Must We Mean What We Say?

This was Cavell's response to logical positivism: to demand that we only speak about what is absolutely true and false, that about that which we cannot speak with certainty, we must be silent, is to demand that we not speak at all—or else that we lie to ourselves about the ambiguity inherent in even the most carefully defined language.

On Stanley Cavell

On Stanley Cavell

Stanley Cavell, born in 1926 and now 86 years old, is one of the greatest American philosophers of the past half-century. He was also something of a musical prodigy and like many prodigies his accomplishments struck him as a matter of fraud. During his freshman year at Berkeley, he writes in Little Did I Know, his 2010 memoir, he walked into one of his first piano courses and was asked to prove he had the requisite chops by playing a piece on the spot. Not having practiced anything but jazz for years—this was 1944, and big band swing was at its peak—the budding pianist sat down at the bench, broke into a half-remembered theme from a Liszt impromptu, and “stopped playing as the theme was about to elaborate itself, as if I could have gone on to the end were there time and need.” He could not have gone on to the end, nor even a note further, but his teacher, a brilliant young pianist with some of the look of Marlene Dietrich, was nonetheless taken in. “Isn’t it fine to hear a man’s touch at the piano?” she said to the class. Cavell felt smitten, but also unmanned. “It is true that I had really done whatever . . . . I had done, but I could not go on.” Although he could play almost anything on demand—and would later win praise from Ernest Bloch, Milton Babbitt, and Roger Sessions, rescuing the premiere of one of the latter’s works through an emergency mid-concert transposition—for Cavell it was as if each new performance followed only from instinct, without the understanding that promised a way forward. No matter his successes, he couldn’t escape the feeling that he was a fraud.

Two decades later, in 1965, Cavell, having abandoned music for philosophy, returned to the problem of fraudulence in a now classic essay, “Music Discomposed.” (It would become a centerpiece in his landmark first collection, Must We Mean What We Say? [1969].) The motivating question of the essay — “How can fraudulent art be exposed?” — though couched in the nomenclature of composers like Cage and Stockhausen, seems now, in light of Cavell’s memoir, to be addressed as much to his own uncertainties as a young musician. “A familiar answer is that time will tell,” he writes. “But my question is: What will time tell?” How, exactly, will time show a work to be fraudulent? It’s almost impossible to say:

There is no one feature, or definite set of features, which may be described in technical handbooks, and no specific tests by which [an artwork's] fraudulence can be detected and exposed. Other frauds and impostors, like forgers and counterfeiters, admit clear outcomes, conclude in dramatic discoveries — the impostor is unmasked at the ball, you find the counterfeiters working over their press, the forger is caught signing another man’s name, or he confesses. There are no such proofs possible for the assertion that the art accepted by a public is fraudulent; the artist himself may not know.

The problem was evident enough to Cavell as a young man. If as a musician he could not definitively be exposed as a fraud—unlike a forger or a counterfeiter—he also had no certain way to prove he was the genuine article, not just to an audience (who, after all, as in the case of his first piano teacher at Berkeley, might easily be taken in), but, and most importantly, to himself.

These doubts led Cavell to cut his music career short; they would follow him into his later career as a philosopher. After receiving a degree in music from Berkeley in 1948 and dropping out of Juilliard’s composition program after a single semester, he transferred to UCLA to pursue a second degree and to see if he might find some more legitimate way to live. There, in his first course in philosophy, he caught a glimpse of the powerful new developments in logic that were then sweeping the field. “It crossed my mind,” he now writes, looking back on that first course, “that when I had gone far enough in logic I would be able to translate or transpose [older] texts. . . .into this wonderful symbolism, which I felt I understood perfectly.” Cavell mentioned his idea to a teaching assistant, who, pleased, went on to inform him that “when logic got really interesting and powerful it left natural language quite behind.” Why, then, even bother with the ideas of the past, when you could push on into the unspeakable unknown? It was a prodigious idea.

