The influence of Stanley Cavell on Fergus Kerr's Wittgensteinian theology

Date of Award


Degree Name

M.A. in Theological Studies


Department of Religious Studies


Advisor: Brad J. Kallenberg


This thesis argues that Fergus Kerr reads Ludwig Wittgenstein through the lens of Stanley Cavell, and this influence has an impact on Kerr's theology. Chapter two outlines Cavell's account of the truth of skepticism." For Cavell, our language does not rest upon necessary criteria (in this regard, skepticism is true), but is made possible by our attunement to one another, via our shared "forms of life." Recognition of the truth of skepticism arouses an anxiety about the certainty of our knowledge and language. The problem we encounter is the tendency, when faced with skepticism's truth, to engage in philosophical deflections which guide us back into imagining our language and knowledge rest upon more than "forms of life." Wittgenstein's methods, on Cavell's read, aim at the removal of these deflections, deflections which give rise to philosophical illusion. Thus, Wittgenstein's philosophy is therapeutic -- it aims to remove philosophical illusions so that we can see the truth already there. Chapters three and four describe that therapy. Chapter three is an excursus on Cora Diamond's account of Wittgenstein's early philosophy in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Against P.M.S. Hacker, Diamond argues that Wittgenstein's aim in the Tractatus is therapeutic. On Diamond's read, Wittgenstein guides his reader into imagining his propositions are meaningful, only to realize eventually that the same propositions were nonsense and we were deeply attracted to imagine them otherwise. In this way, Wittgenstein performs a therapy on his reader. Cavell reads the Investigations in a correlative way in his essay "The Availability of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy," which is the subject of chapter four. Chapter five considers four "moments" in Fergus Kerr's oeuvre wherein he engages, explicitly, with Wittgenstein's philosophy. It is shown that the Cavellian themes perdure throughout, although we can see development in Kerr's engagement with them. Chapter six then attempts to demonstrate how this engagement with Cavell's Wittgenstein extends into Kerr's other writing. The key here is Kerr's engagement with Rahner. In moving through three "phases" of Kerr's work: early (1980s), middle (1990s), and later (2000s), the chapter shows the transition between the early and middle phases from what was an inchoate, and at times underdeveloped criticism of Rahner's theology to an appreciation. Kerr's engagement with Russell Reno's The Ordinary Transformed was pivotal in this shift. However, the Cavellian themes are shown to persist in spite of Kerr's change of sympathy with regard to Rahner. Finally, the thesis closes with a suggestion that the themes hover in the background of Kerr's most recent publications, most notably in his engagement with twentieth-century Catholic theology. This provides a partial explanation for the narration Kerr gives in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians."


Kerr, Fergus, Cavell, Stanley, 1926- Influence, Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 1889-1951 Influence, Theologians 20th century

Rights Statement

Copyright © 2011, author