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Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (Cultural Memory in the Present)
Stanford University Press, 2010
581 pp., $34.95
In Exile from Our Words
Stanley Cavell's work focuses on the problem of skepticism and what the world looks like in its grip. One of our most important contemporary philosophers, Cavell has increasingly turned to non-philosophical sources—Emerson and Thoreau, Shakespeare, opera, films of the 1930s and '40s—in order to think about the "dissatisfaction with one's human powers" that drives skepticism. Raising doubts about whether I can know with certainty of the existence of the world or myself or others in it, skepticism, in its absolute demands, represents, for Cavell, a refusal to participate in finite human existence. But in its demands for certainty, he claims, it also, inadvertently, brings into focus the "haphazard, unsponsored state" we find ourselves in. Following Wittgenstein, who famously saw in the meta-physical use of words a rejection of the human and a desire to use words "apart from, and in opposition to, the natural forms of life which gave those expressions the force they have," Cavell has sought not to defeat skepticism but to make use of it, finding in its disappointments a way back to the everyday.
Film and literature are where Cavell sees these issues most profoundly and, in a way, most philosophically enacted, which accounts for the excitement with which his work has been greeted by non-philosophers. His autobiography, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory, is itself a work of literature, as much a testing and investigation of voice as it is a human record. It takes him from his 1926 birth in Atlanta to the completion of the final section of his major work The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy in 1977, from which I have been quoting above. The story he tells is of finding, in philosophy, a way to talk about and think about his life—the discovery and elaboration of a voice responsive to the world and to others. The book's form is designed to keep the issue of human finitude constantly before us. Drafted over the course of ...