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Stanley Cavell, 1926–2018

Christopher Benfey
None of us spoke in his classes, or did so only rarely. We all mainly listened as Cavell thought aloud, worried a passage, fired off rhetorical questions without waiting for an answer, sulked, and raved.
Stanley Cavell

He was a jazz musician before he was a philosopher. An air of improvisation and fun hung over everything he did. Pauline Kael was lecturing at Harvard, and I saw him standing on the Cambridge Common, shortly before the lecture was to begin, looking bewildered. “Are you lost?” I asked jokingly. “This is Mass. Ave., and that over there is Garden Street.” “I know what street I’m on,” he said, as though he’d stepped out of one of the screwball comedies he so loved. “But what town am I in?”

He didn’t prepare a syllabus. He didn’t order books for his courses. He was casual with student papers. According to the awful assessment measures of our awful times, he was probably a lousy teacher, and yet he was the most exciting classroom presence I’ve ever experienced. He brought an extraordinary range of passions—for jazz and Shakespeare (in his famous essay on Lear, for example), for American film comedies (in Pursuits of Happiness, perhaps his best book), for “ordinary language” philosophy, for the unexpected philosophical richness of Thoreau (The Senses of Walden) and Emerson—to everything he had to say.

One had the impression that he was making up the course as he went along. He didn’t have a clear plan, and yet, like a saxophone player armed with a “fake book,” he knew the tune. At the first class meeting of his aesthetics seminar at Harvard, during the spring of 1978, he began scrawling titles on the blackboard: Of Grammatology, The Anxiety of Influence, A Map of Misreading, Blindness and Insight. Of course, we could read a few pages of Kant’s Critique of Judgment instead, he said. But since the most provocative current work in aesthetics was being done in English departments and comparative literature departments, why not take a look? 

Martha Nussbaum, an assistant professor dividing her time between the Classics and Philosophy departments, was one of the people crammed around the seminar table. So was the philosopher Norton Batkin, who would later become Cavell’s son-in-law. There were film people from the Carpenter Center and comp lit students like me and my pal Liliane Weissberg. The music producer Billy Ruane, an indescribable, fidgety, bohemian presence, was there. Arnold Davidson, who later edited Critical Inquiry, was there. People dropped in from the bookstore across the street, à l’improviste, as the French say.

None of us spoke, or did so only rarely. We all mainly listened as Cavell thought aloud, worried a passage, fired off rhetorical questions without waiting for an answer, sulked, and raved. Occasionally, he expressed mild appreciation. He admired, for example, how Derrida, with his horror of sentimentality, had eviscerated Lévi-Strauss on the question of the primacy of oral over written language. But Cavell could also be impatient to the point of anger. How did Derrida get off thinking that Peirce’s claims were self-evident, when American philosophers for a hundred years had found them all but impenetrable?

Over Harold Bloom, Cavell was particularly exercised. How exactly was Bloom’s method of identifying sources different from a book like John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, with its relentless tracking down of the literary sources of Coleridge’s supposed opium dream? Did we really believe Bloom’s claim that Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” since it mentions dead leaves, somehow haunts Leaves of Grass? What could possibly count as evidence? And why did Bloom steer clear of close reading? Was it that he was no good at it?

This was in 1978, at the height of the importation—or invasion, as some thought—of theory into American humanities departments. At Harvard, in particular, anxiety was high. Yale was all in and Harvard was resisting. I remember Derek Bok, president of the university at the time, announcing to a gathering of English Department professors that “Jacques Derrida will never teach at Harvard!” Everyone cheered. But Cavell knew that there was something going on, some intellectual ferment worth gauging, and engaging. So, he engaged Derrida on J.L. Austin and “parasitic” speech acts, picked a fight with de Man on a line from Yeats.

Like a hundred critics before him, de Man had misquoted the concluding line of “Among School Children” as “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?” It was clearly a rhetorical question, according to de Man, a perfect fusion of form and content. We can’t tell the difference between the dancer and the dance. Cavell pointed out that the wording of the line was actually “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Furthermore, it wasn’t at all clear that the question was rhetorical. On the contrary, Yeats appeared to be asking, as had Wittgenstein and other philosophers exploring the so-called Problem of Other Minds, how we make sense of other people via their bodies, their gestures, their expressions, their words. There are ways in which we can know the dancer from—and by means of—the dance.


It was exhilarating to be present for such performances. Close reading seemed suddenly electrifying, a game with very high stakes. For years, I took my intellectual bearings from Cavell. In my first book, I found in Emily Dickinson some of the themes—skepticism, nearness, the problem of others—that he had discovered in Thoreau and Emerson. I invited him to come to Mount Holyoke to lecture about Wallace Stevens, mainly because I knew that he loved Stevens and had written almost nothing about him. I wanted to hear that improvisatory brilliance aimed at Stevens. From Stevens’s vast corpus, Cavell teased out the notion of “earliness,” of our thirst for a relation to the world that precedes preconceptions, assumptions, conventions. It was a kindred earliness, a freshness of response, that Cavell himself aimed for in his own writing and thinking.

I find a page of my notes from a Cavell class, tucked into my copy of Philosophical Investigations. It is a record of Cavell thinking, and we hung on every word:

Wittgenstein is on Austin’s mind, but he tries to forget him. Wittgenstein says, there are infinite uses of language. Austin says, there are about 10,000. Metaphors can’t be listed in a dictionary; idioms can. Metaphors aren’t false, they’re wildly false, crazily, madly false. I.A. Richards and de Man seem to be forcing the word metaphor into dead metaphors. What are metaphors for, anyway? Is it possible that someone never learned to use metaphor?

Editors’ Note: This tribute to Stanley Cavell elicited an exchange of letters from former students and teaching fellows. All agree that Cavell was a uniquely charismatic and effective teacher, but some wished to put on record their view that Cavell also put great energy into his preparation for teaching.

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