University Distinguished Professor, Philosophy, The New School for Social Research
Visiting Fellow, Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford, UK

I was born and raised near Seattle, WA. I did an AB in Philosophy at Harvard, with Hilary Putnam as my thesis advisor, and a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, where my doctoral dissertation was supervised by John McDowell. I was hired in the Philosophy Department at the New School’s Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science (now the New School for Social Research), a few months after finishing my PhD, in 2000, and I have spent most of my career there, while also briefly holding a chair in philosophy at Oxford, as well as visiting positions in philosophy at Humboldt University, the University of Innsbruck and the University of Paris-1 Pantheon Sorbonne. I was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford in 2021-2022.

Interview with Alice Crary from Nordic Wittgenstein Review Special Issue 2022, linked here.

Alice Crary is a moral and social philosopher who has written widely on issues in metaethics, moral psychology and normative ethics, philosophy and feminism, critical animal studies, critical disability studies, critical philosophy of race, philosophy and literature, and Critical Theory. She has written on philosophers such as John L. Austin, Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond, John McDowell, Iris Murdoch and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

This is the first of two parts of the interview with Crary conducted in a single exchange in the first weeks of January 2022, where she discusses ordinary language philosophy and feminism, Wittgenstein’s conception of mind and its relation to feminist ethics, the link between Wittgenstein and Critical Theory, and her own views about efforts to bring about social and political transformations. The second part on “Wittgenstein and Critical Theory” is published in the regular issue 11 of NWR.

I. Wittgenstein and Feminism

In Beyond Moral Judgment and Inside Ethics, you suggest that Wittgenstein’s contributions to thought about objectivity are helpful for thinking about ethics and politics. You propose a ‘wider’ conception of objectivity, capable of enriching feminist theory. Could you describe this conception of objectivity and comment on its interest? 

CRARY: “Wider objectivity” is a term I introduced when I was first defending a morally and politically consequential philosophical worldview, decisive for my thinking, that is jarringly out of synch with the contemporary Zeitgeist. Our age’s standard outlooks feature the idea that getting the world in view means pursuing point-of-viewlessness, and so working toward dispassionateness and value-neutrality. I proposed the term “narrower objectivity” for the metaphysical counterpart of this epistemic idea, and I spoke of a contrasting “wider conception of objectivity” in discussing the metaphysic at play when we treat bringing worldly things into focus as an engaged exercise that requires virtues such as experienced judgment and perspectival flexibility. 

Wittgenstein’s later work, as I read it, contains resources for this shift in philosophical worldview. It’s not that Wittgenstein uses “objectivity” as a term of art. But one of his signature achievements is ferreting out with great thoroughness some of the deepest sources of philosophical resistance to the view that our sensitivities contribute internally to undistorted mental contact with the world. Another achievement is attacking with devastating focus considerations that have seemed to many to speak against this view. There are, to be sure, additional modern thinkers who undertake projects along these lines. Alongside other figures in the tradition of ordinary language philosophy, such as J.L. Austin, this includes figures in the traditions of, say, post-Kantian German idealism and American pragmatism. Still, a relentless philosophical case for the transition to a widely objective worldview is one of Wittgenstein’s hallmarks. 

There are straightforward links between efforts to “widen” received understandings of objectivity and core themes of many twentieth and twenty-first century discourses of liberation, including feminist ones. When I first sounded Wittgensteinian themes in exploring the idea that thought about the world is an engaged business, I was guided by sympathy with the work of feminist and other social justice-oriented theorists, above all, with these theorists’ often Marx-inspired claims about the cognitive power of perspectives of the oppressed. I was searching for tools to make such claims palatable within Anglo-American analytic philosophy, the site of my training and a tradition to a great extent organized by assumptions that impede these claims’ reception. 

An image of Wittgenstein as an ally to discourses of liberation will seem to some like a crude misrepresentation. It is at odds with claims, in circulation since the years just after his death, about how he and other ordinary language philosophers held philosophically and politically blinkered views with reactionary ramifications. The story about how the now familiar idea of Wittgenstein’s conservativism was propagated is quite colorful. One major episode is the publication of Ernest Gellner’s 1959 Words and Things, which represented ordinary language philosophers, and, above all, Wittgenstein, as favoring a damagingly restrictive approach to philosophical and political questions. The fact that Gellner’s book was interpretatively weak, and that it included ad hominem attacks, didn’t stop it from having a large and enthusiastic reception. When Gilbert Ryle, the editor of Mind, pointed to the book’s “personal animadversions” as grounds for refusing to have it reviewed in the journal, it became an international cause célèbre

Congenial readings that represent Wittgenstein as, if not advocating politically conservative ideas, at least urging that established modes of thought and speech are sacrosanct, have become a fixture of discussions of his philosophy in the intervening sixty years. But they have long co-existed with textually better-grounded interpretations that bluntly challenge any suggestion of critique-impeding tendencies. This opposing trend gets its start with Stanley Cavell’s evocations of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy in some arrestingly original essays in the 1960s, and it subsequently comes to include contributions of philosophers such as Hanna Pitkin, Cora Diamond and Hilary Putnam. It was in the context of engaging with these thinkers’ non-standard approaches that I initially turned to Wittgenstein in relation to feminist and other critical theories. 

Can the epistemic orientation you ascribe to Wittgenstein be articulated within feminist standpoint theories and the anchoring in lived experiences to which these theories aspire?  

CRARY: Standpoint theories were among the feminist projects that originally interested me, and early on I closely followed discussions of the work of standpoint theorists such as Nancy Hartsock and Sandra Harding. Standpoint theories claim that we have to explore standpoints that members of oppressed groups are made to occupy in order to grasp politically salient features of the social world. These theories assume that perspectival resources directly contribute to bringing the world into focus, and, in a couple of places, I set out to show how strands of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy equip us to bring out the philosophical soundness of this key assumption. 

