavell is asking us to think of such things outside of the obvious contexts for them. He is asking if it is possible to imagine, with the skeptic, a person “for whom suffering and comfort are entirely independent of what we mean by ‘pain’ and ‘pity.’ We cannot really know what someone else's experience is; why couldn't it be like that?” (89–90). That is, why couldn't it be that, here, we have reason to withhold our concepts of psychological states? When we were speaking of withholding concepts in the previous section, we had in mind an optimal case of pain behavior. There, withholding our concepts did not suggest that the person we withheld them from was unique in any way. Here, it does. We withhold our concepts because we consider this person abnormal, in a different world. At least, that is the option before us if we can't find a way to understand just his pain behavior, not him, as abnormal. The skeptic is forcing us to return (p.126) to the question of criteria and existence. The skeptical fear is that, since criteria do not establish existence, Wittgenstein (and Cavell) must simply assume existence. We can't say “he is in pain,” or “that is pain.” At most, we can say “that is what we call pain,” or “on our set-up that is pain; but I never really know that what he's got is what I've got; nor do I know that he's got what I say he's got” (91). We saw this before; it sounds like withholding concepts. Except now, it is dramatized by the specter of conceptual deviance. It isn't that “we may be faced with a dissimulating human being, and not that we may be faced with a creature simulating humanness”13 but that the differences among humans run too deep and too wide. That is, unlike the earlier case of withholding concepts, it can't be blamed on me (at least not as quickly) because this is not an optimal case. The differences between me and her, us and them, are too radical. To put it another way, say the skeptic admits that Cavell was right in the earlier case of withholding concepts. He was right to say that, once a person is described as “in pain,” then certain responses must be forthcoming. Then what happens when I do as Cavell suggests and reach out to that person in pity and comfort and that person responds, not with a sigh of relief or even “Ha! I fooled you again,” but by exhibiting even more intense pain, or growling and snarling, or attacking me? Now, the identity-existence distinction seems superfluous. Here, criteria can't even get me identity, and so the skeptic finds a new way to force us back to the distinction he has been pushing all along—between inner and outer.

The skeptic has raised a serious issue. But, Cavell insists, the skeptic has raised a serious practical issue. His mistake is trying to turn it into a metaphysical issue. Here, we come upon one of the most baffling and fascinating stretches of The Claim of Reason. It is baffling because Cavell will say that such a person as we have imagined is “abnormal” from “our” (meaning, us “normal” people's) perspective. He will also identify the normal with the natural and the natural with the conventional. Our criteria for pain and pity, hope and fear are fixed by convention, but that doesn't mean by custom or contract but by “the nature of human life itself, the human fix itself … by … very general facts of human nature” (110). So, Cavell sounds like he is setting out a theory of normality and moreover one well suited to function as a mechanism of exclusion. But then he keeps undermining himself, or seems to, with his insistence that this is a practical difficulty, not a metaphysical one, as the skeptic keeps insisting. For example, discussing the criteria for love:

We have a choice. Either it's love, or else he will be treated as abnormal: that's the way he “loves,” but that isn't love, isn't what is meant by “love.” And is it always clear which alternative we shall take? (Jesus is said to have loved, but that isn't the way we love. (p.127) Dostoevsky thought he was right and that we are wrong and sinful and perhaps incapable of love, and therefore are in hell. Nietzsche thought he was wrong, or right only about himself, and hence that he taught us a new stratagem for sinning undiscovered, and thereby made hell attractive.) (107)

It is not natural to feel a whip as a caress; it is not normal to sit on a chair of nails. This seems reasonable. But it is still uncomfortable. It is uncomfortably close to “it is not natural to take same-sex partners”; “normal people don't say that all children are female until they have killed someone.”14 It is in response to this that Fanon commanded the colonized to “[l]eave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them.”15 Is Cavell just a sophisticated spokesperson for that Europe, another defender of “Man”? I don't think so. But just what is he doing?

The first point to make is that, regardless of what we conclude about Cavell, skepticism is no alternative. Skepticism simply reifies otherness. It assures that the other will always be completely other, that there is no possibility of communication, dialogue, or conflict because there is nothing to communicate, nothing to conflict over. By guaranteeing the other's inevitable distance, skepticism vindicates, even insists upon, my inability, my unwillingness to try to somehow traverse the distance. “In making the knowledge of others a metaphysical difficulty, philosophers deny how real the practical difficulty is of coming to know another person, and how little we can reveal of ourselves to another's gaze, or bear of it. Doubtless such denials are part of the motive which sustains metaphysical difficulties” (90).

Second, it is important to keep in mind that this is still “just” an argument about what criteria do vis-à-vis skepticism. It is still part of Cavell's argument with those who think criteria refute skepticism by providing us with certainty and so still part of Cavell's attempt to remain open to the threat of skepticism, to acknowledge the other's separateness without giving up the possibility of my responsibility for that separateness. So it has this much in common with the case of the withholding of concepts: when criteria fail, when they can go no further, that does not mean there is no further to go, does not mean there is nothing left but skepticism. There is something left—me. The normal or natural can never, for Cavell, usurp the place of my responsibility. Assuming that it can is to grant the adequacy of the skeptic's self-characterization and hence to miss the central thrust of Cavell's work.

But then, what is this normal, this natural? It is easier to say what it isn't. While he will occasionally talk about human nature, he doesn't understand it as a ground or foundation, at least not in any common epistemological sense.

(p.128) Our ability to communicate with him [one of the children from The Brown Book, who is separated out as a lunatic because he continually fails to learn how to continue a series] depends upon his “natural understanding,” his “natural reaction,” to our directions and our gestures. It depends upon our mutual attunements in judgments. It is astonishing how far this takes us in understanding one another, but it has limits ….And when these limits are reached, when our attunements are dissonant, I cannot get below them to firmer ground ….For not only does he not receive me, because his natural reactions are not mine; but my own understanding is found to go no further than my own natural reactions can bear it. I am thrown back upon myself; I as it were turn my palms outward, as if to exhibit the kind of creature I am, and declare my ground occupied, only mine, ceding yours.

When? (115)

There are two levels at which this “When?” can be invoked. When do our differences over what counts as continuing a series or expressing pain or fear or hope incline us to turn our palms outward? When, that is, are your fears and hopes so different from mine that I must turn and walk away or find in myself reserves of imagination and patience I did not know I had? Second, when is what you call fear or hope (as opposed to the objects you fear or hope for) so radically strange that we cannot even begin to talk about fear or hope? I take it that the natural is some kind of response to this second case. That is, “natural” does not designate specific things to be hoped for or feared. The natural is back a step, at what counts as fearing or hoping or pain or pity. The appeal to the natural does not say that only certain kinds of pain behavior are natural but that suffering and comfort are dependent on what we mean by pain and pity. “One group may hope for a different future, fear a different region or past ….But hope will still be grammatically related to satisfaction and disappointment, fear will still be grammatically related to some object and reason for fear, which, though it may not be one we in fact are affected by, we can understand as such a reason” (111).

Further, the claim is not that hoping, fearing, etc., are natural where that means everyone does them. Maybe there are idyllic places where there is nothing to fear, or hideous places where there is nothing to hope for. That does not mean we must turn our palms outward. We will not be able to talk about our fears and hopes with the people in those places, but we may be able to find other things to talk about. But if such people in such places come to a point where they do hope and fear, then only certain things will count as hoping and (p.129) fearing. That only certain things will count as hoping and fearing is “in the nature of things.” That means that human nature, not just human society, is conventional. Such a definition should register as irony. (Especially when he adds that perhaps this is what some existentialists mean by saying humans have no nature; 111.) But it isn't merely conventional. It isn't arbitrary. It is merely conventional that, in baseball, the home team takes the field first and that the umpire stands behind the catcher, not the pitcher. It is merely conventional that brides wear white and grooms wear black, that the bride enters the sanctuary after the groom. But it is not merely conventional that batters only get three strikes or that the bases are 90 feet apart. And it is not merely conventional that Christian marriages, until yesterday, happened in church or, until yesterday, were between men and women. That such things can change shows that human nature (as Cavell understands it) can change. Changes in the former, in the merely conventional, would not be changes in nature. The merely conventional are things that we can adopt at will to serve some purpose but can be replaced with anything else which serves the purpose. Baseball would still be baseball if the home team batted first. Would it still be if we made the bases 180 feet apart and gave batters five strikes? Is it still marriage if not done in church, as a sacrament? If it is between two persons of the same sex? For some people, those questions are settled. Is modernist art still art? Not if you ask an Orthodox iconographer. Is Protestantism Christian? Not if you ask some Orthodox priests. And this question was hardly easy for anyone to answer five centuries ago. A lot of Protestants still don't think Catholicism or Orthodoxy is Christian. John Damascene didn't think Islam was another religion. He thought it was a Christian heresy. The first Christians thought they were Jews, and the Jews thought they were too.

Caught in the spaces between, convention seems tyrannical. And one may be tempted to escape that tyranny by understanding all conventions to be mere conventions. (Which only makes them more tyrannical. Tyranny is arbitrary.) Cavell does not say that it is easy to tell which is which. “The internal tyranny of convention is that only a slave of it can know how it may be changed for the better, or know why it should be eradicated ….This is why deep revolutionary changes can result from attempts to conserve a project, to take it back to its idea, keep it in touch with its history” (121). So Jesus revolutionized Judaism. So the Anabaptists revolutionized Christianity. So the abstract expressionists revolutionized what we call art. “Perhaps the idea of a new historical period is an idea of a generation whose natural reactions—not merely whose ideas or mores—diverge from the old; it is the idea of a new (human) nature. And different historical periods may exist side by side, over long stretches, and within one human breast” (121). Those natural reactions, while they are natural, will also be (p.130) necessary. “But it should not be surprising that what is necessary is contingent upon something. Necessaries are means” (120). We can put it this way: just what is necessary may change, but the concept of necessity will be retained.

