A Pitch of Philosophy

Subtitled AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EXERCISES, A PITCH OF PHILOSOPHY grounds its textual authority in the circumstances of its author’s life. This is not exactly an intellectual autobiography, however, and the casual reader intent on a coherent account of Cavell’s life will be disappointed. The book is itself a strenuous exercise in philosophical thinking, one that acknowledges the role of the philosopher’s personal experiences in posing the questions that he has addressed.

Though less intent on anecdote than analysis, Cavell recalls his childhood in Atlanta, Georgia, and Sacramento, California, where his father was a pawnbroker and his mother a professional pianist. From an early age, he dedicated himself to music, earning a comfortable income in a jazz band while still too young to join the navy. Cavell, who chose to change his name from Goldstein, describes the excitement of discovering the work of J. L. Austin, and how it inspired him to abandon his major in music at the University of California, Berkeley.

Cavell credits Austin, under whom he studied at Harvard, for inspiring the purpose of his first book as well as his enduring vocation: “to help bring the human voice back into philosophy.” He scrutinizes Austin’s philosophy of ordinary language and its roots in Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although he finds points of convergence between them, he defends Austin against Jacques Derrida’s disparagement of voice. A riff on the multiple implications of “pitch,” A PITCH OF PHILOSOPHY offers itself as at once a textual toss, an unsettling lurch, an attempt to persuade, and a musical tone.

It concludes with Cavell’s musings on opera, the most overt assertion of voice, particularly that of women, and one that links the philosopher’s mature voice to memories of his mother.