My terminology for talking about these topics has changed over time. When I was getting started, in the early aughts, I didn’t speak of “feminist standpoint theory” in my own voice. This label was then sometimes associated with politically noxious racist, ableist, trans-exclusive and generally elitist assumptions that point confusedly toward a single ‘standpoint of women’, obscuring social differences among women that are functions of subjection to multiple, crossing forms of bias. I rejected the label out of respect for politically crucial insights, pivotal for the work of many Black feminists, that are now often picked out with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s moniker “intersections.” 

Today the label “feminist standpoint theory” has to some degree been reclaimed, and there is greater acceptance of the idea that it applies to theories that, while representing perspectives women are made to adopt as cognitively necessary, also reflect the complex interplay among the different modes of oppression women confront. Though I didn’t speak this way then, my early concern was finding philosophical resources to affirm the insights of feminist standpoint theories in this intersectional sense. 

Is the feminist stance you have developed on the basis of Wittgensteinian themes at odds with the dominant strategies in moral philosophy?

CRARY: Wittgenstein’s philosophy, on my preferred reading of it, goes against the grain of mainstream analytic philosophy in ways that include conflict with dominant strategies in ethics. So, yes, my style of inheriting from Wittgenstein for feminist theory is inseparable from an oppositional stance to dominant trends in moral philosophy. 

The key Wittgensteinian theme is that we need non-neutral resources in order to get the world into focus. To accept this is to reject an entrenched metaphysical outlook characterized by, in the words of historian of science Lorraine Daston, “the moral evacuation of nature”. This metaphysic is the source of the idea of a “naturalistic fallacy in ethics”, and, for all their differences, the currently best represented ethical approaches, including various familiar consequentialisms, standard takes on Kant’s ethical theory, and even some virtue-based theories, are organized by commitment to this idea. 

Not that there are no contrary voices within analytic ethics. A group of women philosophers who were at Oxford in the immediately post-World War II years, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch, have been among the most outspoken in laying down paths in ethics that cleanly depart from the idea of a sharp is/ought divide. Philosophical attention to the work of these women philosophers, which has increased markedly over the last decade, is at a high point now with the emergence of two monographs that consider them as a group. Benjamin Lipscombe has just come out with The Women are up to Something, and Claire MacCumhaill and Rachael Wiseman’s Metaphysical Animals is due out next month. Since Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch count Wittgenstein among their influences, it might seem reasonable to think that inheriting from Wittgenstein in the way I’m discussing is not terribly oppositional. But it isn’t so. Despite the new excitement surrounding the work of Anscombe et al., advocates of their thought are generally in the position of dissenters. There are still very good reasons to think that using Wittgenstein in the manner at play here—in a manner that makes his work helpful to standpoint theorists and other feminists—means contesting fundamental tenets of mainstream moral philosophy. 

Can the feminist epistemology you espouse help us to think about a feminist ethics, as it applies to care ethics, that is attentive to the ordinary dimension of the activities carried out by women, to the vulnerability of certain experiences, to the deprivation of voice and the danger of being reduced to silence? 

CRARY: In fact, the links between work I’ve done in feminist epistemology and care ethics are straightforward. The heart of care ethics is the idea that a satisfactory ethics needs to acknowledge human dependencies and vulnerabilities, and care ethicists typically see these vulnerabilities as extending to our condition as knowers. One suggestion, which resonates with my own commitments, is that sensitivities cultivated through engagement in activities like caring are necessary for understanding social relationships. A further suggestion, also in synch with my work, is that social understanding is indelibly value-laden. Care ethicists use this non-neutral conception of social understanding to shed light on challenges of getting sexist and overlapping oppressions in view. Bringing them into focus requires attention to the ordinary rhythms of women’s lives, and these modes of attention must be sensitive. We must, as care-oriented anthropologist Veena Das puts it, remain alive to “the strangeness that is happening right before our eyes”. 

There is a lesson here not only, as you put it in your question, about the vulnerability of women and other marginalized people to being silenced but also about the kinds of political remedies required to respond adequately to such silencing. Care ethics teaches that having a voice is closely tied to enjoying material circumstances that accommodate modes of appreciation internal to good social understanding. 

Mainstream social and political philosophers tend to suggest that liberation from ideologies that obscure the lives of, and so silence, the downtrodden is at bottom a matter of nothing more than eliminating distorting forces and creating what they conceive as a “neutral” space for thought. Care ethicists allow us to see such views as harmfully cramped and wrongheaded. In line with generations of anti-racist and anti-colonialist theorists, they equip us to see these neutrality-claims not only as false but as themselves perniciously ideological. For such claims disavow evaluative commitments they can’t help but have and so disguise their own partisanship. 

One of my projects in recent years has been contributing, in concert with care ethicists such as Sandra Laugier and many other radical social thinkers, to the larger public discourse about the insidiousness of allegedly neutral accounts of social relations. I have argued that meaningful resistance to ideological silencing has to involve agitating for new, more caring forms of life. Among other things, together with Matt Congdon, I co-edited a special issue of Philosophical Topics on Social Visibility—it’s technically the spring 2021 issue, but due to pandemic-related delays it’s just about to come out now—that brings together groundbreaking work on ideology and social critique, much of it concerned with the specifically critical power of partisan or non-neutral methods. 

Wittgenstein’s thought stresses the embodied dimension of our linguistic practices, and, within feminist theoretical circles, it is sometimes mobilized against certain post-structuralist approaches to discourse, which are supposedly too abstract or detached from lived experiences. Do you share this view of a distinction between two conceptions of language? 