The suggestion is that there are no situations in which hope is not “grammatically related to satisfaction and disappointment,” fear “grammatically related to an object and reason for fear,” suffering and comfort not dependent upon what we mean by pain and pity (111). At least, if there are, they must be shown to us and then it is up to us what we do with them. There is no theory that can guarantee our proper response to such situations any more than there is a theory that can guarantee that there are no such situations or that we should reject them if there are. Further, thinking there are such situations means a lack of imagination, which produces a confusion between such scenarios and scenarios in which the object of another's hope seems bizarre, bizarre enough to suggest that what they call hope, we don't. Then, the function of the natural is to suggest the possibility that that is a confusion due to our lack of imagination. “It seems safe to suppose that if you can describe any behavior which I can recognize as that of human beings, I can give you an explanation which will make that behavior coherent, i.e., show it to be imaginable in terms of natural responses and practicalities” (118).16 So there cannot, after all, be radical difference, where that means conceptual deviance. Is this reassuring? To whom?

It is not skepticism's reassurance. The warning here is that the skeptic has a vested interest in converting difference into radical difference, in understanding others as having escaped the natural in order to justify his escape, his withdrawal from the other. That withdrawal is a withdrawal from what Wittgenstein called “forms of life.” The natural and the forms of life do not designate patterns which may vary from culture to culture (though Wittgenstein is often read this way). Hoping, fearing, calculating are what make up forms of life.17 It is part of forms of life that “realization of intention requires action, that action requires movement, that movement involves consequences we had not intended, that our knowledge (and ignorance) of ourselves and of others depends upon the way our minds are expressed (and distorted) in word and deed and passion; that actions and passions have histories.” But now we can see another side of skepticism. It is not just the wish to declare the other radically different, but to declare oneself to be. (This will come up later as “passive skepticism.”)

The coincidence of soul and body, and of mind (language) and world überhaupt, are the issues to which Wittgenstein's notion[s] of grammar and criteria are meant to speak ….The gap, or distorted (p.131) relation, between intention (or wish or feeling) and its execution, and between execution and consequence, is what the sense of “absurdity” [in modern literature and certain existentialisms] is a response to. But then how does the gap or distortion appear, and how can it be closed? In Wittgenstein's view the gap between mind and world is closed, or the distortion between them straightened, in the appreciation and acceptance of particular human forms of life, human “convention.” This implies that the sense of a gap originates in an attempt, or wish, to escape (to remain a “stranger” to, “alienated” from) those shared forms of life, to give up the responsibility of their maintenance. (Is this always a fault? Is there no way of becoming responsible for that? What does a moral or intellectual hero do?) (109)

There is one final thing to discuss here. It has been implicit all along but is worth making explicit. For Cavell, the strangeness of the other works to reveal the strangeness of ourselves. Look at the following lines:

We should not call anything they do “sacrificing,” “atoning,” “placating,” etc. unless we understand how what they do could count as (grammatically be) sacrificing, atoning, placating, etc. Can they placate a monkey or a man dead and buried? Can they make sacrifices and pray to a piece of carved wood? But we do equally strange and familiar things. Is it less strange to pray to, or curse, a President? Strange not just to outsiders, but to us, come to think of it. (111)

Imagining this [a “certain tribe” from The Brown Book, which separates out children as lunatics if they fail, after a time, to properly continue a series] makes me rather anxious. I feel: These people are in a great hurry to separate out lunatics ….And their evidence for lunacy is so slim ….But then I feel: What is ample evidence for lunacy? Not being able to keep up in school over a period of years? We may not call it lunacy, our gradations are not so crude; but children are treated differently because of it, and set apart. (112)

These examples [Wittgenstein's “primitive tribes”] are all very upsetting. Is it because these people are not really intelligible to us? No doubt we cannot communicate with them—at least in certain areas. But that is not an unfamiliar fact, even with our friends. (114)

Part of the difficulty in treating psychotics is the inability one has in appreciating their world, and hence in honoring them as persons; the (p.132) other part of the difficulty comes in facing how close our world is (at times; in dreams) to theirs. (90)

We must be careful here. Edward Said is just around the corner—“the Oriental is always like some aspect of the West.”18 He would add to the last quote above that a third part of the difficulty is the way the first two difficulties threaten to undermine each other. One may claim closeness, likeness, as a way of avoiding confrontation with difference. This can be done by focusing too singularly on similarities, or it can be done by diluting difference, turning differences into superficial similarities.19 One may claim difference as a way of denying similarity, in order to ensure that the other stays at arm's length. There is no way out of this circle, no way to resolve the tension. There are only more and less graceful ways of negotiating it.

Cavell's manner of negotiating it adds at least two things worth mentioning. First, he insists that the problem of finding ways to receptively engage different others cannot be confined to discussions of “culture.” The differences between cultures are important, but Cavell will never let them be used to screen out the differences within cultures, between neighbors, spouses, siblings. Second, he reiterates the theme of our responsibility, a theme which has been present all along but emerges with increasing insistence in part IV.20

Acknowledgment: The Claim of Reason, Part IV

The preceding account of Cavell's reading of Wittgensteinian criteria hopefully did a few things. First, it showed why Cavell doesn't think criteria can refute skepticism; and second, it began to show the ways in which skepticism is not to be understood as a philosophical mistake but as a frame of mind, one which cannot be overcome once and for all but must be diagnosed (so that it may be overcome daily). Finally, and most explicit in the last few paragraphs, it introduced the central theme of The Claim of Reason and of the entire Cavell corpus. Cavell writes, “The wish underlying this fantasy [of a private language] covers a wish that underlies skepticism, a wish for the connection between my claims of knowledge and the objects upon which the claims are to fall to occur without my intervention, apart from my agreements” (351–352; my italics).21 The theme emerges at several points and plays an important role in all four parts of Claim, most obviously in the preceding section with regard to the inability of criteria to get all the way to “the pain itself,” to which Cavell responded, “But we left something inexplicit ….I left out my responses to the criteria as they emerge ….We left inexplicit the call such knowledge imposes on me for comforting, succoring, (p.133) healing” (81). Skepticism is revealed as a withholding of the self, a refusal to acknowledge made in the name of knowledge. The skeptic, realizing that criteria don't go all the way to the pain itself feels stranded, handcuffed, unable to respond. But it is often the case that skepticism serves as a philosophical cover story for the resistance to response, the resistance to responsibility for the other. It emerges from the wish to preserve oneself invulnerable (or one's society—this is a political issue) to the destabilizing encounter with the other's pain or the destabilizing exposure of one's own pain. The skeptic's refusal of knowledge is a refusal of commitment. “It is as though we try to get the world to provide answers in a way which is independent of our responsibility for choice” (216). “To know the subject, that it is pain, is to respond to it” (82). This commitment and responsibility are what is entailed by acknowledgment. The truth of skepticism is that our relationship to the world is not one of knowing, where that is construed as certainty, the overcoming of Cartesian doubt, but is one of acknowledgment, acceptance, and embodied response. The skeptic, we might say, exploits the possibility of doubt to justify abdicating rather than exposing herself to the challenge of the other. Skepticism, understood broadly, is the wish for knowledge to take the place of our responsibility; it is the presentation of “metaphysical finitude as an intellectual lack.”22

Skepticism and the Problem of Others: The Outsider

The skeptic's worry about other minds is that “there may be something, or something can be imagined, that looks, feels, be broken and perhaps healed like a human being that is nevertheless not a human being. What are we imagining? It seems that we are back to the idea that something humanoid or anthropomorphic lacks something, that one could have all the characteristics of a human being save one” (403).

At this point, Cavell embarks on a long story about perfecting an automaton. You are taking a walk in a garden with the craftsman and his friend, when the craftsman points to his friend and says, “We're making more progress than you think. Take my friend here. He's one” (403). You are surprised. You had no idea that the friend was not a real human. But the craftsman bids him sit down and raises his pant leg to show you the metal underneath. He knocks the friend's hat off to reveal a mannequin's head, which he then twists 360 degrees. You are convinced. As the years go by, every few months, if there is a noticeable improvement, the craftsman invites you back. You stroll in the garden together. His friend (or, perhaps, “friend”) becomes your friend. The legs are no longer obviously metal; the head looks (p.134) great, even with the hat off. One day, the craftsman opens the friend's chest and you see the insides of a human being or something indistinguishable. The craftsman is delighted by the look of shock on your face, but admits that it still isn't perfect, especially the nervous system. “The pain responses are too—how shall I say?—on and off ….But the genuine issue is how to get the pain itself so that it gets better prepared and fades better” (404). How do you respond? Do you find yourself wanting to ask the “friend” how he feels about the way you both are treating him? Should you ask to look inside the head, too, just to make sure? Should you ask what the craftsman means by “the pain itself”? One day, the craftsman phones you and is obviously excited. You go over and once again he goes through all the procedures. It is really astonishing. It is like the friend is human.

Then the craftsman knocks off the hat to reveal what is for all the world a human head, intact. He rotates it through about 45 degrees and then stops himself with an embarrassed smile. The head turns back to its original position, but now its eyes turn toward mine. Then the knife is produced. As it approaches the friend's side he suddenly leaps up, as if threatened, and starts grappling with the craftsman. They both grunt, and they are yelling. The friend is producing these words: “No more. It hurts. It hurts too much. I'm sick of being a human guinea pig, I mean a guinea pig human.”

