It’s not easy to capture what Cavell has meant over the years in the wandering itinerary of my philosophical thought and writing. It’s easier to just assert that he’s been a major – if not the major – illuminating beacon. It’s been impossible to keep up with the wide range of his interests and production over the decades, and impossible not to be impressed by its ever-widening scope and depth.
Cavell’s unfettered explorations gave me, as a young faculty member in the early seventies, a kind of general permission to write about issues and authors off the beaten path. I remember my amazement early on, in the mid-sixties, that he could write revealingly, in the same breath, on Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, daring to make peace in a space both existentialist and Anglophone. Kierkegaard became more analytical than anyone had expected, and analytical issues began to carry an existentialist bent.
Then there was Cavell’s path-breaking work on Thoreau, whom Anglophones had dismissed as “only” a literary figure. Much later in his career, Cavell wrote an arresting piece on “passionate speech.” I saw fit to use his defense liberally in the closing chapter of my book on Thoreau. The strata of passionate speech shows the Concord saunterer to be engaged equally in philosophy, poetry, and religion.
On his ever-widening canvas, the distinction between literature and philosophy began to evaporate. Later I encountered his work on film. For someone whose undergraduate tutelage conveyed the dogmatic assurance that philosophical writing had to engage classical issues in epistemology a la Descartes and Hume – quite deaf to ethical and literary concerns — Cavell was a breath of freedom, a permission to roam, with regard both to theme and to expository, evocative, and passionate style.
I think Cavell has earned the distinction of being the foremost contender for the title of the greatest American philosopher of the twentieth century – certainly of the second half of the century. Of course there’s something silly in even proposing such a contest.
I was never Cavell’s student, though I’ve met many of his students, and read their work as well as his. Some are rightly grieving his passing. I find myself less grieving than suffused with gratitude for what he has meant in my life. I would not be what I have become without him.