CRARY: The political stakes of this theoretical difference are surprisingly high. There is no doubt that most post-structuralist feminists have emancipatory ambitions. But their characteristic claims deprive us of the unqualified use of ideals such as truth and accuracy as instruments of social assessment, making it seem that we cannot without qualification represent sexist, racist, ableist, ageist and anti-trans ideologies as distorting the lives of those they allege to depict. And, as huge as this initial political downside is, there are much larger costs to not fully dismantling an aperspectival image of thought. 

This aperspectival image is the source of the idea, engrained in our public culture, that accurate accounts of social relations must be value-neutral. Claims to neutrality in turn contribute to sustaining harmful sexist and racist ideologies. These claims disown the value-orientations they invariably have, and their concealed partisanship makes them fitting instruments for reinforcing unjust relations of domination. 

These dynamics come more clearly into view from social-theoretical and historical perspectives. Interrelated strands of social theory, including those represented by theories of social reproduction, theories of racial capitalism and ecofeminist theories, reveal how sexist and racist ideologies are reliably reproduced by fundamental structures of capitalist forms of life. This social-theoretical corpus acquires additional interest alongside strands of historical research that tie the widespread acceptance of aperspectival epistemic ideals to political, economic and technological developments of capitalist modernity. What emerges is a picture of aperspectival ideals on which they are tied to the very capitalist structures that, according to many social theorists, reliably reproduce the modes of oppression that appeals to these ideals serve. The task of freeing ourselves from aperspectival—or 

narrower—epistemic ideals in a thoroughgoing manner thus appears to be a crucial exercise of resistance, necessary for discerning values of, and to working toward, more just and sustainable forms of life. 

The theoretical difference between taking one’s cue from Wittgenstein and following in the footsteps of post-structuralist feminism is far from politically trivial. It is the difference between directly challenging the image of our cognitive predicament that is part of the unfolding of global extractive capitalism and merely inverting this image in a manner that not only fails to fully disempower it but also deprives us of crucial critical instruments for fighting the most grievous injustices of our time. 

Interview with Alice Crary from Nordic Wittgenstein Review 11 (2022), linked here.

In this interview in two parts—I. Wittgenstein and Feminism and II. Wittgenstein and Critical Theory—Crary discusses ordinary language philosophy and feminism, Wittgenstein’s conception of mind and its relation to feminist ethics, the link between Wittgenstein and Critical Theory, and her own views about efforts to bring about social and political transformations.

This interview is divided, appearing in two consecutive issues of this journal. It was done as a single exchange during the first weeks of January 2022. Part 2 came out first with part 1 above.

II. Wittgenstein and Critical Theory

You have opposed the image of Wittgenstein as conservative, showing in particular the ties between Wittgenstein and the project of immanent criticism, introduced by the early members of the Frankfurt School. Could you come back to the ties between Wittgenstein and Critical Theory and to the way Wittgenstein helps us to strengthen or revive the critical project?

CRARY: Even to get started talking about illuminating ties between Wittgenstein and Frankfurt School Critical Theory requires a long running start. Since Wittgenstein is often taken to be dealing in a conservative creed of very little interest to critical thinkers, it’s useful to know something about how he, and, to a lesser extent, other ordinary language philosophers, came to be seen as dealing in reactionary ideas. And it helps to know that members of the Frankfurt School such as Herbert Marcuse were involved in spreading the message and, further, that this failed reception of ordinary language philosophy contributed in its way to the shaping of the conceptual space in which, even today, much work in Critical Theory is done. Of course, we also need to be aware that there is longstanding resistance to conservative takes on the ideas of Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophers. This is why in settings, such as this journal, in which alternative strategies of inheritance are well-known, it is not unduly shocking to claim that Wittgenstein’s writings are the source of critique-inspiring themes that can help to clarify and strengthen core ambitions of the Frankfurt tradition. 

These ambitions first got articulated in late Weimar Germany when thinkers tied to Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research organized around the idea of a critical theory of society. The goal was a liberating picture of social life that would make it possible to free ourselves from ideologically distorted types of social compulsion. This picture would take seriously that practical attitudes mold notions we use in getting social relationships into focus. It would reflect those attitudes, and it would also aspire to a universal authority that involves “transcending” its “immanent” grounding. A major ambition of the Frankfurt School is a theory that qualifies as liberating and accurate because it manages to juggle these claims of immanence and transcendence, and the phrase standardly used for this project is “immanent critique.”  

The history of attempts to specify how the desiderata of such critique might be satisfied is somewhat dauntingly involved. Some of the earliest efforts are also among the most straightforward. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer opposed suggestions of barriers to social thought that is, in the plainest sense, both immanently shaped by practical attitudes and possessed of context-transcending authority. Partly guided by the method of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and partly inspired by elements of Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment, they effectively taught that all critique is immanent critique. Subsequently, the tradition has issued in a striking array of different accounts of such critique, inheriting from, for instance, revisionary, institutionalist, discursive, and more orthodox versions of Kant’s moral theory, post-structuralist theory, and reconstructive takes on the procedures of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Within this welter of views, one consistent theme is that the demands of immanence and transcendence are in tension, and that theoretical maneuvering is required for their joint attainment. We are asked to believe it would be metaphysically exorbitant to treat values as in the world in a manner that would allow immanent modes of thought to be, without further ado, transcendently revelatory. An image of world-directed thought as value-neutral and aperspectival is thus introduced in a manner that seems to complicate the task of immanent critique, and it’s possible to get an overview of many of the accounts of immanent critique in circulation today by classifying different strategies for addressing these supposed complications. 

