Becoming Who We Are

Politics and Practical Philosophy in the Work of Stanley Cavell

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Andrew Norris
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Modern Christian political theology has long been concerned with questions regarding the relationship between individual persons and their social and political communities. Construing that relationship was famously the subject matter of Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1932 book Moral Man, Immoral Society (Charles Scribner’s Sons), and it has since been a dominant theme or implicit motif in the work of numerous political theologians. Whether in debates over theories of justice, the meaning of liberalism and democracy, the nature and extent of human rights, or the relationship of church to political society, Christian political theology has witnessed intractable debates concerning individuality and collectivity. Lines are drawn between advocates of political liberalism and communitarian postliberals. The former defend the dignity, autonomy, and liberty of individuals against the encroachment of state and civil society; the latter contest the ills of liberal individualism and proceduralism in favor of thick notions of political community, solidarity, and the common good. One emphasizes the self, the other prioritizes community.

Somewhere between these trajectories of political thought, and ultimately transcending both, stands Stanley Cavell. An astute reader of the liberal tradition, from John Locke to John Rawls, yet also profoundly shaped by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophizing about the publicness and sociality of language, Cavell resists being classified as either liberal or communitarian. For this reason, Andrew Norris shows, Cavell offers a critical intervention in political theory. Becoming Who We Are: Politics and Practical Philosophy in the Work of Stanley Cavell, Norris’ detailed study of Cavell’s political thought, is an important contribution not only to political theory—as it introduces an oft-overlooked theorist of political life—but also to the fields of religious studies and theology, albeit indirectly. Both have insufficiently benefited from Cavell’s insights, and while religious scholars and theologians, particularly in Anglo-American traditions, have put to great use Cavell’s chief philosophical inspiration, Wittgenstein, Cavell himself has been severely underappreciated by religious scholars. Norris’ study of Cavell’s politics—more a political reading of his linguistic philosophy than a systematic treatment of his political theory—offers to religious scholars an important set of resources for moving conversations about religion and politics beyond the impasses reached in debates between liberals and communitarians.

The chief way Cavell does this, as Norris shows, is by reconfiguring the relationship between individual and community, self and society. One of Cavell’s central claims, Norris argues, is that “our individual autonomy and our membership in a community with others are constitutive of one another” (6). This entanglement of self and community is at the heart of Cavell’s linguistic philosophy, which construes the individual as always bound to others, always speaking for and with them, and community as always negotiating separateness, fragility, and reconstitution. By theorizing the political as an extension of human life in language, Cavell shows how persons have a political responsibility to and for others by virtue of their language use. He also argues that such language use is the potential source of their alienation from those others and communities. Political community is as fragile and contingent as language itself—indeed the former is so exactly because of the latter.

Delineating Cavell’s understanding of linguistic and political community is the subject of the book’s third chapter, “Community and Voice,” the center and crux of Norris’ argument. The important exposition of Cavell’s political thought there is bookended by two chapters on each side. Chapters 1 and 2 offer careful explanation of Cavell’s approach to ordinary language and skepticism, respectively, in order to contextualize the turn to community, voice, authority, friendship, and other more directly political themes in chapter 3. Norris’ treatment of Cavell’s perfectionism and his reading of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the final two chapters of the book develops an account of democratic virtue to sustain the kinds of political communities discussed in chapter 3. Weaving in excurses on other modern and contemporary political theorists throughout, Norris offers both a detailed study of Cavell, his influences, and his contemporaries, as well as a case for Cavell’s enduring relevance to democratic thought and practice.

Norris’ insights in chapter 3 regarding community, autonomy, and speech will likely be of greatest interest to theologians and religious scholars. For Cavell, one’s speech is inescapably public—a reality which grounds his insistence on the analogical relationship between speaker and citizen. “The philosophical appeal to what we say,” Cavell writes in the crucial passage on which Norris centers his account, is always a “claim to community” (96–97). To speak, in other words, is to lay claim to community, both linguistic and political. Yet, as Norris importantly shows, community is fragile and contingent, marked by elegant negotiations of difference, separateness, and incompletion rather than absolutist impositions of unity and agreement. Such finished totalities are not communities but totalitarian political formations. “Community,” Cavell writes, “is always partial, always to be searched for” (97). As such, political community is always in search of its own constitution, its basis, extent, and constituent members. And once found, it is immediately sent in search of reconstitution and reconfiguration in light of the abiding realities of separateness and exclusion. In short, Cavell construes the self as embedded in forms of social and political community much more profoundly than liberals acknowledge, but ones far more frail and fluid than communitarians often admit. Norris elucidates Cavell’s insights on these matters eloquently, and those interested in the role of religion in political society or the political theological dimensions of the self-society relationship will find in Norris’ study compelling and fresh perspectives on classical political philosophical problems.

Becoming Who We Are explores the many dimensions and consequences of Cavell’s political theorizing of the linguistic self. The study, which appears to be the first detailed analysis of Cavell’s political thought, opens numerous avenues for further development of Cavell’s insights, and for this reason it is a welcome contribution to both political theory and the study of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicholas Krause is a doctoral candidate in Theology and Ethics at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
January 27, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Norris teaches political philosophy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the editor of Truth and Democracy (University of Pennsylvania, 2012), The Claim to Community: Essays on Stanley Cavell and Political Philosophy (Stanford, 2006), and Politics, Metaphysics, and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer (Duke, 2005), and the author of over thirty peer-reviewed articles on authors such as Wittgenstein, Hegel, Hannah Arendt, and Michael Oakeshott.



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