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

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

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

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

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Christopher Roth
July 3rd, 2011
6:07 PM
"Grand" existential questions? or just questions of the here and now? questions that are, if anything, pragmatic in the context of the self's experience of its own existence? In that sense rather humbling--if ultimate--questions constituting the examined aspect of "learning to die," as Socrates formulated the philosopher's task. Such questions are in fact ethical (as distinguished from questions of nature/physics and logic, to use the Stoics' lines of division of the theoretical universe). I do think it is time to put aside the notion of a 'continental' philosophical tradition given that it encompasses every kind of philosophical discourse that has been practiced. It is misleading to delimit its traditions from the Anglo-American one, which has been as defined by what it excludes as by what it deems legitimate practice. Complexity may not equate with profundity, but I would submit that German philosophy has in fact been profounder than what the empirical-skeptical and language-analytical habits of mind favored by Anglo-American thinkers have produced. I suppose it may just be an accident that that profundity was accompanied by often cryptic, convoluted and opaque (= "complex") styles of writing (though this tends to be greatly exaggerated). It may be that some truths do not lend themselves to complete univocity of expression.

Robert Rogers IV
March 15th, 2011
3:03 PM
Stanley Cavell is a joy to read. Anyone who has trouble with the complexity of his sentences might wish to re-enter kindergarten. A complex mind thinks in complex ways, but the brilliance and depth of this man's thoughts and insights more than outweigh any alleged difficulty with his prose style. One simply needs to concentrate on his thoughts and insights and one will have a sublime, truly sublime reading experience. No one should be the slightest deterred from reading this inspiring and magnificent book by the final paragraph of this review. I cannot recommend it more highly than I do.

March 14th, 2011
5:03 AM
"Part of the appeal of the psychoanalytic outlook is its alertness to multiple nuances and deeper layers of meaning beneath our surface utterances. It is this dimension that much analytic philosophy appears to miss, with its insistence on a rigorously transparent discourse that eliminates all possible ambiguity." How are these two things supposed to be contradictory? On the one hand, you've got psychoanalytic theory telling us that many of our beliefs and behaviors are motivated by unconscious factors. On the other, you've got the widespread preference in anglophone philosophy for maximum clarity in the presentation of arguments. How does the latter cause philosophers to "miss" any aspect of the former? It seems like a totally apples-to-oranges comparison between a psychological thesis and a scholarly predilection. Would Cottingham suggest that philosophers give up trying to respond to each other's views on their philosophical merits, and instead engage in armchair psychoanalysis to uncover the "layers of meaning" which reveal why someone is REALLY a consequentialist or an advocate for narrow mental content or what have you? (Probably not, but then why DOES he make this bewildering statement?)

March 13th, 2011
4:03 PM
Poor Mr Kennamer - what a kenning: are you the knowledge namer or the bitter knower? - it must hurt to be so superior. "Part of the appeal of the psychoanalytic outlook is its alertness to multiple nuances and deeper layers of meaning beneath our surface utterances." In what way is this "aside" (which it isn't) "an implied slur--I hope unwitting--on all the genuinely probing thought that has emanated from myriad precincts untainted by Freudianism"? Your own thinking here is notably lacking in clarity. To say A excludes B? The rabble-rousing "untainted by", by the way, is an unmissable sign of unanalysed affect.

James Clarke
March 13th, 2011
12:03 PM
Cavell's writing about film is a fascinating body of work for those interested in refreshing their thinking about cinema.

Ted Schrey Montreal
March 12th, 2011
2:03 AM
I wouldn't exactly recommend philosophy in the form of confession--but almost anything has got to be better than the so-called 'analytic philosophy'. I would say that if one takes Sartre's Being and Nothingness and adds e.g. Whitehead's Modes of Thought and then for dessert, say, something by Krishnamurti, Castaneda and/or E.F.Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed, one comes rather nicely equipped for the long road through life--and all this without fear of getting arrogant or immodest.

March 11th, 2011
10:03 PM
Yawn... I often hear this sort of drivel people who are not interested in real philosophy. People who are not actually interested in asking questions about the nature of knowledge and reasoning and what we can know and how we can know it. People who wish philosophy was coffee house bullshit. The philosophy of the past looked more at questions of the soul, morality and the existence of god, because those were the way people in the past explained the universe and our interaction with it. The contemporary philosopher must engage with the contemporary world. Theology is no longer the queen of the sciences, and the soul is no longer a cutting edge explanation of mental activity. Philosophers above all else, engage in reasoning about reasoning. We look at how we can have knowledge. This is one of the most basic and most human questions. Ethics certainly has a place in contemporary philosophy, but it too has been stripped of theological references, because for the vast majority of modern societies such references, at the vary least, make ethical systems relative to those who hold those beliefs. The fact is that looking deeply at knowledge and reasoning is hard. The technical tools that contemporary academic philosophers use are similar to those used in other fields, including, but not limited, to various advanced mathematics including algebraic logic, and probability, and an understanding of contemporary scientific theories especially new theoretical models. This may not be the sort of chit chat that lets you strike a learned pose in you local coffee shop wearing you black turtleneck and smoking imported cigarettes, but it is what it takes to move the field.

Stephen Kennamer
March 10th, 2011
4:03 AM
Cottingham seems unaware of how damning his addendum about Cavell's style is. In a philosopher especially. Many years ago I read Cavell on Thoreau--a true philosopher--and I was one and done. The contrast between Cavell's style and Thoreau's is telling: clotted prose indicates unclear thought. Curiously, Freud, who was wrong about almost everything except the folly of Prohibition in America, had an admirably clear style. But you do have to be unusually woolly-headed to immunize yourself against the myriad refutations of his pseudoscience trying to keep his game afoot. Freud doesn't even illuminate Cavell's disastrous childhood: we need no Oedipal theory to make sense of the effect of an abusive father and charismatic mother on an intelligent and imaginative child. Cottingham's aside that psychoanalysis promotes "alertness to multiple nuances and deeper layers of meaning beneath our surface utterances" is an implied slur--I hope unwitting--on all the genuinely probing thought that has emanated from myriad precincts untainted by Freudianism. As Poe said of chess, we may say of Freudianism that complexity is not necessarily profundity. In any case, I am comfortable equating downright error with shallowness. At this late date, spare me Freud's Greatness.

March 9th, 2011
7:03 PM
"Though trained in the Anglo-American analytic tradition, he has also been strongly influenced by the so-called 'continental' philosophical school" -- I'm curious how often this sort of description gets reversed. "Though a master of Zen Buddhism, he was strongly influenced by Frege".

March 9th, 2011
6:03 PM
You're taking that Nietzsche quote out of context. And even out of context, it doesn't serve the purpose you put it to: note "involuntary and unconscious.". Nietzsche's point is that all philosophy is such a memoir--even less solipsistic, self-indulgent philosophy. Note well: Nietzsche never spoke of himself in his works directly (he sooner used "we" than "I"). Even his autobiography uses few personal, private details. Nietzsche, furthermore, (like Schopenhauer) had little patience for those who think on paper. He even had a thing or two to say about the garrulousness of certain philosophers. Incidentally, Nietzsche gave due praise to "objective" technical scholars/specialists, whose existence he considered a triumph of humanity.

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