“A Modest Creed”: Saving Skepticism in Shelley and Cavell

Shelley and Cavell share the view that the imagination, visionary or otherwise, arises from a necessary basis in skepticism. What Shelley calls “Error and Truth” are historical; they are shaped by change and time. Only poetry, perpetually reconstituting veridical propositions as metaphor, can prevent the arteries of knowledge from hardening. Skepticism enables hope: our uncertainty about what life is (it is figured as death in Adonais) makes it possible to wonder whether death may not really be life. Apparently in contrast, Cavell emphasizes romantic disappointment with Kant’s “settlement” with skepticism, whereas for Shelley our inability to know the thing in itself is the very opening required for imaginative hope. Yet Shelley does not doubt the existence of things, only their identity, and also their “life,” and here he anticipates the argument of Cavell in In Quest of the Ordinary. For Shelley, as for Cavell, the visionary does not replace the ordinary but recognizes it anew. They differ from each other finally, however, in that whereas Cavell understands what Wittgenstein calls “criteria” for knowledge in semantic terms, Shelley sees them as typically semiotic: “almost all familiar objects are signs, standing not for themselves but for others” (“On Life”). The darker skepticism of The Triumph of Life anticipates deconstruction.