There are contrary contributions to Critical Theory that revive inspirations of the early Frankfurt School. One clear case is the work of Rahel Jaeggi, who rejects the value-neutral conception of social understanding that bedevils the enterprise of immanent critique, arguing that characterizations of our forms of life call for inseparably descriptive and normative categories. Jaeggi encounters pushback from critics who, unsurprisingly, think her non-neutral view of social understanding disqualifies her from talking about context-transcendence. Yet even so she doesn’t directly defend the more relaxed image of world-directed thought with which she operates. Given the role of value-neutral epistemic ideals in resistance to attempts, like hers, to reclaim the critical enterprise, such a defense seems pressing, and it is here again that Wittgenstein has something distinctive to contribute. He is unyielding in tracing and attacking critique-thwarting value-neutral, aperspectival ideals of thought—and also in following up on ways in which these ideals continue to haunt our reflections even when we take ourselves to have exorcised them.

You have recently argued that Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is a valuable resource for ecofeminism. How does this go together with your appeals to Wittgenstein with respect to Critical Theory, and is there a connection with your work in critical animal studies?

CRARY: At one level, it’s very easy to answer this answer. Ecofeminism, as I understand it, is a critical theory in the spirit of the Frankfurt School, and it provides a theoretical framework of the sort needed for reimagining animal ethics so that it is responsive to forces devastating animal life on the planet. That second point is one I have developed in recent years with philosopher and ecofeminist Lori Gruen.

Ecofeminism is a roughly half century-old political and intellectual movement which identifies historical and structural ties between the catastrophic destruction of nature and the enduring subjection of women, the poor and colonized, racialized and other marginalized people. Its key practical injunction is that effective responses have to confront these wrongs together, and its main theoretical commitments include the following three interrelated strands of thought.

One strand of ecofeminist thought deals in historical narratives about how early modern Europe’s development of capitalist forms of social organization, and its colonizing zeal, were accompanied by new practices of treating animals and nature as mere objects of use, together with new practices of denigrating women, Indigenous and enslaved people. A second, Marxian strand is devoted to isolating larger political and economic structures capable of explaining this persistent alignment of the ruination of non-human nature and the subjugation of women and other marginalized human groups. And a third primarily philosophical strand of ecofeminist theorizing traces this coincidence to the overreach of the instrumental uses of reasons that capitalism accents, issuing a call to rethink reason so it can recover non-exchange values in the natural world and in human interactions. This last strand of thought converges with Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s claims, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, that a significant response to the advancing cataclysm must reimagine reason so that sensibility is integral to its exercise in getting the world in view. Ecofeminists likewise call for this kind of reworking of a dominant image of reason, and in this and other respects they inherit Critical Theory for our time.  

This is the background for the work in animal ethics that I have undertaken with Gruen over the past several years—a significant portion of which will be published in our co-written book Animal Crisis, out this May. The heart of our project is a re-envisioning of the fifty-year-old academic discipline of animal ethics, which developed in a manner cut off from traditions of critical social thought devoted to exposing social structures with disastrous effects on humans and non-human nature. Many practices devastating to non-human animals are embedded in bigger institutions that are also the source of grievous wrongs to marginalized groups of humans. So, there is no way to grapple meaningfully with ethical questions about how to improve human-animal relationships without thoroughly reorienting animal ethics so that it is a form of critique. An important feature of our alternative method is thinking in response to the predicaments of animals in particular worldly contexts. We are consciously working in solidarity with ecofeminists and other critical theorists, and we draw attention to this aspect of our posture by calling the method “critical animal theory.”

Your work on Stanley Cavell extends your critical reading of Wittgenstein. Austin and Wittgenstein were very important for Cavell, in order to think democracy within our forms of life, to inscribe the ordinary at the heart of social criticism, or to propose a properly American political philosophy in the wake of Emerson or Thoreau. Could you go back to how you inherited Cavell’s important work and its fruitfulness within critical theory?

CRARY: Cavell was one of my teachers, a wonderful friend, and a model for me of how the pursuit of philosophy could be a confrontation with life’s challenges, not a mere professional technique. He is yet more than usually on my mind right now. Nancy Bauer, Sandra Laugier, and I—all of us advisors to his literary estate—have worked for several years on what will be the first volume of his Nachlass, a brilliant and engaging collection called Here and There: Sites of Philosophy, due out this April, which contains philosophical exercises that clearly express his distinctive voice.

In his accounts of his own philosophical development, Cavell treats his early encounter with J.L. Austin as decisive, explaining that Austin’s lectures provided him with a route to his own thinking. Of particular importance for him was Austin’s exhortation to attend to how words do things, together with Austin’s suggestion that doing so depends on our willingness to register and refine our feeling for language. When Cavell started to seriously read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations,a few years afterward, he elaborated this image of our ways with words. Later he often discussed what he saw as substantial differences between Austin and Wittgenstein, but he credited both with powerful evocations of how the speaking of a language is inseparable from the engaged settings that Wittgenstein calls “forms of life.”  

That is the scene of Cavell’s distinctive conception of philosophy. Situated in what Cavell calls “the ordinary,” philosophy involves responsiveness to particular contexts, employing the categories available at a particular time and place, and it also reflects our drive capture how things really are. To philosophize is to negotiate between these two demands—in Here and There and elsewhere he represents the two as shores of a river that must be endlessly navigated—and an Austinian-Wittgensteinian image of language sheds light on how such negotiations can be locally resolved. Regarding the topic of ties between Cavell and the Frankfurt School, a key point is that we can redescribe Cavellian philosophizing as a balancing of the demands of immanence and transcendence. We can also say that Cavell favors an image of language that allows us to satisfy the demands of immanent critique—and that the seed for such critique is, for him, there in all true thinking.

