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published in 1969, Cavell deliberately flouted the conventional boundaries of his discipline by including previously unpublished essays on Beckett’s Endgame and Shakespeare’s King Lear, both written in a new and freer style that was (as he puts it) ‘for richer, or poorer, rather over the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’.

Listening to Austin at Harvard, Cavell felt lifted up and transformed, suddenly certain of his own calling. He came to see his lifework in an entirely new way. ‘Like linguistics and poetry, Austin’s philosophising allowed me – demanded of me – the use of myself as the source of its evidence and as an instance of its conclusions. Whatever philosophy’s pertinence to me, I felt for the first time my pertinence to philosophy; I stopped looking for ways to leave the subject.’

Much the longest part of Cavell’s new book concerns Austin. Weaving personal recollections together with a fresh account of Austin’s work, Cavell politely contests a critique published some years ago by Jacques Derrida. In his critique, Derrida, using several of his patented terms of analysis, argued that Austin, despite being ‘patient, open, aporetical, in constant transformation’, nevertheless privileged the force of speech over the fissures of writing – a symptom, for Derrida, of the philosophical failure of nerve. Cavell sees the matter differently. With typical tact and humility (confiding that he, after all, has by no means mastered all the styles of argument characteristic of the Continental tradition), Cavell suggests that Derrida has not read Austin with sufficient closeness. He furthermore suggests that Derrida’s evident lack of understanding may be traced to one of the few traits that his style of deconstruction has in common with A.J. Ayer’s brand of logical positivism: an irresistible urge to devalue the felicity of ordinary speech, one source for Cavell of his proper ‘voice’.

This matter of voice is crucial for Cavell. For all of the thinkers that interest him, from Austin and the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations to Heidegger, Emerson and Thoreau, ‘the mood of philosophy begins in the street, or in doorways, or closets, anywhere but in philosophical schools; it is philosophy’s power to cause wonder, or to stun – to take aside – that decides who is to become a philosopher.’ For each of these thinkers, ‘the cave of the ordinary’ (Cavell’s phrase) harbours within (and not without, as Plato and other metaphysicians have insisted) a transcendental prospect: the astonishing recognition, available to anyone, that the everyday life one routinely experiences in a mood of quiet desperation (Thoreau), or of silent melancholy (Emerson), or of bedimmed averageness (Heidegger), or of baffled bewitchment (Wittgenstein), one can well conceive in an utterly new light.

Or, as Cavell puts it, in a sentence of typical wit and complexity, ‘the everyday is ordinary because, after all, it is our habit, or habitat; and since that very inhabitation is from time to time perceptible to us – we who have constructed it – as extraordinary, we conceive that some place elsewhere, or this place otherwise constructed, must be what is ordinary to us, must be what romantics – of course including both ET and Nicholas Nickleby’s alter ego Smike – called home.’

It may well seem perverse to find America’s greatest living proponent of ‘the ordinary’ expressing himself in a sentence of such convoluted artifice. But for better or worse, and as his new book makes plain, Cavell feels at home in this rococo manner of writing: it is the mark of his philosophical voice, a signature as idiosyncratic and arresting as Duke Ellington’s indigo sonorities, or Max Ophüls’s lavish use of tracking shots.

In the most extensively autobiographical of his ‘exercises’, Cavell surveys some of the possible reasons why he should have developed the particular philosophical voice that he has. His mother, he explains, was a pianist with perfect pitch, who regularly played in public, performing for vaudeville, silent movies and high-society balls, accompanying everyone from Caruso to Cantor Yosele Rosenblatt. His father, by contrast, was a man of limited culture – and a limited fluency in any language at all – who tried to make a living, with little success, by working at a succession of jewelry stores and pawn shops in Miami, Atlanta and Sacramento.

His parents quarrelled constantly. ‘The devastation of spirit in their quarrels,’ he comments, ‘and their mutual destruction of interest in the world, are measures for me of arguments that must not be won, and hence – so I think – of my conception of philosophy as the achievement of the unpolemical, of the refusal to take sides in metaphysical positions, of my quest to show that those are not useful sides but needless constructions.’

In his adolescence, Cavell became understandably preoccupied with escaping from his family, and somehow reinventing himself. An accomplished pianist and alto saxophonist, he joined a dance band and performed in the ballrooms and jazz clubs of Northern California, often as odd man out, since his was the only white face to be seen. He experimented with different stage names, wishing, as he recalls, ‘to know anonymity, as it were to have time to think’. What might have become a career in popular music ended abruptly when his parents would not allow him to join a band in Chicago. Having been introduced to the conversation of culture by his voracious reading and also by the weekly radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he laid plans instead to attend college, a world equally unfamiliar to his parents, but at least respectable. Finally, as if to declare his independence (and also clearing the way for his philosophical conversion), he decided to drop his family’s given name, Goldstein, in preference for Cavell; an irrevocable act of symbolic self-renunciation born, he recalls, of a mood of ‘crisis, solitude and looniness’.

When, a decade later, Cavell met Austin, the Oxford don offered the Harvard prodigy still another vision of himself, one that enabled him to satisfy certain yearnings inspired by both of his parents. ‘That Austin’s practice had to do, in its own way, with the possession of an ear, was surely part of its authority for me’ – it meant that philosophy could offer him emotional compensation for his own distressing inability to follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a professional musician. (Among other handicaps, he explains, he suffered for want of her own gift of perfect pitch; a fact that gives his new book’s title a certain resonance.) At the same time, Austin’s fastidiousness with the English tongue was ‘an essential half of what my father despaired of for himself (eloquence was the other half), who possessed by the time I came into his life no ordinary language, his Russian and Polish fragmentary, his Hebrew primitive, his Yiddish frozen, his English broken from the beginning’.

