Stanley Cavell

Stanley Louis Cavell (/kəˈvɛl/; September 1, 1926 – June 19, 2018) was an American philosopher. He was the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University. He worked in the fields of ethics, aesthetics, and ordinary language philosophy. As an interpreter, he produced influential works on Wittgenstein, Austin, Emerson, Thoreau, and Heidegger. His work is characterized by its conversational tone and frequent literary references.

Stanley Cavell
Cavell in 2016
Stanley Louis Goldstein[1]

(1926-09-01)September 1, 1926
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
DiedJune 19, 2018(2018-06-19) (aged 91)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
EducationUniversity of California, Berkeley (B.A.)
UCLA (no degree)
Harvard University (Ph.D.)
SchoolPostanalytic philosophy[2]
Main interests
Skepticism, tragedy, aesthetics, ethics, ordinary language philosophy, American transcendentalism, film theory, William Shakespeare, opera, religion
Notable ideas
Linguistic film theory[3]


Cavell was born to a Jewish family in Atlanta, Georgia. His mother, a locally renowned pianist, trained him in music from his earliest days.[28] During the Depression, Cavell’s parents moved several times between Atlanta and Sacramento, California.[29] As an adolescent, Cavell played lead alto saxophone as the youngest member of a black jazz band in Sacramento.[30] He entered the University of California, Berkeley where, along with his lifelong friend Bob Thompson (musician), he majored in music, studying with, among others, Roger Sessions and Ernest Bloch.[31] After graduation, he studied composition at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, only to discover that music was not his calling.[32]

He entered graduate school at UCLA, studying philosophy, and then transferred to Harvard University.[33] As a student there he came under the influence of J. L. Austin, whose teaching and methods "knocked him off ... [his] horse."[34] In 1954 he was awarded a Junior Fellowship at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Before completing his Ph.D., he became an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956.[35] Cavell's daughter by his first wife (Marcia Cavell), Rachel Lee Cavell, was born in 1957. From 1962–1963 Cavell was a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he befriended the British philosopher Bernard Williams.[36] Cavell’s marriage to Marcia ended in divorce in 1961. In 1963 he returned to the Harvard Philosophy Department, where he became the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value.[37]

In the summer of 1964, Cavell joined a group of graduate students, who taught at Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Mississippi, as part of what became known as the Freedom Summer.[38] He and Cathleen (Cohen) Cavell were married in 1967. In April 1969, during the student protests (chiefly arising from the Vietnam War), Cavell, helped by his colleague John Rawls, worked with a group of African-American students to draft language for a vote by the faculty that established the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard.[39]

In 1976, Cavell's first son Benjamin was born. In 1979, along with the documentary filmmaker Robert Gardner, Cavell helped found the Harvard Film Archive, to preserve and present the history of film.[40] Cavell received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992.[41] From 1996-1997 Cavell was President of the American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division). In 1984, his second son David was born.[42] He remained on the Harvard faculty until his retirement in 1997. After retiring, he taught courses at Yale University and the University of Chicago. He also held the Spinoza Chair of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam in 1998.[43]

Cavell died in Boston, Massachusetts of heart failure on June 19, 2018 at the age of 91.[44] He was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery.[45]


Although trained in the Anglo-American analytic tradition, Cavell frequently interacted with the continental tradition. He includes film and literary study in philosophical inquiry. Cavell writes extensively on Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, and Martin Heidegger, as well as on the American transcendentalists Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He interprets Wittgenstein in a fashion known as the New Wittgenstein. Cavell's writing incorporates autobiographical elements concerning how his movement between and within the ideas of these thinkers influenced and influences his own thinking that impacted spheres in the arts and humanities beyond the technical study of philosophy.

