Cavell, Stanley (1926–)

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

2. Literature, cinema and psychoanalysis

For Cavell, then, Wittgenstein’s later philosophy aims at overcoming a variety of manifestations of scepticism in philosophy – scepticism understood not simply as an intellectual doctrine, but as the modern inflection of a perennial human impulse that finds expression in domains regarded as distinct from that of philosophy. By interpreting the repudiation of criteria as bringing about the death of the world and our interest in it, Cavell links Ordinary language philosophy with the concerns of Romanticism, in both its English and German forms – particularly the writings of Coleridge, Wordsworth and the Schlegels. He also interprets Shakespeare’s plays and certain genres of Hollywood movie as responding to sceptical struggles, by following out the fates of human beings caught up in relationships in which scepticism about other minds is lived out and presented as exemplary of scepticism in general (see Other minds). The human capacity to revive self and world by recovering an interest in the latter’s autonomous yet environing life is there figured by the capacity of these couples to acknowledge one another as separate and yet related; the vicissitudes of their weddedness to one another symbolize the vicissitudes of human weddedness to the world.

For Cavell, these readings are not literary illustrations of independently derived philosophical theses. Their focus on sceptical themes is rather understood to unsettle any received wisdom about divisions between philosophy and what lies outside it; and they are often Cavell’s primary motivation for revising his more obviously philosophical investigations of these issues. For example, he takes his reading of The Winter’s Tale to demonstrate that scepticism is inflected by gender; and the same reciprocity can be seen in his conception of the relationship between philosophy and psychoanalysis. Interpreting scepticism as a tragic repudiation of the humanity in oneself and others leads him to see Freud’s attempts to recover human meaning from aberrant behaviour as a mode of overcoming scepticism, and to view the general psychoanalytic commitment to the reality of the unconscious mind as itself responding to Descartes’ failure to refute scepticism by staking the mind’s reality upon its existence as consciousness (see Freud; Descartes). At the same time, he utilizes Freudian theory to diagnose the motivational sources of confusions in philosophy; and he uses Freud’s fundamental but politically fraught alignment of masculinity with activity and femininity with passivity (understood as two dimensions of, or orientations towards, human experience) to argue that the essential passivity invoked in the Wittgensteinian practice of recalling the true significance of one’s words (as well as in Heidegger’s emphasis upon Gelassenheit) embodies a specifically feminine mode of philosophical thought and expression.

Citing this article:
Mulhall, Stephen. Literature, cinema and psychoanalysis. 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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