Comments on Andrew Norris’s Becoming Who We Are: Politics and Practical Philosophy in the Work of Stanley Cavell


The following text was originally delivered at the 2018 meeting of the Western Political Science Association.

Norris’s Becoming Who We Are begins with the observation that Cavell’s contributions to political philosophy have not received as much attention as they should have (2). While acknowledging three works that draw significantly on Cavell – Pitkin’s Wittgenstein and Justice, Strong’s Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration and Dumm’s A Politics of the Ordinary – the impetus for Norris’s text is to draw our attention to the political aspects of Cavell’s work. Norris’s observation confirms my own anecdotal experience. When I tell fellow political theorists that I work on Cavell, I’ve been met with three different kinds of response. They too have read him and made use of his ideas in their work. They have read him and either “don’t get him” or see no use for him in political theory. Or they have not heard of him at all. From personal experience, the third group is by far the largest. The first group is the smallest (I note that two of the three authors Norris cites as drawing upon Cavell are on this panel today). It is the middle group though, that is the most interesting.

            One theme that runs throughout Norris’ book is the trope of philosophical conversion – beginning with a discussion of Cavell’s own conversion to Ordinary Language Philosophy with his encounter with Austin (p.19), through Cavell’s conversion to a life of “meaning every word he says” (p. 42), to the idea that a claim to community is an attempt at converting one’s fellow citizens (p.138), to the exemplar in Emmersonian perfectionism shaming me into attain my unattained yet attainable self (p.212 -4). One could say that the “not getting Cavell” report is of one who has not yet, and perhaps never will, be converted to the Cavellian enterprise and the practice, more generally, of ordinary language philosophy. This immediately raises the question of why some seem to be converted to Cavell and others not. (As an aside: the language of conversion that Norris deploys is of a philosophical conversion not a religious one – although the language has obvious resonances with religion.) Norris invokes Socrates’ idea of philosophy as a kind of turning around (p.38 -40). Cavell describes it as “a mood” that “all of the sudden you feel”. Wittgenstein describes this feeling as “aspect dawning” and speculates that those who do not feel it are “aspect blind” (PI, part 2, sec. 11) -- in a manner akin to being colour blind. In the case of Cavell, the conversion, or turning around might involve two steps. The first is to take on Cavell’s (and by extension ordinary language philosophy’s) vision of language, best experienced by grasping the significance of his question “Must We Mean What We Say?” and then one must see how this projects into our (by which I mean political theorist’s) conversations about freedom, authority, autonomy, the social contract, responsibility, recognition, America, and judgment (to name just a few political themes in Cavell’s work).

            The great achievement of Norris’ book is that he guides the reader through both steps in the conversion. The first two chapters are a careful elucidation of Cavell’s interpretations of skepticism and ordinary language philosophy. While neither of these aspects of Cavell’s work is obviously political, both have implications for Cavell’s understanding of human subjectivity and politics. Without first grasping how Cavell responds to the challenge of skepticism and to the uncanniness of the ordinary one cannot grasp how Cavell develops the political implications of ordinary language philosophy. One cannot understand what he means when he says that when we search for our criteria we are making “claims to community”. These two chapters masterfully unpack some of Cavell’s most philosophically difficult work, situating him in the intellectual context of Ordinary Language Philosophy and explaining the relevance of these ideas for political theory. The subsequent chapters explore what is entailed in making a claim about who we are as a political community, and then exploring Cavell’s development of Emersonian perfectionism as his most significant contribution to political thought. I found that I learned much this book, and my hope is that it will convert others to the political philosophy of Cavell. Since Norris is already preaching to the choir when I read his text, I do not have criticism so much as calls for elaboration. I will focus on two issues that emerge in chapter three.