A few weeks later Cavell ran into the same TA in the halls of the philosophy department, waging an argument about the value of poetry with a professor. A crowd had gathered to watch; in the music department, it might have looked like an audition. As Cavell approached, he heard the TA saying,

“We know now that every assertion is either true or false or else neither true nor false; in the former case the assertion is meaningful, in the latter case cognitively meaningless. If you go on saying to me that this line of [poetry] is cognitively meaningful, I smile at you.”

The professor found he could not judge, nor even dismiss, the TA’s performance. “He would of course have heard roughly this. . . . refrain before,” Cavell observes, “but for some reason he had been drawn in a weak moment into an aggrieved effort to defend a work important to him,” a line of poetry, “on grounds that may or may not have been important to him,” the TA’s rigorously logical definition of truth, where all statements are either true or false, or else meaningless.

Much the same argument was then being played out in philosophy departments across the country. But the young American philosophers of mid-century questioned more than the value of poetry. They applied the same standards of logic to argue that the classic problems of philosophy, like aesthetics and ethics, were little more than “poetic,” not translatable into pure statements of truth or falsehood, therefore meaningless. This revolt was, in its way, a sibling to the modernist movements that had swept the arts in the decades before—a demand that philosophy start over again from scratch and question every convention. But these philosophers, unlike their peers in literature, painting, and music, had no desire to take up the entire history of their discipline and recast it in singular, all-encompassing new works. They wanted to leave the history of philosophy behind altogether.

Cavell, the former prodigy, was too well acquainted with the signs of youthful fraud to be fooled. But he did not flee before the young thinkers who insisted the only way to save the house of philosophy was by burning it to the ground. After seeing his professor be silenced, Cavell had at last found his calling: “To discover a different. . . .response to such an assault became as if on the spot. . . .what I would call philosophy.”


All of Cavell’s work replies, at least in some distant way, to that early encounter with his TA, a somewhat caricatured sketch of the movement in philosophy known as “logical positivism.” His most direct response can be found in his first significant essay, the memorably named “Must We Mean What We Say?” (available in the book of the same title). There he observes that many of his peers seemed to have abstracted their work further and further from everyday language. Why? Today we take it for granted that philosophers would prefer not to use words like the rest of us, but Socrates, for one, advised his followers to do their thinking in the street—making use of everyday objects like shoes and carts in even the most complex arguments. Cavell’s peers made similar use of everyday language—you can’t walk into a philosophy course without hearing the phrase “the cat is on the mat”—but, by contrast, they were so intent on defining and distinguishing that one almost expected to find a “dictionary of terms” at the end of each paper they published. But what exactly happens, Cavell asks, when you look up a word in such a dictionary, or hunt its definition down in the text? Can a philosopher really choose what her words mean?

Consider what takes place when you encounter a less philosophical word — not “reason,” say, but “umiak”:

You reach for your dictionary and look it up. Now what did you do? … We tend to take what a native speaker does when he looks up a noun in a dictionary as the characteristic process of learning language. … But it is merely the end point in the process of learning the word. When we turned to the dictionary for “umiak” [a type of Eskimo boat] we already knew everything about the word, as it were, but its combination: we knew what a noun is and how to name an object and how to look up a word and what boats are and what an Eskimo is. …What seemed like finding the world in a dictionary was really a case of bringing the world to the dictionary.

Cavell’s larger argument is this: If we must bring the world with us to understand a definition, then we cannot define away the ambiguity in words, for the world we bring with us is already hopelessly ambiguous. Hence the force of Cavell’s at first glance profound but on closer inspection obscure question: “Must We Mean What We Say?” A philosopher who limits the meaning of her words to carefully set out definitions, attempting to root out all ambiguity, in effect says, “I say, and you should hear, only what I mean.” Cavell insists that language cannot be limited in this way. Language, to Cavell, is ambiguous not because it is imperfect, awaiting precise definition, but because we do not all see in the same way; it is a reflection of our basic predicament as distinct human beings. Thus, we must dare to mean what we say, take responsibility for all the meanings our words might be taken to have—even if those meanings go beyond what we understand as our intentions—because in our unintentional (though perhaps meaningful) slips, and the misapprehensions, mistakes, and insights of those with whom we speak, we bring together not just words but worldviews.

