ACKNOWLEDGING A HIDDEN GOD: A THEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE OF STANLEY CAVELL ON SCEPTICISM

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Abstract

In his early work, the philosopher Stanley Cavell offers a sustained engagement with the threat of epistemological scepticism, shaped by the intuition that although (as the late Wittgenstein shows) ordinary language use is the practice within which alone meaning is possible (and which can thus not be further analysed or rationalised), it is also a basic human inclination to wish to escape the limitations of the ‘ordinary’. This, for Cavell, is the root of scepticism. Scepticism, on this view, thus appears not primarily as an epistemological but as an (injurious) moral stance, which cannot be refuted but must be continually confronted and overcome. Vis-à-vis scepticism, ‘acknowledgement’ is the practice-based recognition of the world and other people in their continuing elusiveness, which ineluctably involves risk, but just so is the only way of knowing that is appropriate to and honours the (finite) human condition. One problematic aspect of this (very fertile) approach is that Cavell's secular viewpoint makes it difficult for him to say both why the desire for a ‘beyond’ arises in the first place, and why its expression as denial is morally wrong (rather than merely misguided). His approach thus invites a theological ‘supplementation’ which grounds the human condition in an original and real relation to God that is meant to draw the believer, through Christ, into the divine life itself. Such a reinterpretation both elucidates the concepts of scepticism and acknowledgement, and makes these concepts available for a theological outlook that is able to accommodate Cavell's profound insights into ‘the human’.

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