Stanley Cavell: Philosophy's Recounting of the Ordinary

By Stephen Mulhall | Go to book overview

Conclusion to Part I
Philosophy's Affirmation of Modernity

Thus far, my juxtaposition of Cavell's remarks about aesthetics with his remarks on morality and politics has been subservient to a single purpose: that of making the best possible case for his claims that there are structural analogies between the procedures and concepts which go to make up each of those domains of discourse, and that these analogies also hold between those domains and that of ordinary language philosophy. However, as we have moved from aesthetics through morality to politics, what has become more evident is a particular feature or characteristic of Cavell's own remarks about the domains at issue; for by the time he turns to politics, he is plainly and explicitly engaged in elucidating a specific brand of political theorizing. Rather than attempting to outline the grammar of politics per se (whatever that might mean), he offers a way of understanding the nature of politics in a community arranged according to the specifications of contractarian liberalism; and it is with respect to this specification of the domain of politics that Cavell can find fruitful and illuminating analogies between it and ordinary language philosophy.

Some absolutely crucial insights flow from this simple observation, and I want to end this part of the book by drawing out some of their implications -- in a necessarily preliminary way, but one that might none the less help the reader to orientate herself in the chapters that are to follow. First, it becomes obvious in retrospect that Cavell's remarks on morality and art also conform -- although much less explicitly -- to a liberal conception of the nature of ethical and aesthetic life. His portrait of the procedures of moral discourse is one which emphasizes the fundamental importance of the individual's right to work out her moral position for herself: ethical debate is primarily an essential part of a process of self-development, and although it is structured in such a way as to permit the possibility of moral community, that community is based upon an agreement to disagree and presupposes that one must confront others on their own terms rather than upon one's own. Most fundamentally, the procedures Cavell outlines are explicitly tailored for a world in which moral values,

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