Stanley Cavell Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Philosopher Goes to the Movies: Cnversation with Stanley Cavell, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics in the General 
  Theory of Value, Emeritus; Harvard Universty. 2/2/02 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Being a Philosopher

What led you to philosophy?

Well, I could give you a cocktail answer to that, or I could say, "I'm still asking myself the question."


One serious way to answer the question is to say that leaving music was the first enormous basic radical crises in my life. I was bewildered by who I might be if I wasn't a musician. And philosophy is, after all, a subject you might come to in a state of crisis. That's one thing that happened to me, in finding philosophy.

But I found in philosophy something that not just answered the sense of crisis, but that in some way seemed to me the continuation of what I wanted from music, in its precision and in its profundity. Was it an accident? I ask myself whether it was an accident.

A third way to answer that is that if it's a crisis, you still have to find representatives of philosophy who could provide the basis for these discoveries, and that I found at UCLA. I went there on the premise of being hired to write some music for films, maybe. But first you had to establish residency requirements in the musician's union. That took a year. In that year, I went to UCLA, and I was hooked by philosophy. It had a wonderful Philosophy Department, awfully interesting people. And turned out to be it. There are more bumps in the road, but, by and large, that's what happened.

This is a silly question, but I'll ask it anyway. What does a philosopher do?

Of course, the serious answer to that is, they ask themselves that. Almost everybody has his or her own answer to that. All the great philosophers have their answer to it; it winds up in their text, that what they're looking for is a definition of why their lives have been flattened or floored, and how it came to pass that to question themselves was how they wanted to spend their lives. They question themselves and answer themselves in as different ways as there have been the great names in the history of philosophy. I regard myself, and I regard my friends, as trying to find our way among those names.

You're suggesting that not knowing the answers is part of the game of philosophy, but developing a rigor and precision allows you to pursue the answers in a professional way.

Yes. Now, the issue of professionalization strikes another note. I don't mean you didn't deliberately strike this note. But for the past 200 years, let's say, philosophers have been professors of philosophy. Kant is the philosopher that showed us that you can be a professor and produce great philosophy. It wasn't clear before. Descartes wasn't a professor of philosophy, Locke wasn't, Hume wasn't, Schopenhauer wasn't, Spinoza wasn't. But you could say of them and of their successors that they attempt to produce a system that answers the basic questions of existence. That system, or something of the sort, has since the 17th century converged on questions of knowledge, rather than on the questions of beauty or of goodness, though every philosopher has some view of all of these things. Or, philosophers can undertake to question all efforts to create a system of philosophy. But in my book, the compulsion to systematization and the compulsion to question systematization are equal human drives. And so I question both of them.

What does it take to be a philosopher? For a student who is watching this, what are the prerequisites for doing this kind of work?

Another question one asks oneself all the time. One empirical answer to the question is that if you have a taste for it -- and taste for it is required; I could put that as a "mood" for it. You get to a mood where you can only be found by making assertions and finding yourself dissatisfied with everything you've said. If you like that state of being dissatisfied with everything you've said or that's said to you, you're probably hooked already, so philosophy has chosen you.

But I was going to give you an empirical answer to it. And that is, when you go to college, for some people philosophy can happen early -- it inevitably happens early, but you don't recognize it. That is, questions of the sort of: "What was the first thing in existence?" Or, "What is God?" Or, "Is there a best life for me to lead?" Or, "What is love?" So you may stay up all night asking yourself these questions, and you may not call it philosophy. And when you get to college you learn that there's a name for this. And then if you seek out the people who know this name and who are talking these things, it turns out, empirically -- certainly, this is not a theoretical answer -- that those are the people whose conversations you want most to participate in. That is a way to discover this, which means you need to be exposed to these things one way or another. That's a way to test it.

Another way to test it is ... of course, we've all asked ourselves that. When I asked my philosophy teachers, I found myself doing this day and night, I said, "How do I know if I'm really doing this, if I'm really responding in a way that means anything to these texts or that means anything to anybody else but me?" And the awful and the wonderful thing is there really is no answer to this question. A famous story for some of us is that Wittgenstein, whom many of us do not doubt was an original and important philosopher, asked this question of Russell, "Am I a philosopher or am I a complete fool?" And Russell told him he wasn't a complete fool. But there's still a prior question, which is why Wittgenstein asked it of this person, and why this person was credible to him as an answerer. So, you pick your shots.

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