This was Cavell’s response to his TA and to all of logical positivism: to demand that we only speak about what is absolutely true and false, that about that which we cannot speak with certainty, we must be silent, is to demand that we not speak at all—or else that we lie to ourselves about the ambiguity inherent in even the most carefully defined language.

It is an argument that may sound reminiscent of European thinkers like Saussure or Habermas or, at a further reach, Derrida. Cavell, however, came of age before the great wave of structuralist and poststructuralist thought arrived on American shores in the late 1960s. His independence from European philosophers of language is one of his great attractions, and part of the reason Cavell, over the last few decades, has developed something of a growing cult readership. He comes at familiar problems from a different starting point, and he arrives at different conclusions. And while the philosophy of logical positivism that dominated Cavell’s youth has gradually been acknowledged as a dead-end even within the most rigorous corners of Anglo-American philosophy, the very extremity of the views he encountered as a young philosopher drove Cavell to his own extremes in thought.

Surrounded by certainty, he became an adept of what in philosophy is known as “skepticism.” This term goes back millennia, but it is closely related to the sense of fraudulence Cavell had experienced while young: the distrust of the reports of one’s peers; the doubt that what one does has any real connection to what one sees; the feeling, therefore (and here we reach full-blown skepticism), that one is only dreaming the world. Cavell insisted that this feeling, even if in its intensity it can seem unjustified, casts light back on its legitimate origins—that we never can be absolutely certain of ourselves or our relation to the world. Such certainty was exactly what the logical positivists had been trying to achieve. He therefore reinterpreted their philosophy: instead of an attempt to get closer to the world, their demand for certainty was a way of fleeing from the world in all its ambiguity. This was the sense in which their philosophy was fraudulent, and why it so repelled the young Cavell. Under the banner of getting closer to the world, the logical positivists moved further from the world than ever.


To return to the world in all its ambiguity, Cavell allied himself with an existing critique of the philosophy of his time. This approach, known as “ordinary language philosophy,” originated in England in the 1940s, and Cavell briefly made a name for himself, and secured tenure at Harvard, by acting as one of its main American interpreters. Ordinary language philosophy was less a body of thought than a technique; its insights were accordingly transmitted in the way of craftsmen, through apprenticeship. Cavell apprenticed himself to a leading practitioner, the Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin, who visited Harvard in 1955. Like any great craftsman, the force of Austin’s technique can be difficult to communicate on the page. Suffice it to say that, in a typical move, Austin would take an instance where another philosopher had defined a word with casual certainty (e.g. “to say ‘I know’ is to state something with absolute certainty”) and then, by picking out all the ordinary uses the definition could not account for, unveil an entire world (that ‘I know’ is as much about a moral quality, trust, as it is about truth) that the definition had not defined away but obscured. Because this technique rarely carried the same force on the page as it did in person, it gained a reputation as something of a trick; because it seemed at times to penetrate so deeply while remaining so simple, only referring to how we ‘ordinarily’ use words, the philosophy of ordinary language also appeared to many, despite its supposed ‘ordinariness’, like more of a magic trick.

Cavell, evangelizing for ordinary language, found himself obliged to defend the technique more than its original practitioners. In doing so, he would leave ordinary language far behind. For he saw that the feeling of magic in the examples of ordinary language philosophy was no accident. His dissertation, written in the 1950s and circulated for years before finally being revised and published as The Claim of Reason (1979), contains his first attempt to elaborate this insight; his later collection, In Quest of the Ordinary (1988), may be the more cogent statement. There he puts his argument this way: the logical positivists fled the world, attempted to create an artificial realm of absolute certainty, scientific, where thought would be practically mechanical; the ordinary language philosophers, then, returned to the ordinary, fleshy world in an attempt to bring out what their peers had left behind; but the ordinary language philosophers did not quite return to the original, “ordinary” world; rather, the encounter with the abstract, mechanical world changed the very experience of the ordinary—made it appear in a new light, akin to looking at a flesh-and-blood human after an encounter with an almost lifelike automaton; thus “the return of what we accept as the world. . . .[presented] itself as a return of the familiar, which is to say. . . .the uncanny.”

