Campus & Community

Cavell honored with Romanell-PBK Professorship

3 min read

First Harvard recipient will give lecture series

Stanley Cavell is the recipient of the Romanell-PBK Professorship. (Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

Stanley Cavell, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value Emeritus, has received the 2004 Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Professorship in Philosophy. Cavell is the first Harvard professor to receive the award.

The professorship has been awarded annually since 1983 to scholars in the field of philosophy, without restriction to any one school of philosophical thought. The professorship is intended to recognize not only distinguished achievement but also the recipient’s contribution to the public understanding of philosophy. The recipient is expected to give a series of three lectures during the year of the professorship, to be open to the general public as well as to the academic community.

Cavell, who was nominated for the professorship by the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in cooperation with the Philosophy Department, said that being chosen for the award gave him “great pleasure” and that the thought that he is the first Harvard recipient “will make me hope all the harder that my lectures will be pertinent to the occasion.”

Cavell said that in his lectures he will attempt to convey “my sense of two difficulties that have simultaneously inspired and hampered philosophical thinking and teaching over the past century – – if, as I do, one regards Wittgenstein and Heidegger as representing two of the fundamental philosophical achievements of this period.

“The first difficulty is to think philosophically without denying that philosophy exists today in a divided state, between the Anglo-American continuation of the analytical tradition and the German-French continuation of the post-Kantian phenomenological tradition.

“The second difficulty is to convey the first difficulty publicly, that is, outside the precincts of professional philosophy. But then this is part of the familiar fact that professional philosophy has become so specialized in its techniques that, perhaps apart from its work in ethics, it has lost its audience in our culture at large.”

Cavell added that he looks forward to addressing the Harvard community “more widely than in the classes I have given and the panels I have participated in over the decades of my life here. This is particularly precious to me because since my retirement I have been away from Boston so often, teaching and lecturing elsewhere.”

Cavell taught at Harvard from 1963 until his retirement in 1997. The winner of a MacArthur grant in 1992, Cavell has often crossed disciplinary boundaries, engaging not only with the classical philosophical tradition, but also with literary figures such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Shakespeare and with sophisticated film comedies from the golden age of Hollywood. The reading list for his popular Core course “Moral Perfectionism” included not only Plato, Aristotle, Milton, Marx, and Freud, but films such as “The Philadelphia Story,” “Bringing Up Baby,” and “It Happened One Night.”

Among Cavell’s many published works are: “Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays” (1976); “Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage” (1981); and “Emerson’s Transcendental Études” (2003).

The Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Professorship is made possible by an endowment from Patrick and Edna Romanell. Patrick Romanell, a Phi Beta Kappa member from Brooklyn College, is the retired H.Y. Benedict Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas, El Paso.