If one thinks Cavell an important philosopher – and it has to be said that many if not most of his professional colleagues refuse any longer to read him – then these details about his life will be welcome, since they facilitate a fresh appreciation of his work. Acknowledging a common perception of ‘how eccentric my views and ways are’, Cavell suggests that knowing such biographical facts may help those sceptical of his work to decide ‘for whose views beyond mine I might be speaking’.

At the same time – and this is perhaps a more challenging feature of his recent work – Cavell uses these ‘autobiographical exercises’ to reaffirm what he here calls ‘the Socratic ambition’. He aspires, in effect, to restore an older view of philosophy as ‘guiding the soul, or self, from self-imprisonment toward the light or the instinct of freedom’.

Despite a recent surge of interest in questions of identity and selfhood among Anglo-American philosophers (I am thinking, for example, of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self) it seems fair to say that most philosophers today have a ‘resistance’ – Cavell’s word – to any project as immodest and self-aggrandising as ‘guiding the soul’. But something like this project was once widely taken for granted. To be a philosopher was to strive for happiness, or peace of mind, by transforming one’s life according to a reasoned code of conduct. It is worth recalling the injunction that Socrates received from the oracle at Delphi. It was not to go found an academy, or to teach a course in logic: it was, rather, ‘to live the life of a philosopher, to examine myself and others’.

This helps to explain why Cavell feels driven to cast his latest work in the form of ‘autobiographical exercises’. It also explains why we have inherited as much information as we have about the lives of the ancient philosophers. If we can trust Diogenes Laertius (an open question), then Diogenes the Cynic masturbated in the marketplace – a defiant emblem of his doctrine that the wise man will satisfy all natural urges without shame. Similarly, Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was said to be fond of eating green figs and of basking in the sun – a perfect picture of the ethos of contemplative self-sufficiency that he preached.

Nowadays, of course, the relevance of a thinker’s way of life to an understanding of his philosophy is by no means clear. We generally know little and care less about the ethos of our eminent philosophers, never mind the petty squabbles of their parents, or their youthful misadventures. What we do know – for example, that Heidegger was a Nazi, or that Professor X at University Y is a stuffed shirt – is often enough disturbing, or beside the point, or both. Those who earn a salary by parsing arguments, writing monographs and teaching seminars evidently find scant time for leading an examined life, certainly not in the demanding terms immortalised by Plato’s image of Socrates on trial.

Perhaps, then, the logical positivists were right: perhaps the guiding of one’s soul is not a task usefully entrusted to professors of philosophy. Two years ago, Richard Rorty, who belongs to roughly the same generation us Cavell, recounted some of the reasons behind his own abjuration of ‘the Socratic ambition’ in a brief memoir, ‘Trotsky and the Wild Orchids’. A Platonic idealist at the age of 15, Rorty was hopelessly disenchanted by the time he finished his graduate studies. ‘As far as I could see,’ he remarked,

philosophical talent was largely a matter of proliferating as many distinctions as were needed to wriggle out of a dialectical corner. More generally, it was a matter, when trapped in such a corner, of redescribing the nearby intellectual terrain in such a way that the terms used by one’s opponent would seem irrelevant, or question-begging, or jejune. I turned out to have a flair for such redescription. But I became less and less certain that developing this skill was going to make me either wise or virtuous.

Given this, by no means uncommon, experience, Rorty’s ridicule of the Socratic ideal comes as no surprise: ‘All of us,’ he writes derisively, ‘hope to find such a guru – someone who will be everything our parents were not.’

Cavell’s recent work, by contrast, finds him struggling to keep faith with the old idea of philosophy as a therapeutic way of life. If one’s sense of one’s philosophical calling grows out of disappointment in one’s parents, and oneself, so be it: that is one moral to be drawn from A Pitch of Philosophy. Yet for all his flights of introspection and self-analysis, Cavell, unlike Rorty, has never abandoned his commitment to the rigour of the Anglo-American tradition, as if the drawing of carefully-shaded conceptual distinctions simply is what philosophers ought to do, and have done, from Socrates to J.L. Austin.

Unfortunately, as the perplexities that preoccupy him have multiplied, the point of Cavell’s thinking has gotten harder and harder to get. His range of cultural references is almost hopelessly demanding. (How many readers can move as easily as he can from the romantic comedies of George Cukor to the hermetic formulae of Being and Time?) He refers casually and continually to many aspects of his own previously published work, which has the effect of dividing readers into insiders and outsiders (and sometimes of dividing a single reader, as well). Perhaps worst of all, his laconic and high-strung style can leave a reader gasping for air. His prose oscillates in a singular fashion between ‘seeming urgent and seeming frivolous, obscure and obvious, seductive and repellent’ – these are his words, and they ring true.

Even those who are repelled would do well to read on. Cavell is worth the effort. Particularly in his recent sequence of works on ‘moral perfectionism’ – Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (1990), This New Yet Unapproachable America (1989) and In Quest of the Ordinary (1988) – there are wonderful readings, especially of Emerson, but also of Austin and Derrida and Poe and Wittgenstein, always Wittgenstein. Above all – and this is at the heart of his appeal – Cavell’s recent work offers a genuinely new vision of what, in our own day and age, it might mean ‘to live the life of a philosopher, to examine myself and others.’ This of course is not the sort of gift that one expects to receive from a prominent American philosopher. But then, as A Pitch of Philosophy makes a point of reminding us, in prose of sometimes maddening idiosyncrasy, Stanley Cavell – good for him! – is no ordinary philosopher.