The Magazine

Philosophy: The Movie?

Stanley Cavell tries to string together deep thought and film.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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But Cavell may do better with film than philosophy for a simpler reason: He seems to like movies more than he likes books. He calls Stella Dallas and It Happened One Night "masterpieces," and he spins some elaborate readings of images and dialogue. In this, Cavell--who is a thinker of some seriousness and an intelligent man--stands amidst the idiotic cultural-studies professors who cite Heidegger or Foucault only to speed toward the real object: The Matrix trilogy, Benetton ads, and serial murderers. One suspects the scholarly gesture is a duty and the turn to popular culture a pleasure. In Cavell's case, it seems, the Kantian a priori pales next to Bette Davis telling Paul Henreid, "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon; we have the stars." Mill's happiness principle can't compete with Ingrid Bergman's tears in Gaslight.

To be sure, philosophers have recognized this temptation ever since the Republic, and Cavell acknowledges the frivolousness of mass entertainment. He eschews the hip pose of the campus culture critic, and even admits that the removal of the film chapters from his book would not "intellectually be much of a loss." But why include the films in a rumination on moral perfectionism at all? As a capstone statement to a long career in philosophy, Cities of Words is a strange but symptomatic book. It attempts a grand fusion of traditional intellection and film criticism, of Kant and Howard Hawks, but the blending never comes off. Instead, the excitement of star images eclipses the rigors of reasoning. If a distinguished philosopher can't sustain philosophy in the face of glamorous movies, one wonders whether the mingling of high and low in the humanities today isn't just a middle step in the loss of higher wisdom altogether.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University.