Stanley Cavell (1926-2018) (updated)

Philosopher Stanley Cavell, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, Emeritus, at Harvard University, has died.

Cavell was known for his wide-ranging and tradition-crossing work on aesthetics, language, literature, film, morality, and the history of philosophy, and for his more literary and personal style of writing philosophy.

An undergraduate who studied music at the University of California, Berkeley, and then at Julliard, Cavell turned his focus to philosophy, attending UCLA and getting his PhD from Harvard. He taught at Berkeley for several years, before moving to Harvard, where he taught since 1963.

If you come across links to memorial notices or obituaries elsewhere, please share them in the comments.

Below is an interview with Cavell.


Ned Hall, chair of the Department of Philosophy at Harvard, shared the following, which was written on June 19th:

I write to share the news of a great loss to our community.  Stanley Cavell, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, Emeritus, died peacefully this morning.  Professor Cavell was 91 years old and would have turned 92 on September 1st

As you may know, Professor Cavell first came to Harvard as a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows, and then taught in the Department from 1963 until his retirement in 1997. He served as President of the American Philosophical Association and was selected for a Macarthur Fellowship. He also wrote and published 17 books, including Must We Mean What We Say? (1969), The Senses of Walden (1972), and his final book, the autobiographical work Little Did I Know (2010). In 1979, along with the documentary filmmaker Robert Gardner, Professor Cavell helped found the Harvard Film Archive.


A memorial service will be held at Noon on this Friday, June 22nd at Temple Israel in Boston, and an obituary, which will be in the Globe, will include the names of organizations where donations can be sent in lieu of flowers.  We will also send along this list once it becomes available. Stanley’s family expects to sit shiva this Sunday afternoon at home.




At Aesthetics for BirdsNick Stang (Toronto) has written an obituary for Cavell. Here’s an excerpt:


In an age of academic specialization—which was well underway when he began his career, but has accelerated ever since—Cavell’s writings on film, on music, on literature, were impossible to categorize. Yes, they discussed traditional problems in the philosophy of art (e.g. the objectivity of taste, the expressiveness of music, authorial intention, etc.), but they also contained a lot that was not part of the dreary diet of mid-20th century analytic aesthetics or even philosophy as the discipline then understood itself: the meaning of modernism in the arts, the nature of marriage, the relation of skepticism to tragedy and melodrama, and much much more.It wasn’t that Cavell was not interested in the boundaries that philosophers typically try to draw around their field—it was precisely that he was fascinated by philosophy’s obsession with distinguishing itself from poetry, or from religion, or from psychotherapy, its need to distance itself constantly from what it could nonetheless never stop talking about. Cavell was convinced this exclusion revealed something important about the nature of modern philosophy, and he saw in it an echo of the characteristic gesture of of high modernist culture (e.g. Clement Greenberg), that of distinguishing true art from mere kitsch.


This leads to a second way in which Cavell’s thinking in aesthetics was original: the connections he drew between traditional problems of philosophy and issues in the rest of culture. His very first book, and one of his best, is a collection of essays titled Must We Mean What We Say? Like all of Cavell’s works, it is difficult to summarize, but one of its main themes is the connection between the problems that were exercising analytic philosophers at the time—whether language is always ‘public’ or can be ‘private’, to what extent linguistic meaning is ‘conventional,’ whether we can ever know what another person is thinking or feeling—and issues that arose in the practice of the arts themselves: whether an audience can share an experience of a work, or whether we are left to our own private fantasies; whether the traditional art-forms were still ways of creating art, or could now only produce banal copies; under what conditions art can disclose an artist’s experience, and whether it has to.


Abe Stone (UC Santa Cruz) has written an obituary for Cavell at Digressions & ImpressionsAn excerpt:

Cavell’s death comes at a time when, though some think that Western philosophy has entered a golden age, others of us fear that it may have ended, that there is and will be no next member of the series after Cavell, after Lewis, after Derrida. But then, on the other hand: it also comes at a time when, having tried (but: fairly tried?) doing good, we find, strange as it may seem, that it does not agree with our Constitution. It comes, in other words, at a time when we may ask: why attempt to follow such teachers? Why not reject them and begin anew?

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