Little Did He Know: Cavell Absorbed by Nietzschean Esotericism

  • Bruce Krajewski University of Texas at Arlington


Continental philosophers and their followers seem to be, for the most part, untroubled by the machinations, lies, political accommodations, inactions, and ethical breaches by major figures in that tradition. This does not lead to recognition of irony by the scholars who then recommend these major figures as guides for ethics. Catherine Zuckert goes so far as to that “philosophical dialogue and textual hermeneutics are essentially ethical” (GR, 234). Cavell has chosen to declare an ethics as well. The theme of “moral perfectionism” that one can find in many of Cavell’s books, particularly the works dealing with the repositioning of Thoreau and Emerson, is part of an ongoing project to locate something “American” in concerns about “moral perfectionism” and the everyday. We even have a book about what “Christians might learn from [Cavell].” Stanley Bates can serve as a representative of a chorus of writers who not only embrace Cavell as someone presenting an ethical viewpoint, but who also have become proponents of that viewpoint. Bates has no hesitation in claiming on Cavell’s behalf a connection between ethics and politics: “Cavell is interested in the dimension of moral life that must be lived by an individual within a political setting, a life that a ‘good enough’ state of political justice makes possible, but that is not, and cannot be, determined by rules” (SCE, 42-43). Bates ends his essay by telling us that in at least one important way, Cavell is like Nietzsche, and it seems as if Bates intends that to be a positive comparison. Bates seems free of any knowledge of Nietzsche’s posthumous “political setting” in the National Socialist period.