Cavell here borrows the psychological concept of the uncanny, long associated with Freud. He then goes on to develop his own series of psychological stages, elaborated throughout his books. First, an ambition he finds fundamental to the human condition: the desire to make the world more present, to experience the world even more directly, to know that another loves you, say, to the same degree that you love him. Second, since making the world more present becomes impossible, and we cannot know the love of another in the same way we know our love for that other, we arrive at the feeling of fraudulence (where others, since we can’t confirm their love, can’t confirm our love, so we doubt that even we do love), and skepticism (where others, since we can’t confirm their existence, can’t confirm our existence, so we doubt that we exist). Ever since Descartes first asked how he could be certain the world was not the work of a demon — the famous line of inquiry that led to modern skepticism — this problem has seemed little more than an intellectual exercise. Cavell makes skepticism fundamental, a relation to the world that comes not from the intellect but from (frustrated) desire. The third stage, then, is the attempt by philosophers (and writers of all kinds) to solve skepticism, to rid themselves of doubt and achieve certainty by abstracting the world, which Cavell interprets as a redoubling of skepticism — an attempt to again make the world more present not by acknowledging that frustrated first attempt but by ignoring it, or avenging it, “a kind of violence the human mind performs in response to its discovery of its limitation.” This is Cavell’s diagnosis of logical positivism, the philosophy of his peers. Next follows the fourth stage, represented by the work of the ordinary language philosophers: an attempt to return to all that had been left behind through the abstraction of everyday life. But this return is radically altered by the initial run-in with skepticism, such that what had been ordinary becomes uncanny, and the philosophers of ordinary language, as it were, discover for the first time the ordinary, the everyday, all that had previously been taken for granted. They thus point the way, though without going far enough. After skepticism, Cavell writes, “the everyday is what we cannot but aspire to, since it appears. . . .lost to us”; but the answer to skepticism is not a “philosophical construction,” not a treatise or a single technique, but the wholesale “reconstruction or resettlement of the everyday.”


If Cavell had done no more than show a way out of the impasse of the philosophy of his youth—one, as it turned out, largely ignored by his peers (for whom ideas like the “ordinary” remained far too vague)—he would today be remembered as little more than a curious footnote in American intellectual history. Fortunately, half of his career has been taken up with the more practical concern of how to “reconstruct the everyday.” This he has done, with a success that can only be called stunning, through interpretations of literature and film. Having encountered his specific readings, one returns to his more general work with awe, as if, without quite realizing it the first time around, he must have been penetrating into the essence of things.

Cavell’s approach to literature is so successful because, unlike other Anglo-American philosophers who have written about literature, like Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum, his thought seems to operate not by reading philosophy into literature, taking pre-existing ideas and finding them confirmed, but by reading philosophy out of literature, letting literature surprise him, allowing it to change and even create his most fundamental ideas. As Cavell puts it, “Since melodramas together with tragedy classically tell stories of revenge, philosophical skepticism will in turn be readable as such a story.” Plays like King Lear and Othello and The Winter’s Tale (discussed in essays throughout his work, later collected in Disowning Knowledge [1987]) thus become about philosophy, and treatises like the Discourse on Method and The Critique of Pure Reason turn out to be about revenge. All reveal what’s at stake when we are rebuffed by the world, attempt to enact retribution (whether through thought or rhetoric or action), and are forced to confront what we’ve denied.

