The Division of Talent

Critical Inquiry 11 (4):519-538 (1985)

My letter of invitation to this seminar expresses the thought that “it will be very useful to have someone from outside the field help us see ourselves.” Given my interests in what you might call the fact of literary study, I was naturally attracted by the invitation to look at literary study as a discipline or profession but also suspicious of the invitation. I thought: Do professionals really want to be helped to see themselves by outsiders? This is an invitation to get a group of people sore at me, and it will only result in the group’s having an occasion not to see itself, since any member of it can easily dismiss anything I say as uninformed. But the invitation goes on to give the title for this session as “The Nature and Function of Literary Study: As Others See Us.” Reading that, I thought: That is different. That identifies me as an other to the “academic and professional concerns” of the field—hence, not just outside but intimately outside, as if my position were an alternative to yours. And how could I not be better informed about being other to you than you are?But of course I know that there is no single unified “you” to which I am other, that some of you, perhaps most, have other others than philosophy and see your practice not against philosophy but against history or criticism or literary theory. So I should perhaps say that I am not exactly single or unified myself, that I am also other to the Anglo-American profession of philosophy, to which at the same time I belong. A way of expressing my otherness to this profession of philosophy is simply to say that I take you as also among my others, that I recognize the study of literature to be an alternative to what I do—a path I might have taken, might still irregularly be taking—to occupy a relation to the way I think, that for most of the members of my profession would be occupied by a profession of logic or science. I will not try here to account theoretically for the intimate differences that may make philosophy and literature alternative studies, which means that I will not here systematically try taking the perspective of an other. But I will be bearing in mind its certain messages and rumors that have lately been coming my way from the field of literary studies. You have, for example, not kept it secret that you have been worrying, as a profession, and sometimes in the form of conducting arguments about the obligation to literary theory as part of literary study, nor secret that these arguments sometimes take on the color or texture of strong statements of, or against, something called deconstruction. I will try to say something about these poorly kept secrets. Stanley Cavell, professor of philosophy at Harvard University, is the author of many works, including Must We Mean What We Say?, The Senses of “Walden,” The Claim of Reason, and, most recently, Themes Out of School. He has been chosen by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters to receive the 1985 Morton Dauwen Zabel Award for Criticism. His most recent contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Politics as Opposed to What?,” appears in the September 1982 issue
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