Avoiding the Siren Call

Halfway through this lecture by Stanley Cavell, I stopped listening to it. It is not just that the lecture comes across – to me and to many others – as boring and self-involved. More than that, I had a moment of enough is enough. Not only do I not feel like listening more. I will not listen more. It was a flashback to fifteen years ago when, though at the time I poured through his writings, I stopped going to his classes. I wasn’t going to put myself through it anymore.

Not put myself through what anymore? What am I feeling when watching the lecture? There is a pain, a sense of frustration. A feeling that I am torturing myself by listening to this. But why?

It is the sense of a siren call, a pleasant, melodious, hopeful song luring me into its orbit even as ultimately it leads only to my entrapment and an intellectual dead end. That what I am listening to is really, for me, a mirage, a false hope, an illusion of a future at the end of the talk.

Cavell’s writing has the feel of being all self-consciousness. A mind turned within, pondering its own existence, its limits, its attempts at pushing past those limits, only to fall down and to try again, and again. With Cavell there is the sense that the whole person is present in the writing, that what is being presented are not just thoughts or arguments, but a mind in full, a kind of baring of the soul engaging with its deepest temptations and hopes.

And yet, there is also a basic lack of self-awareness, or at least a lack of an expression of awareness, about a fundamental fact: that of the institutional structures through which Cavell is speaking to his audience. In this Cavell is like Wittgenstein. In both thinkers, there is a presumption that they are speaking to the reader or listener person to person, as it were outside any institutional context, as two people who might just be sitting on a park bench, or talking a walk, sharing about their life and trying to make sense of it all.

One way this effect is achieved is through their taking a critical stand towards, as they see it, mainstream academic philosophy. The self-consciousness is inseparable from their trials and tribulations in dealing with professional philosophy, and in their trying to save their soul from its deadening effects. Hence often Cavell’s writing has a conspiritorial feel, as if he were speaking in a hush, in the corner of the room, away from all the professional analysis and metaphysics.

This sense of inviting to a private conversation, or, even more enticing, to a call of rebellion against the status quo – that is the siren call. However – and this is the feeling of I will not put myself through this anymore – once you meet Cavell there, in the corner of the room, all one finds is a monologue, but no prospects of a true dialogue. This is what gives Cavell’s philosophy, as with Wittgenstein’s, a sense of narcissism. That the self-consciousness has been rendered into an intrinsic feature of his philosophical expression, so much so that dialogue in a normal sense seems impossible.

In lieu of a dialogue, Cavell seems to offer an invitation to the listener to go on in the same way as him, for the listener to find his voice just as Cavell found his. But how is the listener to do that given how academia has changed in the last fifty years? Or given that no everyone can have the institutional privileges that Cavell has? To this Cavell has no answer.

This brings out the extent to which Cavell’s mode of philosophy, as a mode of how to be a professional philosopher, is antiquated and passe in current academia. Here Cavell’s self-consciousness strangely goes missing, as if he has forgotten that he himself is within academic philosophy after all, in fact at the very center of academic philosophy. As if he is so embarrassed by the privileges that he has had that he simply blocks them out, and assumes that he is simply speaking as a person. 

Cavell, like Wittgenstein, seems altogether oblivious to the fact that in academia being able to speak just as a person is in fact the greatest privilege of all.

It is the privilege where the audience supports the speaker’s sense that they have all been transported to a space beyond power and institutional dynamics. That whatever privilege the speaker enjoys of being listened to is one based only on merit. As if Cavell speaking philosophy is like Glenn Gould playing the piano, and everyone in the room knows that Gould is the best person in the room to be at the piano.

What is ignored by Cavell is that the scientism of analytic philosophy is often motivated precisely by a skepticism towards the academic privilege of speaking “just as a person”. This is what gives thinkers such as Lewis or Fodor or Stalnaker the sense that they are more democratic than thinkers such as Cavell or Wittgenstein. For there is the question: what justifies the privilege of being a philosophy professor, that too at a prestigious department with all the benefits that come with that?