Do I [you] intervene? On whose behalf ? (405)

How might the story go on? It could be that, noticing your alarm, on a signal from the craftsman they both stop struggling, and the friend sits back down, crosses his legs, lights a cigarette. The craftsman is obviously pleased with himself and explains, “It's all built in.” Does that satisfy you? Or do you respond, “ ‘You fool! You've built in too much! You've built in the passions as well as the movements and vocables of revolt! You've given this artificial body a real soul.’ (That is, a soul; there are no artificial souls—none, anyway, that are not real souls)” (406–407). Or, imagine another day in the garden. The friend grabs your arms from behind and holds them tight. You are helpless as the craftsman rips your shirt and opens your chest. You look down to see some elegant clockwork. Now, do you know the friend is human, or do you doubt that you are? The craftsman has his knife at your throat, demanding that you decide. “Now I am being asked whether I do or do not share the life of suffering with this other, and at the same time I am shown that I do not know whether I am observing or leading that life” (408).

What do you know about yourself ? That you have pains, not “pains,” artificial automaton pains? What if you accepted that, after all, all you really (p.135) have are “pains”? Then, presumably, you would have to stop thinking of yourself as human. But then, what would you be? An automaton whose memory of being constructed was wiped out or has faded? You will want to keep this a secret. Bribe the craftsman and the friend not to say anything. But if they guessed it, couldn't anyone? And couldn't anyone be harboring the same secret? This is silly. What secret? You feel pain, that is, pain not “pain.” Maybe the friend is thinking the same thing. Is that silly too? One of the lessons of Cavell's story is that, when criteria run out, there is no privileged position to turn to. Not just you and the friend, but the craftsman is also ruled out. There is nothing he can tell us. “Whatever can be specified, as a test of automatonity, can be built in to fail. Criteria come to an end” (412).

But is there someone or something (call it the Outsider) who can tell us? Sometimes, in horror movies, a dog is the only one who can sniff out the difference in the humanoid thing which is about to go on a rampage. But a dog is free of human nature and so is free of the need and the ability to question itself as you had to when it occurred to you that perhaps all you have are “pains.” What is it that we might want an Outsider to tell us? With external world skepticism, the Outsider could tell us what our “ideas” are copies of (per Locke), if anything. Or whether we are awake or dreaming. The Outsider tells us whether an antecedently clear distinction obtains. We know what a copy is and what an original is, what a dream is and what waking is. Our question is, “Which is which?” With other mind skepticism, the Outsider would function the same way if what we wanted to know was whether the other was human or not. But our stroll in the craftsman's garden showed us that we don't know what counts as human and what does not. The Outsider has “to know something I do not know about how to tell, about what the difference is between human beings and non-human beings or human non-beings. I do not expect the Outsider with respect to me and the external world to know something I do not know about the difference between sleeping and waking, or about whether one thing is a copy of another” (417).

What if we found such an Outsider? And what if, in his sorting out of humans and otherwise, he sorted me out? “That is not the question I imagined myself to invoke him in order to answer. With that question, my interest in the status of others vanishes. There is only me and the Outsider” (417). Or, imagine asking the Outsider to compare what I see when I see the color red and what another sees. If there is a difference, we may want to ask the Outsider who is right, but we would not be too troubled by the answer. But what if the comparison is between what I feel when I feel pain and what another feels? “I cannot tolerate the idea that the other might be right and I not. What I feel, when I feel pain, is pain. So I am putting a restriction on what the Outsider can (p.136) know. He can know something about another's pain that I cannot know, but not something about mine. He is not really an Outsider to me. If he exists, he is in me” (418).

Cavell's discussion of the craftsman and the Outsider suggests some important preliminary conclusions about other mind skepticism. First, we are beginning to see why Cavell is going to insist that skepticism is not a problem of knowledge. It is not produced by a weakness in our position as knowers. We will see more of what this means in the following pages, but for now we can at least note that the idea that there is something we are missing due to our position prompts the thought that there must be a better position from which to know, a position from which a piece of information unavailable to us in our current position is available. Cavell's discussion of the Outsider is an attempt to imagine such a position. Its failure suggests that the problem of other mind skepticism is something other than a problem of knowledge, a misunderstanding of what knowledge is. “My ignorance of the existence of others is not the fate of my natural condition as a human knower, but my way of inhabiting that condition” (432). Second, we have begun to see how our conception of ourselves is bound to our conception of others and vice versa. This comes out in more detail as Cavell moves to the active and passive skeptical recitals.

The Active Skeptical Recital

Skepticism about the external world and skepticism about others are two different things. How they are different and how they are not is a central topic of part IV of The Claim of Reason. In external world skepticism, the “skeptical recital” takes the following form:23 (1) There is a request for a basis for a claim to knowledge, such as “How do I know there is a table here?” (2) A basis is given: “Because I see it.” (3) A ground for doubt is then raised: “But how do you know you are not hallucinating or that the chair is not a hologram?” (4) The conclusion of this is, “Well, I don't really know that there is a table here.” (5) The moral is, “I can never know. The senses are not enough to ground our knowledge of the world.” And then comes the inevitable realization that, if I cannot know that a table is there, I can't know anything. The world drops out.

What happens when we try to produce a skeptical recital with respect to other minds?24 Certain complexities will emerge as Cavell does this. We can note at the outset that skepticism with regard to others does not mean we just duplicate the external world skeptical recital only now inserting “human being” where we had “table.” If this were so, we wouldn't even get started. The fact that there are two different species of skepticism alerts us to the notion that there is (p.137) something we want to know about humans that isn't reducible to the senses, something invisible which makes a human a human and not just something that looks like a human. (Confused talk about “the inner” can sometimes suggest that what we want to know is sensible: “there must also be something boiling in the pictured pot.”25 But since there is no way of getting it within reach of our senses, we appeal to the Outsider, whose “senses” it is within reach of.) That is, in the skeptical recital with regard to others, the basis will have to be formulated differently than with external world skepticism, where the basis was “Because I see it.” Here is Cavell's version of the skeptical recital with regard to others.

Among the things we claim to know the existence of, some are human beings ….And we claim to know very particular things about particular human beings, for example that they are in pain or are angry. Each of you here in this room would certainly say that you know that there are now other human beings in this room with you ….And I, for one, am prepared to say that I know that no one of you—you for instance—is now in excruciating pain. But how do I know this? For all I know, you may be. But if I imagine that you are in excruciating pain then naturally I must imagine that you are keeping it from me, suppressing its manifestations. If you are successful in this, then everything would seem to me just as it does now, that you are calm, and attentive to what I am saying ….But to be able to imagine that you are in excruciating pain only if you are keeping it from me is to imagine that even though I do not know of your pain, you certainly know. And this is to imagine, or rather assume, that you have sentience, or rather consciousness, or rather self-consciousness, as I have; that you are, as I am, a human being; that I have correctly identified you as a human being. What justifies this assumption? (420–421)

In external world skepticism, this question was not raised. “Because I see it” was fairly straightforward. No such assumption had to be made with the table. A ground for doubt such as “but do you see all of it?” may question the adequacy of my position with respect to the object but not my capacity for sight. Here, however, a question arises about the very basis of my claim to knowledge, not the adequacy of the basis but of the sense of the basis itself. Where does the assumption that another has self-consciousness come from? “From some such fact as that my identification of you as a human being is not merely an identification of you but with you. This is something more than merely seeing you. Call it empathic projection” (421). Empathic projection is a crucial, if (p.138) elusive, concept in Cavell. We might think of it as the answer to “What gives us so much as the idea that living beings, things, can feel?”26 It is, as Cavell will later describe it, “little more than a dummy concept for something that must be the basis of my claims to read the other” (440).

The skeptical recital continues by saying that any of my empathic projections can go wrong. There is nothing to keep me from empathically projecting onto a mutant or an android. Our time with the craftsman has shown that figuring out which is which will be a lot more problematic than figuring out if that table is a hologram. (It showed us, for example, that it won't do any good to take it apart.) But does this produce skepticism? Not yet. For we saw that, when my knowledge of the table's existence was doubted, the whole world dropped out in its wake. But here, it seems that, if I am wrong about another, if I empathically project onto a zombie, then I am wrong about that other, and I will reasonably conclude that I may be wrong about any other. But I will not conclude that I must be wrong, that there are no human others. Empathic projection affixes a seam into experience. Another way to say it is that we have not yet discovered a best case with regard to others, a case like the generic object, the doubting of which means we must doubt everything. But can there be?

Notice another difference between external world skepticism and other mind skepticism. In external world skepticism, there is no better position to know than the one I am in (excluding, of course, the possibility of the Outsider). We are all in the same boat with regard to material objects. Part of its power comes from this aspect of the skeptic's argument; it insists upon a best position—it isn't foggy; you didn't inhale; there isn't a tree blocking the view; you have your glasses on—as well as a best case. But with regard to knowing another, there does seem to be an obviously better position—the other's. There was a point in the recital at which we said: I cannot know if another is in pain if the other is suppressing her pain behavior. But if she is suppressing it, then she knows. And if she knows, then surely she exists. “This seems a limited version of skepticism, or a version of limited skepticism. Its moral seems to be that skepticism with respect to other minds cannot be skeptical enough. Is this philosophically reassuring? Has it mastered the worst that can befall me?” (426, cf. 353). Has this helped us to conclude that there is no skepticism with respect to others? This seems to say that, with the exception of the other herself, no other could be in a better position to know her, and no other could be a better test of my knowledge of her. Can she step out of her confinement from me? Skepticism says that I am sealed off. With respect to the external world, I am sealed into my experience, cannot get out of it to compare my experience with reality. With respect to the other, I am sealed out. The other's body seals me out, and there is no way to (p.139) compare what I experience of her with her set of experiences. I am sealed out; is she sealed in?

