Cavell and Marx, Endings, Beginnings


We cannot say that Stanley Cavell is a Marxist in the way that we could perhaps say that he is an Emersonian. This does not mean that Cavell is not interested in Marx and his philosophy. But what is his interest?

Marx situates what Cavell calls the modern, the intersection of modern philosophy and modern art which has to do with a new kind of difficulty. The philosopher associates this with a moment of radical breaking with tradition that is epitomised by Marx.[1] Cavell’s claim is supported by a quote from Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right that argues that “the criticism of religion has been essentially completed” and that “the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world.”[2] Cavell characterises this moment as one

in which history and its conventions can no longer be taken for granted; in which music and painting and poetry (like nations) have to define themselves against their pasts; the beginning of a moment in which each of the arts becomes its own subject, as if its immediate artistic task is to establish its own existence.[3]

In The World Viewed, he frames again Marx’s contribution within the “radical criticism of one’s culture” listing many thinkers and artists who thought in terms of breaks with the past and present. He pairs Marx with Hegel in their thinking that philosophy “had come to an end, or ought to.”[4]


[1] Stanley Cavell, “Foreword”, in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1976), xxxvi.
[2] Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, trans. Annette Jolin and Joseph O’Malley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pars. 1 and 7,
[3] Cavell, “Foreword”, xxxvi.
[4] Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, enlarged edn. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 3.