How philosophers live

James Miller

  • A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises by Stanley Cavell
    Harvard, 196 pp, £20.75, July 1994, ISBN 0 674 66980 0

Despite obvious exceptions – memoirs by John Stuart Mill and R.G. Collingwood, confessions by St Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau – autobiography is not a genre that comes naturally to most philosophers. The typical modern philosopher – the Kant of the three critiques, say, or the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus – seeks perfection in the composition of systematic treatises and closely-argued works of logic, not in the harvesting of personal memories, which (if one is honest) are inherently uncertain, often contradictory, and usually tinged with emotion. As Stanley Cavell concedes at the outset of his own set of ‘autobiographical exercises’, the thinker who has chosen to examine himself risks turning ‘philosophically critical discourse into clinical discourse’.

Cavell is no stranger to running risks. In a sequence of papers that appeared in the late Fifties and early Sixties, he earned an enviable reputation as an analyst of ordinary language; yet in his first book, Must We Mean What We Say?, published in 1969, Cavell deliberately flouted the conventional boundaries of his discipline by including previously unpublished essays on Beckett’s Endgame and Shakespeare’s King Lear, both written in a new and freer style that was (as he puts it) ‘for richer, or poorer, rather over the edge’. Since then, he has made a habit of defying professional expectations, commenting extensively on film and also on Thoreau and Emerson, always in quest of ‘a voice, a way, a subject, a work of my own’, as he writes in A Pitch of Philosophy. It is, perhaps, this aspect of his philosophical project – his romantic search for a singular style of thought – that made him so uncommonly receptive to the work of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger long before his own thought became frankly autobiographical.

Not that A Pitch of Philosophy offers anything like an ordinary autobiography. The book comprises three dense and difficult meditations, variously personal in tone and erudite in content, conceived as a group for delivery at the Hebrew University in 1992 as the Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures. One of the pieces primarily concerns opera. Another rehearses Cavell’s affection for the philosophy of J.L. Austin. Indeed, only the first essay, on ‘Philosophy and the Arrogation of Voice’, recounts in any detail Cavell’s life, and then only in terms of certain emblematic episodes. At no point are we given a Life and Times memoir.

For the record, Cavell was born in 1926, which makes him part of a philosophical generation that includes, among others, Foucault, Habermas, Bernard Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre and Derrida. Currently Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard, he came of philosophical age in the early Fifties, in a milieu where the very idea of professing, say, a ‘general theory of value’ – never mind composing ‘autobiographical exercises’ – would have been dismissed with a snort. In those days, with crusading positivists at the height of their prestige and institutional power, it was the fashion to disparage any branch of traditional philosophy other than logic.

As a gifted junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows in the early Fifties, Cavell had begun writing a conventional dissertation in philosophy. Then he met J.L. Austin. In 1955, the Oxford philosopher came to Harvard to deliver the William James Lectures, later published as How to Do Things with Words. At the time, Austin was the pre-eminent representative of so-called ‘ordinary language philosophy’, a form of analysis focused not on logic, but rather on the everyday use of everyday words. Rumours spread about the ascetic purity of the new method. Cavell recalls hearing ‘tales from those returning each year from Oxford about the weekly discussions Austin held for the young teachers of philosophy there, one of which he reportedly gave over entirely to the distinction between signing Yours sincerely and Yours truly’.

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