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Cities of Words

Cities of Words

Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life

Stanley Cavell

ISBN 9780674018181

Publication date: 10/31/2005

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.


  • 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


  • Stanley Cavell (1926–2018) was Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, Emeritus, at Harvard University. His numerous books include The Claim of Reason, Cities of Words, and Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow.

Book Details

  • 480 pages
  • 1-1/4 x 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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