Cinema and Media Studies Stanley Cavell
William Rothman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0079


Spanning his career, Cavell’s writings about film reflect, and are reflected in, the emergence and thematic development of such philosophical matters as the problematic of skepticism (which links the beginning of modern philosophy in Descartes with Shakespearean tragedy and romance); voice; the ways skepticism and voice are inflected by gender; and the outlook on morality, embraced both by Cavell and by the films he writes most about, that he calls “moral perfectionism” or, more specifically, “Emersonian perfectionism.” For this reason, Cavell’s writings about film cannot fully be understood in isolation from the rest of his philosophical writings. This is true as well for Gilles Deleuze, the other major philosopher for whom writing about film was an important part of his work. Unlike Deleuze, who expressed little tolerance for criticism as such, Cavell is a critic as well as a philosopher. All his books are anchored in “readings,” whether of plays by Shakespeare or Beckett; operas; philosophical works by Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, Thoreau or Emerson; or movies. It is one of Cavell’s central claims that criticism is internal to philosophy; the history of Western philosophy cannot be separated from the shifting terms of criticism philosophers have brought to bear against competing views. In Cavell’s writing, acts of criticism are philosophically motivated, and the philosophy is motivated by a critical impulse to make sense of—to attach meaningful words to—particular objects as they are experienced. For Cavell, there is no conflict or tension between criticism and philosophy, or, rather, none that his writing does not strive to overcome or transcend by acknowledging it critically and investigating it philosophically. In Cavell’s view, there is an intimate kinship or affinity between philosophy, as he understands and practices it, and the movies in his experience.

Cavell’s Writings about Film

Throughout his career, writing about movies has been strand over strand with Stanley Cavell’s philosophical life from The World Viewed (1971), published between Must We Mean What We Say? (1969) and The Senses of Walden (1972), to Pursuits of Happiness (1981; a companion piece to The Claim of Reason, 1979), to Contesting Tears: Hollywood Melodramas of the Unknown Woman (1996), to Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (2004), perhaps his most ambitious marriage of film and philosophy. Interspersed with these books are a substantial number of pieces on film collected in the volume Cavell on Film (2005).

Already in The World Viewed, Cavell argued that there is a serious moral philosophy that was not imposed on movies from the outside, like the Production Code, but was internal to the stories that movies are forever telling. But it had not yet fully dawned on him that the unique combination of popularity and artistic seriousness of American movies was a function of their inheritance of focal concerns of Emerson and Thoreau. In his writing about film, Cavell first articulated this idea in Pursuits of Happiness. His subsequent immersion in Emerson’s writings, which led to several seminal studies in which he makes the case that Emerson is to be read as a serious philosopher also led Cavell to the idea that his own philosophical writings constituted an inheritance of Emerson’s way of thinking. His intuition that Hollywood movies had inherited the concerns of American transcendentalism, conjoined with his intuition that he, too, has inherited these concerns, led Cavell to the further intuition that his own philosophical procedures were underwritten by the ways American movies, especially of the 1930s and 1940s, think about society, human relationships, and their own condition as films. Cities of Words ties together all these strands of Cavell’s thought.

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