An Exchange Between Nöel Carroll and Stanley Cavell


Next week, I shall be in England to participate in the third Film-Philosophy conference. The event will be held at the University of Warwick from 15 to 17 July. This is abstract of my paper, “On Essentialism: Thoughts Between Nöel Carroll and Stanley Cavell”:

Nöel Carroll has been one of the most eloquent proponents of an anti-essentialist view of art, in particular, of cinema. He seems to think that Stanley Cavell holds an essentialist view of film, put forward in his foundational work, The World Viewed,[1] and developed in later essays and books. While Carroll admires Cavell’s philosophical readings of particular films, he also criticises his conception of film as essentially connected with photography. The aim of this paper is to provide some thoughts on this exchange between Carroll and Cavell, or more precisely, to compose a conversation between them based on their positions and what they entail. Perhaps their views are ultimately reconcilable.

Carroll rejects the photographic basis of film and instead proposes a definition of the works of the moving image (not moving pictures), an over-arching category that includes films. He avoids essentialism, but we may argue that so does Cavell in his characterisation of film as a succession of automatic world projections. As D. N. Rodowick rightly points out, this ontology of film does not assume an essentialism or teleology[2] insofar as it also claims that the possibilities of the medium cannot be determined in advance — that is, that they cannot be deduced from the medium because the medium is not a given. Cavell is then anti-essentialist in a Wittgensteinian sense, one that does not reject categories so much as defines them from similarities, family resemblances.[3] Therefore, this categorisation does not obscure salient differences between works. It instead invites us to notice them.

This is not to deny the differences between Carroll’s and Cavell’s ideas. They must be acknowledged, but their contributions can be thought of as complementary when all is said and done. They have different conceptions of medium, from simply materials to instruments, forms, and uses, as well. Carroll’s general definition comes from a narrow concept of medium, while Cavell’s restricted definition broadens what counts as media. The former tackles film from a theoretical approach, what we may call movies, the latter from an ordinary perspective, what we usually call movies.


[1] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, enlarged edn. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).
[2] D. N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 42.
[3] See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations [1953], 50th Anniversary edn., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), sect. 67.