Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,318

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,318


This is the grave of Stanley Cavell.

Born in 1926 in Atlanta as Stanley Goldstein, he changed his name in the early 40s, I think maybe to hide his Jewish background. He later claimed that it was an immigration official that gave his grandfather that name. That’s a common thing to claim, but recent evidence has suggested that immigration officials changed the names of eastern Europeans far less than the myth suggests. Anyway, he kept the name the rest of his life.

Anyway, his parents moved around a lot when he was a kid. It was the Depression and they didn’t have stable work. They ended up in Sacramento, where Cavell was a good jazz alto player, the only white kid in an otherwise all-Black band. This was in the early 40s. He went to the University of California in Berkeley to study music. He managed to avoid the military due to medical reasons (a car accident as a child damaged his hearing), graduated in 1944, and went to Julliard, where he discovered that maybe he wasn’t as good at music as he thought. He dropped out and applied to UCLA to study philosophy and then transferred to Harvard.

OK, philosophy. Look, I don’t have the brain for these kind of things. I’m a bad intellectual I guess, or maybe not really one at all. I am a policy guy, not an idea guy. So I get lost REAL FAST here. Therefore, I am going to just quote from the New York Times obituary of Cavell here for a bit. No one is paying for this grave visit anyway.

Professor Cavell was for decades on the faculty of Harvard University, where he often expounded on the ideas of what is called ordinary language philosophy, which argues that philosophers have become so preoccupied with convoluted statements of philosophical problems that they have lost touch with everyday words and their meanings.

As he put it in his 1984 book, “Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes,” philosophy should be a “willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to learn to think undistractedly about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about.”

And thus he would often connect philosophy to movies and plays, as he did in “Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage,” a 1981 book that trained a philosophical lens on “The Lady Eve,” “Bringing Up Baby” and five other films from the years 1934 to 1949.

Stanley Cavell brought to philosophy a human depth and subtlety that it had all too often lacked,” said Martha C. Nussbaum, a former colleague at Harvard and now the Ernst Freund distinguished service professor in the law school and philosophy department at the University of Chicago. “He also showed his more cautious peers that writing on Shakespeare and even Hollywood films could make a philosophical contribution, illuminating issues of love, shame and community.”

“As a teacher,” she added, “he thrilled and challenged generations of undergraduates in the core curriculum, and nourished the careers of many graduate students who are now leaders in the profession.”

n 1957, he wrote an essay called “Must We Mean What We Say?” (His first book, a collection published in 1969, carried the same title and led with that essay.) It examined the issue of philosophy’s detachment from real-world language. It opened stridently.

“That what we ordinarily say and mean may have a direct and deep control over what we can philosophically say and mean is an idea which many philosophers find oppressive,” he wrote. The essay went on to discuss the theories of J. L. Austin, one of his main influences, and others on both sides of the ordinary-language debate.

Professor Cavell wrote 18 books, with “Pursuits of Happiness” among the most attention-getting. That book discussed seven movies that involved couples pondering divorce or trying to reconcile after separation — he called them comedies of remarriage and filled his discussion of them with references to Austin, Hegel, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Kant and other philosophers. But he invited readers not to take it all too seriously.

“If my citings of philosophical texts along the way hinder more than they help you, skip them,” he wrote.

See, I think Cavell himself would have approved of me doing this.

What Cavell did have going for him as well was a deep political commitment to justice. He led students himself down to Freedom Summer in 1964, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee reluctantly decided to allow white volunteers to come down and work on their voter registration project. They did so, knowing that only if white kids got killed too would the media care about any of this, which is exactly what happened. That in itself led to great bitterness and the move toward Black Power in SNCC. Regardless of the larger issues around it though, Cavell was a real warrior for racial justice, at least by the standards of elite white professors. He also was in anti-Vietnam protests and worked with his colleague John Rawls on pushing for an African and African-American Studies program at Harvard.

Being an enormous film fan, he helped found the Harvard Film Archive to preserve the nation’s film legacy. He won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1992. Generally, he’s just a pretty interesting guy. Philosopher who likes jazz and film and who also puts his money where his mouth is on politics? OK, yeah, wish we had more of those types around.

Cavell died in 2018 of heart failure. He was 91 years old.

Stanley Cavell is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other philosophers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Hilary Putnam is in West Roxbury, Massachusetts and George Herbert Mead is in Chicago. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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