Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life

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9780674018181: Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life

Since Socrates and his circle first tried to frame the Just City in words, discussion of a perfect communal life--a life of justice, reflection, and mutual respect--has had to come to terms with the distance between that idea and reality. Measuring this distance step by practical step is the philosophical project that Stanley Cavell has pursued on his exploratory path. Situated at the intersection of two of his longstanding interests--Emersonian philosophy and the Hollywood comedy of remarriage--Cavell's new work marks a significant advance in this project. The book--which presents a course of lectures Cavell presented several times toward the end of his teaching career at Harvard--links masterpieces of moral philosophy and classic Hollywood comedies to fashion a new way of looking at our lives and learning to live with ourselves.

This book offers philosophy in the key of life. Beginning with a rereading of Emerson's "Self-Reliance," Cavell traces the idea of perfectionism through works by Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, and Rawls, and by such artists as Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, and Shakespeare. Cities of Words shows that this ever-evolving idea, brought to dramatic life in movies such as It Happened One Night, The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story, and The Lady Eve, has the power to reorient the perception of Western philosophy.

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About the Author:

Stanley Cavell is Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, Emeritus, at Harvard University.

Review:

Perhaps more than any living philosopher in the English language Cavell has consistently and almost obsessively been at pains to carve out his own path. He is genuinely original. But more than this his life-long commitment to this project has been undertaken with a philosophical seriousness that is increasingly unusual. City of Words will, then, not only illuminate previous publications on Hollywood film of the 1930s and 1940s, but also enable careful readers to begin to understand how recurrent themes - the import and impact of skepticism and the necessity that we understand its challenge; the strangeness and richness of attending to the everyday; the interfaces between moral, theological and psychoanalytic thought; the common strands in ordinary language philosophy's articulation of key questions in the philosophy of mind and of language and those same questions in the European philosophical school, most especially in the work of Wittgenstein and Heidegger - link together and stretch across readings of the western philosophical tradition. Cities of Words will, then, help the considerable Cavellian oeuvre begin to make sense in a far more substantial, and perhaps unusual way than it has heretofore. It shows us how Cavell ticks. (Peter de Bolla, author of Art Matters)

What does it mean to live a moral life? In his typically provocative fashion, Cavell answers this question by juxtaposing various philosophical responses with particular films that illuminate those responses...Cavell's 'letters' offer a ready and heady departure from the usual conversation on moral life, and his inventive use of film helps bring the philosophers he discusses to life. (Henry I. Carrigan Jr. Library Journal 2004-05-01)

A sober examination of an ethics of 'self-reliance,' Cavell's cinematic criticism is as entertaining as it is enlightening and exemplifies, once again, his uncanny ability to recover the deepest insights of modern life within the language of the ordinary. (Publishers Weekly 2004-04-26)

In Cities of Words, a knotty and enlightening book, chapters about philosophers are paired with chapters about films: Emerson and The Philadelphia Story, Locke and Adam's Rib, Nietzsche and Now, Voyager, Aristotle and The Awful Truth...Cavell shows that the spirit of moral quest has an unusual power, even in the restricted world of these films. For all their artifice, they suggest that characters really can change themselves, that they can form ideals of justice, while keeping in mind how much failure and imperfection will be met along the way. That's not a bad democratic vision, and it remains as potent now as it was when Katharine Hepburn rediscovered her love for Cary Grant. (Edward Rothstein New York Times 2004-05-29)

In the big parade of American writing about film, Stanley Cavell occupies a strange, outsider position. A Harvard professor of philosophy, he is not, by his own admission, either a film critic or a film scholar; yet he has written with persistent trenchancy and brilliance about movies...Now Cavell, in his late seventies, has given us a volume that synthesizes his life's work in philosophy and film, while adding a third leg to the triangle: teaching. Cities of Words is based on a celebrated course of lectures he gave several times before he retired from the classroom, which alternated discussions of philosophical or literary texts and films...In The World Viewed, Cavell wrote: 'It is generally true of the writing about film which has meant something to me that it has the power of the missing companion. Agee and Robert Warshow and André Bazin manage that mode of conversation all the time; and I have found it in, among others, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris.' Alongside these names so companionable to film buffs, I would happily add another: Stanley Cavell. (Phillip Lopate Film Comment 2004-07-01)

Without genre or parallel, this book continues the interior dialogue of Cavell on the traditions of and prospects for moral perfectionism. (D. W. Sullivan Choice 2004-11-01)

In Cities of Words, Cavell once again reminds us of the practical importance of philosophy. He not only offers insightful commentaries on the giants of moral philosophy but also prompts us to engage in the much-needed conversation about the good life. (Mariana Ortega Times Higher Education Supplement 2005-04-08)

This is a political book, not simply because of Cavell's readings of political philosophy, which intersperse his discussion of the films and are, as usual, probing and original, but because of its overt pedagogical aim: to educate his readers and to show us how we educate each other. (Katerina Deligiorgi Philosophers' Magazine 2005-04-01)

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