Cynical Self-Doubt and the Grounds of Sympathy: A Response to Stanley Cavell’s “Knowing and Acknowledging”

  • Sam Cardoen KU Leuven


The foundational essay of Stanley Cavell’s oeuvre, “Knowing and Acknowledging,” prepares the author’s continued interest in sceptical doubt about the existence of other minds as well as his specific approach to this particular philosophical problem. One useful way of approaching “Knowing and Acknowledging” is to suggest that it addresses the other minds sceptic so as to excavate alongside him the underlying ground from which his doubt about the existence of other minds emerges. Cavell, in other words, appears to compose his argument in such a way as to lead the sceptic along a series of steps that demonstrate that his sceptical doubt does not simply exist as a self-contained or self-standing problem. In doing so, Cavell traces the emergence of sceptical doubt about other minds to a specific anxiety about our reliance on expressions of sympathy as a way of responding to the suffering of others. 

Cavell argues that the sceptic subsequently intellectualizes this anxiety into sceptical doubt. Cavell explicitly does not seek to refute the sceptic; he even accepts that the sceptic’s intellectual doubt is, in its way, valid. For Cavell, to try to straightforwardly refute sceptical doubt is simply to accept the terms on which it presents itself, and thereby to extend the sceptic’s view. Instead, Cavell tries to get the sceptic to a point where he will regard the nature, and the origins, of his doubt differently than he did before.