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Stanley Cavell: Cities of Words, Harvard University Press 2004

Stanley Cavell: Cities of Words, Harvard University Press 2004


Superbly impressive and mesmerizing book. Cavell is one of America's most uncompromising and original thinkers. A philosopher in the true, grand, Socratic sense as opposed to a philosophy professor - although he taught at Harvard before his retirement a few year ago -  Cavell is striking in his ability to engage in intellectually stimulating, fresh and dignified-yet-humorous dialogue that converses with the most significant writers of Western philosophy and literature without getting trapped in the name of a discipline to the rigid boxes of the academic expert-culture.

The book is based on an unconventional course Cavell used to teach at Harvard in which he discussed philosophy as a way of life and what he calls "moral perfectionism" vis-a-vis the Western philosophical canon and some of the films he considers to be among America's masterpieces. I find this approach extremely exciting and pedagogically explosive, absolutely to the point.

The first chapter of the book, "Introduction: In the Place of the Classroom" is one of the best pieces I know on philosophy as a way of life, i.e. on what-philosophy-ought-to-be. Few pages in any book I've read in recent years have echoed so strongly with me as a philosopher of the everyday, and line by line, as these tremendous pages of Cavell.

So much of so-called philosophy is totally irrelevant and unconnected to actual concerns of people. This has been my main reservation for philosophical professionalism for years as my conviction has been that academic philosophy has sacrifized itself in the name of a psedoscientific facelift. As philosophy has tried to make itself a respectable part of the academic institution, it has alienated itself from the ancient promise of philosophy and from the true concerns of an examined life, to the loss of students, pedagogy and the civilization at large.

Here Cavell cuts in with tremendous force and inspiration. He presents "the moral calling of philosophy", in the context of "the ordinary", "the everyday". He hails Emerson as a leading "philosophical mind" the academic philosophy has failed to take  seriously pointing out that "Emerson brings to philosophy dimensions of human concern that the field of philosophy, in its Anglo-American academic dispensation, in which I was trained, particularly discouraged, not to say disheartened."

Cavell turns to some classical texts of moral thinking and to some classical Hollywood films in order to illuminate "the difficulty of overcoming a certain moral cynicism". How is one to live, as a question of a particular person in a particular situation. What kind of a person does he or she aspire to be given the drama of the context? "This aspect or moment of morality - on which a crisis forces an examination of one's life that calls for a transormation or reorienting of it - is the province of what I emphasize as moral perfectionism."

Kirjoitti Esa Saarinen, 06.01.2008

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