On Charles Bernstein’s Reading of Cavell’s Reading Wittgenstein

Aside from a few acolytes, Stanley Cavell has proven to be the best expositor of his own work.  Among many of Cavell’s books, two of them stand above the others:  The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy and a collection of essays entitled Must We Mean What We Say.  James Conant, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, has penned one of several excellent articles on Cavell, entitled “Stanley Cavell’s Wittgenstein.”  Charles Bernstein‘s “The Objects of Meaning: Reading Cavell Reading Wittgenstein” (originally published in boundary 2, IX:2, 1981; reprinted in Contents Dream: Essays 1975-1984) also comments on Cavell’s The Claim of Reason.  On the whole, Bernstein accurately summarizes Cavell’s Wittgensteinian commentary on language, knowledge, and skepticism; however, he slides into error while attempting to recruit Cavell to his side in closing the gap between poetry and philosophy.

What does Bernstein get right?

(1) He says that Cavell’s use of texts relates to the use of collage and juxtaposition in more “strictly literary writing.”  It would not be the first time that a poet attempted to attribute poetic methods to a philosopher.  But Cavell’s “use of collage” has more to do with a lack of discipline than with him writing in a semi-literary style.  As Cavell notes, the book was formerly a rushed doctoral dissertation, which accounts for much of his Wittgenstein citations in the latter section.  If Cavell’s lack of discipline amounts to literary style, then we have to question Cavell’s original intentions or Bernstein’s notions on collage.  (2) But Cavell does cite various sources and, as Bernstein says, “Reading Cavell can seem like a game of tag through intellectual history,” which tends to give his interrogations more weight and advance his arguments with authority.  Although it’s not quite right to say that Cavell “does not put forward assertions,” as the later Wittgenstein purposely avoided theses, Bernstein is right to say that “his [Cavell’s] conception of philosophy shares with poetry the project of increasing an awareness of conditions… the structures and grammars we live in; of how the syntaxes and grammars we create in turn create the world.”  In fact, Cavell shares with Wittgenstein, as Bernstein puts it, a kind of literary power to “bring forward the predicaments that certain kinds of reasoning lead to with all their nuances and all their conviction.”

(3) Bernstein’s point that “Cavell argues against seeing Wittgenstein as refuting skepticism.”  This is properly the case since Wittgenstein wasn’t at all convinced by Moore’s or Russell’s respective arguments against skepticism.

(4) Contra Henry Staten, Wittgenstein cannot rightly be compared with Derrida.

What does Bernstein get wrong?

(1) He overemphasizes the “schism” between literature and philosophy; and within academic philosophy, he overemphasizes the “splitting of the philosophical tradition” between the “analytic” and “Continental.”  (2) His estimation, in agreement with David Antin, that “Cavell has at hand the full dimensions of …’the hyperspace of modernist composition’.”  Bernstein believes that Cavell’s “compositional method” is “one of ordering and arrangement more than exposition.”  For close readers of The Claim of Reason this “hyperspace” compositional view is simply wrong.  As Jamesian as Cavell’s prose is, and often can be, it aims at an exposition of Wittgenstein’s later work.  (3) Bernstein concludes that Cavell’s style is “not really deductive and expository” but rather “invocative.”  This latter term is relevant only if we read Cavell as a phenomenologist.  Perhaps that’s Bernstein’s point, as he says, “Whatever answer, what authority, he [Cavell] provides comes not from argument but from the sounding of words to see what they tell, to make their resonances tangible, and, specifically, with the realization that we literally make the world come into being by giving voice to it.”  But Cavell’s point combines Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin, two major influences on him: the meaning of language use–speech acts– depends the context, background, intentionality, and the illocutionary force of the utterance.

(4) In discussing Cavell’s reading of Wittgenstein on skepticism Bernstein unfortunately refers to obscure writers, such as Deleuze and Guattari, saying that “words have meaning not by virtue of universals, of underlying structures or rules, but in ‘use,’ …”in desiring production.”  Wittgenstein, and we can add Cavell, would not approve of this juxtaposition.  Bernstein’s additional references to philosophers whose last names begin with the letter “H” are also unfortunately misguided.  I don’t have the space here to fully protest.  But we don’t need references to obscure writing to explain Wittgenstein’s or Cavell’s ideas–the point is to make plain what seems to be already obvious.

(5) Cavell is not Rorty.  Bernstein is wrong to say that The Claim of Reason is similar to The Mirror of Nature in that the former aims to oppose the “assumptions of the predominant tendency in professional philosophy in England and North America, that is, analytic philosophy.”  For many years, Cavell was tenured faculty in Harvard’s Philosophy Department– the premiere “analytic” department in the United States.  He was colleagues with numerous analytic philosophers, such as Burton Dreben, Nelson Goodman, Warren Goldfarb,  Hilary Putnam, and W.V.O Quine.  Thus, Bernstein is not right in claiming that “the profession has not really taken Cavell to be one of its own.”  Cavell has been hardly interested in exorcising the demons of analytic philosophy.  If anything, analytic philosophy granted him tenure.   Also, Cavell’s work really cannot be seen as a tool of exorcising the demons of our schismatic culture.

(6) Bernstein refers to the “schizophrenic model” of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus.  Cavell, and Wittgenstein for that matter, are not interested in the “madness of the deterritorializing and deconventionalizing processes of capitalism.  Bernstein trades on two different senses of linguistic “production” within the ‘language games’ of human interaction and social conventions.

Lastly, it’s proper to conclude with something else that Bernstein gets right.  This concerns Wittgenstein’s unique philosophical contribution: “his work has so fully investigated how conventions (grammars, rules, codes) allow for meaning rather than focusing primarily on endpoints of their inscription.”  Wittgenstein’s point wasn’t about conventions ‘allowing meaning,’ but rather how conventions govern our use of language.  Ultimately, speakers and listeners establish meaning by mutual agreement.  Perhaps that’s the poetry Bernstein would have us believe Cavell expresses by writing philosophy.


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