The scientific analytic philosopher’s answer is that there is an objective method that anyone can master and learn, and that the professor is the one who has mastered it better than the non-professors. A very straight-forward answer. What is Cavell’s answer? What can be his answer? Given that his philosophy is inseparable from his personal growth, in what way can Cavell take on the role of a master without putting himself in the role of a guru or an enlightened human being, at any rate more enlightened than the audience?

Here there is a bizarre irony. Cavell’s way of attempting to undercut this worry that he is complicit in the audience relating to him as a guru is to double-down on the autobiographical nature of his philosophy. As if to say: “Listen, I am not a guru. I am just speaking as a person. This is just how my intellectual life has progressed.” The trouble of course is that this only makes him seem like more of a guru figure, as someone who is so enlightened that he does not even care about his own power. But given that he is communicating this from the podium, there is the uncomfortable feeling that it is not that Cavell doesn’t care about his power, as much as that he has fallen into an illusion that he doesn’t have much power. What leads to abusing power more? Affirming that power or denying that one has it?

Philosophy is both autobiographical and communal. And if it takes place in an institutional setting, there have to be mechanisms in place which can enable this combination for all participants.

The scientific analytic philosopher retains the communal aspect, but at the cost of forgoing the autobiographical element. Thinkers like Cavell and Wittgenstein retain the autobiographical element, but at the cost of forgoing the communal element. Not that they do philosophy alone, but that they treat philosophy as so tied to autobiography that it becomes unclear what it means to engage with it institutionally.

The scientific analytic philosopher can accept things like tenure review, journal acceptance practices, and so on because he treats them all as reflecting the method of philosophy. For Cavell and Wittgenstein, these institutional structures are embarrassments which seem to suggest that they haven’t escaped academic norms after all, and so they deal with it by passing them over in silence. As if they are not bound by such norms at all. But, of course, only those at the very top of the hierarchy can get away with such a pretense.

There has to be a third way: a way to combine the autobiographical and the communal. There is. It is called being part of a social movement. Where this doesn’t have to mean politics in a limited sense. It means rather that in philosophy understanding the world and getting together with people in similar situations to change the world cannot be separated.

This is to foster not just an individual self-consciousness, but an institutional self-consciousness. This is one reason Cavell’s lecture above seems strangely disembodied. It is Cavell in the midst of the pomp and circumstance of giving an academic talk, and yet Cavell’s self-consciousness doesn’t reach beyond himself to incorporate the institutional context and dynamics that he and the audience are a part of. As if the room is filled with disembodied minds luxuriating in the splendid thoughts of the mind at the front of the room, outside of any concerns of how the very institutional structures they are a part of have to change in order for them to achieve greater self-consciousness.

18 thoughts on “Avoiding the Siren Call

  1. Johannes

    In the Big Typescript W said: “All philosophy can do is to destroy idols. And that means not creating a new one – for instance as in the ‘absence of an idol’.”

    I do think that it’s very possible that he really wanted to do just that. He failed, but can he be held responsible for what happened later (i.e. his becoming a kind of guru)? (Not a rhetorical question.) One way to accomplish the quoted demand is simply to stop doing philosophy, and of course Wittgenstein tried and failed to do that too.

    I think I agree with you: the attitude expressed, for example, in that quote is potentially very pretentious.
    (I mention the obvious: Wittgenstein’s anti-philosophical philosophy has not been the only attempt since the late modern period to accomplish the destructive goal that the quote recommends.)

    I have not read your blog, but here you don’t really say what you think the autobiographical element in philosophy is. I agree that there is an essential autobiographical element, and it’s something like this: You have a philosophical puzzlement/question. Y-o-u have it, and not necessarily the scientific community or anyone else. And hence progress in philosophy is a personal matter, it’s your progress or it’s not progress for you at all. The solutions/dissolutions in philosophy are rarely “black boxes”, which can be used for different purposes like lemmas in a proof by people who don’t have that particular puzzlement. Philosophy is used and ingested by thinking, not by pushing buttons, or reading the output of a black box, or eating pills produced by one. Philosophy is, using Wittgenstein’s phrase, w-o-r-k on oneself.

    (Science on the other hand makes essential use of black boxes, as does engineering. In fact, often the work of one scientist is incomprehensible, irrelevant or uninteresting, without the community effort, and the external goals that the work serves and facilitates. Philosophy on the other hand is directed at an individual, and should be comprehensible to individuals. Philosophical questions might even be perennial in some deeper sense?)

