Cavell, Stanley (1926–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD093-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 27, 2021, from

1. Criteria and scepticism

Cavell’s Ph.D. dissertation (later published, much revised, as The Claim of Reason (1979)) elaborates an unorthodox interpretation of the notion of a criterion – pivotal for both J.L. Austin and Wittgenstein as that which is elicited by their method of responding to philosophical confusions with reminders of ‘what we say when’, of how we apply words in the circumstances of everyday life. Cavell’s position resembles orthodoxy in conceiving of criteria as fixing a word’s grammar by linking it to other words in a schematism that aligns language with the world and users of those words with one another. However, he takes the precise extent of this linguistic community as something philosophical exploration helps to determine, not something it can take for granted; and he takes the capacity exercised in such explorations to be a species of self-knowledge rather than knowledge of a predetermined body of rules, since a word’s complex grammatical schematism sets real but inherently flexible limits to its projectibility into new contexts of use, and so requires an ineliminably personal evaluation of the mutuality of words and world in specific contexts.

Cavell further argues that Wittgensteinian criteria go deeper than Austinian ones, by showing that grammatical reminders cannot be used to refute scepticism in the manner favoured by Austin and many Wittgensteinians (see Criteria; Scepticism). Wittgensteinian criteria are criteria of identity rather than of existence; they specify what it is for something to count as a certain kind of thing, thus determining the applicability of a concept and making possible the judgments which deploy it, but they do not and could not determine the correctness of any such judgments. In this sense, sceptical denials that we can be certain of the existence of the external world or of other minds embody a truth; but they misrepresent this truth, since if criteria are not a species of knowledge-claim, they can no more be doubtful than they can be indubitable. Nevertheless, criteria so understood cannot be grounded in evidence or argument, but solely in our agreeing in their continued use; so the possibility of a sceptical refusal of that agreement is ineliminable. Since, however, our capacity to use words presupposes some such agreement, its sceptical refusal must result in emptiness – in the sceptics’ saying something other than they take themselves to mean, or in saying nothing whatever. Accordingly, scepticism must be combatted not by claiming that the repudiation of criteria is impossible or irrational, but by demonstrating its true cost.

That cost turns out to be high. In so far as criteria distinguish phenomena from one another, their repudiation amounts to transforming the world into an undifferentiated plenum. And in so far as they give expression to human interests in phenomena, marking out the distinctions which matter to us and so our shared responses to the world, their refusal amounts to a denial that the world matters, that its phenomena are of interest. But why, then, might such costs seem worth bearing? How can otherwise competent speakers come to relinquish the mastery of grammar which governs their everyday intercourse when under the pressure to philosophize? Any answer partly depends on which criteria are subject to repudiation; the needs and interests served by affirming a fantasy of the essential privacy of language are not those served by an emotivist fantasy of morality. But at its most general, the sceptical impulse refuses criteria as such – the conditions of human knowledge and meaning; and Cavell’s claim is that the sceptic in us all is motivated by the sense that such conditions are constraints, that the limits of sense (that which makes thought and knowledge possible) are in fact limitations (perspectival blinkers imposed on an otherwise unmediated knowledge of the world). In other words, criteria are rejected in the name of a fantasized perspective on reality which transcends all limits, a view from nowhere; scepticism is a refusal of the conditioned nature of human knowledge, a denial of human finitude in the name of the unconditioned, the inhuman. But of course, nothing is more human than the desire to deny one’s own humanity.

Citing this article:
Mulhall, Stephen. Criteria and scepticism. Cavell, Stanley (1926–), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD093-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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