These aren’t of course the terms that Cavell himself uses in reflecting on the social and political interest of ordinary language philosophy’s legacy. He tends to connect this tradition’s themes with lessons about democratic conversation in American philosophy, in particular, in the work of Emerson and Thoreau. Within such conversation in its optimal form, individuals’ contributions express their own judgment, where judgment is understood as presupposing the ability to register and develop their interests and attitudes. Though Cavell himself doesn’t make this point, this political vision converges strikingly with Hannah Arendt’s later work on judgment as a “specifically political capacity.” One of the vision’s central morals is that it is our responsibility as citizens to strive for conditions under which each of our fellows can judge. This is a far from unimportant message in the catastrophic times in which we live, in which political structures that treat so many human beings as fungible, and that devastate non-human animals and threaten all life on the planet, also veer toward depriving us of resources to judge otherwise, and so to resist.

The following is a 2020 interview conducted by Richard Marshall of the website 3:16. The full interview is available here.

‘It was already clear to me that mainstream research programs in …[philosophy of mind]…. depend for their fundamental structures on the narrower, or subjectivity-extruding, conception of objectivity. I was committed to developing an approach to mind that rejects these structures, making room for an account of mental concepts as metaphysically transparent and irreducibly ethical.’

‘The upshot is that there appears to be no room within ethics for humanistic thinking or artistic expression as such, and this represents a massive and practically catastrophic contraction of ethics.’

‘Members of the Frankfurt School were among those who helped disseminate a picture of Wittgenstein as recommending critique-stymying modes of thought. This includes, prominently, Herbert Marcuse, who, in One-Dimensional Man [1964], in an interpretative performance arguably less defensible even than Gellner’s—among other things, because it simply equated ordinary language philosophy with mainstream analytic philosophy—lambasted Wittgenstein for, as Marcuse saw it, limiting us to thinking that would destroy the possibility of critical awareness.’

‘If the topic is productive links between Wittgenstein and Critical Theory, it is fair to say that Wittgenstein can serve as a guide to the recovery of critique as conceived by early members of the Frankfurt School. His writings contain resources for a powerful defense of the sort of “wider” account of rationality that accommodates an unqualified image of immanent critique, shedding light on its nature and on difficulties it poses.’

‘Cavell’s idea is that a democracy thrives when its members enjoy the freedom and resources to, identify, explore and express their particular interests and ambitions—while also respecting and responding to the interests and ambitions of their fellow citizens.’

Alice Crary is a moral and social philosopher who has written widely on issues in metaethics, moral psychology and normative ethics, getting animalsethically into view, philosophy and literature, philosophy and feminism, critical animal studies, critical disability studies, and Critical Theory as well as on figures such as Austin, Cavell, Diamond, Foot, Murdoch and Wittgenstein. Here she discusses ethics and objectivity, Wittgenstein’s conception of mind and its relation to ethics, why the arts and humanities are important for ethics, the link between Wittgenstein and the Frankfurt School, Cavell’s link to this as well, and finally Cavell’s approach to democracy. 

3:16: What made you become a philosopher?

Alice Crary: When I arrived at Harvard in the mid 1980s to start my undergraduate studies, I wasn’t actively planning to study philosophy, but I was receptive to the idea. One factor was that I had a brilliant older sister, Jen, who had started a degree in philosophy at Dartmouth. The adults I most admired had been in involved in the civil rights movement, or overlapping social justice movements, and I was captivated by questions about what it would take to understand the world so that its injustices showed up in a manner that informed action on behalf of greater justice. Another factor in my starting in philosophy was that the Harvard Philosophy Department was then a welcoming place for someone with interests like mine.

Having begun, I found the idea of continuing with philosophy attractive. But it took some time for me to believe that this was a real possibility. I hadn’t previously known any academics, and it was easy to think, in an inchoate way, that these were people of a different kind, with skills that I was cut off from acquiring. So, my path to further study meandered. I explored some career paths that were more familiar to me—teaching, city politics—both while doing courses and while taking a year off from my studies. But eventually I focused on philosophy.

I had the great fortune of doing an undergraduate thesis with Hilary Putnam. I wrote on Wittgenstein’s later view of language, exploring themes that today are still important for me. I had already encountered the work of Stanley Cavell and Cora Diamond, and I took my cue from them in emphasizing how, for Wittgenstein, our sensibility is implicated in our every discursive move. One of my claims was that this matters because of its implications for what is involved in improving our understanding of aspects of the world and our place in it. It follows from this image of discourse that making improvements here may call on us to make an effort of mind that isn’t merely or narrowly intellectual. It may call on us to shift our sense of importance, and in this sense to work on ourselves.

The experience of having my undergraduate thesis accepted as a serious piece of philosophical work is what launched me. By the time I arrived at graduate school—at the University of Pittsburgh—a year later, there was wasn’t anything else I wanted to do. Being able to investigate pressing questions about the nature of moral and social life seemed like, and still seems like, a tremendous gift. It’s not that I didn’t have any difficulties after that. There were subsequent occasions on which I was painfully pressed to ask whether I could go on in philosophy. But I never lost the desire to do so.

3:16: You tend to represent moral realism as a push-back position against an ethically indifferent metaphysics. Wouldn’t it be easier to just say that no metaphysics has anything important to say about ethics and go from there?