    But also, as you say there is also a communal element in philosophy: the traditions, the canon, the reservoir of accepted questions, the institutions, etc. And these partly sets the standard for what is consider a worthwhile attempt at a solution/dissolution. I don’t think that there is such a thing as “a method of scientific analytic philosophy”, it was Carnap’s dream that never fully actualized, though there were partial success stories no doubt.

    Let’s also keep in mind that that there is formal work done in analytic philosophy that is equally in danger of becoming somehow self-involved and “narcissistic”. (Even though I personally have no objection to it in principle, and study it seriously, as a student in a European philosophy department populated by philosophers of logic, proof theorists, and other such creatures.)


  2. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    I think Wittgenstein can be held responsible for how he wrote while being an academic. As a teacher he is responsible for his students, and simply telling them to go work in a department store while he is a professor is the easy way out. It is one thing if he thought academia and the department store are both good places for philosophy. But there is a deep confusion where he is telling his students that it is best to leave academia, even as his whole philosophical life was centered around having the greatest privileges in academia. This is hypocritical.

    It has often only been Wittgenstein’s critics who have pointed out this hypocrisy. And they have done so as a way to ignore his philosophy, and in particular ignore his meta-philosophy. But I think it is time for people who are sympathetic with Wittgenstein’s whole mode of doing philosophy to also confront and acknowledge Wittgenstein’s hypocrisy. The way to do that is to take seriously Wittgenstein’s idea that his students would be better off outside academia, and to connect this to Wittgenstein’s actions in the only reasonable way: that Wittgenstein himself not doing this, while himself advocating it to others, was a failure on his part.

    I think Wittgenstein unconsciously realized that society was changing in such a way that philosophy as practical therapy can only primarily be done outside academia. It can be done within academia, but only in reference to such philosophy being done outside academia. Therapeutic philosophy in academia must of necessity refer to such philosophy outside academia as its primary ground.

    Academic philosophers are like gym trainers who can help people be healthy. But health in the general population cannot be equated with the lifestyle and habits of the gym trainers. It is the gym trainers job to help the public be healthy in the way that is possible in day to day life. People can listen to the trainers only if the trainers acknowledge that the situation of the public is the primary importance, not the situation of the trainers.

    Wittgenstein realized this, but couldn’t just get out there and do it himself. This doesn’t take away from his ideas, but it does reorient them around, to echo his idea, the fixed point of our real needs. If Wittgenstein is remembered a century or two from now, it won’t be as an idiosyncratic academic philosopher. It will be as someone who saw the limits of academic philosophy and so helped to usher in a new age of thriving non-academic philosophy.


  3. Cathy Legg

    I would give Wittgenstein a lot more credit for actually ‘getting out there’. He fought in the army – very bravely from what we can gather. He went and taught primary school in a deprived area, and though it didn’t work out (to put it mildly), his intentions were noble. He gave away all of his inherited money. He tried to move to Russia, until he said, he realised it was pretty much just like being in the army again. He built a house with his own hands. He went to see B movies (not just the opera, hint hint).

    The philosophy as ‘all self-consciousness’ model of doing philosophy *is* annoying, and narcissistic, but I wouldn’t say that it is an automatic outcome of doing philosophy in an Academic setting. Think of Plato’s Academy. Think of how the medievals used to construct elaborate Disputatio sessions with multiple stages of answer and counter-answer, thereby establishing an intellectual accountability absent from the late romantic figure of the Great Sage Who Inspects Themselves and Then Writes Beautifully (“in a literary spirit”, as Charles Peirce would put it). Yet this medieval methodology was not ‘scientific’ in the modern sense of the world.

    Late Romanticism Or Science is a false dichotomy to my mind. We need to develop models of public inquiry which are specific to the discipline of Philosophy that we love so much. I think that if we can get clear enough about that, then whether these models end up funded by a University institution or by some other means can be put back in their place as a matter extrinsic to the inquiry itself.


