I am honored to respond to Paul Guyer’s elaboration on the role of examples of perfectionism in Cavell’s and Kant’s philosophies. Guyer’s appeal to Kant’s notion of freedom opens the way for suggestive readings of Cavell’s work on moral perfectionism but also, as I will show, for controversy.
There are salient aspects of both Kant’s and Cavell’s philosophy that are crucial to understanding perfectionism and, let me call it, perfectionist education, that I wish to emphasize in response to Guyer. In responding to Guyer’s text, I shall do three things. First, I shall explain why I think it is misleading to speak of Cavell’s view that moral perfectionism is involved in a struggle to make oneself intelligible to oneself and others in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions for moral perfection. Rather, I will suggest that the constant work on oneself that is at the core of Cavell’s moral perfectionism is a constant work for intelligibility. Second, I shall recall a feature of Cavell’s perfectionism that Guyer does not explicitly speak of: the idea that perfectionism is a theme, “outlook or dimension of thought embodied and developed in a set of texts.” Or, as Cavell goes on to say, “there is a place in mind where good books are in conversation. … [W]hat they often talk about … is how they can be, or sound, so much better than the people that compose them.” This involves what I would call a perfectionist conception of the history of philosophy and the kinds of texts we take to belong to such history. Third, I shall sketch out how the struggle for intelligibility and a perfectionist view of engagement with texts and philosophy can lead to a view of philosophy as a form of education in itself.
In concluding these three “criticisms,” I reach a position that I think is quite close to Guyer’s, but with a slightly shifted emphasis on what it means to read Kant and Cavell from a perfectionist point of view.
2014. Vol. 48, no 3, 58-72 p.