If this is a reasonable continuation from the recital, it alerts us to something important. It suggests to Cavell that the question should be phrased in terms of acknowledgment, not of knowledge. Is it possible to generate a best case if we change the question from “Is empathic projection a sufficient basis for knowledge of the other?” to “Is it a sufficient basis for acknowledging the other?” Acknowledgment is a crucial concept in Cavell. It “ ‘goes beyond’ knowledge, not in the order, or as a feat, of cognition, but in the call upon me to express the knowledge at its core, to recognize what I know, to do something in the light of it, apart from which this knowledge remains without expression, hence perhaps without possession.”27 I may know I am late to our meeting but not admit it, or may know that I have hurt you but not apologize, or know that I am acquainted with you but duck out a side door when I see you coming. So, acknowledgment is something like confession. Further, acknowledgment demands not just the recognition of the other, but the recognition of my relation to the other, which entails a recognition of the way I may have distorted that relation. Phrased in terms of acknowledgment, we can begin to account for my sense of being sealed in, my sense of being unable to step outside of my empathic projections.

To avoid acknowledgment by refusing this call upon me would create the sense of the sense it makes to say that I cannot step outside (“go beyond”) my feat of cognition ….Acknowledgment of another calls for the recognition of the other's specific relation to oneself, and … this entails the revelation of oneself as having denied or distorted that relation ….To avoid acknowledgment by refusing the call upon me to recognize this relation and my denial of it would create the sense of the sense it makes to feel the question is open whether others can step outside their confinement from me. (428)

That is, the senses of confinement are created by trying to understand other mind skepticism with an impoverished understanding of knowledge, one that excludes acknowledgment. Cavell creates the space for recognizing this as soon as he points out the simple fact that our understanding of others, unlike material objects, entails specific and mobile relationships to those people.28 A further implication of this direction is that, even if the concept of acknowledgment is granted here, it is not at all clear what it would mean to acknowledge someone simply as a human being. Lear's acknowledgment of Cordelia as his unjustly banished daughter entails acknowledging himself as her unjust and banishing father. But what would it be to acknowledge the sheer humanity (p.140) of another? Here I am, empathically projecting her humanity. What could go beyond that? What relation do I bear to her? How could I reveal myself to her as having denied or distorted our relation?

But now if these are the questions left unsettled by the skeptical recital, then we have found some structure in its very inconclusiveness. It is a structure in which the question “Who, or what, is this other?” (or the question “Is this in fact an other?”) is tied to the question “Who, or what, am I, that I should be called upon to testify to such a question?” How and why, am I thrown back upon myself ?——I notice, looking back over the skeptical recital, that it contains the following, so far unexamined, feature: that the moment at which I singled out my stranger was the moment at which I also singled out myself. (“I, for one, am prepared to say that I know that no one of you—you for instance …”) (429)

The question has been transfigured. From “What, if anything, is a best case for knowing an other?” to “What, if anything, is a best case for acknowledging an other?” to, finally, showing that the latter may helpfully be stated as “What, if anything, is a best case for acknowledging my relation to an other?” “Is there, in particular, a case in which my (outsider's) position is sufficiently good to produce the force of the skeptic's best case with respect to the external world, namely that if I know anything, I know this?” (429).

What sort of other would that be? Like the generic object, it would have to be an other which “compresses within himself or herself my view of psychic reality as a whole” (430). It would be an other who exemplifies humanity for me, upon the acknowledgment of whom “I stake my capacity for acknowledgment altogether, that is to say, my capacity at once for acknowledging the existence of others and for revealing my existence in relation to others” (430). It is a specific and particular other, and a specific and particular relationship. It remains true that, even if there were such an other, the case would not generalize. “No one else is in my position with respect to this other.” But, “if it fails, the remainder of the world and of my capacities in it have become irrelevant. That there are others, and others perhaps in my position in relation to them, are matters not beyond my knowledge but past my caring. I am not removed from the world; it is dead for me. All for me is but toys; there is for me no new tomorrow; my chaos is come (again?). I shut my eyes to others” (430).

The skeptic pictures our knowledge as confined (by our experience, to our experience, etc.). Skepticism shows us to be limited and our knowledge confined by our limits. But now, faced with the possibility of this best case, our sense is not one of confinement, but of exposure. This is a new development (p.141) and a frightening one. (The object of our fright is tragedy; Desdemona was Othello's best case.) We are exposed on two fronts. First, we are exposed to the possibility of such a best case. “It is, accordingly, to be expected that we will not willingly subject ourselves to the best case of acknowledgment, indeed that we will avoid the best if we can, to avoid the worst” (430). Second, not only will we avoid the best, we will avoid knowing that a given case is the best. Cavell calls it avoiding exposure to the concept of the best, a denial of my capacity, or a demonstration of my unwillingness, to apply the concept. So the second front of exposure and avoidance is, in a way, myself. “Being exposed to my concept of the other is being exposed to my assurance in applying it. I mean to the fact that this assurance is mine, comes only from me” (433). No one, no thing, is going to apply the concept for me or guarantee the success of the application. And nothing can tell me when I have reached the limit of my responsibility, limits on the perspective I can have on others and on myself.

The absence of the best case shows that our relations are restricted. The presence of the best case will show that our lack of restriction is limited to one another ….Is there an upper limit on humanity? If there is, how would I know that I had reached it? How would I know that I had gone in myself not merely to my limitations for acknowledgment but to the limitations of the humanly acknowledgeable? (434)

That says something important about the role of “limits”—that, among other things, they are part of the skeptic's self-portrait—but it also says something else. It says that this question is about me, my limits. To move closer: in external world skepticism, I make the choice to live with doubts “for practical purposes,” and in doing so I accommodate myself to a universal human condition. But with others, this is not, at least not first of all, a remark about the human condition but about me.

It is as a general alternative to skeptical doubt that Austin was moved to say that, in substantiating my claims to know, “enough is enough”; I must have said enough to rule out other reasonable, competing possibilities. But how much is enough when it comes to knowing and acknowledging the humanity of another? How many times, and about just which matters, must I pity another, help another, accept another's excuses, before concluding that enough is enough? “Give me another day; another moment; another dollar; another chance….” If I do not answer such appeals, is this because I have found the other, this other, not to be worth it, or entitled to it, or myself not to be up to it? (438)

(p.142) There is no alternative to such questioning, to such doubts. Specifically, no possibility of “enough is enough” for which I may not be culpable. There is no possibility of forgetting or ignoring or bypassing skeptical doubts the way Hume does when he emerges from his study. “To accommodate myself to my restrictions of acknowledgment would be to compromise my integrity, or perhaps to constitute it, such as it is” (438). With material objects, we “forget” our skepticism. With others, we “remember” it. Cavell expresses the idea that there is no alternative to saying “I live my skepticism,” a thought he follows with these haunting lines:

Our position is not, so far as we know, the best.——But mightn't it be? Mightn't it be that just this haphazard, unsponsored state of the world, just this radiation of relationships, of my cares and commitments, provides the milieu in which my knowledge of others can best be expressed? Just this—say expecting someone to tea; or returning a favor; waving goodbye; reluctantly or happily laying in groceries for a friend with a cold; feeling rebuked, and feeling it would be humiliating to admit the feeling; pretending not to understand that the other has taken my expression, with a certain justice, as meaning more than I sincerely wished it to mean; hiding inside a marriage; hiding outside a marriage—just such things are perhaps the most that knowing others comes to, or has come to for me.——Is there more for it to come to; more that it must come to? (439–440)

Cavell's insistence that we must “live our skepticism” amounts to a refusal to close off the question of my limits.29 It is a refusal of a definition of a limit which would release the self from questioning. But this also raises the question of what counts as intimacy, as knowing another. Saying that we must live our skepticism is not to be understood as “we should or ought to live our skepticism.” It is a description meant to register our ignorance about our everyday position with others, a description that follows from knowing we are prone to avoid the best and the concept of the best. It registers not just our ignorance but our disappointment with the everyday encounters with others. “There is a skepticism which is produced not by a doubt about whether we can know but by disappointment over knowledge itself” (440).

The Passive Skeptical Recital

We have so far put this in terms of knowing the other. But perhaps some clarity is gained if instead we ask, “What would it mean to be known by another?” (p.143) At what point do you say, I am known (enough)? “The question about other minds is exactly as much a question about me as about anyone else. If anyone is another mind, I am one—i.e., I am an other to the others (and of course others are then I's to me). Then the question is: Do others know of my existence?” (442). This seems a more promising possibility of a best case because, surely, I know I exist. If we can answer what it is to be known, then we will have a handle on what we want to know of others. It may not be within reach, but we will at least know the shape of our lack.30 Cavell calls this the passive skeptical recital. It begins like this:

What do you really know of me? You see a humanish something of a certain height and age and gender and color and physiognomy, emitting vocables in a certain style ….Much more than this you do not know. Some you could guess at, but not in very great detail. But then I am a stranger to you. What does anyone know of me?

All anyone knows or could know is what I am able to show them of myself ….And how much can I really show? (443)

I can show you that I am in pain and, hopefully, you will respond with comfort. But what have I shown you, and what do you know? Maybe you just responded instinctually, not on the basis of any knowledge. Do you know how I feel? “I have seen a person in a discussion on this subject strike himself on the breast and say: ‘But surely another person can't have THIS pain!’ ”31 You know my chest hurts, but it is not clear that you know just how it hurts. We know enough to be suspicious of those people who say “I know how you feel.” But can we be anything more than suspicious? It is not clear that we can say that we are not known, nor is it yet clear what would constitute being known. Just what is it I want to be assured of in being known?

The problem so far in the passive skeptical recital is that it is too active or, better, wrongly active.