  4. Johannes

    @Cathy Legg I also don’t want to accuse W of having a bad character, and his whole way of understanding philosophy as a search for absolute clarity was already a kind of ethical goal. (By the way, had he gone to Russia he most likely would have been killed, as was pointed out by von Wright, no room for dissidents in Russia in those days.)

    @Bharath Vallabha I’m wondering if your notion of therapy is something much broader/radical than what W meant. There is of course the movement of philosophical counseling, as pioneered by Gerd B. Achenbach in Germany. Another way of taking philosophy outside of academia might be what people like Alain de Botton tries to do.


  5. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Cathy, I completely agree about the false dichotomy regarding romanticism and science. Also about how public philosophy gets funded is secondary to the activity itself. Re Wittgenstein, certainly he got “out there”. But it seems to me the way he got out there reenforced the idea that philosophy is something particularly academic, as if the non-academic world is the space of quiet heroism (front lines of war, etc.) and academia is the space of talking and doing philosophy.

    What I meant to highlight is not that Wittgenstein didn’t leave academia, but that he didn’t strive to create philosophical dialogue outside academia. For him non-academia seems to have become the ideal of when one has attained the peace of overcoming philosophy, and so he doesn’t discuss what it is like to do philosophy in the midst of non-academic life. This was enabled by his extraordinary privilege in academia, such that the philosophy he did outside academic was itself thoroughly academic, so much so that professors were travelling to him in the mountains or whereever to talk about what was being discussed in seminar rooms. He never molded himself to the philosophical needs of non-academics, and that was a missed opportunity.

    Since for Wittgenstein philosophy is a kind of activity, critique of Wittgenstein’s philosophy has to take to form of critiquing his practice, not just his ideas. And there is much to be critical of in how he practiced philosophy. Naturally so, since he was not perfect. It means there is tons of new, exciting philosophy to do if one seeks to improve beyond what Wittgenstein himself was able to do.


  6. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Johannes, I agree: my sense of therapy is much broader than Wittgenstein’s. In fact, my sense is even broader than philosophical counseling (though that sounds interesting, and I will look more into that; thanks for the reference). I see Wittgenstein as helping connect academic philosophy with new age philosophy, and spiritual practices more broadly. There was a deep connection between theoretical philosophy and spiritual practice until the Enlightenment; and even with modern thinkers like Descartes, Spinoza, etc. But in the last couple of centuries in the West this link become broken, and something similar is happening now in non-Western countries as they become part of global capitalism.

    Wittgenstein, Heidegger, etc. provide a way of bridging this gap. They didn’t achieve the synthesis, but their critique of academic philosophy provides a foundation for developing philosophy as a practice which can led to such a synthesis. A lot of contemporary new age philosophy doesn’t engage with the kind of theoretical thinking academic philosophy does, and I think this is to the detriment of the new age philosophy as well. There is rich potential here for a synthesis, and through such a synthesis, for new modes of public philosophy and spirituality.


  7. Cathy Legg

    “What I meant to highlight is not that Wittgenstein didn’t leave academia, but that he didn’t strive to create philosophical dialogue outside academia….”
    Ok that’s good – thanks.
    Of course he did try to raise up those schoolchildren. But he didn’t understand what he was taking on there, I think, and also (to connect with what you’re saying) didn’t understand that there were other pedagogical skills than the academic ones he had been reared in, that he might need to learn.


  8. terenceblake

    For Badiou two important things associated with an “event” in the strong sense are “fidelity” and “incorporation” (the construction of a body for the event, a body that is both individual and communal. So it is quite interesting for me that Cavell puts his work under the sign of the Wittgensteinian event. (For Badiou there are no “events” in philosophy, but only in science, art, politics, and love – but this is a case where Badiou’s system interferes with his insights and needs to be modified). So in these terms we can see the conflict in Cavell between the “fidelity” (which is quite apparent) and the “incorporation”. Cavell talks about the body, about philosophy and embodiment, about how Wittgenstein’s “writing is (of) his body”, but that is at the level of theme or content. Cavell’s style comes across as curiously disembodied, and thus still metaphysical, one could say “idealist”. I associate this disembodied, metaphysical stance with a failure of pluralism. Cavell gives us an idea of the ampleur of a true event and of its consequences. However he shows no curiosity about other events. Even inside philosophy one major event is enough, thev rest are preparatory (Austin) or confirmatory (Emerson). This is also a failure of democracy, as there is no sense of how, despite an implicit claim to modeling an individuating approach to philosophy, Cavell could engage with others who follow their own individual path or who work together to change things. Cavell is part of an élite, an intellectual and institutional aristocracy. Badiou talks about this sort of response to the modern world as “nostalgia” and “aristocratic idealism”. Badiou’s own counter-measure is also ambiguous, and has its own failures of pluralism and democracy. But his thought contains more of these ingredients than Cavell’s.


