International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 49, December 2005







Michael Grant


Cities of Words, Cities of Cinema:

Stanley Cavell's _City of Words_



Stanley Cavell

_Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life _

London and Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004

ISBN 0-674-01336-0

458 pp.


Stanley Cavell has over the last decades addressed questions of meaning and subjectivity, or, what amounts to much the same thing, questions of scepticism, by way of detailed reference to some of the major films of the first twenty years of the sound cinema in Hollywood. This collection of essays continues that work. After an Introduction, the book opens with an essay on Ralph Waldo Emerson, and then follows it up with a piece on _The Philadelphia Story_. This alternation continues with essays on John Locke and _Adam's Rib_, John Stuart Mill and _Gaslight_, Immanuel Kant and _It Happened One Night_, and so on. It is a way of laying things out that derives from a course of lectures on Moral Perfectionism delivered by Cavell over the last decade and a half, in which the Tuesday lecture concerned certain central texts of moral philosophy, while the Thursday lectures were devoted to masterpieces of what Cavell sees as the Golden Age of American film, with the earliest film dating from 1934, the latest from 1949. An essay on Shakespeare and Rohmer is the penultimate study. The last piece, which takes up the issue of moral perfectionism in Plato's _Republic_, is a restatement in truncated form of the account given of that text in the essay on the subject in the 1988 Carus Lectures, _Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome_.


Cavell has made it clear that he does not propose to offer a definition, analytic or otherwise, of what 'moral perfectionism' may be said to be. Nonetheless, it seems evident that the idea of perfectionism of the pertinent kind derives in part from Friedrich Schlegel, whose essay on the ironic consciousness may be taken as one originating statement of that sense of the doubleness or duplicity of the self (where no derogatory implications are to be derived from the use of the word 'duplicity') which is crucial both to Emerson's thought and to that of Cavell. Cavell makes clear that not only does he have no complete list of the necessary and sufficient conditions for using the term, but also he has no theory in which such a definition would play a useful role. The impression arises that he sees moral perfectionism as a family resemblance concept, such that what he calls an open-ended thematics of perfectionism is in no way inferior to some essential definition of the idea that transcends the project of reading that he undertakes in response to the texts and films in question. It is the very project of reading itself, and its many and varied continuations, that is expressive of -- one might say, constitutive of -- the interest he takes in the idea of moral perfectionism. It is a project that involves conceiving of perfectionism as a way of seeing aspects or dimensions of a variety of texts that range across Western culture, from Plato to Wittgenstein, not excluding the work of the American cinema. (It is also clear that Cavell's understanding of his texts involves a rebuttal of the perspective opened up on Western philosophy by deconstruction.)


In order to see what Cavell expects of his reader in response to this way of looking at the texts and films in question, it would be as well to recall that Socrates speaks of his ideal state as 'our city of words' at the end of book 9 of the _Republic_, which suggests to Cavell that the noting of 'our city' is a standing gesture (as he puts it in the Carus lectures) towards the reader, or overhearer; an invitation, as it were, to enter into the discussion in such a way as to determine his or her own position with regard to what is being said. Seen thus, there is in each case of reading one more member than there are members depicted in a Platonic, or Wittgensteinian, or Emersonian, dialogue, inasmuch as the vision presented in or by the city of words is one that by virtue of the very process of reading I am already a participant in. Emerson is getting at something like this when he writes: 'So all that is said of the wise man by stoic or oriental or modern essayist, describes to each man his own idea, describes his unattained but attainable self'. [1] For Cavell, the implication here is that the self is always beside itself, that thinking is a kind of ecstasy. Warrant for this idea is also to be found in Heidegger, whose conception of the self may perhaps be put in the following way (in an idiom deriving also from Lacan): I am what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming. The self, one might say, is a journey whose goal is decided by nothing beyond the way of the journey itself. This vision of the self had already been fundamental to Cavell's understanding of our relation to language in _The Claim of Reason_ and _Must We Mean What We Say?_. Repudiating the conception that ordinary language is based on a pre-given structure of rules, he shifts his emphasis from rules to judgements. As Espen Hammer has it: 'The basic fact in need of philosophical reflection is that we learn words in certain contexts, and after a while we are expected to make judgements by appropriately projecting those same words into further contexts'. [2] As Hammer goes on to note, for Cavell, no rules or pre-given idealities intervene between my judgements and the world to which they are meant to respond. It thus makes no sense to ask for the foundation of our practices: 'neither the social nor the numerous practices sustained within it can ever relieve us of our individual stance'. [3] I must myself take responsibility for what I mean to say.


These themes are revisited in _Cities of Words_, not only with respect to the texts selected from the philosophical tradition, but also the films that Cavell chooses to discuss, which are seen by him as explorations of these same issues, inasmuch as each of the chosen films makes of the doubling and transcendence of the self the mainspring of its narrative and dialogue. A particularly clear instance of this comes at the end of _Now, Voyager_, a film to which the issues of identity and its transformations are central. In the penultimate sequence, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), and her psychoanalyst, Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains), are stretched out on the floor of her mansion looking at plans for a new building at Cascade, Jaquith's sanatorium in the country, when the psychoanalyst looks closely at her and says: 'Are you the same woman who some months ago hadn't an interest in the world?' In Cavell's words:


'She replies, simply but with Bette Davis mystery, 'No'. What these two discover together, looking like a couple well along in marriage, is that she is unknown -- that the various names and labels that have been applied to her (another pervasive theme of the film) are none of them who she is.' (245)


Cavell sees manifest here a conception of the self, a self to which no predicate applies, in the way predicates apply to objects, a self that is always and never my possession, always to be discovered, and it is this conception that embodies the idea of perfectionism it is his concern to explore in the book. This means that it is not only a matter of presenting an argument concerning an experience of the self but also of discovering and so acknowledging the reality of such an understanding of the self in one's own case, in one's own experience -- of oneself and others. It is this that links philosophy, in what Cavell takes to be its genuine significance, and the process of transference in psychoanalysis. And it is for this same reason that what he calls his 'interpretations' are not to be believed as statements of fact are. 'Accepting or rejecting them requires work, a shift of the self. Sometimes the shift is small, sometimes it is transformative'. (246) It is just such a transformation or conversion of the self that this book of Cavell's requires of his reader.


University of Kent

Canterbury, Kent, England





1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'History', in _Essays: First Series_ (1841), paragraph 5. See <>.


2. Espen Hammer, _Stanley Cavell: Skepticism, Subjectivity and the Ordinary_ (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002), p. 20. See <>.


3. Ibid., p. 23.



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005



Michael Grant, 'Cities of Words, Cities of Cinema: Stanley Cavell's _City of Words_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 49, December 2005 <>.












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