[It has] by-passed the real, the special requirement of passivity in being known, the thing I have sometimes described as letting oneself be known, and as waiting to be known ….My recital, that is, assumed activity only in making myself known, not allowing an activity in, so to speak, becoming passive. But activity just here may well prove to constitute knowing oneself. It is the ability to make oneself an other to oneself, to learn of oneself something one did not already know. Hence this is the focus at which knowledge of oneself and of others meet. I should think a sensible axiom of the knowledge of persons (p.144) would be this: that one can see others only to the extent that one can take oneself as an other. (459)

This sort of passivity is better known as patience. It is a demand for relinquishing final authority over oneself; allowing oneself to be seen (and so relinquishing the desire to hide); granting authority to what is seen; letting the perceptions of others become part of one's self-perception. We are back to acknowledgment. That term contains the ways in which self-knowledge is bound up with knowledge of others. Acknowledging someone as employer, teacher, parent, Creator just is acknowledging oneself as employee, student, child, creature, as having an identity inextricably tangled up with others. It is only from others that I learn who I am. Which means I do not know, not on my own, and the knowledge I receive from others is never final, never complete. Part of me remains strange, in process; I am other to myself.

So it was misleading to suggest at the beginning of the passive skeptical recital that I know myself. Self-knowledge is, of course, a difficult thing. But self-ignorance isn't exactly simple. You cannot just not know yourself the way you can just not know someone with whom you have no relationship. I am fated to stand in some relation to myself, and so “[i]gnorance of myself is something I must work at; it is something studied, like a dead language” (385). Dead languages do not change; the passive skeptic does not admit of the possibility of further knowledge of herself. And it was misleading in the active skeptical recital to say “Even though I do not know of your pain, you certainly know.” Doubts about our ability to know others may be revelations of our doubts about others' ability to know us. Doubts about others' ability to know us may be doubts about our capacity to give expression to ourselves. It's something like: if others make such persistent and egregious failures in their knowledge of me, in their readings of my expressions, then it stands to reason that such expressions, regardless of who makes them, are unreliable. Such a claim seems reasonable enough; others often fail in their readings of me. But Cavell's point is that it is not easy to tell when it is the other's failure to read me well, or when it is my failure to make myself available and when I am denying the other's success in reading me, denying the possibility that “I may know better than you how it is with you.”32 That means, I must be able to turn over my authority over how I am known to others. In an age when the individual is constantly being reassured of his powers even as they are being taken from him, nothing is more important than to be reminded that the self is not transparent to the self. Nothing except, perhaps, reconfiguring the individual's authority as patience. There is a certain account of passivity in which “to make oneself known, to present oneself for knowledge, were inevitably to distort oneself” (459). It relies on a particular (p.145) mind-body disjunction. Call that Cartesian or Kantian or just modern. Whatever the correct identification, Wittgenstein is resisting it when he writes that “the human body is the best picture of the soul.” Short of that (or because of that), “my self-consciousness comes between my consciousness and my expression of it, so that my expressions are embarrassed” (477). Then, I am apt to suspect that my expressions will produce the wrong responses in the other, responses directed to the wrong thing, to my enacted, theatricalized self.

It is as an alternative to the wish to produce the response in the other that I claimed you must let yourself matter to the other. (There is a very good reason to not do so. You may discover that you do not matter.) Take this as advice to Hamlet.—To let yourself matter is to acknowledge not merely how it is with you, and hence to acknowledge that you want the other to care, at least to care to know. It is equally to acknowledge that your expressions in fact express you, that they are yours, that you are in them. This means allowing yourself to be comprehended, something you can always deny. Not to deny it is, I would like to say, to acknowledge your body, and the body of your expressions, to be yours, you on earth, all there will ever be of you. (382–383)33

Accepting that would be accepting that my body is relevantly expressive, that even my embarrassed, overly self-conscious expressions, even my expressions of concealment—the laughter hiding sorrow, the slouch covering tension, the protestations denying guilt—are mine. “Whatever in me I have to conceal I may betray exactly by the way in which I conceal it. Just that is what is concealed; the concealment of what it is up to me to express is a perfect expression of it” (459).

Patience means “letting oneself be known, waiting to be known.”34 It is a patience with the self and with others, a patience which is required by the fact that nothing can absolve me of my responsibility for saying what I mean, and a patience which enables me to resist grasping for such guarantees. If I think I must make myself known, then I may think I know what needs to be known and can show it, or fail in the trying. Patience suggests that I do not know all that needs to be known about myself and so can't simply make it known. This does not deny that my body gives expression to myself. It only denies that how it does is straightforward.

If I think I must make myself known, then I may think I know what needs to be known. But the “may” is important. I may also choose to give expression to myself because I am not sure I know what needs to be known. That is, I must put my expressions out there to reveal what I think needs to be known in order (p.146) for others to tell me if I am wrong or not. My refusal to express myself, to declare myself, can be a way of preserving myself from being corrected. (This a way to summarize how Cavell will come to read Emerson's injunction to self-reliance though Cavell would insist, rightly, that the previous paragraph is also Emersonian.)35 “The fantasy of aloneness in the world may be read as saying that the step out of aloneness, or self-absorption, has to come without the assurance of others. (Not, perhaps, without their help.) ‘No one comes’ is a tragedy for a child. For a grown-up it means the time has come to be the one who goes first (to offer oneself, allow oneself, to be, let us say, known).”36

It should not be surprising that it will often be difficult to tell when such a person is passive or when she is patient. And so while Cavell wants to promote this kind of patience, he is unwilling to simply dismiss the passive skeptic (446), the one who “singles oneself out for unknowableness …, interprets one's separateness as isolation and then finds a cause for it” (461),37 the one Wittgenstein dramatized as striking himself on the breast, insisting that another could not have this pain. The understanding the Investigations provides of this possibility is worked out in The Claim of Reason with the question, “Does Wittgenstein provide an understanding of Rousseau?” Rousseau, like Molière's Alceste, may stand as a representative of one version of a type of passive skeptic, the narcissistic type. Cavell is willing to call it a version of adolescence, only he wants to resist the “naughty implication that such a one just ought to grow up” (464).

[R]omanticism generally may be said to have discovered the fact of adolescence, the task of wanting and choosing adulthood, along with the impossibility of this task. The necessity of the task is the choice of finitude, which for us (even after God) means the acknowledgment of the existence of finite others, which is to say, the choice of community, of autonomous moral existence. The impossibility lies in the options of community that the older grownups have left, which no one could want, not with a whole heart. So romantics dream revolution, and break their hearts. And so adolescents and adults agree on this one point, that to become adult is to grow up from your dreams. You needn't be Martin Heidegger to count the achievement of modern individual existence as beginning with its eclipse in modern society and then graduating in its increasingly distant refinement of singularity. John Stuart Mill a hundred years earlier, and for the sake of similar perceptions, accepts the fact, or fate, that the only proof of liberty lies in idiosyncrasy. The problem completes itself when we no longer know whether we are idiosyncratic or not, (p.147) which differences between us count, whether we have others.—After such community, what privacy? (464)

Rousseau did not think himself essentially unknowable, but he did think he had to create the audience that could know him or care to know him and that he would be dead before that happened. Wittgenstein, it seems, thought the same thing. (Rousseau and Wittgenstein are different than the people who appear daily on television talk shows. There, it seems, the point is not knowledge but entertainment. It is as if there is no risk of being known so no reason to hide. “The very capacity for intimacy measures the fact of isolation” [465]. Declaring yourself is a skill which must be cultivated. Not just any declaration will do. Cavell is not calling for more talk TV any more than he is calling for free verse or nude beaches.) It may be that the narcissistic and the adolescent here merge with the prophetic—“the singular knowledge of an unquestionable truth which others are fated not to believe”—though Cavell does “not ask for conviction in the notion” (447).

Othello: Skepticism and Tragedy

The final fifteen pages of The Claim of Reason are a reading of Shakespeare's Othello which works out Cavell's surmise (in the Lear essay) that “not only was tragedy obedient to a skeptical structure but contrariwise, that skepticism already bore its own marks of a tragic structure.”38 By the end of The Claim of Reason, the connection between skepticism and tragedy has become even tighter.

Tragedy is the working out of a response to skepticism … an interpretation of what skepticism is itself an interpretation of; that, for example, Lear's “avoidance” of Cordelia is an instance of the annihilation inherent in the skeptical problematic, that skepticism's “doubt” is motivated not by (not even where it is expressed as) a (misguided) intellectual scrupulousness but by a (displaced) denial, by a self-consuming disappointment that seeks world-consuming revenge.39

The same elements are there: the all-or-nothing stakes (“my life upon her faith”; “when I love her not / Chaos is come again”); the precipitousness of Othello's loss of faith like the precipitousness of the skeptic's fall from doubting one simple object to world-denying despair; the demand for “ocular proof” (the handkerchief ), which leads to catastrophe. Perhaps most important, the insistent doubting of what must surely be known, in this case, Desdemona's love. (p.148) When Cavell comments on his reading of Othello in Disowning Knowledge, much of the burden of his remarks is to show how those pages work out his earlier sense that “my discoveries in the regions of the skeptical problem of the other are, rightly understood, further characterizations of (material object) skepticism” (451). To get at what that means, I need to, finally, give a brief account of part II of The Claim of Reason.