            The two questions that I wish to raise about this book concern the question of what kind(s) of freedom operate in Cavell’s political philosophy, and what kind of democratic theorist Cavell may be. The first question arises in response to Norris’s discussion of liberty. Norris argues (rightly) that according to Cavell, “American political culture is . . . characterized by a false understanding of its own values” including the value of freedom (100). The value of freedom that has become hegemonic in the U.S. since the 1950s (following from Hayek, Friedman, and Berlin) is the idea of negative freedom, freedom as doing what one likes. Norris argues that part of Cavell’s impetus for drawing upon Rousseau is is to draw out the relevance of freedom as autonomy as an alternative, truer value for American political culture. On this reading of the social contract, “The recognition of consent is thus the recognition of one’s political identity, of one’s attempt to live in concert with others – to achieve one’s autonomy alongside and with them” (98). This understanding of freedom is clearly at play in Cavell’s re-reading of the social contract, in his work on moral perfectionism, and in his turn to the transcendentalists for a vision of what American political culture might be. Furthermore, Norris is absolutely right that the reading of Rousseau as a proto-totalitarian by classical liberals such as Talmond and Berlin is a grave misrepresentation of what freedom as autonomy means. Yet Hannah Arendt raises a similar critique of Rousseau’s concept of freedom – namely that Rousseau’s emphasis on the will as the site of freedom is anti-political. In her critique she points out that in Rousseau’s ideal state, the general will is generated without communication. In Book II Ch.3 of The Social Contract Rousseau writes that “[i]f when a sufficiently informed populace deliberates, the citizens were to have no communication . . . the deliberation would always be good” (Rousseau, 156 emphasis added). Furthermore Rousseau thinks that “for the general will to be well articulated, it is therefore important that . . . each citizen make up his own mind” (Rousseau, 156). Arendt’s point is two-fold. First Rousseau’s conception of freedom abstracts politics from the “elaborate framework of ties and bonds for the future”, and in so doing makes the will the only faculty that is relevant for politics (Arendt, p.164). Democracy slips very quickly into decisionism. Second, by preventing communication between citizens, political action becomes impossible. There is something very un-Cavellian about a form of freedom that sees communication within its community as corrupting the body politic.

            So my first question is: how can we reconcile this aspect of Rousseau’s concept of the general will (that it is generated through private deliberation, and public communication is too be discouraged) with Cavell’s emphasis that working out who I am and who we are requires a constant process of “responsive engagement with others as we attune ourselves to one another and the world around us” (Laden, p.9) – a process that can only happen through conversation? Norris very briefly acknowledges this tension between Rousseau and Cavell (p. 113), but if Arendt’s reading of Rousseau is correct, then Cavell’s conception of freedom must exceed Rousseau’s. There must be some kind of freedom as action in Cavell’s version of the social contract in addition to freedom as autonomy. So I would like to hear more from Norris about how he thinks Cavell’s emphasis on conversation modifies Rousseau’s concept of freedom as autonomy.

            The second question concerns the role of disagreement in Cavell’s account of politics. Norris mentions that one critique he encounters is “that Cavell’s vision of politics is one in which there’s almost no room for extended disputation or enduring conflict between differing views” (p.120). I can report that when I’ve presented Cavell’s work I have on occasion had similar responses: “How is Cavell different from Habermas?”, “Isn’t Cavell just a liberal?”, “How is Cavell different from Rawls?” These types of questions often leave me puzzled, because I’ve never seen Cavell as a “consensus theorist”. Disagreement has been central to Cavell’s work since the beginning. I note, for example that the opening to “Must We Mean What We Say?” describes the dispute between analytic and ordinary language philosophy as “like friends who have quarreled, to be able to neither tolerate nor ignore one another” (MWMWWS, 2). It strikes me that this description of disagreement captures how Cavell is neither a deliberative democrat seeking consensus as the telos of political argumentation, nor an agonistic theorist that seems argumentation as fostering “relations of adversarial respect” (Connolly 2002, x). The crucial difference is that these two branches of democratic theory do not differentiate between different kinds of agreement, whereas Cavell, following Wittgenstein (PI 241) distinguishes between agreement in opinions and agreement in “forms of life”. In one of the more famous passages from Cavell’s work, he writes that “[h]uman speech and activity, sanity and community, rest on nothing more, but nothing less” than “all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’”. He describes this vision as “terrifying” because disagreements in forms of life are possible (although unusual – perhaps out of the ordinary). Assuming that my reading of this passage is correct (Cavell never uses the phrase disagreement in forms of life to my knowledge), then political disputes could be of two kinds – disagreement over opinions and disagreements over forms of life. The former are the realm of mere policy disputes, but the latter are about “becoming who we are” and determining whether “we” can continue to function together as a community – the kinds of disputes that bring to the foreground the social contract, or call into question Nora’s marriage to Thorvald. The rebuttal to those who think Cavell leaves no room for extended disputation or enduring conflict is that in grounding his philosophy and his politics in forms of life, he leaves politics permanently open to disagreements over forms of life.  Yet this raises a question about where such a politics is headed. Is the purpose of becoming who we are to reach a state where there are no more disagreements in our forms of life? I can think of some of the disagreements that Norris cites (e.g. Kid Rock’s defense of displaying the confederate flag, Rick Santorum’s decision to bring his still born child home to be shown to his young children (p.135), or the attitudes of the slave holder) as forms of life that should go away. But other forms of life – e.g. those of indigenous communities, linguistic minorities such as the Quebecois, LGBTQ communities – must remain in some form of disagreement with hegemonic forms of life if these communities are to survive and flourish. I think it is that tension between forms of life we find deplorable and forms of life that we find laudatory that leads to the misreading of Cavell as leaving no room for dispute or conflict. Yet, how do we remain open to laudatory disagreements in forms of life while putting behind us the deplorable ones?