Stanley Cavell: Philosophy's Recounting of the Ordinary

By Stephen Mulhall | Go to book overview

3
Politics: The Social Contract

Cavell's writings on the nature and role of politics in human life were, until very recently, much less extensive than his work on aesthetics and morality. Indeed, prior to the publication of his 1988 Carus Lectures (which we will examine in some detail in a later chapter), he engaged in an explicit treatment of political-theoretical matters only in sections of his book on Thoreau The Senses of Walden, passages in his essays on Coriolanus and The Misanthrope (in TOS), and in six pages of the opening chapter of The Claim of Reason. None the less, the importance of this material is far greater than its volume would suggest: for the focus and nature of his interests in this area serve to underline the specific themes that have already been broached in his writings on aesthetics and morality, to confirm the general need to interpret the results of his philosophical work in a given area as designed to cast light on the nature of philosophy itself, and to reinforce a sense of the startling degree to which Cavell's work embodies from the outset a unified vision of modern Western culture -- one in which its various domains or spheres appear as differing inflexions of a single pattern or structure. We cannot therefore complete our survey of his early work and its focus on the social face of criteria, without attempting to elucidate his fundamental concerns in the domain of politics; but the task is made easier by the fact that those concerns are in fact relatively limited in scope. Indeed, since the central core of his reflections at this stage of his project remains essentially unchanged across the shifting contexts in which they are explicitly elucidated, and since they find their clearest expression in the relevant passage from The Claim of Reason, it is that text upon which we will be concentrating here.

Cavell begins with the observation that political theorists in the modern period have characteristically thought of the political community as founded upon a social contract, and he attempts to analyse the significance of this form of theorizing. On his reading, social contract theorists are obviously not to be regarded as offering a historical claim about how human society actually came into existence. Neither are they attempting to provide a general-purpose answer to the question

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