Stanley Cavell: Philosophy's Recounting of the Ordinary

By Stephen Mulhall | Go to book overview

I
Aesthetics: Hume, Kant, and Criticism

I want to begin this investigation of the ways in which Cavell sees criteria as functioning to align human beings with one another by looking at his work in the field of aesthetics, and in particular at another essay in Must We Mean What We Say? 'Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy' falls into two main parts -- an analysis and attempted dissolution of two specific problems in the arena of aesthetics, and an examination of the nature of aesthetic judgement and debate in general; and it is the latter part with which I shall be most concerned. As we shall see, the task of summarizing and analysing such a short stretch of text can itself be accomplished within a correspondingly brief compass: but the determining importance of this material for the rest of Cavell's work (both within this first collection and in the future) demands that it be presented at the outset of our investigation and in a relatively self-contained way.

In these few pages, Cavell is interested in casting light upon the role of rationality in aesthetics by asking: Does the notorious lack of agreement over aesthetic judgements entail that such judgements lack rationality, or does it rather show the sort of rationality such judgements possess? He begins by summarizing Hume's conclusions about this issue, finding them to be lacking in credibility for several reasons, but also finding them to be symptomatic of more contemporary misconceptions by virtue of Hume's emphasis upon agreement as the standard of taste:

Hume's descendants, catching the assumption that agreement provides the vindication of judgement, but no longer able to hope for either, have found that aesthetic (and moral and political) judgements lack something: the arguments that support them are not conclusive in the way that arguments in logic are, nor rational in the way arguments in science are. Indeed they are not, and if they were there would be no such subject as art (or morality), and no such art as criticism. It does not follow, however, that such judgements are not conclusive and rational. (MWM 88)

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