More striking, Cavell finds in classic Hollywood comedies like The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib (discussed in Pursuits of Happiness [1981]) perhaps the best available examples of how to actually deal with skepticism. Given the rise of writers like Slavoj Zizek such claims about the importance of film to philosophy may seem unoriginal. But Cavell was among the first philosophers to take film seriously (his half-crazed 1971 book The World Viewed partly founded the philosophy of film), and he has set an example that others might more profitably follow. Cavell pointed out that many of the classic comedies of the 1930s had in effect inaugurated a new genre: they began like melodramas, with a couple already married and about to break up (think of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, fighting it out in the opening scenes of The Philadelphia Story), and concluded like carnival-mirror versions of classical romantic comedies, with the formerly married couple ecstatically falling for each other again. These were not comedies of marriage but of remarriage. Unlike in classical comedies, the couple did not leave the ordinary life of the family for a new, extraordinary life with a lover (a life that, in most classical comedies, e.g. the novels of Jane Austen, is impossible to imagine actually becoming a marriage); instead, in the comedies of remarriage, the lovers rediscovered the domestic, the ordinary, only now under a different light, since they are not falling in love as if for the first time but as if for the hundredth time, coming back to the “returned familiar,” and loving it because after the experience of doubt the old beloved has become both ordinary and somehow extraordinary, uncanny.

Or as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne put it at the end of The Awful Truth, with lines that seem as much out of a Platonic dialog as a Hollywood comedy:

Dunne: “Things are just the same as they ever were, only you’re just the same, too, so I guess things will never be the same again. . . . You’re all confused, aren’t you?”

Grant: “Uh-huh. Aren’t you?”

Dunne: “No.”

Grant: “Well you should be, because you’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different, except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool. Well, I’m not now. So, as long as I’m different, don’t you think things could be the same again? Only a little different.”

Cavell somehow has the touch to let the comedy of these lines speak for themselves while also bringing out their deep significance. His philosophy of marriage may be the most surprising result of his study of skepticism, as well as his most accessible. The best marriage, for him, results when “the prospect is not for the passing of years (until death parts us) but for the willing repetition of days, willingness for the everyday.” With lines like these, we can only await the appearance of Cavellian marriage counselors.


The culminating reading of Cavell’s career came through more canonical sources: Emerson, Thoreau, and Wittgenstein. It began with The Senses of Walden (1972), certainly the easiest of his books to read, and reached a head with Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (1990), perhaps his most difficult. The material dealing with Wittgenstein remains, for me at least, difficult to follow; it seems that Wittgenstein’s later work helped Cavell acknowledge, among other things, that there is no hope of building a nice new home in a “reconstructed” or “resettled” everyday. Rather, since we are ever moving between dissatisfaction with the ordinary and the extraordinary, and desire for the opposite, we must turn to a philosophy of constant movement. Cavell found this in Emerson and Thoreau. From them he drew the idea not of the “best self,” which we always look up at from below, but of what he calls, somewhat jocularly, the “next self”—the self we cannot help but see from wherever we happen to be standing. Whether more ordinary or extraordinary than ourselves at present, this self draws us on, makes us skeptical of our current selves, ashamed of them, as if we were nothing but frauds. “The worst thing we could do is rely on ourselves as we stand,” Cavell writes, channeling Emerson. “We must become averse to this conformity, which means convert from it,. . . .as if we are to be born (again).” And the self we are born into is, obviously, not in any sense our “best self”; it is by no means final; it is only our “next self.” As Emerson himself puts it: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.”

This is the way Cavell finally attempts to reclaim the everyday—not by becoming at home in it, but by repetitively leaving and returning to it. The same movement lies behind his understanding of remarriage, where fidelity is achieved by permitting oneself to doubt one’s marriage, if only to return again. It is also what Cavell takes to be the ultimate lesson of Thoreau’s Walden. The task of the book is “the building of a house,. . . .the finding of one’s habitation, of where it is one is at home”; in a pun, he calls this “one’s edification”; but the proof that one has found a home is that, as Thoreau himself showed, “you are free to leave it.” A home, a true self, is only that which you can freely leave behind for what comes next.

