Stanley Cavell: Philosophy's Recounting of the Ordinary

By Stephen Mulhall | Go to book overview

Introduction
On Saying What We Mean

The opening, eponymous essay of Cavell's first published book Must We Mean What We Say? takes the form of a reply to some criticisms of the methods of ordinary language philosophy levelled by Benson Mates. These criticisms might now seem not to deserve the detailed attention Cavell devotes to them (the essay, first published in 1957, is some fortythree pages long), since philosophers are now more familiar both with the method they assail and with more sophisticated ways of assailing it. However, Cavell's particular way of marshalling and developing a response remains largely unfamiliar; and since he thereby sets out a version of or gloss upon the procedures of ordinary language philosophy that underpins everything else he has written -- not just in the sense that his work exemplifies those procedures, but also in the sense that the question of their form and their foundations constitutes his main subject-matter -- anyone interested in tracing out the general contours of Cavell's writings must begin by providing an interpretation of that essay, a gloss upon that gloss.

As both Mates and Cavell agree, philosophers who proceed by reference to ordinary language think it sufficient to terminate (or at least pertinent to the continuance of) a philosophical debate to point out that their interlocutor is employing words in a non-standard way -- in short, misusing them. Pointing out this alleged misuse will typically involve either citing an instance of what is ordinarily said ('We say . . . but we don't say . . .'), or offering an explication of what is implied or meant when we utter sentences of the first type ('When we say . . . we imply . . .'; 'We don't say . . . unless we mean . . .'). The example which Mates and Cavell concentrate upon is a claim of the second sort made by Ryle, namely, 'When we say "The boy was responsible for (some action)", we imply that the action was an offence, one that ought not to have been done, one that was his fault'; together with an instance of the first sort offered by Austin, namely, 'We say "The gift was made voluntarily" ', an instance which seems to conflict with Ryle's explication because we know that when we say 'The gift was made voluntarily' we do not imply that the action of making the gift was one which ought not

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