AC: I need to rephrase this question slightly in order to answer it. “Moral realism” is a label that I deliberately don’t use in describing my image of ethics. Not that, abstractly considered, the term is obviously ill-suited to capture things I believe. It is, for instance, a conviction of mine that that there are morally salient aspects of the world that as such lend themselves to empirical discovery. A case could easily be made for speaking of moral realism in this connection. But that would likely generate confusion. When I claim that, say, humans and animals have moral qualities that are as such observable, I work with an understanding of what the world is like, and of what is involved in knowing it, that is foreign to familiar discussions of moral realism. These discussions are often structured by the assumption that objectivity excludes anything that is only adequately conceivable in terms of reference to human subjectivity. Moral realism is frequently envisioned as an improbable position on which moral values are objective in this subjectivity-extruding sense while still somehow having a direct bearing on action and choice. Thus does the specter of Mackie’s “argument from queerness” still haunt the halls of moral philosophy.

A great deal of my work has been devoted to investigating the grip on the contemporary philosophical imagination of conceptions of objectivity—of the sorts operative in these conversations about moral realism—that take the expulsion of everything subjective as their hallmarks. I have repeatedly argued that restrictions these conceptions impose on what kinds of things count as objective are not justified by the ultimately weak considerations adduced in the conceptions’ favor. I have tried to show not only that we should reject the restrictions but also that doing so is urgent because necessary for getting morally and politically salient aspects of our lives into view. That is why the well-worn label “moral realism,” used in reference to my work in ethics, is likely to mislead. It is likely to mislead because I start from a metaphysical posture that is foreign to most accounts of what moral realism is like.

All of this bears on how to characterize the role of metaphysical considerations in my work in ethics. The outlook I defend is partly characterized by the lifting of a priori restrictions that seem to prevent anything only understandable in terms of subjective responses from qualifying as objective. If the absence of such prior constraints is equated with the absence of metaphysics, then, indeed, it seems reasonable to speak in reference to my work of a kind of abstention from metaphysics. I can certainly see the point of this gloss. But I find it more helpful to describe matters differently. To talk about a thinker’s “metaphysics” is, for me, to talk about the kinds of things they do recognize, or are prepared to recognize, as woven into the real fabric of the world. Insofar as I call for raising restrictions that are standardly imposed on the kinds of things that can thus count as real, it makes sense to say, not that I have opted out of the business of metaphysics, but that I have a relatively liberal or relaxed metaphysical posture. That is the point of some of my terms of art. It is what I am signaling when I say I favor a “wider” conception of objectivity. I mean a conception loose or wide enough to encompass, inter alia, ethical values.

3:16: What is Wittgenstein’s irregular conception of mind, and why does it matter to you? 

AC: Two related trains of thought led me to the Wittgenstein-influenced intervention in philosophy of mind that is central to Inside Ethics. One has to do with a respect in which my book Beyond Moral Judgment came to seem to me to be incomplete. There I defend the wider conception of objectivity, appealing to it in arguing that there are morally significant features of the world that are as such observable. I describe this metaphysical shift with an eye to challenging received assumptions about what moral thought is like—to showing not only that sensitivities are essential to our ability to follow rational lines of moral thought but, further, that we may need to refine or further develop our sensitivities in order to make the connections constitutive of such lines of thought. Some of the “widely rational” stretches of thought that I discuss feature not moral concepts but concepts for different aspects of mind. That moral thought need not involve specifically moral concepts is a leitmotif of Beyond Moral Judgment. What I came to regard as a lacuna is I didn’t explain how mental concepts are essentially morally inflected.

A second train of thought suggested the need for an analogous incursion into philosophy of mind. As a graduate student I began researching and teaching animal ethics. I sympathized with advocates who were appalled by awful things humans do to animals and who wanted to show that animals merit radically better treatment. But I couldn’t accept many of the most influential arguments. These arguments tend to presuppose, wrongly in my view, that the task of getting animals empirically into view in a manner relevant to ethics is one not for ethics proper but for disciplines presumed to be outside ethics. Once it had struck me that this presupposition structures major contributions to animal ethics, it hit me that I could describe Beyond Moral Judgment as challenging similar presuppositions about what is involved in getting human beings empirically into view for ethics. That is what led me to see my early book as lacking an account of the irredeemably moral character of mental concepts. By the time it seemed important to me to be able to give such an account, I also wanted to show that the concepts we use in talking about animal minds are likewise ineliminably ethical.

These two trains of thought are what directed my attention to philosophy of mind in Inside Ethics. It was already clear to me that mainstream research programs in this subdiscipline depend for their fundamental structures on the narrower, or subjectivity-extruding, conception of objectivity. I was committed to developing an approach to mind that rejects these structures, making room for an account of mental concepts as metaphysically transparent and irreducibly ethical. A number of considerations speak for here turning to Wittgenstein. Some of the most widely discussed passages from Wittgenstein’s later philosophy—his famous remarks on rule-following and his treatment of privacy—aim to discredit narrower conceptions of objectivity and accommodate wider alternatives; Wittgenstein adopts a widely objective stance in adducing considerations for an account of mental concepts as essentially world-guided and irredeemably ethical; and the account of mental concepts that thus emerges from his thought can be shown to have a straightforward bearing on animal minds as well as on human ones. Taken together, these points provide the basic contours of Wittgenstein’s irregular image of mind. Here, in a phrase, is why the image matters to me. To accept it is to allow that humans and animals have moral qualities that are as such open to view—and that they are, in this sense, inside ethics.

3:16: Do you think that denying ethically rich insights from the arts and humanities into ethics hampers our ability to see harms done to both people and animals? 

