Only three times in my life since I started reading seriously have I become a devotee of a particular writer. In October of 1982 I became captivated by Noam Chomsky's political writings. I had always been confused about how people chose between being a Republican or a Democrat and why the
In the mid-80s the philosopher Richard Rorty's writings had a significant impact. I had always yearned to know the Truth and gain certainty, but Rorty’s writings made me see the limits of reason and how the Truth and certainty could not be gained, at least by Reason. He was an Analytic philosopher undermining Analytic philosophy. He argued that there is no way in which we determine whether language – our medium for knowing things - gets the world right because we can never step outside of language and compare it to the world. The world is always language-infused for us.
For the last three months the philosopher Stanley Cavell has captured my attention. The difference this time though is that I’m not sure how or if Cavell will fundamentally change my beliefs the way that Chomsky and Rorty did. While I love reading Cavell, I keep wondering what am I getting out of this and is it changing my beliefs? Reading Cavell is a kind of practice, in the way meditation is a practice. I set aside a time for it and become entranced. Particular observations of his reverberate through me and have an experiential affect. They seem to illuminate a way to go in life, but never quite give explicit directions.
But it’s not as if after reading him I now believe this rather than that, or that I can neatly formulate his view of things. But one formulation is that Cavell is countering the specialization and technicality of the dominant form of philosophy in American and British universities called Analytic Philosophy. One way he counters the dominant philosophy is by describing an alternative philosophical history which includes Emerson and Thoreau, people not considered philosophers by the academic establishment. Much of his writing is in the form of interpretations of other writers, but the best essays contain startling and moving insights about understanding and leading a life.