  9. JH

    I once thought you were too engaged with Wittgenstein though you constantly criticize his practices. It seemed as though you wanted to exorcise the demon of institutionalized analytic philosophy, you somehow could not live without it. My feeling was that Wittgenstein does not have to be a point of reference in any sense – If one is not in agreement with a thinker or a certain tradition, the best recourse might be ignorance. Also, I’ve used to think that philosophy is not that different from other disciplines, such as the sciences, literature, or even sports – that it is obvious that one can get disillusioned with one’s field of study and meet some disagreeable people on the way. Certain people come and go, as I doubt that what Cavell would leave in philosophy would be much of any interest soon.

    However, I came to sympathize with your views, not only through encountering a lot more different individuals who are interested in studying philosophy systemically (I found that a large portion of the philosophy faculty was not adequate in teaching these ambitious and willing students), but also through realizing less-then-helpful, or even harmful, influences which philosophy departments have on non-majors, those are at least initially a bit curious. A lot of students I know came back from introductory philosophy classes dissuaded, left only with very sterile visions of what philosophy can be, as one friend told me, “I thought I was going to learn how to think, not how to make arguments”. I doubt that how many philosophy departments teach their courses would encourage more people to at least try to learn more about philosophy during their spare time. Also, it did not help that the most hostile and judgmental people I’ve ever met were philosophy professors in our school. The danger of analytic philosophy seemed to be constantly feeling undervalued from the hard sciences and feeling as if philosophy needs to “catch up” or justify itself. I’ve also left with a feeling that many philosophy professors I’ve met were also once ambitious students, but have become cynical and unmotivated due to endless concessions – feeling like they need to stay in academia to teach and write philosophy. Instead of trying to change things from within, however, many of them, since it is difficult to do truly satisfying work and have stable academic positions at the same time in philosophy, have forfeited themselves to the ‘middle way’ of enlisting themselves as just an another bureaucrat.

    Along with some of the comments above, I do think it is a mistake to constantly link the academic philosophy, with reference to Wittgenstein, to that of the stifling Cambridge & Oxford scene during the early 20th century. (But even in such a case, I see Whitehead as the one who made the best out of such a situation, unlike Wittgenstein who simply could not fit in either as a student or a professor) I do think that even institutionalized philosophy can help us. Similar to training in the fine arts or in literature, I see philosophy largely as a pedagogical and communal practice. Even if it is not in an academic setting, I see philosophy more than a discourse of written words and argumentations – but also as a making of a social space. Though Wittgenstein warned us against academia, I think it is helpful to realize that he still liked to converse on philosophy with the right people. I have in mind of him, during the final years of his life, in Vienna with the willing students of the Kraft Circle, which Feyerabend was a part of.


  10. terenceblake

    This last point about Feyerabend is very interesting. Wittgenstein was an “event” for Feyerabend, just as much for Cavell, but the consequences were very different. What Wittgenstein liked about the Kraft circle was their “irreverent attitude”. One of Feyerabend’s earliest articles was an account of Wittgenstein’s PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS, and one can see the explicit and implicit influence of Wittgenstein throughout Feyerabend’s philosophical development until the end, and remained under the sign of irreverence. Cavell’s “inheritance” of Wittgenstein is under the sign of reverence. Feyerabend tells us of many such events in his life: the encounter with Popper, with Bohr, with Brecht, with his dog Spund, with his wife Grazia, with the “Mexicans, Blacks, Indians [who] entered the university as a result of new educational policies”. In this talk Cavell develops his ideas in a near vacuum, just him facing Wittgenstein. He shows that Wittgenstein cannot be reduced to the technical vision of philosophy, and this is a big achievement. But his disappointment with academic philosophy is sublimated into becoming a spiritual supplement, like a food additive, to a devitalised academic practice.


