Charles Peterson on the American philosopher Stanely Cavell (HT Andrew Sullivan):
Cavell’s larger argument is this: If we must bring the world with us to understand a definition, then we cannot define away the ambiguity in words, for the world we bring with us is already hopelessly ambiguous. Hence the force of Cavell’s at first glance profound but on closer inspection obscure question: “Must We Mean What We Say?” A philosopher who limits the meaning of her words to carefully set out definitions, attempting to root out all ambiguity, in effect says, “I say, and you should hear, only what I mean.” Cavell insists that language cannot be limited in this way. Language, to Cavell, is ambiguous not because it is imperfect, awaiting precise definition, but because we do not all see in the same way; it is a reflection of our basic predicament as distinct human beings. Thus, we must dare to mean what we say, take responsibility for all the meanings our words might be taken to have—even if those meanings go beyond what we understand as our intentions—because in our unintentional (though perhaps meaningful) slips, and the misapprehensions, mistakes, and insights of those with whom we speak, we bring together not just words but worldviews.
… Surrounded by certainty, he [Cavell] became an adept of what in philosophy is known as “skepticism.” This term goes back millennia, but it is closely related to the sense of fraudulence Cavell had experienced while young: the distrust of the reports of one’s peers; the doubt that what one does has any real connection to what one sees; the feeling, therefore (and here we reach full-blown skepticism), that one is only dreaming the world. Cavell insisted that this feeling, even if in its intensity it can seem unjustified, casts light back on its legitimate origins—that we never can be absolutely certain of ourselves or our relation to the world. Such certainty was exactly what the logical positivists had been trying to achieve. He therefore reinterpreted their philosophy: instead of an attempt to get closer to the world, their demand for certainty was a way of fleeing from the world in all its ambiguity. This was the sense in which their philosophy was fraudulent, and why it so repelled the young Cavell. Under the banner of getting closer to the world, the logical positivists moved further from the world than ever.