Through this series of readings, Cavell arrived at a new name for the movement between current and next self, between ordinary and extraordinary, a movement he calls, again in something of a philosophical jest, “perfectionism.” His greatest achievement may be his identification of perfectionism as a central and largely ignored tradition in moral thinking. Much contemporary moral philosophy has been concerned with questions of how, given one’s values and standards, a decision between two choices (e.g. killing one man to save twenty, or doing nothing while those twenty die) can be made. While important, it is rare that such questions arise—or when they do arise, for example Peter Singer’s question of why we would save a drowning child but won’t give up a night on the town to feed an impoverished family, we recognize the question’s force but fail to take action. Cavell asks what philosophy might have to say “when what is problematic. . . .is not the fact that between alternative courses of action the right has become hard to find, but that in the course of your life you have lost your way,” become skeptical of yourself, questioned the values or standards you allegedly hold, find them fraudulent. The result is, as often as not, cynicism: the feeling that there are no accurate standards, so one may as well not worry about getting things right. This is particularly the problem of what Cavell calls the “relatively advantaged,” those who are not so badly off that everyday life is a matter of life and death, nor so well-off that all of life seems designed to respond to their oppressive whims.

Cavell jokes that most contemporary moral philosophy seems to take it for granted that the relatively advantaged simply don’t have that many problems; similarly, most contemporary political philosophy hardly worries about whether the relatively advantaged might consent to the regime that, after all, gave them such advantages. Cavell, by insisting on the importance of perfectionism, refuses to take the consent of the relatively advantaged for granted. Their moral problem is not that they do not know what is right (as with the most advantaged), nor that they don’t have the resources to pursue it (as with the least advantaged), but that they do know what is right—and what is right has become only a matter of conformity. The relatively advantaged thus act by rote, giving to charity, say, without becoming charitable human beings; and they do not consent to the political structure, because they are too cynical to take part in the political conversation, even if they vote. They are the right-thinking upper middle class whose conformity Emerson and Thoreau set out to shame, not in order to make them yet more cynical, but that through that new shame they might become what Cavell calls “ashamed of their shame,” so disgusted with their conformity that they aspire to something new, their next self.

This is the heart of Cavell’s argument for perfectionism as a distinct “dimension of moral thought,” not about determining what we “ought” to do, but releasing us from the cynicism that makes us feel we oughtn’t concern ourselves with words like “ought” at all. “We either are drawn beyond ourselves,” to a moral thought or act, “or we are not,” he writes; “there is no ought about it.” Perfectionism, by making us ashamed of ourselves, ashamed of our shame, draws us on to that next self, whether ordinary or extraordinary, and makes truly good deeds—ones that we invest our whole selves in—possible

Cavell’s argument in favor of perfectionism is especially powerful because the one time in recent philosophy that perfectionism has been taken up, by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, it was kicked out of democratic society as intolerant and elitist. Cavell’s defense attempts to show that perfectionism is not just permissible but essential to a healthy democracy:

If there is a perfectionism not only compatible with democracy but necessary to it, it lies not in excusing democracy for its inevitable failures, or looking to rise above them, but in teaching how to respond to those failures … otherwise than by excuse or withdrawal. . . . I understand the training and character and friendship Emerson requires for democracy as preparation to withstand not its rigors but its failures, character to keep the democratic hope alive in the face of disappointment with it.

Thus Cavell’s early sense of personal fraudulence, which led to his engagement with skepticism and the ordinary, which led to the moral philosophy of perfectionism, becomes an argument for political engagement. With a president who continually invokes perfectionist themes—”We are the people we have been waiting for”; “The union may never be perfect, but it can be perfected”—only, by raising those hopes, to further disappoint and even disgust his supporters, it is an argument that today, perhaps more than ever, repays renewed attention.

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