AC: That would be a way to capture part of the practical motivation for my work in ethics. I attack the view—which I describe as narrowly rational—that it is in theory possible to grasp any real connection of thought from an abstract, ethically neutral vantage point. I do so to show that there are ethically decisive considerations that this view leaves us unequipped to recognize, and I take an interest in work in the different humanities, as well as in literature and the other arts, because such work affords resources for uncovering things inaccessible to an abstract gaze.

Humanistic and artistic productions characteristically lead us to consider aspects of the world from particular, ethically charged perspectives. Anyone operating in a narrowly rational logical space effectively imposes severe constraints on how such productions can contribute to understanding. To be sure, moral philosophers routinely make use of material from, say, poems, novels, historical narratives and films. But, insofar as they respect narrowly rational constraints, they are obliged to regard whatever they cull from these works as available to thought independently of any evaluative perspectives the works invite us to adopt. They cannot help but take any insights with which they credit the works to be extractable in the sense of being there independently of aesthetic qualities in virtue of which the works inculcate these perspectives. The upshot is that there appears to be no room within ethics for humanistic thinking or artistic expression as such, and this represents a massive and practically catastrophic contraction of ethics. Within my ethical writings, alongside showing that this contraction is philosophically unjustifiable, I bring out how it is morally disastrous—among other things, by identifying harms to human beings and animals that it leaves us incapable of registering.

3:16: Is there an interesting link between Wittgenstein’s philosophy and the Frankfurt school? And could Cavell also be so linked? 

AC: There are in fact many links—links that, properly seen, can contribute productively to how we conceive of liberating social thought. To be sure, it would be possible to tell a story—it is one has yet to be adequately told—about how some of these links have been either overlooked or distorted beyond recognition. A plausible telling would have to reach back to 1959, when Ernest Gellner published Words and Things, arguing that Wittgenstein was advocating a cramped and uncritical take on philosophical and political questions. Gellner’s book was widely recognized by philosophers as the shoddy piece of interpretative work that it was, but that didn’t keep it from starting a high-profile, transatlantic discussion about the allegedly reactionary bent of Wittgensteinian “ordinary language philosophy,” setting the tone for subsequent Wittgenstein exegesis, which has witnessed the publication of at least one major book on Wittgenstein’s supposed conservativism every decade since, with an even higher count if we include the writings of the many commentators who represent Wittgenstein as reactionary simply in virtue of purportedly depicting everyday linguistic usage as inviolable. Members of the Frankfurt School were among those who helped disseminate a picture of Wittgenstein as recommending critique-stymying modes of thought. This includes, prominently, Herbert Marcuse, who, in One-Dimensional Man [1964], in an interpretative performance arguably less defensible even than Gellner’s—among other things, because it simply equated ordinary language philosophy with mainstream analytic philosophy—lambasted Wittgenstein for, as Marcuse saw it, limiting us to thinking that would destroy the possibility of critical awareness.

There has been pushback against this internally varied image of Wittgenstein’s supposed conservatism since as early as the mid 1970s. Incidentally, one of my very first articles, “Wittgenstein’s Philosophy in Relation to Political Thought” [2000] was a contribution to this opposition. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the image of Wittgenstein-as-conservative continues to resonate. While many of those who advocate it do so as champions of the left, those who resist, striving to bring out the interest of Wittgenstein’s philosophy for critical social thought, are hampered by ideologically contorted institutional settings in which “Wittgensteinian” has become a term of political and philosophical abuse.

That is a very condensed explanation of why it has been difficult to see that there are important lines of filiation between Wittgenstein and members of the Frankfurt School. What gets missed is that Wittgenstein equips us to advance what is arguably the signature project of the Frankfurt School’s Institute for Social Research. In the late 1930s, affiliates of the Institute began to describe themselves as in agreement in their quest for a “critical theory of society.” What they sought under this heading was an undistorted account of our social circumstances that would equip us to liberate ourselves from ideologically-disguised forms of social coercion. Such a theory was envisioned as one that would affirm the idea that attitudes we have as participants in social practices shape the concepts available to us to understand our lives. It would do this by beginning from practical attitudes in a way that established the resulting theorizing as “immanent.” This immanent aspect was conceived as existing side-by-side with a universal or context-independent authority, and, bearing in mind this pair of aims, thinkers who identified with aspirations of the Frankfurt school started to talk about themselves as united in their commitment to the enterprise of “immanent critique.”

Some of the thinkers who belong to the Frankfurt School’s first generation had distinctive views of how this project was best carried out. Partly drawing on a conception of our cognitive predicament inherited from Hegel’s Phenomenology, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno represented themselves as entitled to an understanding of rationality that is “wider” in my sense, with the result that it appeared to them that there are no genuine obstacles to saying that social criticism that is indelibly inflected by practical attitudes, and thus immanent, can be rationally sound, thereby qualifying as full-blooded critique.

But, in intervening years, the idea that we can thus straightforwardly arrive at a notion of immanent critique fell out of favor. One of the formative episodes in the development of Critical Theory was an intense quarrel with positivism in philosophy and sociology in the 1960s and 1970s. Although in this context members of the Frankfurt School were in conversation with Anglo-analytic philosophy, they remained seemingly unaware—and the bit of political-intellectual history I just recited helps to explain why—that two of the most devastating attacks on positivistic modes of thought from within British philosophical circles had been launched precisely by Wittgenstein and Austin. This led to some keen historical ironies, such as Jürgen Habermas’s use of aspects of Austin’s work on speech acts for allegedly anti-positivistic project—his discourse ethics—that Austin himself would have regarded as retaining key positivistic presuppositions. More fundamentally it helps to make sense of the fact that contemporary members of the Frankfurt School largely count as parts of their intellectual inheritance both an avowed antipathy to positivism and a residually positivistic hostility to objective ethical values—as well as to the wider conception of rationality that would be needed to accommodate a worldly terrain partly made up of such values. This stance appears to problematize the task of arriving at a satisfactory account of immanent critique. A reasonable approach to organizing the different accounts of immanent critique currently available today is to depict them as efforts to attain core aims of critical theory while respecting the constraints of what I call a narrower conception of rationality. This, in my view, is like trying to jump with one’s feet pinned to the floor.

