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Possession and Dispossession: Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Gregory of Nyssa on Life Amidst Skepticism


  • I would like to thank Matthew Whelan, Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Griffiths, Brian Goldstone, Jonathan Tran, Ben Dillon, and Sean Larsen for their specific feedback on this article and for their conversations on Wittgenstein and Cavell. My thanks also to the anonymous reviewers for Modern Theology.


This article follows Ludwig Wittgenstein, Stanley Cavell, and Gregory of Nyssa in a journey of epistemic dispossession. It begins by tracing two ways of wandering off this trail, two epistemological sirens that tempt wayfarers from a path of epistemic dispossession. These are skepticism and anti-skepticism, elaborated by Wittgenstein and Cavell as joined in their enthronement of epistemically-anchored certainty. Following Wittgenstein and Cavell into an exploration of the forms of life and death that sustain and are sustained by grasping at such certainty, this article yet identifies two sources of un-peace in their projects. One is an ill-confessed threat that looms over their work, and the other is the inhuman difficulty of resisting the skeptical temptations of isolation and domination after this threat is named. It is the threat of death, which becomes, under the skeptic's anxiety, the threat of murder. That is, the skeptic denies finitude in such a way that he refuses to come to terms with the way that death attends life, and such refusal introduces as a skeptical temptation the further threat of murder. The difficulty of resisting skeptical temptations rides on the incompleteness of (merely) epistemic dispossession, which will always undo itself unless deepened into a more radical form of dispossession. Such forms of dispossession are suggested by Cavell and perfected in Gregory's descriptions of his sister Macrina. Macrina illumines epistemic dispossession as a form of love that refuses certain relationships to property. Yielding a vision for how dispossession might meet the threat of murderousness, Macrina's life thus interprets relationships of property, love, and death that complete epistemic dispossession.