Thinking About Life: Looking at Philosophy

Dec. 24, 2001 at 12:47 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 24 (UPI) -- Prepared by The Harvard Review of Philosophy and edited by S. Phineas Upham


Stanley Cavell

A guiding theme in Stanley Cavell's work is Wittgenstein's commitment to replacing metaphysical or philosophical problems with our own ordinary needs. Finding a sense of liberation in this commitment, Cavell reads Wittgenstein as an engaging and personal philosopher who opens new conversations rather than as a deflationary thinker who brings philosophy to an end.

Cavell outlines this reading of Wittgenstein in "The Availability of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy," which is collected in his first book, "Must We Mean What We Say?" and he develops it in the first part of his central work, "The Claim of Reason." This is the part of Cavell's work that is best-known in contemporary philosophy departments. It is a constitutive part of any study of Wittgenstein's work.

Besides recognizing the sense of liberation in Wittgenstein's work, Cavell also bears testimony to it in his other philosophical interests. Because he reads Wittgenstein as looking at our own philosophical needs, Cavell's starting point is an interrogation and articulation of his own philosophical concerns. He writes with an autobiographical voice and in a characteristic style that is attentive to his far-reaching interests. Cavell seeks to speak with and quarrel about these interests with prominent philosophers of the 20th century -- particularly John Austin -- and with other thinkers whom Cavell sees as addressing his concerns. In particular, in "The Senses of Walden" and "This New Yet Unapproachable America," Cavell engages with Thoreau and Emerson: he finds their interest in the "everyday" or the "common" as consonant with his interests in the 20th century and as an American. By engaging with them in this way, he seeks to define the "literary" character of their thought as inherently philosophical and to identify their thought as characteristically American. Cavell couples his attempt to identify the particularly American in philosophy with an attempt to clarify what is shared in the Anglo-American and Continental traditions. His powerful readings of Heidegger are a part of this attempt.

Cavell is particularly interested in identifying the ways that skepticism manifests itself in our culture. This concern has been a shaping force in his thought since his early work, as the concluding essays of "Must We Mean What We Say?" (1969), "Knowing and Acknowledging" and "The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear," as well as his later work on Shakespeare, reveal.

In "The Claim of Reason," he shows how skepticism concerning other minds leads to, and becomes tragedy. In his work on film, he interprets melodrama as an expression of skepticism (in "Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman") and explains early Hollywood comedies as an overcoming of the skeptical impulse (in "Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage"). But his interest in film goes further and explores, especially in his early book "The World Viewed," the ontology of film.

Cavell was born in 1926, received his AB in music from the University of California at Berkeley and took a doctoral degree from Harvard in philosophy. He taught at Berkeley for six years before returning to Harvard, where he became Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value. He became Professor Emeritus in 1997.

Alan Dershowitz

Alan Dershowitz is a nationally renowned lawyer, author and journalist. He has been praised and criticized for taking the defense in notorious cases, from Claus von Bulow to O. J. Simpson, as well as taking positions on issues from the nature of Judaism to the Clinton impeachment hearings. By his admirers in the media, he is called the "winningest," "smartest," and "most peripatetic" of American civil rights lawyers, and he has appeared on major television shows from Nightline to Crossfire.

After graduating first in his class from Yale Law School, Dershowitz became, at 28, the youngest full professor in Harvard Law School's history, where he still teaches as the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law.

His best-known book is perhaps "Chutzpah," published in 1991, which is in its 12th printing. "Reversal of Fortune: Inside the Van Bulow Case," another of Dershowitz's books, published in 1986, was turned into an Academy Award-winning motion picture by his son Elon. He has also written "Contrary to Popular Opinion," which examined the U.S. constitutional and political process, and "The Abuse Excuse," a collection of essays examining the relationship between individual responsibility and the law.

Most recently, Dershowitz has published "The Genesis of Justice" which examines biblical law in a search for 'perfect justice' which Dershowitz acknowledges is rarely found on earth. His next project, "Shouting Fire," is a collection of essays on civil liberties issues which, Dershowitz tells us, will discuss topics from the right to choice to the separation between church and state as well as the long lasting legacy of the Holocaust.

Two themes that run throughout Dershowitz's work both as a lawyer and an author is his deep concern for the protection of the rights of minorities and his unremitting search for more perfect justice. His numerous successful cases, including Claus von Bulow (conviction reversed and acquitted), the Jewish Defense League murder case (reversed, all defendants acquitted), Michael Milken (sentence reduced from 10 to 2 years), the Chicago Seven (convictions and contempts reversed), and John Lennon (deportation order reversed), have often had their defendants villainized and marginalized before Dershowitz takes the case. For this reason, Dershowitz is often seen as the Saint Jude of lawyers, the patron of lost causes.

Philosophically, Dershowitz shies away from subscribing to one ideology in his works, instead resorting to intense searching for the truth in particular situations.

Students in his Harvard classes are often challenged with hypothetical after hypothetical until their arguments are unraveled. Dershowitz is a rare thinker who is able to not only speak, write, and teach his ideas, but also to go out and help make the world into what he sees as a better place.

(Please look for "Philosophers in Conversation: Interviews from the Harvard Review of Philosophy" to be published by Routledge Press in May 2002.)

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