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Abstract

Samuel Beckett seems to invite philosophical interpretation, with his characters that often question their surroundings, and that attempt to reason about existence and meaning. It is tempting to claim that Beckett’s plays and novels are either doing philosophy or that they show that philosophy is a vain endeavor. My dissertation maintains that Beckett parodies philosophy in the sense that he draws on philosophical content, but uses it for different ends, generating humor without bringing philosophy to scorn. To illustrate this sense of parody and motivate the gesture, I turn to Stanley Cavell’s interpretation of philosophical skepticism through the lens of ordinary language philosophy, which argues that skepticism creates its own problems by using language in ways that only have a use in skeptical reflection. Cavell acknowledges the point, but responds that the skeptic knows they are departing from ordinary language use, that their words are parodical, but that they cannot avoid this departure when in a certain mode of reflection. Beckett’s characters inhabit this mode of reflection, but in various ways, they are doing it wrong. Where a philosopher might feel oppressed by the possibility of meaninglessness, the characters of Endgame make meaninglessness their goal, and are frustrated when meaning fails to fail. Where a skeptic might doubt their knowledge of a generic object (leading to universal doubt), the narrator of The Unnamable doubts his ability to identify a specific object, confusing identity and existence. And where a skeptic might feel that their language is private, isolating themselves from a shared form of life with the human species, the narrator of How It Is feels he has been expelled from humanity and strives in vain to create a new shared form of life, a new species. As a parody of a parody, Beckett’s works do not invalidate skepticism, as skepticism does not invalidate ordinary language—both display a sincere ambivalence towards our shared forms of life.

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