Cavell established his distinct philosophical identity with Must We Mean What We Say? (1969), which addresses topics such as language use, metaphor, skepticism, tragedy, and literary interpretation, from the point of view of ordinary language philosophy, of which he is a practitioner and ardent defender. One of the essays discusses Søren Kierkegaard's work on revelation and authority, The Book on Adler, in an effort to help re-introduce the book to modern philosophical readers.[46] In The World Viewed (1971) Cavell looks at photography and film. He also covers modernism in art and the nature of media, where he mentions the influence of art critic Michael Fried's writing on his work.

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. 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 "The Comedy of Remarriage," and he finds in them great philosophical, moral, and indeed political significance. Specifically, Cavell argues that these Hollywood comedies show that "the achievement of happiness requires not the [...] satisfaction of our needs [...] but the examination and transformation of those needs."[47] According to Cavell, the emphasis that these movies place on "remarriage" draws attention to the fact that, within a relationship, happiness requires "growing up" together with one's partner.[48]

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 used Emerson to outline the concept, this book suggests ways we might want to understand philosophy, literature, and film as preoccupied with features of perfectionism. In Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow (2005), a collection of essays, Cavell makes the case that J. L. 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."[49] 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. Cavell's final book, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (2010), is an autobiography written in the form of a diary. In a series of consecutive, dated entries, Cavell inquires about the origins of his philosophy by telling the story of his life.

A scholarly journal, the Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies, engages with his philosophical work. It is edited by Sérgio Dias Branco and Amir Khan and published by the University of Ottawa.

Honorary degrees

Selected honors

Selected special lectureships


  • Must We Mean What We Say? (1969)
  • The Senses of Walden (1972) Expanded edition San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.
  • The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (1971); 2nd enlarged edn. (1979)
  • The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (1979) New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981) ISBN 978-0-674-73906-2
  • Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes (1984)
  • Disowning Knowledge: In Six Plays of Shakespeare (1987); 2nd edn.: Disowning Knowledge: In Seven Plays of Shakespeare (2003)
  • In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Scepticism and Romanticism (1988) Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (1988)
  • Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (1990)
  • A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises (1994)
  • Philosophical Passages: Wittgenstein, Emerson, Austin, Derrida (1995)
  • Contesting Tears: The Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (1996)
  • Emerson's Transcendental Etudes (2003)
  • Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (2004)
  • Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow (2005)
  • Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory (2010)


