Stanley Cavell and "The Claim of Reason"

Critical Inquiry 6 (4):575-588 (1980)

Even as the philosopher can show us how to treat an object conceptually as a work of art, by regarding it in some context, so Cavell constantly implies that there are parables to be drawn about the way we treat the objects of our consciousness and the subjects of parts of it. But this special sort of treatment—like projective imagination itself—is not fancy or wit but more like a kind of epistemological fabling that is close to what Shelley called, in A Defense of Poetry, "moral imagination." What is so powerful—and yet elusive of the nets of ordinary intellectual expectation—in The Claim of Reason is the way in which the activities of philosophizing become synecdochic, metonymic, and generally parabolic for the activities of the rest of life itself. It is the way in which the large , unphilosophical, "poetic," or "religious" questions are elicited from their precise and technical microcosms that makes so much of this book poetical, but not "literary," philosophy. When he writes of how tragedy "is the story and study of a failure of acknowledgment, of what goes before it and after it—i.e., that the form of tragedy is the public form of skepticism with respect to other minds"; or when, after brilliantly adducing The Winter's Tale in his consideration of Othello, he confronts the magic of Hermione's statue coming to life, he observes that "Leontes recognizes the fate of stone to be the consequence of his particular skepticism," the reader can perceive the kind of vast fiction in which minds, bodies, the privacy of insides, dolls, statues, and other representations figure as agents and elements. It will take longer to understand, I think, the imaginative significance of the earlier portions of the book. The philosophers who find its terrain familiar tend to have little patience with poetry; the reader whose sensibility is "literary" may be unable to distinguish between the arguments and examples, and the meta-arguments and examples, of the discussions of Wittgensteinian and Austinian method. Both kinds of readers should keep at it. John Hollander, a distinguished poet and critic, is professor of English at Yale. The author of The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700, Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form, and The Figure of Echo, his books of poetry include Spectral Emanations and Blue Wine and Other Poems
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DOI 10.1086/448066
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