The argument in part II is just as much with ordinary language philosophy as it is with traditional epistemology. Cavell does not take up the more common position of the ordinary language philosopher, a position which suggests that, in order to dismiss the traditional epistemologist, it is enough to show that he is abusing language by taking words out of their ordinary or natural context. But Cavell cannot take that route, partly because he thinks skepticism is ordinary. “It (in one or another of its versions) is a response to, or expression of, a real experience which takes hold of human beings … a response which expresses a natural experience of a creature complicated or burdened enough to possess language at all” (140). Partly because he realizes that “the traditional philosopher can be said to know everything the ordinary language philosopher wishes to teach him” (145). The ordinary language philosopher forgets, or neglects, the extent to which language is malleable, fluid, and there are no universals which can be called upon to ensure the appropriate projection of a word into a new context or to limit in advance inappropriate projection. Cavell agrees with the ordinary language philosopher that the traditional epistemologist's projections of the words “know” and “world” are rather awkward, but the same is true of any innovative projection of a word. “A new projection, though not at first obviously appropriate, may be made appropriate by giving relevant explanations of how it is to be taken, how the new context is an instance of the old concept. If we are to communicate, we mustn't leap too far; but how far is too far?” (192).

So, Cavell takes a different tack than the ordinary language philosopher.40 He agrees that the traditional epistemologist's use of language is not fully natural, but, he insists, it is not fully unnatural. His concern is to show not that the traditional epistemologist's words are meaningless but that they are meaningful only in a(n) (imagined) context which distorts our relation to the world. The example Cavell works with is a common skeptical ground for doubt—“But do you see all of it?”—from which it is supposed to follow that, if you don't see the back half or the inside, then you cannot really be sure you have seen the object. As the ordinary language philosopher would be quick to say, this sounds rather silly. It is not our ordinary use of “see.” But we know what it means. We know, for example, what a trompe l'oeil is. The skeptic's ground for doubt isn't fully unnatural. But it isn't fully natural insofar as, in our ordinary usage, I know what this means now, at this particular moment, in light of where I am (p.149) currently positioned or where the object is positioned. In an ordinary case, there will be readily available answers to why I can't see all of it. But the skeptic's use doesn't grant this. The skeptic constructs a context in which I never could be in a position to see all of it. The skeptic constructs a context “in which all our objects are moons ….In which, at any rate, our position with respect to significant objects is rooted …. This suggests that what the philosophers call the ‘senses’ are themselves conceived in terms of this idea of a geometrically fixed position, disconnected from the fact of their possession and use by a creature who must act” (202). (This disconnection follows quite readily, if not necessarily, from the vision of mind and body bequeathed to us by Descartes.)

Cavell reaches a similar conclusion when he turns his attention from the ground for doubt to the initiating claim of knowledge. Here, his concern is to call into question the skeptical recital's claims about generic objects by showing how they arise in a “non-claim context.” The skeptic's claim—“I know these are my hands” (Moore) or “I know there is a green jar of pencils on the desk in front of me”—is not false. But the skeptic is asking it to be more than true; the claim must also be a basis and “ ‘[b]ecause it is true’ is not a reason or a basis for saying anything” (206). There has to be a reason for making the claim in the first place. We have to be able to understand why the philosopher thinks there is any point to making his claim to knowledge of a generic object. This is an appeal to the ordinary, but not the sort usually made by the ordinary language philosopher. “The emphasis is less on the ordinariness of an expression … than on the fact that they are said (or, of course, written) by human beings, to human beings, in definite contexts” (206). The philosopher's claim provides no definite context, no reason for asserting knowledge of the presence of the jar of pencils on the desk, no account of “how his or my knowledge of that fact is relevant to what he or I am doing” (215).41 Cavell will say that the philosopher's example is made in a non-claim context. The force of Cavell's argument is that, as soon as the philosopher provides a claim context, then doubt, while reasonable, will not generalize. It remains a claim about the specific context of an object. If he doesn't, he insists on speaking “without the commitments speech exacts.”

In philosophizing we come to be dissatisfied with answers which depend upon our meaning something by an expression, as though what we meant by it were more or less arbitrary ….It is as though we try to get the world to provide answers in a way which is independent of our responsibility for claiming something to be so (to get God to tell us what we must do in a way which is independent of our responsibility for choice); and we fix the world so that it can do this. We construct “parts” of objects which have no parts; “senses” which (p.150) have no guiding function ….And we take what we have fixed or constructed to be discoveries about the world, and take this fixation to reveal the human condition rather than our escape or denial of this condition through the rejection of the human conditions of knowledge and action and the substitution of fantasy. (215–216)

Such a summary of part II is not enough to get at all the nuance and detail of Cavell's discussion. But, hopefully, it is enough to make sense of how Othello's relationship to Desdemona is not relevant just to other mind skepticism but also to external world skepticism. In particular, the background is necessary to make sense of Cavell's claim that the turn to literature shifts the philosophical balance by uncovering “the animism, so to speak, in the philosophical idea of doubt itself.”42 Cavell begins to unpack this with what amounts to a summary of part II. Doubt, like belief, in its ordinary sense, in a claim context, is most often directed to speakers. But after the philosopher has “fixed the world” so that it can be coherently doubted (in a non-claim context), it is as if “the philosopher turns the world into, or puts it in the position of, a speaker, lodging its claims upon us, claims to which, as it turns out, the philosopher cannot listen.”43 In the philosophers' accounts of objects in their skeptical recitals (Descartes before his fire, Moore holding up his hands), they are “as it were looking for a response from the object, perhaps a shining.”44

Cavell is concerned to show that his readings of Shakespeare do not just use the plays to provide illustrations of things he already knows from philosophy.45 Philosophy, he has repeatedly tried to show, misunderstands itself. Literature provides the closest thing we have to the Outsider's knowledge (476) and so helps us to see how philosophy misunderstands itself. One aspect of this misunderstanding is that philosophy is not likely to accept Cavell's intuition that it puts the world into the position of a speaker. Cavell has learned this not by reading the modern skeptics, but by reading Shakespearean tragedy in conversation with skepticism. But just how does Othello suggest this?

Othello's treatment of Desdemona directs Cavell's attention to the philosopher's treatment of the generic object. This is one of the most original aspects of part II of Claim. While the anti-skeptic tends to concentrate almost exclusively on the skeptic's ground for doubt, Cavell reaches back a step to the claim (regarding the generic object) itself. There, it is as if the philosopher has turned himself into stone. What Othello alerts us to is the transformation, in the skeptic's imagination, of the object. But it is unclear whether the philosopher has put the object in the position of a speaker (which cannot be listened to) or has found the object in such a position and had to silence it. The reading of Othello suggests the latter.46

(p.151) In the closing pages of The Claim of Reason, his concern is in (what seems to be) a different, opposite direction. Instead of the way philosophical skepticism demands, against itself, a certain animation of the material object, hence romanticism, the concern is with the way Othello demands, against himself, a de-animation of another, Desdemona. “The consequence for the man's refusal of his other is an imagination of stone” (481–482).47 He must imagine her as incapable of response. The most obvious way Othello turns Desdemona into stone, or the most obvious manifestation of his imagination of her as stone, is that Othello never confronts Desdemona, never asks for her confirmation or denial of Iago's rumor-mongering. (In the final scene, his course is set; he has not come to question her.) Where the traditional epistemologist puts the object in the position of a speaker he cannot listen to, Othello puts a speaker in the position of an object in order to not have to listen to her. She can have no say, and what she has said and done is not important. Better, it is so important that it takes all of Iago's cunning rumoring to provide reasons to forget, or repress, or cover what she has said and done. For what Othello, like the skeptic, “seeks is a possession that is not in opposition to another's claim or desire but one that establishes an absolute or inalienable bonding to himself, to which no claim or desire could be opposed, could conceivably count.”48 Put another way, he seeks “a metaphysically desperate degree of private bonding,” fulfilling “the wish to become undispossessable.”49 Of course, there is no such bond, and the wish to become undispossessable cannot be fulfilled. The consequences of the fantasy and its attempted fulfillment are traced in Othello. What happens in this play? How can he shift his trust from Desdemona to Iago?

Cavell suggests that the question is misleading. “It is not conceivable that Othello believes Iago and not Desdemona. Iago, we might say, offers to Othello an opportunity to believe something, something to oppose to something else he knows. What does he know?” (484). He knows Desdemona loves him, knows she would not abandon his bed for Cassio's. The suggestion is not that he doesn't know this but that he knows it and must deny it. Why? Why is Desdemona's faithfulness more terrible than her faithlessness?

I think of him … as having been surprised by her, at what he has elicited from her; at, so to speak, a success rather than a failure. It is the dimension of her that shows itself in that difficult and dirty banter with Iago as they await Othello on Cyprus. Rather than imagine himself to have elicited that, or solicited it, Othello would imagine it elicited by anyone and everyone else.——Surprised, let me say, to find that she is flesh and blood. It was the one thing he could not imagine for himself. For if she is flesh and blood then, since they are one, so is he. (491)

(p.152) The legendary warrior, commander of armies, conqueror of whole cities, finds himself brought up short by a love and a sexuality which do not admit of conquest and command. Love that reveals him as partial, dependent upon her, incomplete without her, love that cracks the mirror of his narcissism. It shows him that union comes through separateness, not through an overcoming of separateness but through its acceptance. That the problem (call it the mystery) of marriage is that “two becoming one is just half the problem; the other half is how one becomes two.”50 That knowledge, unwanted, unbearable, becomes the soil, cultivated by Iago, of doubt and arouses Othello's murderous impotence. As if what was not achieved that interrupted wedding night can only be achieved in a maddened, darkened (“Put out the light and then put out the light”), tranced reenactment of it in the final scene, on a different bed but with the same wedding sheets.