    1. JH

      Yes, this irreverence / reverence concept I find very useful. What I find in Feyerabend are moments of intensities in the continual flow of “irreverence”. Feyerabend refused to commit himself to a single set of thoughts in philosophy and even refused to call himself a philosopher, but it is apparent that he took his encounters with Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, etc seriously. Through “forgetting” Wittgenstein, he does justice to the thinker. Yet, Cavell, through attaching himself to the school, cannot even do justice to the thoughts of Wittgenstein himself.

      What I find troubling about such philosophers is their refusal to engage themselves with new thoughts and new intensities to keep in touch with the light of the original thinker. This is best captured by the image invoked by Peter Sloterdijk in his “Critique of Cynical Reason”, where Kant himself walks into the 200th anniversary conference of “Critique of Pure Reason” to only find himself amongst tired middle-aged men giving boring lectures.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. terenceblake

        In 1979, when I was very influenced by Feyerabend, I read two big books that I was very impressed by .: Cavell’s THE CLAIM OF REASON and Deleuze and Guattari’s ANTI-OEDIPUS. I had a doctoral scholarship that would pay me for a year’s trip to another country to study. I did not even consider going to study under Cavell. My way of being “faithful” to Feyerabend was, strangely enough, not to go to Zurich and attend his seminars, but to go to Paris and attend Deleuze’s seminars. I was faithful to Feyerabend’s call to openness to new encounters and new intensities, and had no desire to become his desire and to “repeat” his thought. Feyerabend near the end wrote a little text called “Not a Philosopher”, and this was a constant theme of his talks and texts. He said he liked the job of philosophy professor because it paid him to talk about whatever he liked, and he condemned the elite who protected their financial territory and squeezed out anyone who disagreed with them. He was conscious of being a lucky exception in that regard. It would have been nice to hear Cavell talk about the financial aspect too.


        1. terenceblake

          No, I was very anti-Lacanian then. I went to seminars by Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard and Serres. I ended up staying in Paris for 7 years (1980-1987), and then moving to Nice, where I still live. Not bad for an Australian from Sydney!


        2. JH

          Your bravery is certainly admirable! It’s just that as somebody who’s in his 20s, I can only dream of walking into a Lacan seminar, though I’m very anti-Lacanian myself. Funny thing is that I read ANTI-OEDIPUS as Deleuze & Guattari thinking with Lacan. Though I’m aware that Deleuze was wary of the notion of proper “dialogue” in philosophy, I am constantly surprised that in his texts and even in some of his recorded seminars in French, he frequently mentions his contemporaries, even those whom he does not necessarily ally with (eg. Lacan, Sartre, Althusser, etc). His FOUCAULT book is really beautiful in regard to his way of “thinking with”. The virtue of analytic philosophy is that it is many times collaborative – with multiple people writing the same paper, fruitful conferences, collaborators concerned more with methodological approaches than hermeneutics and so on – but I find it also not so ‘tolerant’, always ready to combat opposing views and traditions.

          Maybe “thinking with” is present in every great thinker. I think the view of Wittgenstein as this sole-standing, lonely figure is mistaken. He thought with (be-friended and elaborated) Russell, Ramsey, Saint Augustine, William James, detective novels, American pulp, poetry of Trakl, symphonies, school children, hospital patients and a lot more.

          Liked by 1 person

  11. Jacques

    There’s another way to resolve this paradox (though maybe it’s a version of your social movement idea). We could try to create new kinds of institutions and people such that the person on the stage sharing his deep personal thoughts and feelings actually is a guru, actually deserves his special position, doesn’t need to be conflictes and dishonest or un-self-aware. Of course that would imply the total destruction of this degenerate society and negation of its values. But it might be a possibility in the future. Perhaps my suggestion is that the public role of “philosopher” is inherently unstable and illegitimate–at best a cheap stand-in for some other role, e.g., elder or shaman or prophet or priest. And maybe if none of those roles can be legitimate either there’s just no public function in a healthy society for anything like what we call “philosophy”.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s