Cavell, Stanley (1926–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD093-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 19, 2019, from

3. Perfectionism and modernism

Cavell’s vision of the human mind as torn between its active and passive sides, between scepticism and its overcoming, is further underpinned by reference to Emerson and Thoreau – and specifically by their perfectionist conception of the self as ineluctably split or doubled, as always capable of moving beyond the state in which it finds itself (see Ethics and literature §3). When that capacity is active, the self embarks on an endless process of self-development, with each attained state neighbouring an attainable state that forms its possible future; when it is in eclipse, perhaps because of the attractions of one’s attained state or by personal and social distractions from the draw of one’s unattained state, the self’s capacity to grow is also eclipsed – and losing one’s capacity to change oneself in the name of a better state of self and society means losing an essential aspect of the self’s autonomy: the capacity to revise one’s conception of the good. As this formulation suggests, Cavell concludes that Emersonian perfectionism should form an essential dimension of Rawlsian (and more generally, of Kantian) liberal democracy, since a non-autonomous self cannot internalize the moral law which should govern relations with others in a liberal society (see Liberalism).

Cavell’s work is a species of philosophical modernism. His writings relate themselves to a number of intellectual and cultural traditions by regarding their continuation as an undismissible problem. He can neither accept their prevailing paradigms as they stand, nor reject them as no longer philosophically and humanly meaningful; so he aims to inherit them by subjecting them to a radical but internal critique that can ultimately be grounded only upon his own (and his readers’) willingness to acknowledge his words as worthy continuations of those traditions. This means that his writings are bound to appear idiosyncratic and self-regarding; but it also means that that appearance can no more justify their dismissal than it can guarantee their value.

Citing this article:
Mulhall, Stephen. Perfectionism and modernism. Cavell, Stanley (1926–), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD093-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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