Is this convincing as a reading of Othello? As an account of skepticism? The questions intertwine, and their answers will depend upon how skepticism is conceived. Cavell is not saying that Shakespeare is taking up a theme he learned from the philosophers (anyway, he predates Descartes) and dressing it up as literature, as if we know what skepticism is and know what counts as knowing prior to reading Othello. When Cavell says that tragedy and philosophy are interpretations of the same thing, he means to register this. But he does not mean to say that there is something out there called skepticism that exists as something independent of and prior to both and against which we might evaluate their competing interpretations. If we already know what skepticism is, then it will be easier for us to see Cavell as manipulating the text. And if we think we know what Cavell thinks skepticism is, we will also run into problems. The Claim of Reason shows the skeptic's self-portrait. But it does not affirm that portrait; it undermines it. And it also does not go on to offer a stable alternative portrait. Cavell imagines the following challenge: “But Othello surely knows that Desdemona exists! … So what has his more or less interesting condition to do with skepticism?” He responds:

In what spirit do you ask that question? I too am raising it. I wish to keep suspicion cast on what it is we take to express skepticism, and here especially by casting suspicion on whether we know what it means to know that another exists. Nothing could be more certain to Othello than that Desdemona exists; is flesh and blood; is separate from him; other. This is precisely the possibility that tortures him. (492)

Does this strain credulity? Can we actually be tortured by another's separateness from us to the point of destroying them? Can we resent our dependence (p.153) and incompleteness that much? We know, of course, that jealousy does go to these lengths of violence (and not only when it has legitimate reason to be jealous). That is not the problem. The difficulty in accepting Cavell's reading is that it is this man, Othello, not, say, some guy in a bluegrass murder ballad. If it can happen to Othello, then surely it can happen to any of us.

Of course, it doesn't have to end in violence. I will more likely find other ways to deny that other, retreat, shut my eyes to her. (And, then, what reconciliation? Acknowledging her will mean acknowledging my prior denial, our history.) Cavell is reaching back a few dozen pages to his remarks about avoiding the best case and avoiding the concept of the best. In my relationships to any other, how do I know when I have reached the limits of the humanly acknowledgeable, and when I have reached only my limits? It was with such questions in mind that Cavell said we “live our skepticism.” He was not saying that we never or even ordinarily are in best case scenarios, but “that we are rather disappointed in our occasions for knowing, as though we have, or have lost, some picture of what knowing another, or being known by another, would really come to—a harmony, a concord, a union, a transparence, a governance, a power—against which our actual successes at knowing, and being known, are poor things” (440). He doesn't quite say that such a picture is an illusion. He does say that it becomes an illusion when knowing is understood as it has been since the Enlightenment. Then, we lose even the possibility that “just this haphazard, unsponsored state of the world, just this radiation of relationships … just such things are perhaps the most that knowing others comes to, or has come to for me.—Is there more for it to come to; more that it must come to?” (439–440).

Othello's problem is his insistence on this “more,” or his insistence on a particular vision of what would count as more, his sense that only an impossible exclusiveness would actually count as the best. But then, where are you and I? What do we want from another? Am I prepared to acknowledge Desdemona as a best case? Are you prepared to acknowledge that the one(s) you are living with or without, or hiding from, may be your Desdemona? (Am I prepared to be another's Desdemona? Do I know whether or not I already am?) You are not going to murder her. Is it enough to say that?

You do not claim, I believe, to go around every day in roughly Othello's frame of mind?——Not exactly. But I claim to see how his life figures mine, how mine has the makings of his, that we bear an internal relation to one another; how my happiness depends upon living touched but not struck by his problems, or struck but not stricken; problems of trust and betrayal, of false isolation and false company, of the desire and the fear of both privacy and union. (453)

(p.154) We are like Othello insofar as we are daily disappointed in our occasions for knowing another, as if our expectations are too high, or just too different. Countless marriages—and friendships and congregations—have come to grief here and without discovering, as we may suppose Othello did, that the problem was the expectations, not the spouse. Or, without discovering whether it was the expectations or the spouse. Skepticism here is “produced not by a doubt about whether we can know but by a disappointment over knowledge itself” (440). The failure of knowledge to live up to our expectations does not mean it has not succeeded.

How is this an answer, and to what? Maybe it is not an answer at all. Is Cavell saying “change the way you relate to others,” or “change the way you view your relationships with others”? Is that a distinction worth making? It is not clear how to do one without the other. But the question—how would accepting that “just this haphazard, unsponsored state of the world, just this radiation of relationships, of my cares and commitments, provides the milieu in which my knowledge of others can best be expressed” change that milieu?—is still open. In particular, it is open to the response that accepting just this as the best is giving up or caving in. As when Margaret Fuller said, “I accept the universe,” and Carlyle responded, “By Gad, she'd better.”51 The juxtaposition of Fuller and Carlyle should at least serve to suggest that “I accept the universe” can mean very different things depending on who says it. Imagine, because it is so difficult, Fuller's words in the mouth of a character from a Sebald novel. (Is it harder than reading Zagajewski's injunction to “try to praise the mutilated world”?) Sebald's traumatized exiles cannot find their feet anywhere, not at home, not in England. So they become “fantasists, ill-equipped for life,” and create worlds of their own out of paint, thread, matchsticks, words, though even here they still seem lost. Or, can we imagine the words in the mouth of Alceste, who finds the world uninhabitable and wishes to withdraw from it with Célimène, so disgusted by the world around him, he wants to find the world in her and wants to be the world, the whole world, for her. Here, maybe always, misanthropy takes the form of narcissism.


(1.) Themes Out of School, 143–144.

(2.) “I do not, that is, confine the term [‘skepticism’] to philosophers who wind up denying that we can ever know; I apply it to any view which takes the existence of the world to be a problem of knowledge” (46). In what follows, I occasionally refer to skeptics and anti-skeptics but always with this in mind.


(3.) See Rorty's “Cavell on Skepticism.” Cavell wrote, “It might be worth pointing out that these teachings [Wittgenstein's on privacy and on the ‘functions and contexts of language’] are fundamental to American pragmatism; but then we must keep in mind how different their arguments sound, and admit that in philosophy it is the sound which makes all the difference” (Must We Mean What We Say? 36n31). One point of contention between Cavell and Rorty is that, as Cavell says here, “skepticism is a natural possibility of that condition; it reveals most perfectly the standing threat to thought and communication.” But Cavell never does more than hint at the reasons for the emergence of what we know as skepticism in the modern period.

(4.) For example (from Claim of Reason):

  • “What is the wonder which eliciting criteria satisfies?” (29)

  • “I might say that publicness is [Wittgenstein's] goal. It would be like having sanity as one's goal. Then what state would one take oneself to be in?” (44)

  • “What is disappointing about criteria?” (81)

  • “What do we wish to deny in the face of Wittgenstein's teaching when we feel we must protect the privacy of the soul against him?” (329)

  • “Could anything and everything a person does be doodling? Is this a fear which the fantasy of the private language is meant to conceal? An anxiety that our expressions might at any time signify nothing? Or too much?” (350–351)

  • “But can philosophy become literature and still know itself ?” (495)

(5.) I owe this apt phrase to Dipesh Chakrabarty, Habitations of Modernity, 42.

(6.) I realize this is not yet an argument with Rorty. Cavell is right that the skeptical experience is rather common even now, but the pragmatist would have no trouble granting that. It is not enough for Cavell to say that many, in Philosophy 101, feel a sense of recognition when the professor is trying to convince them of the need for epistemology, that movies like Being John Malkovich or The Matrix and songs like “Wish You Were Here” demonstrate how such issues remain live ones. Cavell needs to establish the further claim that such experiences should be taken seriously, that they need philosophy, that our sense that they do isn't rather like the anxious first-time parent calling the doctor every time the child has a sniffle. This, of course, is an argument about what constitutes philosophy. A tempting way of phrasing the question might be, “Does Rorty want to be as dismissive about Emerson's grief and Othello's jealousy as about Descartes' ball of wax?” But that would miss Rorty's point. It is that connection which Rorty is denying. Rorty is deeply appreciative of Cavell's work on romantic and existentialist varieties of skepticism. But, he asks, why does Cavell think that, in order to address such issues, he has to drag us back through Moore, Price, Lewis, Berkeley, Hume? All you really need (to understand Blake and Sartre, etc.) is Kant.

This gets tricky. On one hand, I applaud Cavell's interest in keeping the lines of communication open, or trying to get them open, between Anglo-American analytic philosophy and literature and between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. His patience and generosity with analytic philosophy are constitutive of his project. On (p.251) the other hand, I confess that I tend to read him like Rorty does. That is, among Cavell's many interlocutors, I find that I almost invariably choose to read (or view) Thoreau, Emerson, the romantics, Freud, and films and almost never Moore et al., and my writing on him reflects that. (My relative lack of attention to part II of The Claim of Reason is—for many Cavell readers—damning evidence of this.) Last, I note the irony, or curiosity, that it is Rorty whose writing remains preoccupied with contemporary analytic philosophy even if antagonistically, while Cavell's work, beginning with the fourth part of The Claim of Reason, seems less and less interested in the analytic tradition. In that sense, it is Cavell's great student James Conant, not Cavell, who most actively works at bridge building and conversation creation with the analytic tradition.

(7.) Readers of Cavell will be disappointed that I all but skip part II of The Claim of Reason. (I attended to part III in the chapter on Alasdair MacIntyre.) My only excuse is that one purpose of this chapter is to be a springboard to issues of theological anthropology, and so my concern with other mind skepticism overwhelms my concern with external world skepticism.

(8.) Others writing on Cavell have reflected on this:

Cavell's writing places extraordinary pressure on itself to describe, undistractedly and specifically, the forces of the mind. This is one reason why one inclines to quotation in discussing his writing. Any paraphrase that even slightly misinflects his descriptions runs the risk of near-total distortion. If one feels that one's sensibility has been truly captured by a phrase or a conjunction of adjectives, then no substitute will do. (Davidson, “Beginning Cavell,” 234–235)

(9.) Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, 24.

