“A Divided Self and a Doubled World”: On Stanley Cavell’s Perfectionism


This essay attempts to present a new interpretation of American philosopher Stanley Cavell’s perfectionism. Against most readings, it argues that Cavell’s work is fundamentally “transcendental” in logic, seeking to posit the underlying conditions of both the world and other philosophical systems. It understands Cavell’s perfectionism, which he takes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, not as any gradualist or inherently limited moral doctrine, but as a conceptual doubling of the world that divides it from itself. The perfectionist program is not any “slow arc of justice,” but means that we have at once reached our goal and never can, insofar as we would need to stand somewhere outside of it to think it. The essay connects Cavell to a series of both expected and unexpected philosophical precursors and interlocutors: Kant, Hegel, Emerson, Nietzsche and Derrida. It suggests that the history of philosophy is inherently perfectionist, with each successive system consisting of a transcendental “doubling” of the one before.

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