Embracing The World Through Doubt


In a wide-ranging essay on the work of Stanley Cavell, Charles Petersen summarizes the philosopher’s animating impulse:

Surrounded by certainty, he became an adept of what in philosophy is known as “skepticism.” This term goes back millennia, but it is closely related to the sense of fraudulence Cavell had experienced while young: the distrust of the reports of one’s peers; the doubt that what one does has any real connection to what one sees; the feeling, therefore (and here we reach full-blown skepticism), that one is only dreaming the world. Cavell insisted that this feeling, even if in its intensity it can seem unjustified, casts light back on its legitimate origins—that we never can be absolutely certain of ourselves or our relation to the world.

Such certainty was exactly what the logical positivists had been trying to achieve. He therefore reinterpreted their philosophy: instead of an attempt to get closer to the world, their demand for certainty was a way of fleeing from the world in all its ambiguity. This was the sense in which their philosophy was fraudulent, and why it so repelled the young Cavell. Under the banner of getting closer to the world, the logical positivists moved further from the world than ever.