(10.) James Conant puts it this way: “Our (ordinary) concept of knowledge cannot find a natural foothold here (in relation to ‘the world as such’), that there is no obvious ordinary sense to be made of the words know and world here.” “On Bruns, on Cavell,” 627.

(11.) Mulhall, “Stanley Cavell's Vision,” 79.

(12.) “What gives us so much as the idea that living beings, things, can feel?” Philosophical Investigations, §283.

(13.) Mulhall, Stanley Cavell, 114.

(14.) Wilfred Thesiger reports that, among the Danakil (Afar) of northeastern Ethiopia, a young boy is only recognized as male after he has killed an enemy. Before that, “he” is a girl. The Danakil Diaries: Journeys through Abyssinia 1930–34 (London: HarperCollins, 1996).

(15.) Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 311.

(16.) This claim comes after Cavell's lengthy and remarkable attempt to render coherent Wittgenstein's wood sellers, “people who sell wood not according to what we call ‘the amount of wood’ in a pile but according to the amount of ground covered by the pile, regardless of its height.”

(17.) Here what is at issue are not alone differences between promising and fully intending, or between coronations and inaugurations, or between barter and a credit (p.252) system; these are differences within the plane, the horizon, of the social, of human society. The biological or vertical sense of forms of life recalls differences between the human and so-called “lower” or “higher” forms of life, between say, poking at your food, perhaps with a fork, and pawing at it, or pecking at it ….Wittgenstein seems to court a confusion over the emphasis as between social and natural. (This New Yet Unapproachable America, 41–42)

(18.) Said, Orientalism, 67.

(19.) Wittgenstein: “No, I don't think I would get on with Hegel. Hegel seems to me to be always wanting to say that things that look different are really the same. Whereas my interest is in showing that things which look the same are really different” (quoted in William Desmond, “A Second Primavera,” in Eldridge, Stanley Cavell, 169).

(20.) Cavell does not, so far as I know, ever write at much length about the issues explored in this section and throughout Claim in relation to animals. That task is taken up brilliantly by Vicki Hearne in her book Adam's Task, which, she notes in the introduction, could never have been written without The Claim of Reason.

(21.) To anticipate chapter 7, I note here that these lines and the rest of this paragraph are a way of explicating what Emerson meant by “self-reliance” and why Cavell understands “conformity”—ceding my responsibility for intervention and agreement to the herd—in Emerson to be a name for a variety of skepticism. “How do we become self-reliant?” asks Cavell. “The worst thing we could do [according to Emerson] is rely on ourselves” (Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, 47). There is also a certain reading of Wittgenstein in which “convention” or “forms of life” allows me to cede my responsibility. Such readers are not exactly conformists, but they will tend to find Emerson annoying.

(22.) Must We Mean What We Say? 263.

(23.) See The Claim of Reason, 144.

(24.) “Other mind skepticism” is convenient philosophical shorthand. But it is misleading and, though Cavell will occasionally use it, he prefers something like “skepticism with respect to knowledge of others.”

(25.) Philosophical Investigations, §297.

(26.) Ibid., §283.

(27.) The Claim of Reason, 428. Cf. Must We Mean What We Say? 257. Acknowledgment is not a substitute or replacement for knowledge. Such readings take Cavell to be affirming the skeptical thesis and then offering an alternative way out. Acknowledgment, we might say, is constitutive of knowledge and undermines the skeptic's understanding of knowledge rather than affirming it.

(28.) Cavell will go on to problematize this account of material objects: “It would not hurt my intuitions, to anticipate further than this book actually goes, were someone to be able to show that my discoveries in the regions of the skeptical problem of the other are, rightly understood, further characterizations of (material object) skepticism, of skepticism as such” (451). Aware that, so far, it sounds like empathic projection makes knowing others “too special a project from the beginning, as if the knowing of objects could take care of itself, whereas what goes into the knowing of (p.253) others is everything that goes into the knowing of objects plus something else, something that, as it were, animates the object” (441). Maybe, he suggests, that has it backward. Maybe there is a way of seeing, a way worth cultivating, which sees material objects as animated as well. Cavell had argued that empathic projection “seams” our experience, affixes a seam between humans and all other material objects. But now he asks, what if our experience is endlessly, continuously seamed such that “for each link in the Great Chain of Being there is an appropriate hook of response” (Ibid.)? At this point, all he says is, “Some of this, most of it, I would like to see worked out. I am interested, for example, in the perception or vision of how different different things are from one another” (442). Later, in In Quest of the Ordinary, Cavell takes on part of the task of working this out in connection with his increasing interest in romanticism. For a fine account, see Mulhall, Stanley Cavell, 142–181.

(29.) Hence Cavell's claim that “the subject of self-knowledge, both as a phenomenon and as a source of philosophical knowledge, has been blocked or denied in modern philosophy” (The Claim of Reason, 146).

(30.) Cavell goes on to add, with his characteristic and tantalizing obscurity, “And it would account for the intermittent emptiness in attempts to prove, or disprove, our knowledge of the existence of others. Proofs for God's existence, and criticisms of these proofs, are apt to be empty intermittently for people whose conviction is that they are known by God, or to God, or not.” The suggestion is that knowing the self and knowing others go together, an important point that recurs centrally on 459ff.

(31.) Philosophical Investigations, §253.

(32.) Must We Mean What We Say? 266.

(33.) Rowan Williams is echoing Cavell when he writes that we have lost the skills necessary for “being present for and in an other ….It sounds odd, I suspect, to talk of a ‘skill’ of being seen; but there is such a thing as a habit of relinquishing controlled self-presentation; or of that attentive stillness which is somehow bound up with being attended to” (Lost Icons, 175).

(34.) The only way to get a handle on Cavellian patience is to read him. Just in case, as is all too likely, my writing cannot duplicate it, I call attention to his patience with Rousseau and Alceste, his patience with the wood sellers (115–117), his patience with analytic philosophers like Moore.

(35.) My refusal to declare myself may also result in losing touch with myself. “To say that behavior is expressive is not to say that a man impaled upon his sensation must express it in his behavior; it is to say that in order not to express it he must suppress the behavior, or twist it. And if he twists it far or often enough, he may lose possession of the region of the mind which that behavior is expressing.” Must We Mean What We Say? 264.

(36.) In Quest of the Ordinary, 119.

(37.) The passive skeptic is the private linguist.

(38.) Disowning Knowledge, 5.

(39.) Ibid., 5–6.


(40.) Which is why he will sometimes say, “Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy” instead of simply counting Wittgenstein as an ordinary language philosopher on the model of Austin or Ryle.

(41.) There are important distinctions to be made here which I am passing over except to say that this gets us into the thick of the debates over how to read Wittgenstein's “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Philosophical Investigations, §43). For a careful and lucid account of Wittgenstein and Cavell on these issues, see Conant, “Wittgenstein on Meaning and Use,” 222–250.

(42.) Disowning Knowledge, 7.

(43.) Ibid., 8.

(44.) It is from here that Cavell's fascination with romanticism makes sense. Romanticism is the attempt to listen to the claims objects make upon us (from the position the skeptic has put the object in), to reanimate the world, resuscitate it from the death dealt it by Kant.

(45.) This does not mean that the reader should turn to the Othello section expecting “literary” revisions of the (“philosophical”) conclusions that preceded it. The Othello section is the confirmation of the journey preceding it, but only if we realize that that journey began as much from the Lear essay as from philosophy. “That link [between skepticism and tragedy in Lear] has more than any other single event set the course of my writing since then” (Conant, “An Interview with Stanley Cavell,” 62). So when, for example, Alasdair MacIntyre complains that, in the Othello pages, “Cavell has projected his own philosophical preoccupations onto the play. Consequently, the philosophy does not seem to arise from the doubts and perplexities expressed in the play but rather from Cavell's professional concerns” (“Alasdair MacIntyre on the Claims of Philosophy,” 16), he fails to realize that Cavell's preoccupations and concerns in The Claim of Reason have already been formed and informed by tragedy long before the sustained discussion of Othello.

I claim something similar for myself in response to theological readers who may think that the theology in the pages that follow projects “philosophical concerns” onto theology in a deleterious manner. That is, I wish to say that my affection for Cavell proceeded from a theological education, that my attachment to him is because of that education and part of it, not in spite of it or as an alternative to it.

(46.) As does his earlier suggestion that “[i]t makes equal sense—at least equal—to suppose that the natural … condition of human perception is of (outward) things, whether objects or persons, as animated; so that it is the seeing of objects as objects (i.e., seeing them objectively, as non-animated that is the sophisticated development” (441).

(47.) “whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth, as monumental alabaster” (V.ii.4–5).

(48.) Disowning Knowledge, 9.

(49.) Ibid., 10.

(50.) The whole passage goes like this:

This is the sense—is it not?—of the passage from Genesis in which theology has taken marriage to be legitimized, in which the origin of marriage is presented as the creation of the woman from the man. It is how they are one (p.255) flesh. Then let us emphasize that this ceremony of union takes the form of a ceremony of separation, thus declaring that the question of two becoming one is just half the problem; the other half is how one becomes two. (Disowning Knowledge, 220)

(51.) Quoted in Bromwich, A Choice of Inheritance, 152: “[Fuller] was announcing her intention not to quit the contest, while acknowledging the conditions in which she was obliged to work. Carlyle, it seems, took her to be showing a polite condescension to the universe; and his reply … was aimed at the paltriness of the human conceit that we have any choice in the matter.” I don't mean to dismiss Carlyle here. It is worth asking, “What kind of people can even imagine an option here?” I suppose there are many to whom it does not occur that they have a choice. How we think about this will depend upon a great many things.