  1. David LaRocca, Emerson's English Traits and the Natural History of Metaphor, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013, p. 318.
  2. Michael Adrian Peters, Education, Philosophy and Politics: The Selected Works of Michael A. Peters, Routledge, 2012, p. 210.
  3. The Dualist Vols. 1–6, Department of Philosophy, Stanford University, 1994, p. 56.
  4. "Stanley Cavell on Close Listening | Jacket2".
  5. Kompridis, Nikolas. "The Idea of a New Beginning.pdf". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. "An Interview with Stanley Cavell". The Senses of Stanley Cavell. Bucknell. 1989. p. 59.
  7. Philosophy and Animal Life. Columbia University Press. 2008.
  8. Revolution of the Ordinary.
  9. "The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages | Shoshana Felman with a New Foreword by Stanley Cavell and Afterword by Judith Butler".
  10. "Volume 01 Number 1".
  11. Reading Cavell. Routledge. 2006.
  12. "Stanley Cavell : Scepticisme et reconnaissance". La reconnaissance aujourd'hui. Sociologie. CNRS Éditions. July 2016. pp. 273–301. ISBN 9782271091550.
  13. Davidson, Arnold (2013). Spiritual Exercises, Improvisation, and Moral Perfectionism. The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies. 1. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195370935.001.0001. ISBN 9780195370935.
  14. Kindi, Vasso (2010). "Novelty and Revolution in Art and Science: The Connection between Kuhn and Cavell". Perspectives on Science. 18 (3): 284–310. doi:10.1162/POSC_a_00011.
  15. Saito, Naoko; Standish, Paul, eds. (2012). Stanley Cavell and the Education of Grownups. Fordham University. ISBN 9780823234738. JSTOR j.ctt14bs007.
  16. "The Perspective of Terrence Malick". 2010-04-04.
  17. Sousa, Ronald de (1985-07-14). "Why We Can't be Good". The New York Times.
  18. Cavell, Stanley (2013-07-15). This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein. ISBN 9780226037417.
  19. Paul W. Franks
  20. "Harvard Advocate | FRONTLINE | PBS".
  21. Vries, Hent de (2011). ""A Greatest Miracle": Stanley Cavell, Moral Perfectionism, and the Ascent into the Ordinary". Modern Theology. 27 (3): 462–477. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0025.2011.01688.x.
  22. "The Claim of Speech by Vicki Hearne". 2019-03-06.
  23. Shell, Marc (2005). Polio and its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture. ISBN 9780674013155.
  24. "Entre Stanley Cavell et Arnaud Desplechin".
  25. "Cornel West in Conversation with Eduardo Mendieta: Logos Summer 2004".
  26. "Screening Room 1972-1981". May 2013.
  27. "What is feminist philosophy?".
  28. Little Did I Know, 21 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  29. Little Did I Know, 24 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  30. Little Did I Know, 169 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  31. Little Did I Know, 85, 157-62, 166, 183 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  32. Little Did I Know, 220-225 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  33. Little Did I Know, 247 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  34. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy, xv (New York: Oxford, 1979).
  35. Little Did I Know, 326 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  36. Little Did I Know, 149 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  37. Little Did I Know, 435 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  38. Little Did I Know, 373 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  39. Little Did I Know, 508–512 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  40. "An Evening with Stanley Cavell - Harvard Film Archive".
  41. "Department of Philosophy".
  42. "Department of Philosophy".
  43. "Stanley Cavell, Prominent Harvard Philosopher, Dies at 91". The New York Times. June 20, 2018. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  44. Stanley Cavell Obituary
  45. Journal of Religion, vol. 57, 1977
  46. Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, 1981, pp. 4–5.
  47. Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, 1981, p. 136.
  48. Cavell, Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow (Cambridge, Massachusetts, & London: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 19.

Further reading


  • Michael Fischer, Stanley Cavell and Literary Criticism, Chicago U.P., 1989
  • Richard Fleming and Michael Payne (eds), The Senses of Stanley Cavell, Bucknell U.P., 1989
  • Ted Cohen, Paul Guyer, and Hilary Putnam, eds., Pursuits of Reason: Essays in Honor of Stanley Cavell, Texas Tech U.P., 1993
  • Stephen Mulhall, Stanley Cavell: Philosophy’s Recounting of the Ordinary, Clarendon Press, 1994
  • Timothy Gould, Hearing Things: Voice and Method in the Writing of Stanley Cavell, Chicago U.P., 1998
  • Espen Hammer, Stanley Cavell: Skepticism, Subjectivity, and the Ordinary, Polity Press/Blackwell’s, 2002
  • Richard Eldridge (ed.), Stanley Cavell, Cambridge U.P., 2003
  • Sandra Laugier, Une autre pensée politique américaine: La démocratie radicale d’Emerson á Stanley Cavell, Michel Houdiard Ēditeur, 2004
  • Russell Goodman (ed.), Contending with Stanley Cavell, Oxford U.P., 2005.
  • Alice Crary and Sanford Shieh (eds.), Reading Cavell, Routledge, 2006.


  • 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.
  • "Why Not Realize Your World?" Philosopher/Film Scholar William Rothman Interviewed by Jeffrey Crouse" in Film International, Issue 54, Vol. 9, No. 6 (2011): 59–73.
  • Special Section on Stanley Cavell. Film-Philosophy, Vol. 18 (2014): 1-171. Articles by William Rothman, Robert Sinnerbrink, David Macarthur, Richard Rushton, and Lisa Trahair.
  • "In Focus: Cavell in Words," Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 40, No. 2 (2016): 446-94. Three essays by, respectively, Áine Mahon and Fergal McHugh, Peter Dula, and Erika Kidd.
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