Stanley Cavell

Stanley Louis Cavell (born September 1, 1926) is an American philosopher. He is the Walter M. Cabot Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University.


Born to a Jewish family in Atlanta, Georgia, Cavell first trained in music, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in music at Berkeley in 1947. Shortly after being accepted at Juilliard, he gave up studying music and changed to philosophy at UCLA and later at Harvard, where he studied under J. L. Austin. His first teaching position was at Berkeley, but he returned to Harvard, where he became the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value in 1963. In 1997 he became Professor Emeritus.

Currently, Cavell resides in Brookline, Massachusetts.


Although trained in the Anglo-American analytic tradition, Cavell often engages in dialogue with the continental tradition. He is well known for his inclusion of film and literary study into philosophical inquiry.

Cavell has written extensively on Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, and Martin Heidegger, as well as on the American Transcendentalists Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He has been associated with an approach toward interpreting Wittgenstein sometimes known as the New Wittgenstein.

Much of Cavell's writing incorporates autobiographical elements concerning how his movement between and within the ideas of these thinkers influenced and influences his own thinking.


Must We Mean What We Say?

Cavell first established his distinct philosophical identity with a collection of essays, entitled Must We Mean What We Say? (1969), a work which addresses topics such as language use, metaphor, skepticism, tragedy, and literary interpretation, with a view to ordinary language philosophy, a school of which he is a practitioner and ardent defender.

The World Viewed

In The World Viewed (1971) Cavell looks at photography and film. He also writes on modernism in art, and the nature of media, where he mentions the importance to his work of the writing of art critic Michael Fried.

The Claim of Reason

Cavell is perhaps best known for his book, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (1979), which forms the centerpiece of his work, and which has its origins in his doctoral dissertation.

Pursuits of Happiness

In Pursuits of Happiness (1981), Cavell describes his experience of seven prominent Hollywood comedies: The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Adam’s Rib, and The Awful Truth. Cavell argues that these films, from the years 1934–1949, form part of what he calls the genre of "remarriage," and he finds in them great philosophical, moral, and indeed political significance.

Cities of Words

In Cities of Words (2004) Cavell traces the history of moral perfectionism, a mode of moral thinking spanning the history of Western philosophy and literature. Having previously used Emerson to define the concept, this book suggests ways we might want to understand philosophy, literature, and film as preoccupied with features of perfectionism.

Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow

In his most recent collection of essays, Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow (2005), Cavell makes the case that John Austin's concept of performative utterance requires the supplementary concept of "passionate utterance": "A performative utterance is an offer of participation in the order of law. And perhaps we can say: A passionate utterance is an invitation to improvisation in the disorders of desire. The book also contains extended discussions of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Fred Astaire, as well as familiar Cavellian subjects such as Shakespeare, Emerson, Thoreau, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger.



External links

See also

  • The Stanley Cavell Special Issue: Writings and Ideas on Film Studies, An Appreciation in Six Essays, Film International, Issue 22, Vol. 4, No. 4 (2006), Jeffrey Crouse, guest editor. The essays include those by Diane Stevenson, Charles Warren, Anke Brouwers and Tom Paulus, William Rothman, Morgan Bird, and George Toles.

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