If the topic is productive links between Wittgenstein and Critical Theory, it is fair to say that Wittgenstein can serve as a guide to the recovery of critique as conceived by early members of the Frankfurt School. His writings contain resources for a powerful defense of the sort of “wider” account of rationality that accommodates an unqualified image of immanent critique, shedding light on its nature and on difficulties it poses. While it is true that Wittgenstein, for all his allusions to the “darkness of [his] time,” does not proceed with the minutely sensitive sociological attention to horrors of modernity that is characteristic of Adorno, it is also true that he is an unparalleled critic of ways in which narrower or positivistic modes of thought, of sorts detrimental to critique, creep back into our thought even at moments at which we are endeavoring to free ourselves from them.

Stanley Cavell has an important place in this stretch of the history of philosophy. Cavell’s marvelously sensitive and faithful reading of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, presented in its fundamentals already in the early 1960s, represented the decisive challenge to the more dominant narrative about Wittgenstein’s supposed reactionary strain. A key focus of Cavell’s own reflections on the political and social significance of Wittgenstein’s philosophy was on connections between its themes and ideals of democratic conversation in American philosophy, above all, in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau. Cavell also influenced a number of thinkers who directly contested the suggestion that Wittgenstein’s thought was somehow irredeemably conservative. This includes the political theorist Hannah Pitkin, who in 1972 produced the first book-length rebuttal to the sorts of views of Wittgenstein advanced by Gellner, Marcuse et al., and it also includes Cavell’s colleague Putnam—whose great sympathy with Cavell’s reading of Wittgenstein led to his co-teaching a course on the Philosophical Investigations with him—and who used Wittgensteinian ideas in treatments over many decades of issues in social and political philosophy, including in an extended critical engagement with the work of Habermas.

3:16: How does Cavell help us to be a citizen in Trump’s America, or any other profoundly messed up nation?

AC: Throughout his work, Cavell develops an image of democracy as, in its optimal form, a conversation in which each individual’s participation reflects the exercise of their own judgment. Cavell sometimes spells out the demands of judging in a manner that presupposes a Wittgensteinian thought to the effect that our operations with words necessarily reflect our sense of the importance of the similarities among contexts of their use. The idea is that to judge, to think for oneself, essentially involves drawing on and developing our own sensibility. A view on these lines is what underlies Cavell’s characteristic exhortations to us to pay attention to what we ourselves find striking and take seriously and question our own reactions. That, as he sees it, is a key responsibility we shoulder as citizens of the imperfect societies in which we find ourselves.

Cavell’s idea is that a democracy thrives when its members enjoy the freedom and resources to, identify, explore and express their particular interests and ambitions—while also respecting and responding to the interests and ambitions of their fellow citizens. He invites us to see that our most solemn obligation as human beings and citizens in—to use Charles Mills’ term of art—the “ill-ordered” societies in which we live is to do all we can to ensure that these conditions obtain. That is how, to use the language of your question, Cavell helps us to be citizens in Trump’s America. He rallies us by urging us to recognize that to deliberately erode the conditions for individual judgment—for instance, by exploiting existing social resentments and fanning them into unthinking enthusiasms, indifferent to the difference between truth and lie—is to do nothing less than issue an existential threat to democratic politics.

3:16:  For the curious readers here at 3:16, are there five books other than your own that you can recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?

AC: Here are five books that, of late, I have been reading, or returning to and re-reading, finding them helpful to think with. 

(1) Over the last year, I undertook to read Hannah Arendt’s work chronologically, at least as far as possible, and one collection I found myself pausing over is The Promise of Politics and, more specifically, the essay “Socrates,” which develops a vision of politics that I find appealing and arresting partly for its similarity to Cavell’s. 

(2) Having long worked in the area of philosophy and animals, I have alsobeen reading my way into environmental philosophy. One work that left its mark on my thinking—unsurprisingly, given its massive influence—is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

3) My investigations in environmental philosophy sparked my interest in ongoing conversations, in the humanities and social sciences, that presuppose that, in order to make sense of anthropogenic climate change, we need to find a way to bring together, on the one hand, critical histories about inequalities and grave injustices and, on the other, a natural history of the human species. These topics brought to my mind debates in moral philosophy that I have participated in about the possibility of a satisfactory ethical naturalism, and they also brought to my mind a literary author, W.G. Sebald, whom I admire and have written about partly because he consistently describes human beings in a manner that is simultaneously critical and natural-historical, perhaps with greatest virtuosity in his book Austerlitz

(4) For the last several years, I have been extending my work in the area of philosophy and animals, writing about how invidious comparisons to animals are used to degrade and marginalize groups of humans, and, among the many works I have read about historical and actual forms of such animalization, one that stands out, for the light it sheds on the violent, capital-driven creation of categories of race and sex that still structure U.S. society today, is Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, about the horrific treatment of African women in the early English colonies. 

(5) One of my preoccupations in thinking about animalizing ideologies is to show that a politically farsighted response has to involve, alongside a commitment to resisting the wrongs to human beings that they represent, a willingness to revalue the lives of other animals so that they are no longer conceived as “lower” beings. One book that has made at least as much of a mark on my thinking about these matters as any other, and that I have taught and returned to, is Claire Jean Kim’s Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species and Nature in a Multicultural Age.

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