Stanley Cavell on What We Say
In his early essay, “Must We Mean What We Say”, Cavell argues that the claims of ordinary language philosophers regarding “what we say when” are not empirical generalizations about a given group of speakers but are rather to be understood as measuring the limits of what counts as a coherent act of thinking and speaking. Cavell’s charge against the skeptic about the external world is that he seeks to think and speak beyond these limits. In this paper I compare Cavell’s response to the skeptic to Davidson’s. Both base their responses on a broadly Kantian approach that appeals to the conditions under which thinking or speaking about objects is possible. On this approach the skeptic isn’t giving a false answer to an intelligible question, but rather, the question to which the skeptic is giving an answer is shown to be in some way unintelligible. But while Davidson’s critique of the skeptic is based on the conditions of ascribing meaning to one’s words, and contents to one’s beliefs, Cavell’s critique is based on the failure of the skeptic to mean the words he uses in the way that he needs. This difference expresses an underlying disagreement about the meaning of “meaning”: for Davidson the world comes into view through the meaning of our words and concepts, through the contents of our beliefs; for Cavell, the world comes into view through the agreement in “criteria” that are a condition of applying words and concepts to the world. This difference illuminates what Cavell calls “the truth of skepticism”: the idea that “my relation to the world and to others in general is not one of knowing”.
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